A conservative bureaucrat is an oxymoron, until he’s not

Statistics Canada

After 36 years at Statistics Canada, I now work primarily for various think tanks, mostly on the conservative end of the political spectrum. I also write a bi-weekly column for the Financial Post op-ed page. Its editor asked one day how and why I had stayed in government all those years. Good question; the Post does not reflexively turn to former civil servants to articulate ideas about the functioning of capitalism and free markets. My journey from an unlikely beginning in government to finding my niche in the private sector may be instructive for others, especially the usefulness of exposure to both sectors since the two are so different. The record will show my conservative beliefs have been the result of education and evolution, not a eureka moment of enlightenment, and that they continue to mature based on my experiences in the private sector and reflections on my time in government.

I am a third generation federal civil servant – my father was a government scientist and my mother a nurse, so not a lot of dinner conversations involved starting your own business (and indeed all my siblings ended up in working in government). I entered the civil service at Statistics Canada in the mid-1970s fully expecting to continue in this tradition. Not surprisingly, I was surrounded by professionals who shared my family’s belief in public service, even if this was partly based on ignorance or cynicism about the private sector. Most colleagues had an interventionist bent; one rarely met a senior public servant who did not advocate specific government actions to achieve a desired outcome. Cultivating a climate for business firms to innovate and grow or documenting the downside of government policies were not major priorities.

My initial drift to more conservative leanings accelerated in my job as editor of the Canadian Economic Observer, Statistics Canada’s monthly flagship for economic statistics starting in 1988. This provided a unique vantage point to observe how the economy functioned, especially what did or did not work in the real world. For example, while many were engaged in a theoretical argument about whether government deficits mattered as the federal debt mounted in the 1980s and early 1990s, it became evident to me that economies with low debt levels perform better while maintaining a capacity for the automatic stabilisers of fiscal policy to activate during the inevitable times of crisis. I also began to understand the primordial role of business investment in generating jobs, raising productivity and sustaining prosperity, and wrote extensively on the subject.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was clear that market forces inevitably triumphed in the long-run, because they best served what the majority of people wanted. More fundamentally, capitalism maximizes economic freedom, which is intertwined with political freedom. As noted by leading conservative economists such as John Taylor and Milton Friedman, more freedom is desirable in itself; the enhanced standard of living that capitalism provides is just a bonus. Ultimately, markets are the only system equipped to cope with the fundamentals of human nature. Although my lifelong study of business cycles made me acutely aware that capitalism is prone to recurring periods of boom and bust, I learned the folly of arrogantly assuming government knew best and should direct or nudge people’s behaviour, especially when that went against the grain of human nature. More often than not, the destination did not prove as desirable as government imagined or the program was subverted by unexpected side effects as people altered their behaviour in response to government actions.

Statistics Canada expanded my role to include monitoring the quality of its macroeconomic data. The constant exposure to the shortcomings of data ingrained a growing skepticism that the economy can only, or even best, be understood by data. A running joke at Statistics Canada during the 1980s, when it was being hailed as the world’s best statistical agency, was that you can be the best but still not be very good. Spend enough time studying the imperfections of data and anyone would become cynical about trusting “just the facts” to speak for themselves. Moreover, too many analysts were interested in putting an ideological spin on the facts being presented to the Canadian public, advancing opinions cleverly disguised and presented as facts. My innate conservatism provided a good foil for screening Statcan releases for unwelcome ideology. To give management its due, Statcan recognized the usefulness of this perspective, creating a unique role for me within the organization. This culminated in my appointment as Chief Economic Analyst at Statcan in 2010 by Munir Sheikh, then newly installed as Chief Statistician of Canada.

BERLIN WALL

At the same time, presenting arguments in a way that would be understood by people predisposed to disagree forced me to constantly challenge and refine both my thinking about economic problems and its expression. The usefulness of this dialectic is not appreciated enough. William F. Buckley, whose work influenced me as far back as university, regularly debated John Kenneth Galbraith on his TV program ‘Firing Line’ to sharpen his arguments and inform the audience (while demonstrating Galbraith’s grasp of economics was unsound).

Many government departments fall prone to the ‘group think’ that discourages contradictory opinions. It is instructive that the most outraged reactions to my post-Statcan work, especially my columns in the Post, come from former senior civil servants. Part of their heightened affront is the presumption that I should know better, having been exposed to the ‘correct’ thinking of interventionists and progressives for so long.

My conservative leanings were not as overt or developed while working at Statcan as they became after leaving. Indeed, one of the crowning moments validating my integrity occurred after I left the public service, when a former Statcan senior manager asked “if I had fallen on my head.” In an organization like Statcan, which should be politically neutral, people should be unsure about your true political leanings. So it was reassuring that some managers were surprised by my post-Statcan opinions. One of Munir Sheikh’s important legacies as Chief Statistician was a heightened awareness that Statcan’s “credibility is tied to our neutrality and our independence”, in the words of his successor. Statcan should not be a platform for broadcasting political messages, although many people inside and outside try to manipulate it for exactly that purpose. They ignore or don’t care how this debasement of the Statcan ‘brand’ would undermine the credibility of the very platform they want to hijack. You can become as outspoken as you want in your views after leaving government, but first you must leave the civil service and its creature comforts.

I left Statistics Canada in February 2012; like the ex-football player Ricky Williams, I like to say “I didn’t retire; I graduated.” Leaving government meant there was a risk of sinking into oblivion and irrelevance, an undesirable outcome after a high profile career in government. I worked at the small Macdonald-Laurier Institute as research director for a year, which introduced me to the workings of a think tank. Since then, I have had contracts with a wide range of think tanks, academics and business firms (and on rare occasions, government). Now established in the private sector, I have the choice of accepting only projects that interest me – a major improvement from being at the beck and call of an employer. From this vantage point it is hard to understand the assumption that self-employed jobs are inferior; for many, the flexibility and independence they offer is the pinnacle of the labour market.

There are good reasons why I have become more conservative since leaving government service. As a civil servant, government was many things, including my paternalistic paymaster and constant reminder of my family’s deep roots in public service. However, after leaving the civil service I broke the family mould by starting my own business. Being self-employed completely changes one’s perspective on government. Government is now the source of a web of taxes and regulations, such as requiring a GST return every quarter with all the book-keeping compliance requires. (Economists who wonder why policies like the GST have not boosted Canada’s productivity should be made to fill in those forms for a year.) So contact with government is now more burdensome and adversarial than during my time as a civil servant, and my views have changed accordingly.

Fuelling my growing disenchantment with government is the fact that working in the private sector has surpassed anything I imagined possible. The focus is on results, not process. I don’t waste large chunks of time in pointless, stupefying meetings designed with no real purpose other than to fill up someone’s agenda calendar. Risk-taking is encouraged, flexibility exalted, and a premium attached to creativity. A great example of all these traits at work was a scathing review I wrote about the film Melancholia. I submitted it, knowing it did not fit the format of FP Comment but convinced it was an interesting column. Terry Corcoran, editor of FP Comment, saw the problem and immediately thought of a solution. He created a new feature called FP Comment At The Movies, and made my piece the inaugural column. This was done in a couple of hours. Creating a new feature in government would have taken weeks if not months for approval from myriad committees and testing of focal groups.

Working in the private sector also pushed me to learn a wide range of new skills, including how to operate a business in a virtual world of researchers and publishers, how to write an op-ed, public speaking and even business travel (something I avoided in government). It has taken time to learn new skills, especially without the resource support available in the public service. Helping with this process of adaptation and change were a wide range of people in the private sector who are every bit as unselfish and generous with their time and knowledge as public servants, but without the self-congratulation public servants never tire of (the federal civil service celebrates itself for a week every summer, while businesses host customer appreciation events).

Still, freedom is the best perk of working in the private sector. One can write an email without worrying if it will appear on the front page of a newspaper after being hit with an access to information request (a good example of how a well-intentioned policy backfires in practice, because it did not account for how people would adapt to it). There is the freedom to work on projects you choose and to pursue ideas to their logical conclusion, rather than tailoring them to be politically correct and socially acceptable. There is also the freedom from the fishbowl of working in a bureaucracy more focused on appearances than substance. No one cares anymore what shoes I wear or what car I drive. All that counts is being intelligent, productive and creative.

Since leaving government, people frequently ask what I was doing in government since I am obviously more at home professionally and ideologically in the private sector. I don’t really have an answer for why I stayed in government so long, other than at some point one becomes a prisoner of the security and routine of the civil service such that it is difficult to imagine that there is another way of doing things. If I had known how differently the private sector evaluated people than the public service, I would have left years earlier. With any luck, my post-government career should be at least half as long as the one I had inside government, while being many times more productive and satisfying.

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Among his other post-government endeavours, Ottawa-based Philip Cross maintains an economics website called InsidetheNumbers.org.

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