Councillor Brown’s recent off-the-cuff statement on the culpability of the library system in the demise of video rental companies was patently absurd on its face. Ms. Brown is, I’m sure, at least as bright as the average Londoner, and the average Londoner had no trouble immediately identifying the statement as nonsensical. I’m confident that Ms. Brown herself regretted the statement as soon as it passed her lips. As someone who has committed his own fair share of gaffes in conversations with the local media, I’m probably more sympathetic to Ms. Brown’s plight than most. Seldom will one be given a “do-over” in these circumstances.
Of course, Ms. Brown is not the only local elected official to make nonsensical statements. Sometimes, as in Councillor Orser’s musing on chicken diapers as a local economic development initiative, the statements gain traction and generate commentary. Other times, they don’t.
Far more interesting, I think, are the utterances by council members that are not so easily recognized as nonsensical but are absurd nonetheless.
Take Councillor Van Meerbergen, for example. I have no real problem with the good councillor. He represents a particular ideology and significant constituency that deserves to be heard during council deliberations. But he sometimes says some of the silliest things, and he generally gets a free pass when he does so.
“Only the private sector creates wealth”. I have heard the councillor make this statement on many occasions during council proceedings, usually as justification for voting against some form of city spending, which he is wonderfully consistent in doing.
But could this really be true? Is it only the private sector that creates wealth?
Of course it’s not true.
Almost every time that city council rezones a parcel of land, it creates wealth for someone. Is Tony Graat more wealthy as a result of the recent decision by council to permit the construction of a condominium development on Reservoir Hill? Of course he is. Did he create this additional wealth? Of course he didn’t. [Amended August 18: It has been noted that Mr. Graat will create wealth as the result of his investment in the construction and sale of the development itself, by virtue of the return on the private capital he will be investing in the project. This is, of course, true. In this example, I was referring only to the increase in the market value of the land as the result of the single legislative act of up-zoning.]
Almost every time a city extends its Urban Growth Boundary, it puts wealth in the pockets of a few individual landowners due to the increased market value of their lands as potential development sites.
The council decision to designate Old East Village as a Heritage Conservation District on April 10, 2006 increased the wealth of Old East property owners by an average of nearly 5 percent of the market value of their homes, according to an analysis I did at the time, and this was accomplished by the simple proclamation of a single by-law. We went to bed on April 9th and woke up the next day with several thousand dollars of new wealth.
And these are just a few of the decisions of the local council that create wealth in the local economy. Any time the public sector converts a public good into a private profit, wealth has been created for someone. There are more examples, of course, just as there are countless ways that provincial and federal governments create wealth for individuals. We could talks about tariffs, or legislation that sanctions monopolies, or government subsidies to agriculture or energy producers, or the sale of mining or spectrum rights, or some aspects of monetary policy, or political decisions to selectively enforce certain laws and regulations.
Councillor Van Meerbergen, too, is at least as bright as the average Londoner. I’m confident he knows that his assertion is a fiction. But it is a useful fiction in the service of his particular belief system, and it is especially useful if it is not challenged. Nothing contributes more to the cynical notion of government as a drag on our economic well-being than a widely-shared belief that, in our interactions with governments, we are all losers.