The Challenge of Making Deficits Matter


Renown physicist Richard Feynman once said, “There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy.  That used to be a huge number.  But it’s only a hundred billion.  It’s less than the national deficit!  We used to call them astronomical numbers.  Now we should call them economical numbers.” 

Those words certainly apply to Canada’s current budget situation, don’t they? 

After all, according to the latest federal government numbers our national deficit is now a mind-boggling $343 billion, while our national debt has reached the even more mind-boggling trillion-dollar mark. 

Talk about economical numbers! 

To think, not that long ago, some people were worried about the deficit being a mere $40 billion. 

Seems like chump change now. 

Of course, we all know why our fiscal situation got so far out of whack – it’s the COVID-19 bug, or more precisely, it’s the government’s reaction to the bug. 

Simply put, the government went into spending overdrive out of necessity after it had “locked down” the economy. 

At any rate, I bet you think such shockingly huge deficit numbers will give a boost to all those groups out there – the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Conservative Party of Canada – which push the idea that we need more fiscal responsibility in Ottawa, that we need to balance the budget. 

But if you do think that, you’re wrong. 

The reality is, deficits, even gigantic ones, just don’t matter too much to voters.  

Keep in mind, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals specifically promised to rack up deficits during his 2015 electoral campaign, and he won a majority. 

Keep in mind too, after it was firmly ensconced in power, the Trudeau government offered no real plan to balance the budget (other than hoping it would somehow balance itself) and basically projected an endless number of deficits into the foreseeable future, and nobody seemed to care. 

Why is this the case?  Why don’t people seem to care about the nation drowning in a sea of red ink? 

Well, I think the answer goes back to Feynman’s quote about numbers.  A “billion” is so large, that only people used to dealing with massive numbers – mathematicians, astronomers, Bill Gates’s accountant – can actually comprehend it, to the rest of us it’s just a big number. 

That means, from the perspective of an average person, a billion, a trillion, or a gazillion all look more or less the same. 

My point is, a person who isn’t alarmed by a $15 billion deficit, likely won’t be alarmed by a $343 billion dollar deficit. 

They’re both just big numbers. 

This is why, incidentally, promises to “slay the deficit” are usually not good political rallying cries. 

Voters would rather hear politicians pledge to spend more on popular programs or hear them promise to cut taxes, since that would impact them more directly than balancing the budget, which is a more abstract goal. 

Besides balancing the budget usually means inflicting pain, either because governments will have to cut spending or raise taxes. 

Now don’t me wrong, I’m not suggesting here that Canadians are fiscally irresponsible.  

They do want the government to carefully manage their tax dollars, but to get average Canadians interested and motivated about fiscal issues, you need to present them with numbers that are relatable. 

For instance, years ago when I was working for a conservative advocacy group called The National Citizens Coalition, we had a hard time getting people worked up about deficits and debts, so we decided to change course and published a booklet called “Tales from the Tax Trough,” which simply listed examples of small understandable bits of ridiculous government spending. 

Our theory was people would get more upset about the government spending $5,000 on a hot air balloon festival, than they would be about a $10 million agricultural subsidy. 

And we were right. 

The little “Tales” booklets not only sold like hotcakes, but they also attracted lots of media attention and generated lots of taxpayer outrage. 

Yet, outrage is a difficult emotion to maintain, and while taxpayer anger will eventually subside, government “out of control” spending tends to remain a constant. 

So how do you get people worked up about deficits?  How do you get them riled up about incomprehensible numbers? 

Don’t ask me.  

I bet even a smart physicist like Richard Feynman couldn’t figure that one out.

More from Gerry Nicholls.     @GerryNic

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