Central banks have been crying out for help with the burden of reviving global economic growth for a long time. So when a public policy maker steps forward to contribute some assistance, as Finance Minister Joe Oliver did Thursday, the proper response is to ask, "What took you so long?"
The answer to that question in the case of Mr. Oliver is the federal government's obsession with balancing the budget ahead of next year's election. The $550-million that Mr. Oliver said he expects Ottawa to forego by offering the smallest of small businesses a credit against their payroll taxes is quite literally the least he could do.
Ottawa recorded a budget surplus of $400-million in the first three months of its fiscal year, compared with a deficit of $2.6-billion over the same period a year earlier. The surplus will expand quickly. Revenue was 3.8 per cent higher, while the federal government's expenses were essentially flat. There's money to boost the economy if the government was compelled to spend it; the International Monetary Fund has made this point on several occasions. So far, Mr. Harper and Mr. Oliver have determined that the sight of a surplus will inspire Canada's executives to spend the cash that has been piling up in their bank accounts. A half year of stagnant job creation suggests that calculation is flawed.
The reaction to Mr. Oliver's announcement was predictable. The companies that stand to gain were pleased, while those that were on the wrong side of the cutoff line grumbled about being snubbed. Various economists sniffed that the tax benefit was too small to materially change the outlook for the labour market.
The University of Calgary's Jack Mintz, a world-class expert on tax policy, said he thought Mr. Oliver's employment-insurance credit would have a short-term payoff, but that ultimately its effect would be negative. That's because the last thing Canada's tax code needs is another measure directed at a small group of potential beneficiaries, he said, which distort economic decision making. Because Mr. Oliver's new policy applies only to companies with about 20 employees or fewer, he theoretically has created a disincentive to add a 21st position to the payroll.
But something is better than nothing. Canada's economy obviously needs a jolt, and policy makers in Ottawa and the provincial capitals can do better than just root for U.S. economic growth to generate Canadian export revenue. The opposition parties and the pundits will debate his motives, but Mr. Oliver took a step in the right direction.
Missing from the critiques of the federal government's mini-stimulus measure was a recognition of what happened to the Canadian economy during the Great Recession. As Stephen Poloz has said many times over his first year as Bank of Canada Governor, one of the main reasons Canada's exports have been so slow to recover is that so many exporters were wiped out by the financial crisis.
"To me, the export story is more about new entrants," Mr. Poloz told The Globe and Mail in an interview last month at the economics conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "That's the last part of what's missing from the export story."
Mr. Oliver is said to be a fairly bright fellow. So let's not automatically assume he created this tax policy on a whim or that he was motivated solely by political expediency. He and his officials at Finance know they excluded a big swatch of companies and they know that they may have created a disincentive for smaller firms to get bigger. They also may have recognized that the segment of the economy that needs the most help right now is the entrepreneurs who are trying to get back in the game. The more Ottawa can do to reduce the risk of creating a company, the better Canada's economic prospects will be.
But any criticism the federal government takes over a lack of more substantial measures is fair game. Any objective reading of the state of Canada's finances and the state of the country's economy shows there is little reason for Ottawa's parsimony to become a drag on economic growth.