Telling tales is human; politicians shouldn’t overdo it

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

From the first tale told by our ancestors around a fire somewhere in Africa millions of years ago to the plot behind a summer blockbuster movie, we—the human race— have always been superb storytellers.

And our stories matter. They help preserve memory and tradition, help us avoid repeating our mistakes. They entertain us and transport knowledge and wisdom into the future.

They also sometimes perpetuate pleasant myths, hindering our ability to change when needed.

The remedy to excessive attachment to a particular story originates with that other great talent of ours—the ability to sift through information and correct previous errant notions.

For example, for centuries some human beings heard the story of how the Earth was flat (although it was not a universal belief, if one checks in with the ancients). The narrative stopped being taken literally after some fact-checking, when sailors ventured far enough abroad and back to report that there was no end of the Earth off which one would fall.

Which is my long way of introducing the subject at hand: we often hear stories constructed in and about politics and records in elected office.

For example, the other day former Ontario Premier Bob Rae, fumed at a column by economist Jack Mintz who noted the similarities between the current Kathleen Wynne government and Rae’s reign as premier of Ontario, specifically the “high deficits, debt and taxes.”

Mintz’s criticism, no doubt, conflicts with the story Rae believes about himself, which might be something like this: “Bob Rae, a devoted and well-intentioned public servant was a premier buffeted by the early 1990s recession and by a Bank of Canada high-interest rate policy. Rae acted prudently, spent only where necessary, cut spending when he had to, but did so with surgical precision. He was in the end defeated by forces outside his control.”

Rae likely sincerely believes all of that. The reality is he dramatically increased spending in his early years in office, and despite his higher taxes, ended up with large deficits. That diverted substantial sums of taxpayer cash to debt interest.

In 1990/91 when Rae first became Ontario’s premier, $3.8 billion was spent in debt interest, or nine per cent of what was expended on health care, education and other programs. By 1994/95, debt interest payments in Ontario totalled $7.8 billion, or about 16 per cent of what the province spent on programs.

Critically, if one thinks government’s role is at least partly to fund social programs, Rae’s deficits didn’t help. That’s because once you get beyond storytelling, math is not conservative, progressive, left or right, or a preserve of partisans—it’s simply math. To quote former federal finance minister Paul Martin, from 1995: “The debt and deficit are not inventions of ideology. They are facts of arithmetic. The quicksand of compound interest is real.”

As for today’s problems in Ontario, Ontario’s public bonded debt is nearly twice that of the American fiscal basket case, California. (It gets worse: per person, Ontario’s debt is five times that of California’s.)

And I’ve noted how the Ontario government’s narrative (speaking of tall tales), that Ottawa is to blame for Ontario’s fiscal problems, is utter nonsense. The federal government could double its equalization payment to Ontario tomorrow and Ontario’s $12.5 billion deficit would only be reduced to $10.5 billion.

These objective facts undermine both Rae’s belief in himself as a victim in the early 1990s and the nice story from the current Ontario government about how “Ottawa is at fault” for poor provincial public finances.  

Rae and Wynne are hardly the only (former and current) politicians to engage in storytelling. Politicians of every partisan stripe do the same thing. But while stories are useful and guide us in a variety of beneficial ways, the rational side of human nature should revisit tales now and then, especially political ones. That leads to better, smarter government. Ontario is no exception.

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