Op Ed

It’s a wonderful economic life lesson

Truth be told, I could never sit through the perennial holiday “classic” It’s a Wonderful Life. Many people make an annual ritual of watching this movie, but I always thought the story schlocky and Jimmy Stewart’s performance overwrought.

I recently changed my view when I saw a theatrical version of the story told in the 1946 Frank Capra movie. At the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play, audience members became viewers at a traditional live radio show, set in the early 1950s, with the actors playing multiple roles in front of microphones, lighted signs to cue applause and a Foley artist creating scene-appropriate sound effects. This stage production encouraged me to view the movie through new eyes and I realized it contained several economic insights.


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We dodged Amazon’s ransom bullet

Last year, Amazon dangled its new headquarters like a shimmering lure, and politicians everywhere rose like suckers to the bait. Winnipeg and many other cities assembled teams to polish their images as business-friendly locales with trained workforces and favourable tax environments — no doubt, we also noted our central location.

Setting aside the fact that if one rotates a globe while holding it in two hands, any place can be centrally located, the stampede to entice Amazon to locate in any specific city wastes tax resources and is quite unseemly.


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Unintended effects of equal-pay laws

Popular culture represents King Canute as a foolish monarch who ordered his aides to place his chair by the ocean’s edge, whereupon he commanded the tide to stop. Of course, he got his feet wet.


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Ontario’s basic income pilot had serious flaws

Social and anti-poverty activists have greeted the dumping of Ontario’s basic income pilot project with the usual lamentations. These critics of the new Conservative government argue the funds allocated to the project is a pittance compared to the costs of poverty, and we have missed out on learning about the impact of a basic income.

I disagree. The pilot needed to stop. As someone who consulted on the project, I believe it had core design flaws that mitigated against ever answering questions about basic income.


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Government should be careful with transit

The demise of the Churchill railroad and the announced departure of Greyhound from major Prairie routes has constrained travel options for many rural residents. Predictably, calls have gone out for the federal and provincial governments to step in. Some even suggest nationalization of intercity bus transit and outright purchase of the Churchill rail operation.

So, what should the government do?


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Free trade the lifeblood of our economy

If we ever needed a lesson on the value of free trade to Manitoba, the sale of 10 electric buses to Toronto by New Flyer should nail it. This single transaction shows how open borders create benefits in multiple dimensions.


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Politics are polluting the environment

I was fuelling my sensible SUV this morning, while furtively admiring an adjacent monster pickup truck. When asked, the owner gushed about how she liked the oversized vehicle, praising “sight lines” while almost apologizing for the cost of a fill-up and the obvious waste implied by her vehicle choice.


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Urban reserves a tool to build Indigenous prosperity

Can urban reserves support Indigenous economic development?


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Society is awash in ignorance, misinformation

This article is GMO-free and gluten-friendly. Read it and your health will improve.


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Brave new world of digital currency

I just purchased some cryptocurrency, but hush… don’t tell my financial advisor. Money managers over the age of 50 think Bitcoin and see Dracula, then start reaching for the garlic wreath and silver cross. Financial pundits under 30 either shrug and wonder why the fuss, or gush with enthusiasm.

To explain cryptocurrency, let’s start with the ideas of currency and money.


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A handful of tax resolutions for the new year

So, what would an ideal tax system look like?  Here is my personal wish list for the new year.


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Tax code simplification necessary, long overdue

I have three reactions to the announcement that government will tax marijuana. As a so-called child of the ’60s, I am unimpressed. As an economist, I know that pot will have an inelastic demand and will be a good revenue boost for government. As a political cynic, I can only shrug.


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Health reform lacks objective assessment

One would never start a weight-loss program without stepping on a scale, first to set a baseline and then to monitor progress with regular weigh-ins. Options to staring down at hard reality between your toes are to wear black, suck in your gut or choose friends who assert you are losing weight.


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Flu vaccine has economic benefits

Most of us see vaccination solely as a health issue. However, vaccination to prevent disease has major economic benefits.


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Time and information guide Economic Decisions


Time and information are two sides of the same coin when it comes to the economy.

I often drive with the majority shareholder in my household. Many of these trips entail searching for a parking spot by our destination. Now, I am a “close enough” kind of guy; the other shareholder in our household is a “nothing but the closest” type of person.

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Raising minimum wage won’t fight poverty


It is construction season in this city and, while idling with hundreds of other drivers, I wondered what economic lessons we can learn from gridlock.

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Curing the ‘cost disease’ in health care


Hip replacements have experienced rapid technological advancement. Surgeons predict that within the next few years, some patients may be treated on an outpatient basis — in at 8 a.m., out in the evening. The surgical procedure, actual replacement unit and improved rehabilitation have combined to restore function quickly.

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Health costs rise as tech prices plummet — but why?  (Part 1)


I have just had my hip replaced, one of approximately 1,500 similar procedures to be performed in Manitoba this year. Aside from the nervousness I experienced since my hips are close to where I normally keep my brains, the experience afforded me an opportunity to reflect on the state of health-care costs.

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Mad Cow disease holds surprising lessons


The BSE crisis teaches us lessons to this day.

For most of us, the year 2003 is of no importance. However, an event occurred then that holds useful lessons in the current political and economic environment.

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Private MRIs won’t endanger health care


What do pizza joints and MRIs have in common?

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The economy of useless things


The robots are coming! The robots are coming! Many social commentators raise alarms about impending technology induced job losses. The vision is dire — professional jobs in accountancy, law and medicine are all on the chopping block in the face of technical change that threatens to turn humanity into couch potatoes on minimum income, binge watching streaming TV.

This dystopian view is unlikely. Two changes will rescue us: the economy of useless things and how we define work.

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Structural approach needed for budgets


This is the season for taxes and brave promises. Taxes are inevitable, but is it not time to ask our finance ministers to stop spinning fairy tales?

On the left hand, many see government spending as good and taxes as financing the “essential” services of the modern public sector. On the other hand, those on the right advocate for reduced services and taxes, resulting in a dynamic economy that floats all boats and trickles in all directions.

These notions are simplistic bunk, as is balanced-budget legislation…

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Basic income, child benefits best bet to reduce poverty


Poverty — especially child poverty — is pernicious. The latest research reported in Scientific American shows children born into low-income situations experience a range of intellectual deficits compared to their counterparts raised in homes at a higher socioeconomic status (SES).

Poverty is also persistent. Children born to a low-SES family start the foot race of life several metres behind the pack and with ankle weights. They are less likely to reach higher incomes and will likely have children born in a low-SES environment. The cycle perpetuates.

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Revisiting Manitoba’s basic-income experiment


There seems to be a persistent misunderstanding and mythology surrounding the Manitoba Basic Annual Income Experiment — or Mincome, as it came to be known. With the recent publication of a working paper on the Ontario Basic Annual Income and the universal basic income experiment about to begin in Finland, it is time to review Manitoba’s experience with a basic income, also known as a guaranteed annual income.

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University teaching methods mired in the past


With the cessation of the recent labour action by the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, it is an opportune time to reflect on why the strike occurred.

It is tempting to see this issue in classic Marxist terms, where the workers (faculty with salaries ranging from $75,000 to $140,000 per year) defend their rights against administrators who have been captured by a corporate agenda. Equally, one can view it as an administration holding the line, in the face of revenue constraint and enrolment increases, while confronted by a faculty that seeks undue control.

Some truth exists in both views, but not a lot. More profound are two disruptions that have fundamentally changed the nature of post-secondary education in Canada: technology and globalization.

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Forget rights,  focus on obligations


Whenever I go for a walk, my feet each claim credit for any forward momentum.  My right foot says it has all the initiative and is the real driver for my progress.  It sometimes complains that my left foot just tags along, not doing the heavy lifting.

My left foot replies that it plans where we should go and without its direction the right foot would carry me off randomly.  My left foot also seems to care about the welfare of my right foot. My right foot is self-interested.

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Rescuing economy requires risk, individual responsibility


So much gnashing of teeth has occurred in the last week as almost every pundit pours over survey data trying to understand what happened on November 8.  Social commentators and other shamans sift through the entrails of our culture trying to make sense of the unthinkable election.  Half of North America seems to be in grief counselling.

The answer is much easier to understand, and thankfully economics offers some insight.

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Political boundaries make little sense


I enjoy driving to Saskatchewan.  As I pass Virden, I do not need the sign welcoming me to Saskatchewan to know I am in another province.  No, I can tell by the quaint provincial costumes that so uniquely mark the provinces of Canada.  The purple hats and the lime green leggings of Saskatchewan men are a sure tip-off that I am in a different place.

This is silly of course, but the existence of provinces demanding that they have a “made in Saskatchewan energy policy” or a “made in Nova Scotia health policy” underscores the arbitrary nature of political and administrative divisions in delivering public policy for a federal state such as Canada. In most cases the boundaries we use to deliver public policy make little sense, do not align with unique needs of the population, and add administrative cost with little commensurate value.

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Affirmative action beneficial, but also risky


Affirmative action to revise outcomes is a bad idea.  There… I have said the unthinkable.  Now before my friends and colleagues strike me off their invitation lists and my inbox groans under the weight of inbound indignation, I need to explain myself.

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Governments must make more prudent investments 


When politicians debate whether deficits are needed for economic stimulus, the entire discussion is pointless. It’s not the deficit that matters, it’s how it is spent.

Imagine your household were a break-even operation — your income covers food, utilities, entertainment, home and transportation costs. Now you decide to go to the bank and take out a loan for additional education. You have a debt, which puts your household budget into a deficit.

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Impartial data essential for economy, democracy


The news Wayne Smith, the chief statistician of Canada, has resigned should worry us. He is the second chief statistician to resign in six years. After serving just two years, Munir Sheikh resigned in 2010, in objection to replacement of the long-form census with a voluntary survey. Prior to that, Ivan Fellegi had served in that position for 23 years.

Why should you and I care about the comings and goings of senior civil servants? What do dull, dry data matter to the ordinary Canadian?

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Playing nice won’t work in negotiating trade deals


What do canola and students have in common?

If you had answered “China,” go to the head of the class. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has returned from his latest charm offensive with the hope that Canada has worked out a firm deal on canola exports to China. Farmers can breathe a sigh of relief… or can they?

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It’s time to implement a national gas tax


According to opinion polls, Canadians are accepting the idea that humans are changing the climate. While our readiness to undertake major lifestyle changes remains uncertain, the political rhetoric is also warming. The provincial premiers and the prime minister tout their favourite magic-bullet remedies for climate change.

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Social licence for mega-projects must include all stakeholders 


The extended controversy over the proposed Energy East pipeline reveals fatal flaws in how we collectively decide on the benefits and costs of resource mega-projects.

With the collapse of oil prices, Canadians can see how natural resources support our standard of living. Recent estimates from Statistics Canada suggest this sector underpins 20 per cent of the country’s GDP and 1.8 million jobs, most of which link to export markets.

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Press pause on rapid transit plan 


The current imbroglio between the City of Winnipeg and Manitoba Hydro is creating, in the minds of some, a reason for halting the development of the next phase of Winnipeg’s rapid transit plan. However, this is a minor cost — a drop in the bucket of the projected $500-million-plus expenditure for the extension.

Still, there are two fundamental reasons for pausing our transit plans. These are tactical and strategic.

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Census survey a quaint way to collect data


Census season is upon us. I just received my invitation in the mail to go online and complete the questionnaire. Bold letters informed me to complete the census — “it’s the law.” The census remains the backbone of Canada’s official statistics.

However, change is sweeping across the world of official statistics. Collecting census data will soon experience fundamental revision, supported by big data, the “Internet of things,” and an evolving sensibility of privacy by Canadians.

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Guaranteed annual income difficult to implement 


The guaranteed annual income (GAI) has been touted as an antidote to poverty and inequality. Initiated in the mid-1950s as the negative income tax proposed by Milton Friedman and subject to major experimental studies in the ’60s and ’70s, why does this idea periodically rise, only to fade from public discussion?

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