Death by Deficit, Richard Rohmer

Stoddard, 1995, 234 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-7737-2902-X

It’s been said that Canada is a country shaped by paranoia. Given the antagonistic relation between the two original founding nation (France and England), the frightening bully-like power of its southern neighbour (The United States), the rebellious streak of its French province (Quebec) and the increasingly multicultural nature of its population, (see Toronto) it’s no wonder that the nation is always going from one overblown crisis to another, second-guessing itself and feeling terribly insecure about its future.

In the process, Canadians have shaped the best country of the world.

But insecurity sells, and Richard Rohmer has built a career upon this. Author of more than a dozen novels and half-a-dozen nonfiction books, Rohmer has specialized in intricate, high-stakes political/military thrillers featuring Canada as the protagonist. Ill-written and badly constructed, Rohmer’s novels often feel like solutions in search of problems; clever concepts ineptly inserted in rotten novels.

Nevertheless… it sells. Provided you’ve got some time to lose and borrow the book from the library, Rohmer’s novels might even be not entirely unenjoyable. Death by Deficit goes straight in this category.

A few years ago, in the middle of the latest recession, the Canadian economic and political scene went berserk on the concept that Canada was irresponsibly running a budget deficit of nearly forty billion dollars a year. After several years of profligate spending by parties in power, an effort was made to reduce the deficit to manageable levels.

Today, the zero-deficit budget isn’t yet here, but it’s surprisingly close, especially given “common wisdom” of not even ten years ago. Through massive cuts everywhere (and quite a bit of screaming), the Canadian government is finally getting a hold of fiscal maturity. (Alas, the debt will remain for quite some time…)

In 1994-1995, though, things weren’t so rosy and it seemed possible to imagine a future where Canada would simply go bankrupt. Quite a few people dwelled on the consequences, including Richard Rohmer.

Death by Deficit is nothing but an intellectual exercise in which the goal is to un-bankrupt Canada. As a fictional work, it is simply laughable: Characters are ill-defined (and all women are beautiful), dialogue is hilarious, narrative flow is broken by the inclusion of a (real-life!) news program transcription, etc…

But as a thought-exercise, it’s a pretty fascinating read. Rohmer exposes the problems and shakes the sceptre of the consequences, then proceeds to find three different solutions to the problem. Although none of them are terribly convincing, they offer some food for thought.

The technical details of the inner workings of the government and national fiscal policy are credibly exposed: Chances are that you’ll learn a few things. Given its alarmist nature, Death by Deficit is frightening and memorable; The old scare tactics still work well.

“Hard economy-fiction” might not be the best-selling category out there, but Death by Deficit shows that fiction, even incompetent fiction, can help a great deal to expose and sensitize readers to issues that might only be of interest to accountants and newspaper columnists. Don’t read Death by Deficit for gripping accounts of super-special economic agents or even decent storytelling, but take a look to appreciate what Canada might have narrowly avoided, and what may still be in store for us if we’re not careful.

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