Media heavies and political hotshots have been trying to be clever about the latest round of opinion polls. The smart money in Canada says that voters are fed up with the scandals or worried about free trade or uneasy about Brian Mulroney’s image or concerned about cod—something like that. In Britain, wise men say that the polls reflect Margaret Thatcher’s personal unpopularity and public reaction against the equally unpopular rate of unemployment. In the United States, conventional wisdom has it that the polls reflect how much Americans dislike Contragate or Irangate or whatever it is called this week.
In fact, there may be a simpler answer: in all three countries, people might just be tired of the direction government has been taking in the past few years—the years since the Lean-and-Mean crowd took over. It may be that they are fed up with governments waiting for problems to solve themselves.
You remember those heady days when Ronald Reagan was new, when Thatcher was a breath of fresh air, when Mulroney was a novelty. The great economic conservative experiment was finally going to take place, after decades of government by free-spending bleeding hearts. Government was going to stop throwing money at problems. Government was going to stop doing things that private enterprise could do better. Government was going to stop providing services that the volunteer area could do more efficiently. Government was going to trim the fat and get rid of unproductive workers, useless agencies, redundant departments.
Above all, government was going to cut the deficit—that horrible thing that was bleeding the country dry, mortgaging everybody’s grandchildren and making businessmen frown so much that they couldn’t bring themselves to invest money, create jobs or even make a profit.
Government was going to be Lean and Mean.
And not a moment too soon. Government, the Lean-and-Mean people said, had been guilty of a certain softheadedness. Softheadedness apparently came from having a bleeding heart. This was a scientific fact, according to the Lean-and-Mean elements. Combine softheadedness and a bleeding heart and you had a clumsy, inefficient government headed by people who could not think straight, were terrible administrators and could ruin a government’s credit rating in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Once you got rid of them, things would purr right along.
The voters were willing to give it a try. The softheads have been gone from Canadian government since 1984 (earlier than that, some who are not friends of Trudeau-era economic policies would argue). The last bleeding heart was seen in Washington in 1980, fleeing before the Lean-and-Mean Reaganites. The last “wet” sank out of sight in Britain in 1979.
And how have things gone since then? Not as great as you might have expected. Mean, for sure, but not lean at all—at least not in the way Leanand-Mean advocates had anticipated. Government is anything but lean: the deficit has not dropped appreciably—
Many people are lean— not the kind of lean that comes from plush fitness clubsf but from being unemployed and hungry
in fact, in the United States it has grown. On the other hand, many of the people are lean, but not from aerobic exercise in plushy fitness clubs. They are the kind of lean you get from being unemployed and hungry.
In Canada, there are now more homeless people than at any time since the Great Depression. There is a shortage of staff in hospitals and mental institutions. There are not enough courtrooms, not enough judges. Social workers are underpaid. Jails are dangerously overcrowded. Halfway houses are suffering from a lack of provincial funding. Provinces are suffering from cutbacks in federal grants.
Universities are underfunded. Scientists are leaving the country to get financial backing for their research. High schools and public schools are straitened by a lack of funds to run them properly. Day care is still a luxury few can afford. Public transit fares are soaring. In all of that, the government isn’t doing much to help, because the government is trying to be Lean and Mean.
That brings us to the private sector. What is it doing to help out? The fact is that although the private sector would have loved to take up the slack and be the engine of prosperity, it has just had too busy a time of it here in the 1980s—what with government contracts, plant closures, takeover bids and insider trading.
Still, the private sector keeps saying that it would love to help, and it keeps saying that it is pretty mad about the size of the deficit. If the government would only get rid of the deficit once and for all, well then, the private sector would really show its stuff.
If the private sector has been a bit of a disappointment, that still leaves our Lean-and-Mean political masters, operating without the twin impediments of bleeding heart and soft head. Seeing things clearly, hard headed, with an unsentimental grasp of the situation and a sure feeling for the bottom line, they . . . well actually, they bump into each other, crash their limousines into things, fall over the furniture, slip on banana peels and pretend not to hear things at news conferences. It is difficult to explain that. It is the one thing nobody predicted.
It was expected that people might think Lean-and-Mean government a bit callous. But nobody anticipated that Lean-and-Mean government would turn out to be sloppy. That was for big-spending bleeding hearts. And certainly nobody expected that the practitioners of Lean and Mean would turn out to be clowns.
The polls we are seeing now might mean that the voters do not like the Lean-and-Mean guys being sloppy. But they could mean something else. Leanand-Mean rhetoric may have convinced voters that you can’t solve problems by throwing money at them. But watching Lean-and-Mean governments over the past few years has no doubt shown voters that you can’t solve problems by taking money away either.
So it is that as elections approach, you may open your newspaper one day soon and notice something that looks strangely like a government spending money to solve a problem. That will be a sign that governments are not all that dumb, that they recognize that Lean-and-Mean government has had its meanest effect upon the voters. It has made them mean enough to lean toward a different government.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.
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