I suppose we have become cynical enough as a society that the outrage of using taxpayer money to buy votes does not seem to shock as much as it once did. When I think about the response of most people I’ve talked to, there has simply been a shrugging of shoulders with a sense of resignation that - what else can you expect from politicians? Moreover, the concept of spending “one billion dollars” is outside the daily experience of most people and is just a very large number with little reference to what it represents. Even newspaper columnists seem to feel that way as Martin Regg Cohn revealed in his Toronto Star column several days ago writing about the banality of billion dollar boondoggles as follows: “What’s a billion dollars? Politically and fiscally, it is everything and nothing — a number so gargantuan it borders on abstraction.”
I don’t think a billion dollar boondoggle is at all either banal or an abstraction. Think of the 1.1 billion dollars that has been squandered in this way in terms of the opportunity cost. What else could 1.1 billion dollars have been spent on? Well, for any future politicians out there planning on using public money to buy votes and wanting to know the trade-off in terms of what a billion dollars can get you, here is a very short list:
Based on an average payment for physicians in 2011-12 of $328,000, this represents the services of 3,354 physicians for one year. (Source: CIHI) That is not a lot of direct votes but think of all those people who still don’t have a family physician.
Based on an estimated average annual undergraduate value of tuition in 2013-14 of $7,259, this represents free university tuition for 151,536 students. (Source: Statistics Canada). This may seem like a lot of votes but students traditionally have a low turnout rate.
Based on the cost of four-laning a highway in Northern Ontario at about 10 million dollars per kilometer, this represents 110 kilometers of new four-laned highway (interchanges not included). I believe this would just about complete four-laning of the highway to Sudbury from Parry Sound. (Source: Highway69.ca). There are not a lot of seats in Northern Ontario which is probably why it takes so long to complete highways there.
Based on average property taxes in Toronto for a 2 storey, 3 bedroom home assessed at $447,090 in 2012 of $3,448 annually, this represents the property taxes for 319,026 households. (Source:GetWhatYouWant). That is a fair number of voters.If you can find communities with lower property taxes, you might be able to buy more votes.
Based on the price of a Sharp AQUOS 60” 1080p 120HZ LED TV on sale this weekend at Future Shop at $999.00 plus 13%HST, this represents 974,426 flat screen televisions – enough to provide one for about 20 percent of Ontario households. (Source: Future Shop). Now that is a lot of potential votes and could definitely tilt the balance towards a majority government. Add another billion and a half dollars and you could cover half the province and easily generate the demand for your own television manufacturing plant - industrial strategy at its best!
How is that for the banality of billions?