Columnists

Ellen Russell
Theatre of the Fiscally Absurd: Auditions now open to run government finances

| October 16, 2013
Photo: photoswebpm/flickr

Have you ever considered a career on stage? Do you like to manipulate peoples' emotions to make them fear catastrophe and then worship you when you save the day? Perhaps you should consider a career running the country's finances. 

As an aspiring actor, you no doubt admire the pomp and circumstance of the throne speech. But the political theatrics go far beyond that. These days the politics of the federal budget book are worthy of a Broadway spectacle.

Federal fiscal theatre has it all. There is anxiety-provoking drama, a valiant superhero and a (not so surprising) happy ending. This week's throne speech is just one more glamorous soliloquy to remind us who to credit when the hero triumphs just in time to enhance the Conservatives' fortunes in the next election.

I hear this drama is going on tour to other venues. So in case you want to audition, here is what you need to be the next budget superhero. 

Act 1: Backstory for a budget superhero

Your character is a political leader. Maybe prime minster. Or finance minister. It depends how this particular show plays out. However you are cast, you must reek of fiscal rectitude. 

Like any good plot, you'll need a crisis early in the script. Find something that allows you to triumph over adversity after a valiant struggle. If you must, create this impending catastrophe out of thin air.

A good budget crunch is just the ticket. Scare the daylights out of the public about some dire fiscal emergency. After all, look what it did for Paul Martin! He wasn't so memorable as PM, but his fans still swoon at his fiscal stagecraft as finance minister in the 1990s.

It bugs Harper that a Liberal is still wearing the superhero cape for slaying the budget deficit. Harper is the guy who swore he wouldn't run budget deficits. But in response to the 2008 financial crisis, the government had to run a deficit to stimulate the economy and prevent another Great Depression.

Now Harper needs a way to make himself a fiscal celebrity. So he presents himself as the hero sent to save the budget from the fiscal aftermath of the financial crisis.

Act 2: Superhero to the rescue

If you find yourself starring as the deficit-slayer in a further sequel to this drama, your character must restore order, uphold the virtues of budgetary prudence and protect Canadians from the budget monster. Timing is everything on the stage, so make sure that you do all of this just in time to take a lot of curtain calls right before the next election.

Now comes the part where your theatrical skills will really get a workout.

Canada was hardly a fiscal basket case thanks to economic stimulus measures demanded to prevent global economic meltdown. Canadian finances were considerably more resilient than those of the U.S. or the average of G7 countries. Canadian deficits have been comparatively small, and our overall debt is no big deal by international standards.

Figure 1: Deficit/Surplus (all levels of government), National Accounts basis. Source: Fiscal Reference Tables, Department of Finance

Figure 2: Government Net Financial Liabilities, National Accounts basis. Source: Fiscal Reference Tables, Department of Finance

With a little razzle-dazzle, a good actor can work with a thin plotline. But this will be tricky. Your character must simultaneously: a) take credit for the health of the Canadian fiscal situation and the relative resilience of the Canadian economy while b) nevertheless whipping up enough public alarm about the government's finances that Canadians will submit to budget cuts. It's not easy to fan public anxiety while bragging about Canada's fiscal track record at the same time, but we are counting on your theatrical skill to minimize cognitive dissonance. After all, suspension of disbelief is what the theatre is all about.

One suggestion: your friends can help you whip up public alarm to justify a new round of budget cuts without your ever having to say any really big whoppers. They can scare people that budget problems are reminiscent of the budget crisis of the mid-1990s, or compare Canada with struggling European countries just to get the anxiety rolling.

Your secret weapon is that Canadians have been relentlessly coached to be excessively concerned about budget deficits for more than two decades. Regardless of how justified or manageable budget deficits may be, they are viewed as politically taboo. Lucky you. Now you have a scary monster to defeat. 

Now that everyone is alarmed about government finances, you have carte blanche to put on your superhero cape and cut anything you want from the federal budget. After all, you have no alternative, right?

Your neoliberal friends are going to love this. Let's see, what is it about the government that is really bugging the neocons?

For starters, those government workers. While private sector workers have been smacked around for a while now, federal civil servants fought for relatively effective unions that sheltered them from the worst of neoliberal restructuring. That will never do. How are we supposed to get other Canadian workers to acquiesce to neoliberal dictates if federal civil servants are refusing to give up everything they have fought for? This might give folks the idea that there actually is an alternative to the neoliberal race to the bottom.

So make sure budget cuts get government workers on the ropes. Even if you can't cut all that you want, just keep these workers in perpetual uncertainty about their jobs. That should teach them a lesson.

And while you are at it, how about cutting all kinds of government spending? Now is the time to get rid of anything that is politically inconvenient. Sure the Experimental Lakes program didn't cost much, but who wants a bunch of scientists saying unflattering things about climate change?

Act 3: Triumph of the deficit slayer

If all goes well, you will slay the deficit monster just in time for the next election. You'll want lots of opportunities to illustrate how hard you are struggling against a lethal adversary. So grab any chance to trumpet your valiant struggle. A throne speech is a great opportunity -- plus, your set designers will love it!

If the budget reaches surplus before the next election, you've hit electoral pay dirt. You can strut around the country explaining how you saved Canadians from the perils of fiscal disaster.

Of course, whether the budget goes into surplus or not has very little to do with your budget-cutting performance. The biggest issues are out of your control. Say the U.S. goes off the rails thanks to Tea Party hysteria (now there is an Academy Award-winning performance for fiscal theatrics). No amount of Canadian government budget cuts will make much difference if a destabilized U.S. weakens the world economy. And if it turns out that economic recovery is vigorous, budget surpluses would be generated anyway, regardless of the government's cost-cutting.

In addition to the superstardom you will get as deficit slayer, there are more wonderful career opportunities in store for you! A budget surplus will allow you to buy your way into the next electoral victory by showering swag on your supporters.

For starters, try income splitting -- the "Leave it to Beaver" tax cut. This tax cut is insanely costly (while the design of the program will impact its cost, the Globe and Mail reports a figure of $2.5 billion per year), but social conservatives love it because it supports their vision of a traditional family. Only those families who are well off enough to allow one partner (i.e. June Cleaver) to stay out of the workforce get this tax cut. 

Another way to use budget surpluses to win elections is to increase the limit to tax-free savings accounts. It can be sold during an election as a way to help people save for retirement. Of course it is only helpful to those who have extra income to take advantage of it.

Whatever you do, spend that surplus before the next election. Certainly you don't want any other party getting their hands on it to start rebuilding social programs. 

Not everyone is cut out for the spotlight in fiscal theatre. It takes talent. And some very skilled stage direction. But if you are an aspiring actor, consider it the ultimate challenge: script public policy to advance your electoral celebrity, and persuade the country to love you for it.

Ellen Russell is an economist and professor of journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her column comes out every two months in rabble.ca.

Photo: photoswebpm/flickr