Beware The Man Bearing Bad Analogies

November 8, 2011

While we’re on the subject of specious budget debate claims… and as a matter of fact, we were. Just yesterday. What do you mean, you weren’t following along. I’m not in this to hear myself write, folks. What I’m doing I do for you. So please, if you wouldn’t mind…

Last week, the Toronto Star’s Royson James penned a little ditty about the boneheadedness of contemplating selling off a 10% piece of the Toronto Hydro pie. I’ll let him do the explaining his reasons in the article but something that caught my attention was a quote from the deputy mayor, ol’ trusty for a crazy quote, Councillor Doug Holyday. “If you’re going to lose your house, you have to sell your cottage.”

Ohhh, how I love tattered and broken down analogies that sound so full of homey wisdom and common sensical matter-of-factness at first blush yet disintegrate like old school vampires when a ray of reasoned sunlight shines upon them. Governments need to balance their books just like every household does. You see, taxes are like revenue, like when you get paid for a service you provide. Expenditures are like, well, expenditures. What you pay out for a service which has been provided to you. At the end of the month, these revenues must match expenditures, otherwise—

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Right wing, neoconservative, small government types who populate Mayor Ford’s administration love this trope. It’s so easy to understand. It’s the very definition of straight forward simplicity which should be the first sign that it’s also fundamentally, categorically wrong.

In June, over at Ford For Toronto, Matt Elliott took Budget Chief Del Grande to task for spouting similarly inane platitudes. “We are no different than any family in Toronto who spends more than we earn,” the budget chief told the National Post. “We need to get a second job. We would love to send our kids to camp, but it may not be the most nice camp. Or maybe the kids don’t go to camp at all.”

See, at a budgetary level, government is most definitely different from a family. A family is finite, let’s call it. Its budget plan must include a point of time in the distant future when the main revenue source dwindles. Known as retirement. Hopefully, there’s been enough savings done to bridge the gap between then and when the sweet embrace of death comes.

Governments, on the other hand, aren’t as terminal if one’s lucky enough to live in a relatively stable democratic tradition. Revenue and expenditure ebbs and flows but doesn’t end when one government is ‘retired’ through, say, electoral misfortune. So government budgeting is, in fact, quite different from household budgeting.

But even that comparison is superficial and not complete. As Mr. Elliott suggested, these analogies often only go part of the way. Budget Chief Del Grande suggests the city needs ‘to get a second job’. To which Elliott responds, “But last year the city did have a part-time job. It paid more than $60 million per year. [The VRT if you’re having trouble following along.] The city quit that job.”

The same line of reasoning goes with the deputy mayor’s selling the cottage analogy. What if the cottage is a revenue generating rental property? Instead of selling it off, you decide not to spend the summer at it and rent it out. The money you make can then be ploughed back into the payments you need in order to save the house.

Only if you were in absolutely desperate straits, and needed cash money right now to stave off foreclosure would you sell the cottage. Which is what Team Ford wants us to believe is the state of affairs in Toronto currently. There’s also a hint of entitlement, privilege and living beyond your means in the cottage reference. Bit off a little more than you could chew, irresponsible homeowner? Maybe you’re not up to owning two properties. You should try summer camp for the kids. But not too nice a summer camp, mind.

They hide behind these tired analogies to mask their real intentions. To sell off the city piece by piece and cut the government down to a more fitting size. Nothing more than keeping the streets clean and safe. Anything beyond that is simply gravy, an unaffordable second home that is well beyond our means.

It shifts responsibility from small-minded, self-serving meagreness of spirit onto supposed profligacy. Tough medicine meted out by sober, mature adults after a wild party thrown by teenagers. A claim that is so shop worn that it sullies the word ‘cliché’. It needs to be ignored at all costs.

tired and hackneyedly submitted by Cityslikr