Aging population as an excuse for a neoliberal agenda

Written by Joan McFarland on September 28, 2019

Joan McFarland (far left), an economist and long-time advocate for pay equity, opposes the neoliberal economic policies being promoted in New Brunswick. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

Economists do not always agree on things, and over the course of my 48 years of teaching economics at St. Thomas University, I have seen a rising tide of neoliberal thinking in the field. Unfortunately, in his August 21 Daily Gleaner column “How to Address New Brunswick’s Aging Population,” University of New Brunswick professor Herb Emery contributes to the idea that New Brunswickers have no choice except to adopt an agenda that puts the priority on private sector investment and increased resource exploitation.

Professor Emery refers to “population aging” in New Brunswick as a “big problem” which is creating a “fiscal tunnel” in terms of its financing challenges. The message is that it is because of the number of seniors in our midst, their very existence through increased longevity, that we should give away the store to private investors – which in effect are large corporations both in New Brunswick and from outside – by being “business friendly” and exploiting our natural resources to the extent of environmentally degrading our province. We all know that an “aging population” is brought about not only by having more seniors but also by such factors as lower birth rates and youth outmigration as well as low immigration and retention. Nevertheless, the term “aging population” is thought of and understood by the general public in terms of the increased numbers of seniors, who are too easily scapegoated as the cause of the province’s fiscal problems.

Other economists and politicians would argue that the rest of Canada should help in the form of increased health transfers since New Brunswick has one of the highest elderly to working population ratios in all of Canada. Moreover, many taxpayers in other provinces have their roots in New Brunswick, where they and their families benefited from health and education services that have always attempted to meet Canadian standards, as required under Section 36 of the Constitution. Some of those taxpayers plan to retire to New Brunswick and expect the province to maintain quality services.

Emery’s basic solution to the province’s fiscal issues, as in all his columns, is the growth of the provincial GDP with increases in labour productivity through private sector investment. An even better solution, he mentions, would be for New Brunswick to further exploit its natural resources as Saskatchewan has done. Emery starts out, and indeed spends almost half of the column, looking at immigration as a solution to New Brunswick’s problems. Immigration is a solution that has been advanced by other economists and politicians and one that is not normally part of a neoliberal agenda. However, Emery suggests that not only would the numbers required be daunting- 40,000 more workers or, including families, 100,000 immigrants over the next 10 years- but also that such immigration wouldn’t happen without growth in the economy and expansion of demand. Immigrants simply would not come and stay. In other words, according to Emery, immigration could only be a secondary part of the solution. We are back to the neoliberal solution of private investment with increased labour productivity to grow the economy.

Focusing on the growth imperative in a time of climate crisis, choosing private investment over public investment, and exploiting natural resources in unsustainable ways are all part of neoliberal policy. Emery’s dismissal of the raising of taxes, presumably as not “business friendly” (brought up in his other columns), is also part of the same agenda. Using an aging population as an excuse, Emery is trying to tell New Brunswickers, much as Margaret Thatcher had done, that “There is No Alternative.” He needs to be challenged.

Joan McFarland is a retired professor of economics at St. Thomas University and a member of the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity.

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