Saving the U.S. Economy--the Canadian Way

Barack Obama this week convened a jobs summit to discuss the awful U.S. unemployment numbers. Should the federal government hire unemployed workers directly? Pay money to states so that they can hire people?

If I'd been invited, here's what I would have advised: Learn from Canada.

America's situation today resembles Canada's in 1992-93: a horrific recession, terrifying indebtedness, and gathering doubts about the country's future.

Fifteen years ago, Canadian authorities made one crucial decision: They allowed the currency to depreciate. The Canadian dollar dwindled to as little as U.S. ¢62.

It was as if all of Canada had been put on clearance sale. Every asset within Canada was devalued, every wage was cut. Median hourly wages in wealthy Ontario tumbled below wages in Mississippi. Canadian purchasing power was slashed. Canadians suddenly had to pay more for almost every internationally traded good and service, from orange juice to software programs to foreign holidays.

Canadians were compelled to consume less. By discounting Canadian assets, they sold more. And because their labor suddenly cost less, they were employed more.

Nobody enjoyed this policy. The policy's inherent pain was aggravated by the Chretien government's simultaneous decision to maintain taxes at very high levels--the government rescued its own finances first, and left Canadians' personal finances for second.

Whatever one thinks of the Chretien government's tax policies, however, the currency policy did its job. Exports jumped, the Canadian growth rate accelerated, and Canadian living standards recovered.

Meanwhile, the Americans were conducting a very different kind of economic policy--a policy that emphasized debt and consumption rather than work and export.

The United States may run the most pro-borrowing public policy on Earth. An American home mortgage is tax deductible, as Canadians know. Americans use this subsidy from the government to buy more house for their money: On the eve of the recession, the average new home in the United States contained more than 2,300 square feet of space, as compared to about 1,850 square feet for the average new Canadian home.

Two other pro-borrower policies may matter even more than home deductibility. An American mortgage is almost always non-recourse. If a home owner does not pay his or mortgage, the lender can repossess--but cannot usually reach the home-owner's other assets. The home-owner may have a million dollars in the very same bank that holds the mortgage, but the bank account is as unreachable as if it were located in the Cayman Islands.

Non-recourse loans create a one-way option for borrowers. They borrow to buy an asset they expect to increase in value. If the borrower guesses right, he or she gains a windfall. If wrong, he or she walks away, leaving the loss to the lender.

It gets better! Suppose a buyer accepts a fixed-rate mortgage at 5% and mortgage rates rise to 6%. Too bad for the lender: The rate is fixed, the buyer is protected.

Suppose, however, that mortgage rates decline to 4%. The lender is not protected. The buyer has the right to pay off his high-rate loan, usually without penalty, and refinance at the lower rate.

One more thing. Capital gains on the sale of a principal residence are untaxed, so long as the buyer reinvests in another residential property.

Altogether, the incentives combine to invite borrowing, speculation, and property flipping. Supercharge those incentives with no-down-payment, no-paperwork mortgages--and a crisis is made.

Step two after a Canadian-style currency depreciation should be a shift to a Canadian-style approach to home finance. The first shift will encourage work; the second shift will encourage saving.

Unfortunately, the ideas President Obama seems eager to import from Canada are not these right lessons, but instead two wrong lessons: the need for higher taxes and more government control of the health care system.

It's as your children's teachers tell you: You can only teach those who want to learn.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author

 

David
Frum
  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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