Fewer fancy campaign signs, more bar charts, please. Photographer: Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

Canada Isn't as Good or as Bad as You Think

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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It seems remote today, but there was a point during the recession when American news outlets started running stories about how the U.S. could learn a thing or two from Canada about how to run an economy.

Sure, there was something patronizing about the affectation of surprise. (Typical example: "Whatever else they've thought about their much smaller neighbor to the north, Americans have almost never looked to Canada as a role model.") But I think I speak for all Canadians when I say we appreciated the attention.

You don't see a lot of those stories anymore. News about innate Canadian prudence and a rising dollar have been replaced with a pending housing crash, BlackBerry's near-collapse, the dollar's nose dive and a general sense of gloom. This Wall Street Journal headline from December sums it up nicely: "When It Comes to the Economy, It Suddenly Seems Canada Can't Do Anything Right."

Of course, it's debatable how much has really changed for the average Canadian; a recent report found that even before the recession, stagnant wages rendered the idea of an ever-richer middle class "a myth more than a reality." Still, the shift in narrative carries this clear benefit: It's something substantive to talk about in next year's federal election.

That counts for a lot in Canada, where campaigns are casual affairs: They last as little as five weeks, include just one televised debate in English (another in French), and almost half the voting-age population doesn't cast a ballot. A Canadian prime minister once said, during a campaign, that an election is no time to discuss important issues. She lost, but you can't really quibble with the accuracy of her description.

Wonks, rejoice: The new focus on Canada's economy offers the chance to change that dynamic, by making the next campaign about more than just the latest scandals or who seems the most trustworthy. Instead, it might force the governing Conservative Party into a meaningful debate with the two opposition parties, the New Democrats and the Liberals, over what precisely should be done to stop the slide.

That debate, in turn, works best when we start with some basic agreement over what those challenges are, and how you measure them. So what makes a strong economy, and how much does Canada's fit that description? I nominate six categories that ought to be addressed in any real debate over the economy: gross domestic product, the labor market, household earnings, household debt, poverty and the environment.

In a series of posts, I'll look at what the data says about each area, how it compares with other developed countries, and what it says about Canadian policy. Because if there's anything Canada can learn from the U.S., it's that election campaigns are worth obsessing over, and it's never too early to start.

(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @cflav. This post is adapted from an article published in the April edition of the Literary Review of Canada.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net