Inside Look: Beyond the Numbers

Insights and nostalgia from William Robson of C. D. Howe Institute

As the president and CEO of independent not-for-profit organization C. D. Howe Institute, William Robson is involved in examining economic issues and their impacts at every level. But he isn’t a dry numbers guy. With an affinity for intelligent humour and 1970s-era vinyl, Robson brings a human touch to economic theory.

a sweet gig

“My position here wasn’t anything that I had planned from an early age. My academic degrees are in international relations, which is a mixture of history, politics, and economics. But after a short stint in government and a few years on Bay Street, getting more into the economic end of it, the opening at the C. D. Howe Institute came up in 1988. I sometimes joke that my reaction was, ‘Well, here I am complaining about the government for free, and now someone is going to pay me a salary to do it.’ But that was really it—a sweet gig.”

economic think tank

“The C. D. Howe Institute is a think tank. We are a charity—no contract research or sustaining government grants or large endowments. We essentially rely on annual donations. Our work is related to the performance of the Canadian economy. It’s a fairly broad field, so anything from government budgets and monetary policies on the macro side, through health care, education, immigration, international trade, and regulatory policy. A lot of it has business impact. Anything that has an economic angle is fair game for us.”

the road ahead

“Like a lot of Canadians, I’m concerned that our productivity performance hasn’t been very good for a number of years. We’re not really sure why that is. We’ve done a lot of things right in Canada: we liberalized international trade, deregulated some industries where the regulations were holding us back, and changed the tax system to make it more attractive to invest. We’ve got lots of smart people. But the overall numbers continue to be disappointing.”

a job well done

“One of the people I would most like to talk to on a given day would be Ben Bernanke, the federal chairman. He’s a very smart and able guy, which is a good thing, given that he’s running the world’s most important central bank under such tense circumstances. I’d be delighted to get his thoughts about some of the things that are difficult for him to say publicly, because everybody weighs every word and parses every sentence he utters. He has done a fine job, and I’d love to get a sense of how he’s approaching the challenges in front of him.”

keeping it real

“I am a child of the ’70s. Vinyl records are still in use in our house—we have two turntables working. There’s always something playing in our house.”

out of the office

“I don’t have much classical training, but I play piano by ear and occasionally lead sing-alongs. My wife is a good singer. She hides a few of my mistakes.”