Debt is an addiction. It works once, it feels good, you try it again. Debt is an addiction for government and individuals alike. When most every government in the country is running a deficit, Canadians ask: “What’s the use? Let’s spend now.”
Today, young people get married and they expect a big home with all the appliances. When Lillian and I married in 1956 we lived in a one-room, 13-foot trailer with a camp stove. I sold bedding plants and tulip bulbs from the back of a truck. It took a year to save up for our first house. It was 700 square feet. We filled it with second-hand furniture. They were difficult years, but wonderful years, too.
I was born in the Depression, in 1934, and raised in wartime Holland. My mother raised seven of us in that terrible time. I have a vivid memory of peeking through the curtains to watch Nazi aircraft bomb the woods outside our town, Noordwykerhout, trying to burn out Dutch soldiers hidden in the pines.
By 1944 we were living on tulip bulbs, fried on the stove or ground into bread. We had no heat, no electricity. Occasionally we ate sugar beets as a treat. Mother provided us with crude wooden shoes and patched hand-me-down clothing.
Anyone who lived through that era was shaped by it. We had no welfare, no unemployment insurance. We learned to live plainly, to borrow only for necessities and rely on ourselves. To this day I cannot stand to see food wasted.
As premier I recall at my first cabinet meeting, the staff had stocked the table with a banquet of breakfast foods – and the table was 18 feet long. Three-quarters of the treats went uneaten. It bothered me enormously. I put a stop to that.
I could not stand waste in government, either. As premier I balanced the provincial budget and reduced the debt. Yet governments as a rule still spend too much money, and the same is true for many Canadians.
I hear from people today who use their Visa or MasterCard to “earn” a trip to Italy. First-time homebuyers want their dream house now, not a year or five years from now. This is where the addiction takes hold, the gratification of spending money you did not earn on things you do not need.
Of course, banks love it. They charge high interest, knowing that consumers can’t pay. This has become a big source of revenue for the financial institutions, and statistics show the typical Canadian now owes more than they own.
I understand there are generational differences today, that young Canadians who do not know fear or hunger have a more casual attitude towards thrift. But this can’t go on. It has to end badly. Eventually over-spending must catch up to us. It is unnatural. Governments that spend too much eventually collapse; if we continue on this course, we too will suffer a collapse.
I think we probably need to be shook up a bit. It may happen sooner than people think.
(Editor’s note: the author is former premier of British Columbia and leader of a successful 2011 campaign to repeal B.C.’s harmonized sales tax. Mr. Vander Zalm’s commentary was originally published February 9, 2014)