Hudak's balanced budget panic and fear of debt

There's an Alfred E. Newman quality about Tim Hudak, and I say that with great affection, speaking as one of Mad magazine's early devotees. (My collection of vintage Mads perished in a cottage fire years ago.) The resemblance became clear on that subway ride that was cancelled because his aides lacked a permit, leaving Hudak grinning manically in the back of the shot -- and even then only after some genius added circus music to the footage and posted it on YouTube. He has to be saying, What, me worry?

What is Alfred/Tim not worrying about? He's not worrying about explaining the reasoning on which his million jobs plan is based. He simply says: "The biggest thing we can do to actually create jobs in the province of Ontario is to balance the budget." Uh-one, and uh-two and that's it. How? Why? What's the link?

It's not that he doesn't know, it's that he doesn't know it's missing and should be there. That's why he isn't worried. You just fire teachers or whoever and new jobs appear. He seems not to understand what an explanation is, which in the most basic sense means showing connections: this connects to this, in this way, which is why it leads to it. Balance the budget and it happens -- how?

He sounds less like someone with an MA in economics than someone who attended a weekend retreat at the Fraser Institute and came away with a certificate for attendance. Everyone who went got one, along with the ability to chant the cheers.

Other more garrulous balanced budget advocates do try to fix a link: it will create business confidence and jobs will flow; or it takes pressure off interest rates (though they're already very low and holding). But Hudak does us the favour of showing the link isn't essential and doesn't exist in any persuasive way because it's not the basis for the balancing: that basis is emotional.

"It can't go on this way," people like him shudder. Kelly McParland in the National Post says the Wynne budget comes down to "how comfortable are you living deep in debt? … In the end the balloon usually bursts, the creditors move in and all the neat stuff disappears … " Or Scott Stinson's intense: "Tick, tick, tick." None of it is based on anything actually there. It's a fearful extrapolation of what might occur. The footfalls on the porch that you don't hear are the scariest. The silence means they might be coming and you start imagining …

I used to think balanced budget panic was a pretext whipped up by right-wing ideologues who hate big government or equality but I now think it's more truly felt. Debt was a basis of growth for 5,000 years -- as anthropologist and activist David Graeber has written -- but only recently became a source of mass fear and shame.

You can't spend your way out of debt, the panicky say, though that's the standard model in business: you go to the bank, acquire debt, then invest (i.e. spend) it, etc. For these people, though, it's all about waiting for the axe to fall or Freddy to come through the door. McParland says "there are people who don't mind living in debt." But everyone minds debt, the question is: can you handle it rationally and prudently when the alternative is worse, like putting your family on the street or shattering institutions that make life civil. For McParland all debt is "laced with" danger and evil -- he speaks in the language of addiction. Not to mention that we're discussing public debt here, which "we" largely owe ourselves, and which can transcend generations, as private debt doesn't. Or the possibility of cutting back on debt by raising taxes judiciously. But I digress.

The economics professoriat has a lot to answer for here. They provided the murky rationales for the discontinuous two-step that Tim Hudak has happily uncloaked for all to see. Why economists receive such cred is another question. They alone get to torture whole countries like Greece, solely on the base of their dubious models. Would you let a historian tell you what alliances to make or give him the keys to the foreign policy car?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Laurel L. Russwurm/flickr

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