"Alas, for the 50 years after World War II, to be a president, mayor, governor or university president meant, more often than not, giving things to people. Today, it means taking things away from people."
- Thomas Friedman Aug. 14, 2011 New York Times
Labour Day marks the unofficial end of summer, the return to school, work and other serious business after two months of trying to forget about serious business.
Except that it's been impossible to get away from serious stuff this summer. From riots in Britain (as well as Greece, Philadelphia and Vancouver) to a referendum on HST; from the manufactured U.S. debt crisis and subsequent downgrading of that country's credit rating to conflicts across the Middle East; from famine in Africa to the death of Jack Layton there hasn't been much time for idle relaxation this summer.
And things aren't likely to stabilize this fall.
Stock markets continue to rise and fall like the proverbial rollercoaster, fed by unresolved debt concerns in Europe, a U.S. economy that's just barely growing and political upheaval throughout the Middle East that, among many other things, may have a profound impact on the price and availability of oil.
These events aren't all related, but they are brought together by a level of interconnectedness around the globe that is far greater today than at any time in history. Communication, through social media and the Internet, is one obvious link; the full extent of some banks' and governments' connections to sovereign debt may be too scary to contemplate. The ripples from one event are felt around the world like never before.
Underlying all this seems to be a general sense of dissatisfaction, if not outright anger. In North America we saw it last spring with the federal election, when Quebecers turfed the Bloc Québécois and the rest of Canada ran out of patience with the Liberals. Predictably, we saw the results again last week with the HST referendum. And in the U.S. we've seen it with the rise of the Tea Party movement. People are mad, and that doesn't bode well for any incumbent politician anywhere.
They are mad, at least in part, because things are tougher than they were three or four years ago. And there are no clear signs that things are going to get substantially better in the near-term.
Moreover, governments of various stripes and levels - in Washington, in Ottawa, in Victoria and in Whistler - have proven disappointing and, in some cases, ineffective.
In a difficult, rapidly-changing world, people are looking for certainty and finding little. In B.C., the rejection of the HST adds to that. For the next 18 months, or until a plan to re-introduce the PST-GST is brought forward, individuals and businesses will weigh their buying options, delaying spending if they expect their investment will be cheaper under new tax rules.
Locally, in two and a half months Whistlerites will elect a new municipal government. Anger over pay parking, the asphalt plant, tax increases and other issues of the past three years will likely be the underlying current to the election. But what are the expectations for the future? Three months ago most people were anticipating the economy would continue to "recover." What if events in Europe, Washington and elsewhere this fall suggest that the economy will remain stagnant for the next three to five years? What would the impact be on, for instance, RMI funding, property values and, by extension, tax revenues? And given that property taxes have increased substantially over the last three years, there would be little room for another increase.
There is little that municipal governments can do to affect the global economy, but if it continues its tepid ways, and if there is a reduction in municipal revenues, what would council candidates be prepared to do to balance the budget? There are sure to be calls for cutting staff and municipal wage bills this fall but candidates should bring forward informed, specific proposals rather than generalities, and be prepared to discuss the impacts of such proposals.
Seeking new, alternative sources of revenue has been a popular theme in Whistler since the quest for "financial tools" during the Olympic bid. Ultimately that quest was successful, in the form of RMI funding, but it took years to achieve.
Meanwhile, south of the border, some local governments have faced some really difficult decisions in order to balance their budgets. Last year one community in Colorado was saving money by cutting power to half its streetlights. Another community in Hawaii was saving money by reducing school hours.
The expectation is not that these examples will work for Whistler, but that council candidates should be prepared to evaluate everything the municipality does, and why, in the context of a continuingly uncertain economy.