The S.I.


“So,” I said, leaning in a worldly way against the thick green, discoloured tubes swathing the serious end of the mobile unit, “how’s business?”

About this moment, the hungry end of one of the tubes was being thrust into a white plastic hole in the sand, immediately and noisily encountering several thousand gallons of swill in my cottage holding tank. POOPR1 belched a few puffs of diesel smoke as the onboard pump raced. Ray was mopping the brow beneath his Coors Light baseball cap with a hand he’d pulled out of a fluorescent orange rubber glove. At 68, he’s an odoriferous oracle I see twice a year.

Economists generally rely on three sets of indicators. Leading indicators, like the stock market, give a clue as to where the economy is going. Lagging indicators, such as unemployment, show where we have just been. And coincident indicators, like GDP or retail sales, snapshot where we are today.

Then, there’s the Sucking Indicator. This powerful tool tells me quickly what’s going on in my local economy – a resort area 200 kilometres from King & Bay whose beaches are thick with visitors in the summer. Well, most summers. Not this one.

As the tube happily ingested liquid, making small but satisfied humping noises, Ray estimated the SI is down this year, “by a good 50%.” Cottages that are corporately owned, normally booked solid from May to Labour Day, have been occupied only two or three weeks. The number of properties for sale has jumped and precious little has sold – even prime beachfront homes that change hands at best once a generation.

“It’s the jobs,” Ray elaborated. “And the debt. Not enough of one and too much a’tother.” He  thrust the now-troubled tube, gasping and sucking air, further into the orifice until it sated. “Don’t know what people are thinking.”

Meanwhile in Ottawa another indicator was being released on a hot Friday in August. The Finance Department revealed a budgetary shortfall of $5 billion in June. It was a remarkable departure from the monthly surplus of $1.6 billion a year earlier.

In fact, a disaster. Government revenues plunged by more than 13% while spending mushroomed over 25%. While a collapsing economy shrunk GST, income tax and corporate tax  receipts, a new army of unemployed and billions to bail out the car companies drove federal finances deep into the red.

Ottawa spent almost $13 billion more than it took in between April and June. The latest numbers indicate things are deteriorating. At this rate, we’ll have a deficit of between $50 and $60 billion – 50% worse than Brian Mulroney’s corker which resulted in the GST and crippling mortgage rates.

This will up the national debt by at least $200 billion, according to Parliament’s independent budget chief, and propel it to a new high of more than $600 billion.

More importantly, it means the feds will be back issuing massive quantities of new bonds in order to finance the deficit. The consequences of this are well-known – higher interest rates as hundreds of billions in federal financing requirements compete with US treasuries, corporate borrowings and every other debt instrument for available investors.

The tube was now lurching from side to side, as if licking up the remaining tasty solids on the bottom. Ray’s bright orange fingers wrestled with it for a few minutes before he shuffled back and disengaged the pump. The green serpent suddenly went flaccid.

Ray continued on economics. “When we got married our rent was $25. We bought nothing we couldn’t pay for, and we worked our whole lives. Still do. I drive a school bus in the winter, this thing in the summer, and the wife cleans the high school.” Children, I asked?

“You bet,” he said, “and my grandkid is about to get herself married. Guess where? Not at the community centre, but in Vegas. Damn! You think we’re goin’ to that?”

He laughed. Shook his head. Coiled the beast.

“I’d talk to her,” he said. “But, you know, she’s not listening. We don’t know nothing. We’re old.”

The heavy truck wheels strained and spit some sand as they dug for traction. Ray waved when he exited the gate. I reached down to install the cap, looking into an empty tank. When I see him next, it will be April.

Likely he’ll be the same. Granddaughter and country, not so sure.