“I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
Wimpy, the portly, hamburger-addicted Falstaff of Popeye cartoons, used to utter that line with some frequency. I never knew whether he was poor and couldn’t afford his hamburger fix or if he was just cheap and preferred to cadge his favourite food as a test of the milk of human kindness. Perhaps he was a writer, which would pretty much be the equivalent of “all of the above.”
But at a time when most western governments and virtually every individual was mired in pay-as-you-go land, Wimpy was pioneering deficit spending on a personal scale. He was, as it turns out, ahead of his time. Governments, for the most part, are addicted to spending more than they earn unless they earn a lot by sucking oil out of the ground or are particularly parsimonious. Economists, having gotten much smarter over the years, have moved well beyond the simple explanation that incurring debt made sense for long-lived capital projects like roads, sewers, and schools. They’ve come up with all kinds of reasons why even running current account balances — the governmental equivalent of having to borrow money to go buy milk — makes perfect sense.
Individuals quickly caught on to the Wimpy trick too. Having, like earlier economists, come to peace with the idea that credit wasn’t a one-way ticket to palookaville, as long as you were borrowing for things like houses and maybe cars, most people became comfortable, friendly even with debt. So friendly they, with the help and urging of the banking business, cozied up to deficit spending for just about everything, hamburgers included. What would life be like without credit cards?
But with the benefit of at least a superficial understanding of the basics of Wimpy economics, I’m still struggling with the idea of committing $5 million bucks of municipal money to the Lot 1/9 medals plaza, outdoor cultural, recreation and gathering place. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for medals, outdoor culture and recreation. Gathering places I can mostly take or leave but I have an open mind about the whole gathering thing.
The root of my struggle though is wondering why we’re spending dough we arguably don’t have on something we arguably don’t need. And this struggle doesn’t even touch upon the whole umbrella-covered skating rink that’ll be built if the muni can scare up $20 million from fundraising activities in the next six months. I don’t know whether that dream is an indication of how much easier it is to raise funds now than it was when the very anemic fundraising efforts for Millennium Place and/or the Librarymahal were dropped for lack of interest a few years ago, or whether it’s just hamburger-in-the-sky wishing. Doesn’t matter for the time being though.