It's called numero-phobia, fear of big numbers. Mine flared up big time last week as I stared at tables and graphs in the budget room at Province House. I was feeling OK until I came across the figure $14,002,000,000. Gaaaaaaaaah! Yes, that's the size of Nova Scotia's debt, over 14 billion loonies, each 1.75 millimetres thick. I happened to know that one loonie is the thickness of 15.9 US dollar bills, and since, according to The Physics Factbook, a billion American dollars stacked in a neat pile would reach 271.4 miles into the sky, a tower of 14 billion loonies would soar more than 60,413 miles, or over 97,225 kilometres. So, there I was cowering in the Red Room picturing a tower of loonies beside Joe Howe's statue, stretching a quarter of the way to the moon. And then I thought, what if the wind comes up? Gaaaaaaaaah!
"Don't panic," I told myself. "Numbers are only abstractions; interest payments on the NS debt may bite us in wallet and purse, but the towering debt can't literally topple over and crush us." A government official informed me that in the last decade, the debt has never fallen below $11.2 billion. Like the poor, the NS debt is always with us and somehow life goes on. By the time finance minister Graham Steele breezed in to answer questions, I felt calm. Steele talked confidently about how he'd cut $200 million here and raise $200 million there to balance the provincial budget by 2013-14. If his plan works, the NS debt would no longer grow every year after that. It would be stopped in its tracks at a measly $14,878,000,000---equivalent to a tottering tower of loonies 103,323 kilometres high. Gaaaaaaaaah!
Dr. Freud prescribed a pint of tequila to relieve the symptoms of numero-phobia. If tequila isn't handy, he said, the panic can only be held at bay by posing logical questions. Having no booze, I was in a tight spot. "So, why do we have this permanent debt?" I asked myself nervously. "Is it because of legions of overpaid civil servants? Politicians' generous expense accounts?" I thought hard about those 14.8 billion loonies. Then glancing up, I spied an invisible elephant in the room. It winked and trunk-held-aloft, signalled that I should "follow the money."
Eureka! I quickly flipped to the budget table showing government expenses: $3.6 billion for health; $1.3 billion for education; $971 million for social supports such as welfare, money for poor kids and public housing. All that added up to more than $5.8 billion or almost two-thirds of Steele's $9 billion budget. Health, education and welfare must, therefore, be largely responsible for the elephantine NS debt, I concluded.
My reasoning stirred more nagging questions. Why does our technology-driven health system put expensive band-aids on the ailments of affluence---heart disease and stroke, cancer and diabetes----when real health depends on things like adequate nutrition, loving relationships, plenty of leisure and a decent income? Ka-ching! Why do we coop young people up in classrooms for at least 15 years memorizing stuff they could learn in half the time and saddling them with serious debt in exchange for the paper credentials required to get a good job? Ka-ching! And could it be that we spend almost $1 billion every year supporting people who fall through the cracks because we'd rather maintain an expensive poverty system than work toward shrinking the income gap between richest and poorest?
Tequila's nicer for numero-phobia than rational inquiry. I groaned miserably as I realized that our beautiful seaside province doesn't have the tax base to support our wasteful and inhumane health, education and welfare systems. Maybe that's why we depend on almost $3.2 billion in federal transfer payments every year to cover a third of our budget. Maybe that's why we need a $14,878,000,000 credit card.
Thanks for the insight, Jumbo. Gaaaaaaaaah!