BORN: Martintown, Ontario • 18 April 1889
DIED: Chicago, Illinois • 27 December 1952
The Great Crash of 1929 wiped out Clifford Clark. The vice-president of S.W. Strauss & Co., a firm of American urban real estate financiers and developers, had enjoyed a large salary and the lifestyle that accompanied it, but the Depression swept it all away. Strauss had built its wealth on mortgages, and the wave of defaults destroyed it. Was Clifford Clark the right man to be Canada’s deputy minister of finance?
Too small to be of much use on the family farm, Clark had been sent off to Queen’s University in 1906 where, like his mentor O.D. Skelton, he won all the prizes. Skelton impressed Clark with his judgment, intelligence, and integrity, and Skelton obviously saw the same qualities in the eastern Ontario student, for he found him a Harvard fellowship in 1912.
In 1915, his Harvard MA in hand and a never-to-be completed doctoral dissertation in process, Clark returned to Queen’s to teach economics. He published a little, taught a lot, and decided by 1921 that he needed more money than university teaching could pay. That was the rationale for his leaving to join Strauss & Co. for $10,000 a year, some five times his university stipend.
The years in Fat City ended with Clark in debt and his health broken. It would take him years to pay off his creditors.Friends found Clark a job at Queen’s in 1931,but in the summer of 1932, Skelton, then at the top of the External Affairs bureaucracy, brought him to Ottawa to work on the preparations for the Imperial Economic Conference.
His long, brilliant paper on monetary recon¬ struction impressed all, and Prime Minister Bennett, urged on by Skelton, decided that Clark was the man to lead the Department of Finance. Bennett had called his friend Charlotte Whitton to ask about Clark: “I know he’s a Grit but I want him here,” Bennett said, adding that “he stood out head and shoulders above all but the tops of the U.K. delegation” at the recently concluded conference.
The finance department had been a penny-ante operation since its creation in 1867, a government bureaucracy that dealt with nickels and dimes and wharves and post offices. But with the Depression strangling trade and killing employ¬ ment, fiscal and monetary policy were suddenly critical.
Clark began by pressing for a central bank, secured Bennett’s support for a royal commission to investigate the question, and by 1935 had the Bank of Canada in place with his choice, Graham Towers, as governor. The two filled Ottawa with bright and able economists and, along with Skelton’s external affairs recruits, completely changed the face of the public service and the way government in Canada functioned.
Orthodox in his economics, Clark was willing to learn. When one of his men, Robert Bryce, argued that Keynesian theory had its points and that deficit financing might be a proper way to proceed in hard times, Clark initially was unimpressed. But by 1939, the Depression continuing, he had changed his mind.
The last peacetime budget was the first to be deliberately stimulative, the first mildly Keynesian budget. Would it have worked? No one could say, for the war changed everything, hugely increasing revenues and expenditures. The days of wharves and post offices were gone as Clark saw the Gross National Product double in six years and government spending rise tenfold to $5 billion a year.
That Canada’s wartime finance was the model for all the belligerents was a tribute to him.Clark also directed the turn to social welfare. He could see the social worth of family allowances, for example, but he saw even more clearly that putting money in the hands of mothers each month would help to create demand in the postwar reconstruction period.
The orthodox economist was gone, replaced by the crusader for government to give people money to help keep the economy moving and unemployment low. Again, the results exceeded expectations, as Canada moved smoothly from war to peace, reintegrated veterans and war workers, largely controlled inflation, and increased trade. It wasn’t wholly Clark’s doing, but it could not have been accomplished without him. Clifford Clark had made himself the indispensable bureaucrat.
In constant pain from a bad back, Clark continued to work himself hard, though he could frequently be discovered flat on his back on his office carpet in a vain search for relief. Except for occasional visits to the Five Lakes Pushing Club, a favourite mandarin haunt in the Gatineau near the capital, his life was work.
The advent of the Korean War, with its infla¬ tionary pressures and the need to find the money for rearma¬ ment, finally did him in. On a visit to Chicago to give a paper, he died suddenly, leaving his colleagues in near total shock.
The indispensable man had gone too soon, but Clifford Clark had surely demonstrated that the inability to manage one’s own finances was no measure of overall capacity. None of his successors in the decades since his death would equal him in shaping the course of Canadian government.