The Weekender: Playing it Cheap Has its Costs

In a very busy news week, I saw a piece on the evening news that, in my mind, tied together two of the biggest stories, the untimely death of Rob Ford and the delivery of the Federal Budget. It was one of those consumer reports pieces that more often than not I find a venue for either Andy Rooney-style whining about how apples don’t cost a nickel anymore, or highlighting the bizarre naivety of the consumers they’re trying to protect. This one was more of the latter, so let’s begin by saying when you see a man selling iPhones in front of a suburban Toronto Costco, he’s not Tim Cook.

In the story, a mother and a daughter were leaving the Costco (which itself sells smart phones) when they were approached by a man that told them he had a “great deal” on new iPhones for $250 a piece. The mother apparently needed a new phone, but the daughter didn’t, so naturally they bought three, and shocker of shocker they were fake. Not only do they admit that they should have known better, but they forgot the single best piece of advice to anyone in commerce, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Still, it’s part of a consumer mentality I’ll never understand. I’ll never buy a shopping cart full of bottled water because its on sale, I’ll never line up in the wee small hours in front of a Best Buy on Black Friday and Boxing Day, and I will never buy one iPhone, let alone three, from “some guy” in front of Costco because it’s a “good deal.” The reason this ties in to the death of Ford, and the delivery of the Federal Budget, is because it neatly reflects two truths of the Canadian psyche: what are you doing for me, and are you doing it for cheap.

To Rob Ford goes the credit for making “taxpayer” a special political class, even though everyone is a taxpayer. Whether you’re someone, like Ford, who wanted governance to be about safety and utilities alone, or someone that thinks community building and arts grants play a part too, we all pay a tithe to make our cities, our province, and our nation happen. Under Ford though, you, the taxpayer, were put upon, being cheated by people that want to give away free money to artists, scofflaws, truants, and addicts. *Your* money. How dare they!

That reaction was on display Tuesday following the announcement of the Federal Budget, and that the Trudeau government would be pursuing a $29.4 billion deficit for the fiscal year in order to fund new programs to spur economic growth. The local news had a “streeter” to get the reaction of the man on the street, and it was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow. To paraphrase he was pissed because the government was spending *his* tax money, and digging a big whole that *he* will have to pay for in the future. Not an unfair assessment, but one that misses the point: his contribution in federal taxes, on its own, is a drop in the bucket. So to speak.

Now I would never argue that a balanced budget is not a healthy sign of good governance, but I’m not sure when it became the end all/be all. After the economic recession of 2008/09, the Harper government also created huge deficits, almost twice as big as what the Liberals are doing, but then immediately began the mad scramble back to balance achieving it last year through a cynical combination of selling assets, borrowing from contingency funds, and not spending the allotted amount in key areas like Veterans Affairs and Indigenous Affairs. Yet here we are, between government cuts and the so-called “Economic Action Plan,” growth remains at a standstill?

The thing about government is that the higher up you go, the more you have to focus less on the little things and more on the bigger picture. That’s why making an analogy between balancing your own cheque book and balancing the government’s is a false equivalency, the demands of four or five people in a single home are significantly different from those of 36 million spread across thousands of square kilometres. How can the two possibly compare? Is adding a finished basement the same as building a provincial highway? Or replacing a city full of pipes?

Of course, we all want our tax money to be spent wisely; we want value for money, and not take a net loss because of scandals or paybacks or political favours. But things get tricky when people buy into the Rob Ford narrative that there’s a tonne of money out there being wasted; sometimes it is, but more often than not the government is much more efficient than we give it credit for. Most of the time, the trains do run on schedule (so to speak). In Rob Ford’s world though, one that’s duplicated in a lot of right-wing philosophy, government can’t be trusted on principle, and while that might have once come from a place of ideological belief that innovation comes best from private enterprise, the idea is now much simpler: that’s my money!

Yes, it’s your money, it’s my money, it’s my mom and my sisters’ money, it’s Scotty Hertz’s money, we all put our share in the pot, and together we make this thing called Canada with all its hospitals, and schools, and roads, and parks, and stuff. And in the wake of a difficult economic situation where growth is stagnant and revenues are low, who else is going to foot the bill but the government. If you’re waiting for the private sector to step up, they’re only sitting on $700 billion in “dead money” that they’re doing nothing with, proving that as people deride the government for investing in infrastructure, they’re perfectly okay with the business class’ being spend thrifts as they collect record profits.

As we’ve seen south of the border in Flint, being cheap in government is dangerous, and as we all know, the infrastructure gap in all this country’s urban areas is only getting bigger. Meanwhile. veterans desperately need support, and so does Canada’s First Nations people. A few extra bucks for the CBC? A lot of people have been asking for that too. Unfortunately, money doesn’t grow on trees. We have needs, some of them are urgent, and when money is short, you have to get out the national credit card. Will it work? Who can say? But doubt in the plan wasn’t why people were critical.

We’re so focused on the short-term possibility – cheap iPhone – that we don’t think about the real possible long-term implications – getting screwed by the random guy in front of Costco. Upon hearing that Trudeau was writing post-dated cheques, many people instinctively reached for their wallets rather than considering what they might be paying for. That’s the Rob Ford effect, it’s not what we’re buying, it’s what we’re spending, and how much we’re spending. Do you want to pay the full price for a real iPhone, or own a $250 paper weight that was a great deal on an iPhone?

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