Three economists walk into a bar …

Brian Jones
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Most economists and other economic experts would be great standup comedians if they weren’t so serious all the time.

Of course, their shtick at a microphone would undoubtedly be black humour or, if you prefer, bleak humour.

It takes a crazy, loopy personality to perform as either a standup comic or an economic expert. In the case of the latter, a person also has to be capable of mouthing platitudes that are outright contradictions.

Economic experts crack me up. So do the politicians who faithfully follow their prognostications, although less so, because they are more like chortling audience members rather than the originator of the jokes.

Business leaders — “captains of industry” in a bygone era — are uniquely skilled at coming up with howlers, whether making a speech to a chamber of trade or to a board of commerce, or holding a conference call with financial reporters.

Done in by debt

Since 2008, the rate of retail purchases by consumers has been a primary topic in the stage routine of many captains of business.

Retail purchases are closely monitored, and if they rise or fall by a decimal point or two, headlines blare about the state of the economy, consumer confidence, recovery, employment and so on.

Retail purchases, in this oft-

recited routine, are ultimately good.

Unless they are financed by debt. The word “debt” is not usually part of a punch line, but even so, it is a main aspect of the economic experts’ routine.

Consumers are carrying too much personal debt, they pronounce. Household debt has reached record levels, they proclaim with consternation.

The audience gasps. What the? The hypocrisy and contradiction is too funny.

Spend, spend, spend, but don’t go into debt while doing it.

How exactly the economic experts expect consumers to simultaneously spend and avoid debt is never fully explained.

Salaries stalled

Their black/bleak humour is based in a couple of facts that help explain the dilemma of retail spending being good for the economy, but personal debt being bad for the economy.

A recent news story revealed the real incomes of vast numbers of working Canadians have been stagnant since the 1980s. Put another way, real salaries have not risen in a generation.

Last week, Statistics Canada reported pay raises are being outstripped by inflation. The average Canadian saw their earnings increase by 1.1 per cent, while inflation ran at just under three per cent.

A headline in The Globe and Mail read, “Canadian paycheques failing to keep pace with cost of living.” Inevitable result: rising personal debt. That should send the captains of business scrambling for one-liners.

Rocky ride

Somewhere, there must be a university whose faculty of business teaches its MBA students that a large, well-paid middle class is good for the economy, good for retailers, good for entrepreneurs, good for business owners and good for comedy clubs.

Politicians habitually pontificate about solving the problem of budget deficits and government debt, but refuse to recognize — or perhaps don’t care — that a declining middle class automatically leads to a declining economy.

Too many economic experts and captains of business are like the scorpion in the fable “The Scorpion and the Frog.” Seeing an economic opportunity on the other side of a river, a captain of business asks a wage earner to carry him across the water on his back. The wage earner agrees, “but only if you promise not to cut my salary or lay me off.”

Halfway across, the captain of business does just that, and they both perish.

But back to black humour. Here’s a headline we’ll never see: “Captains of business decry debt, call for substantial increase in wages.”

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at

Organizations: Statistics Canada, Globe and Mail, The Telegram

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Recent comments

  • David Benson
    December 02, 2011 - 09:44

    Excellent column. I am ever amused by the calls by the so-called "Business Leaders" for tax cuts when they always have their hands out for taxpayers' money in the form of fat government contracts, government funded cheap labour scams, grants, loans and subsidies. The curiously named "Students In Free Enterprise" (SIFE) programme at MUN is breeding a whole new generation of corporate grant-jobbing bureaucrats who don't even see the inherent idiocy of their ideology.

  • Too Funny
    December 02, 2011 - 07:31

    One could also look at the editors and columnists writing in this paper and be bewildered by the contradicting messages when it comes to public debt. One day we'll see an editorial or column saying government should pay down the debt (the common sense people) and the next day there appears a piece that says spend the surplus and forget the debt ( the Jones logic). Economists, 'captains of industry', or writers for newspaper are nothing more that reflections of society putting forth their opinions. So why be surprised when they don't agree.

    • Absolutely Hilarious
      December 02, 2011 - 14:16

      And we have a Minister Irresponsible for Finance who can't do a budget or keep a proper set of books.