Restraint for Everything but Sports
No cost has been spared in mounting a giant spectacle of spandex-clad athletes performing dazzling feats in massive public venues.
Certainly, nobody seems to be letting the $6 billion price tag for Vancouver's Olympic extravaganza get in the way.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not against sports. I appreciate the nuances of a fine skeleton performance as much as the next person.
My point is simply to question why goals other than mounting gala sports events are routinely dismissed on the grounds that we can't afford them.
Of course, sports extravaganzas often have side benefits. We're told that with the 2015 Pan Am Games coming here, Toronto may finally get its public transit system upgraded.
How's that? Are the Pan Am countries – an assortment of mostly poverty-stricken Latin American nations – going to chip in to improve Toronto's subway system?
No. We're going to pay. So why don't we just decide to do it without the Games, given the need and the looming climate change disaster?
The conventional explanation is that the public won't pay otherwise. But is the public the real obstacle here?
We've been exhorted to believe in the magic of sports, in the transformative power of the Olympic torch – that no dream is too big to dream, that guts and willpower will bring us glory.
But next week, when Ottawa brings down its budget, all that big-thinking and sky-high believing is to be shelved. We'll be advised to think small, think restraint, focus on the impossibility of things. Deficits will own the podium.
That's not because the public only cares about sports. It's because the corporate world only supports public investments when it comes to sports and war, from which it makes money. But it wants to hold the line on public investment in health care, education, child care, social supports, etc.
So it's tried to convince us these things aren't affordable, or that we don't want to pay for them – as we did in the past.
From the end of World War II, federal spending was almost always above 15 per cent of GDP, until the massive Liberal spending cuts of the mid-1990s brought it way down to about 12 per cent, notes economist Armine Yalnizyan.
Those cuts – made to reduce deficits caused by recession and overly tight monetary policy – became permanent, even after balanced budgets were quickly restored in the late 1990s.
Despite a decade of huge federal surpluses since then, the Liberals and the Conservatives failed to restore spending levels that prevailed during the prosperous early postwar decades, cutting taxes in response to corporate pressure instead.
The Harper government has made clear that once the stimulus package expires, federal spending will return to the historically low levels of the past decade.
But this is disastrous policy. Given the severity of the ongoing recession, what is needed now is massive public investment to put the country back to work and rebuild our crumbling social and physical infrastructure.
For millions of young people, holding a job is a dream just as surely as competing before the hometown crowd.
But we're supposed to believe that, beyond sports, we can't afford to meet our needs, no matter how pressing.
Perhaps we could finally get some serious action on climate change if it were a curling bonspiel – rather than simply a crisis that threatens life as we know it on this planet.
© Toronto Star 2010