Monday, October 5, 2009

PBO piece in the Globe and the 'contrary to our system' argument

There was a long think-piece on the PBO in the Globe and Mail on Saturday. In case you missed it, here is John Ibbotson's article. A fairly fatalistic tone.

Ibbotson did one of those interactive interviews 'live' on the Globe website today here. He laments that the Canadian political atmosphere is much more "closed" than the American one, which thrives on open debate.

Let me pick up on one thing at the end of the Saturday article.
One point of view holds that the office should never have been created in the first place, that in our system of government it is Parliament itself that holds the executive to account and that independent agencies should be discouraged.
This is an argument that I have heard from a couple of prominent people whom I respect. I don't think it stands much scrutiny, however.

Is the point that our system is currently in a state of perfection? Really? Or that our system is so fragile that a small itsy-bitsy movement toward transparency would cause it to wither? Which is it--we're perfect as is, or fragile as glass?

In my view, our system is not static; its DNA frozen in the BNA. It has evolved in many different ways since 1867--you don't need to be a male landowner to vote these days, for example. And we get a secret ballot, to boot. (Although this latter change was thought contrary to the "manly spirit of the British people" at the time.)

So, given that our system has evolved and is evolving, a better argument must be made than simply that it doesn't fit our system, since that is a moving target. A better argument should be based on the merits: does the PBO improve or make worse our system? Why exactly?

As argued in the open letter, I believe that the PBO has much better incentives to produce neutral, credible fiscal forecasts than do other institutions in our society. If this comes at some cost to the purity of our existing system, then a) I'd like to understand better exactly what those costs are and b) I would have to be convinced that those costs are greater than the benefit provided by the PBO.