Maude is sitting next to me. She’s raising two young children, and wants to know Canada’s federal debt. “It’s climbing by $135 million a day,” I tell her. “$1,560 per second!”
We’ve been stopped for five minutes. When I finish answering her question, the power goes, and darkness envelops the train.
“That’s ridiculous! And our children are the ones who are going to be crushed by this debt?”
“Yes. Their share is over $15,000 each. This means they’ll have to pay higher taxes, and they’ll receive fewer services like healthcare or student bursaries.”
“Unbelievable! It’s time for our elected officials to have an adult conversation about our public finances.”
“I agree. But our politicians will never have that conversation.
“As economist Don Boudreaux once put it, adult conversations about money are mature and responsible, because adults earn and spend their own money. I also have two small children, and their financial conversations are infantile and irresponsible. It’s always ‘I want that toy!’ or ‘Let’s go to McDonald’s!’ or ‘Take me to Disneyland!’ They demand these things constantly, which makes perfect sense: it’s my girlfriend and I who are paying. Children have nothing to lose by playing this game. If their demands are met, someone else will be footing the bill.
“The conversations about public finances that politicians have with interest groups (unions, businesses, coalition X or Y, all of whom want their goodies) are infantile for the exact same reason: the money they spend isn’t theirs. It’s ours.”
“And when they run out”, Maude says, “they go see Daddy and Mommy to charge and tax them even more, is that it?”
“Exactly. And when the economy is rolling along nicely (for a whole slew of reasons), politicians try to take the credit. They’re like kids at a pinball machine into which no coin has been inserted. They hammer away frantically at all of the buttons and think they’re responsible for the bells and flashing lights.
“Children, I tell you.”
At this point, Maude decides to listen to her iPod. The power comes back on, but it’s still dark in the train. The debt is now $540,425,778,714. Five brief minutes, and we’re $468,000 more in debt. We’re finally underway, speeding along, not seeing the approaching wall.
David Descôteaux est chercheur associé à l’Institut économique de Montréal.