If government exists for anything, it's to spend. That is its distinctive verb. Building, maintaining, growing are the acts of individuals. It's when we wish to direct those acts toward greater results that we must pool resources. The best pool at the moment is government.
This puts the Harper Tories, now presiding over an acute economic crisis, not to mention a chronic city infrastructure crisis, in an awkward position. They aren't comfortable raising big money - and they aren't comfortable spending it.
While a key proposal of the Liberal/NDP coalition (the fate of which is murky) is funding municipal infrastructure, the Tories have as yet outlined no new city infrastructure spending. (No fair counting recycled grants like the cash for the Evergreen Brick Works announced this week.)
This is rather a problem, given that the cost of bringing the country's rail lines, bridges, sewers and other public works up to snuff is estimated at $123 billion. This "national infrastructure deficit" is perhaps more properly called a municipal poverty crisis; according to Statistics Canada, half of all public infrastructure is owned by cities. The feds control a measly 6.8 per cent.
And while we in Toronto are of course familiar with the legacy of social service downloading, we hear less about infrastructure downloading, which has happened over decades, irrespective of the party in power. Since 1961, the amount of federal capital going toward actual infrastructure has dropped from 41.7 to 25 per cent.
Combine this with municipal reliance on property taxes, a burden that falls most heavily on tenants and fixed-incomes families, and we're left with a sorry picture of those least able to pay subsidizing the economic activity of those with the greatest resources. Oh, Canada.
But that's the thing about crises. They bring into relief connections between disparate things, like how the economic well-being of a nation is tied to that of its least fortunate. It's now time to reinvigorate the places where most people live - cities - and get people working
According to a study by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, for each $1 billion spent on infrastructure, the gross domestic product increases by about $1.3 billion and 11,000 jobs are created. This is far more, say researchers, than would be generated by $2 billion in tax cuts, the preferred Tory strategy.
A glance at the city's $1.6 billion capital budget ($17 bil over 10 years) and you can see how far behind we are in fortifying our infrastructure - and how much federal cash is actually needed. Fifty-seven per cent of next year's capital money is earmarked for "state of good repair" - that's just to keep things from breaking. (Upkeep of the Gardiner Expressway alone costs $10 million a year.) Half of that is for the TTC.
These are important expenditures because capital deficits are like financial recessions: the longer they last, the worse they get. A crack ultimately becomes not more cracks, but a crevice. But the city is still barely making a dent.
I asked Carl Sonnen, primary author of the FCM report, if some kinds of infrastructure funding are more effective than others in priming the economy. I suspected, for instance, that money for sustainability projects or for rail transit would create more jobs than roads while reducing pollution and other costs.
Apparently, no one can agree.
"You've opened a can of worms there that isn't going to be closed soon," he chuckles. "[Money for] transit adds operator jobs, but [then] you're going to reduce road repair and take cars off the road so the local grease monkey will have fewer cars to fix. The steel for the rails is not produced in your city. The trains aren't produced in your city."
It's a reminder that not everything can be reduced to concrete, static facts - or even, perhaps, concrete, static structures.
"There's a lot of talk about infrastructure," says Greg Reed of Business for the Arts. "Typically, that means physical, like roads and bridges, or maybe social, like schools and hospitals. I believe there's a third: cultural."
Reed points out that Rome and Berlin have both made reinvestment in the arts central pillars of their economic plans. He says cultural funding, whether for flagship opera houses or community centre dance classes, shares a trait with infrastructure funding: you put money in and it generates economic activity right away. And people spend a lot accessing the arts - Canadians spent $1.4 billion on culture in 2004, governments $1.5 billion.
"You could never argue that hospitals aren't a good investment," he says. "But with arts, it's quick. With other infrastructure it takes time."
All in all, increased funding for cities would not only stimulate economic activity but also buffer Canadians against recession and set the stage for a rational decentralization of power - a seeming no-brainer for Harper.
But he's too busy arguing with the coalition over who is more rightly the government. Here's a hint, folks: it's whichever among you gets around to governing.