Grown Ups and Financial Facts

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Last week, in New York, the Staten Island Ferry collided with the pier, sending passengers hurling towards the deck. That scene is about to be replayed, all across the Western world. Our ships are coming in, and it’s not going to be pretty.

For many years, we have been living the high life. Our governments have promised us free health care, abundant retirement income, beautiful roads and parks, and all kinds of goodies. And it’s all paid for with borrowed money! But what happens when the money runs out?

We caught a glimpse of it in Greece, where workers have been rioting, throwing Molotov cocktails into banks, and killing several employees. What got their ire up so much?  Greek public workers have been living quite high on the hog. Many can retire in their fifties or early sixties. They’re given bonus pay equal to an extra two months of work each year, and that pay is a lot higher than private sector workers get already.

When Greece inevitably approached bankruptcy, and had to be bailed out, countries like Germany, who were footing the bill, demanded austerity measures. Instead of retiring at 61, Greek public employees would now have to work until 63. And their pay would be frozen, too. Germans, it should be noted, can’t retire with full pension until 67. But for some reason Greek rioters don’t feel ashamed that Germans have to work longer to pay for Greek salaries.

Canada’s not in as bad a shape as other governments. But that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. Baby boomers are set to retire, and that will cause an earthquake on government balance sheets. Whether it’s CPP or health care, we’re going to be on the hook for billions, at the same time as the proportion of Canadians actually working and paying taxes will fall. Yet politicians won’t talk about the crisis that this will inevitably cause. Instead, many parties just keep proposing even more sweeping social programs.

During the British election, where the Conservatives recently won a very unstable minority government, nobody talked honestly about their looming financial crisis, either. Honesty apparently doesn’t win you votes.

Maybe, then, the problem is not solely with politicians. Perhaps the problem is also with us voters, who continually allow politicians to bribe us with tax dollars. They promise us largesse from “Other People’s Money”, and we obediently check the box next to their names. Meanwhile, the world financial situation grows more dire from bailout upon bailout until the entire house of cards falls down. Relatively better off countries are now borrowing money to save countries who have borrowed too much money. Anyone feel like Alice in Wonderland?

Recently my daughters and I watched a movie set on the western frontier in the 1800s. Everybody saved and worked so hard to build a better life. It reminded me of the farmers I know today; up before the sun, rarely taking vacations, and working as hard as possible to have something to leave to their children.

We have lost that mindset. As the government does more and more, we start to expect it to do more and more. Then, when governments have to announce that the party is over, people protest by destroying stuff, like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. Adults don’t have temper tantrums. They sigh, feel sorry for a while, but then they pull up their boots and get to work fixing stuff.

We’ve become a world of children. And kiddies, our ship is coming in. Are we going to set fire to it, or are we going to get to work trying to put everything back in order? It’s a choice all of us are going to have to make soon. I sure hope we choose right.

S. Wray Gregoire
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