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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org