The call to panic: Deficit hysteria

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The H1N1 of the economy: It's baaack, the bogeyman of the 1990s and, before that, the 1980s: deficit hysteria. Get out the old Halloween masks. What's remarkable is how common sense -- i.e., the wisdom of most people -- resists panic even as politicians and opinion makers ladle it on. A recent Ipsos Reid poll found that 53 per cent of Canadians calmly feel that the federal government should run deficits of $30-billion to $40-billion to "stimulate the economy and get us out of this recession." But a Globe and Mail story that included that poll was headlined, "Liberals would boost child care despite deficit."

Back in 1995, the heyday of deficitophobia, an Ekos poll found that "as many Canadians agree as disagree with the statement that concern with the deficit has been manufactured by government and big business." The pollster said it showed people even then were "tired of the mantras of the 1980s." Yet, right after that poll, a national columnist wrote: "A clear majority of Canadians want Ottawa to cut the deficit ..."

For politicians, the call to panic serves other uses. For the right, it's an excuse to slash "big government." U.S. neo-con Grover Norquist advised starving government by cutting taxes until it can't afford to do anything that people value, then "drown it in the bathtub." So George Bush cut taxes on the rich while running two wars; and Stephen Harper drove up the deficit by cutting the GST while spending heavily on the military. Then, with or without a recession, they can say: Sorry, but we can't afford those social programs.

The "left," in turn, uses deficit terror to counter what it fears is its lack of hard-headed economic credibility. Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin dined out electorally on balancing their budgets, though no miracles were involved -- it was done mostly by attacking the poor and the vulnerable. Nova Scotia's new NDP government is obsessed with eliminating its deficit. Even the business press calls it irrational. Meantime, the serious questions -- not: Should taxes be raised or lowered? but: On whom should they be raised or lowered? -- aren't discussed.

How does common sense resist these panics decade after decade? By a sense of real life. Most people would rather pay their way as they go, but, in a crunch, you increase the mortgage or take on debt rather than put your family on the street and pull the kids out of school. As things improve, you pay it off. It's like H1N1, the flu threat to "all of humanity" that never materialized -- with federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty as chief public health officer David Butler-Jones. They do look a bit separated at birth.

Catcher in the wry? What I found striking in the testimonials on How J.D. Salinger Changed My Life is the fact that most witnesses read The Catcher in the Rye for high- school or university classes. Novelist Andrew Pyper said his copy had "Grade 10D" scrawled inside. It was those "phony" adults in authority -- i.e., teachers and profs - who glommed onto it and assigned it. What happens when the sense of alienation at the core of your authentic self results from being told to read a book that you're graded on? "Supervised alienation," says a writer I know. Would they have even discovered the book left to their own devices? They'll never find out.

Back around the time that Holden Caulfield first appeared in print, the neo-Freudian Erik Erikson suggested that excessively early toilet training may have undermined the sense of control and autonomy among a generation of Americans, leading to paranoia about Communist subversives and alien invaders. What about the emergence of a pervasive ironic sense in a later age? Holden Caulfield wasn't ironic, he was desperately earnest. But could irony be the response of a generation that was prematurely alienated, as it were, from its own alienation?

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