Where did all the money go?

This is, of course, a rhetorical question, but one that comes honestly from from the large amount of rhetoric I hear.

This week we have heard the fallout from the Transit Commissioner audit of TransLink funding, used as support for refusing a fare increase to TransLink (wow, Stephen Rees cuts through that one like a laser here). TransLink says this is going to put the stops to any hope of improving or expanding service (not specifically true, as the modest fare increase would have only served to maintain service at current levels), while the tawlk radio pundits (including several members of the Mayor’s Council) are saying it is time for a re-think of the entire TransLink structure and system. All of them agree on one thing: There is no more money.

Then look at the headlines around the ongoing Teachers labour dispute. The Provincial Government has told teachers that the single largest component of their working conditions (class size) cannot be negotiated, because they have to control costs. Then they insist there will also be no negotiation on their wages. “Net Zero” they call it, the mandate for all public services. They went into “negotiations” with the teachers with a single message: There is no more money.

Our hospitals are overcrowded, Tim Horton’s being used for stockpiling emergency room patients, inadequate numbers of anaesthesiologists, and I can’t find a damn GP to take me on as a patient. We are contracting our our fundamental record keeping to foreign multi-nationals, and we can’t keep killer infections out of our aging hospital fleet. Whenever concerns about the fate of our healthcare system are raised to the senior governments, the answer is really simple: there is no more money

Apparently I will not be entitled to the same retirement income as my parents, or even my big brother, even though I have been employed and have paid into the system since I was neigh 16 years old. The Prime Minster made it perfectly clear, his Calgary School chums and the Fraser Institute projected out demographically to 2035, and guess what? There is no more Money.

The public broadcaster is cutting programs that tell us about the rest of the world, and about our own neighbourhoods. People who provide vital weather and other information in our vast North are being cut back, rationalized, shut down. People who protect our fisheries habitat, who inspect the safety of our food, and test our drinking water for dangerous substances are being laid off. Veterans who have fought in an ill-informed foreign war, only because we asked them to, are losing access to veterans services. People are living on the street and all three levels of government are pointing at each other and saying the same thing in unison: There is no more money.

Here I sit in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 2012. Apartments are selling out before they are built, at north of $1000 per square foot. The Canucks are entering their second decade of sold-out shows at $200 a seat. Ferraris and Lamborghinis are being driven by 16-year old street racers, and new BMWs are so thick on the streets they almost block the views from the $70,000 Deluxe Pick-up Trucks that burn a transit pass worth of gas travelling 15km. my office overlooks a mall parking lot, always full. People line up to purchase obscenely expensive speak-and-say toys every time Apple decides to change screen colours. The shelves at Safeway are packed with $9/pound organic guavas from antipodal farms, and we have to truck in boatloads of Guatemalans to serve us shitty coffee, because it just isn’t worth any Canadian’s time to do that work anymore. We spend a half Billion dollars to keep rain off of a couple of dozen football players, and now want to spend another $20+ Billion (no one apparently really knows how much) to destroy the air defenses of countries we haven’t even chosen yet… Everywhere I look, I see money. Embarrassing amounts of Money.

It seems we have more money for everything than we had 30 years ago, when my parents were raising me and my three siblings. My dad had a solid career job as a civil engineer, and could pay the mortgage and feed the family, and even took us on a couple of vacations. He didn’t have a BMW, but did drive a funky Dodge. We listened to CBC radio news and original broadcasting, watched Hockey and the Beachcombers and Sesame Street on CBC TV. My best friend’s dad was a teacher and his mom a nurse, and they had a decent home, three kids, and the mother of all station wagons. I don’t remember us accusing them of sucking off the public purse. My schools were decent, the hospital we lived next to had 24-hour emergency (it is closed now, and Castlegarians who have an accident have at least a 30-minute ambulance ride to the nearest emergency room). Was that an imaginary, nostalgic world I am remembering through rose-colored glasses?

Since then, the population has grown, the number of jobs has increased, the GDP has gone up. We sell more, do more and buy more now. We make more money every year than ever before: inflation adjusted, per capita, no matter how you measure it. We are a rich country, one of the richest in the world, and richer than we have ever been in history. Yet the essential services we rely on, the roads, the schools, the police, the hospitals, the low-income housing, the public broadcaster, are continually under threat from reduced funding.

The reason is always the same: There is no more money.

So where is all the money? Where the hell did it go?

3 comments on “Where did all the money go?

  1. You’ve made me think of my trips through southern BC. I’m sure you’ve been to places like Sandon BC? Apparently >$30billion of metals were hauled out of the hills around Sandon. Yet not much is there now. Where did it all go?

    Somehow we’re not very good at having the wealth stick around… I expect it had a lot to do with who controlled the wealth at the time.

  2. People’s expectations of what is “normal” or “essential” have changed drastically. From a parent’s perspective with the school system:
    – we now accomodate “challenged” children into the general school population. This was certainly not done in my youth.
    – most school districts offer a wide range of “programs of choice”, including Montessori, French immersion (early and late), IB, “choice” schools with emphasis on the trades, etc etc. This was not available 30 years ago.
    – home-schoolers are provided with extensive resources, especially in urban centers where home-schooling is completely optional.
    – parents want all-day kindergarten. Again, not available in my youth.

    I think all these things are all excellent ideas…and I think at least some of the money has gone into setting these things up.

    But, the education system (like many of our “essential services”) is based on a growth scenario. The tax rates of yesterday are great if you have the demographics to support it. We don’t anymore. The tax base and the expectations of the main demographic groups don’t match anymore.

  3. Well, we should ask, is it a spending problem or a revenue problem? Personally I think it’s the latter. But that means we need more revenue ie. more taxes. But companies don’t want to pay more. Individuals and families don’t want to pay more either. Who wants to pay more? Everyone would rather spend the GDP on iGadgets and expensive fancy cars and all the other things you mention. People may talk about how much they care about funding education, health care etc. but for the average individual it’s not actually true. Few people care about public services and infrastrucure the way the care about their own stuff. There is no sense of personal ownership over public initiatives. Is this a cultural phenomenon – is there a vast sense of alienation between the people and the government? Or is it just a problem in communication of policies, consultations, public involvement, and of course trust?

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