The smartest dunces you ever met

The latest inept and expensive flip-flop from the Ontario government, on overpriced rural solar power, has me scratching my head till my scalp hurts on a key question of political economy: Is it in fact possible to be a cunning dunce?

In case you missed it, the McGuinty Liberals just proposed a massive bounty for rural solar power and apparently (I am not making this up) didn't realize people would come for it ... in which case why offer it? Their "microFIT" program offered nearly 20 times the market price for solar-generated electricity, 80.2 cents per kilowatt hour (kW·h) rather than 4.02, to try to get people to put a few panels on their roof. To the government's astonishment, a gold rush ensued instead.

By July 2, with almost 19,000 people lined up for the free money, the province said it would only pay 58.8 cents per kWh, provoking a wave of rural anger that Wednesday's Citizen described as "so strong that it reportedly threatened the re-election chances of nearly two dozen Liberal MPPs." So the government flapped the flip of its flop and will now pay 80.2 cents per kWh for every project registered before July 2 but only 60.4 afterward.

How can you spend your adult life aspiring to govern, relentlessly and shamelessly pursuing political power, and then know nothing about the processes of government even when you've been in office for seven years? Did no one see this coming?

It reminds me of an exchange in Yes Minister when the hapless politician Jim Hacker demands to be told what he doesn't know about an important issue and the ultimate bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby responds, "I don't know what you don't know, Minister. It could be almost anything."

So it seems. But in fact it's almost always the same thing. Politicians are woefully, even wilfully, obtuse on the fundamental principle of government that if you build it they will come. Politicians just can't seem to grasp that incentives matter. Politicians are therefore astonished to discover that higher unemployment benefits change people's attitude toward work, that charging too little for water leads us to waste it, and that allowing bogus refugee claimants to live among us for decades while engaging in procedural shenanigans encourages human traffickers to target Canada -- and on and on and on.

How can they be so dumb, I want to shout. "Lots of practice," replies my wife, without even shouting.

But not so fast.

When they realized this dopey plan to pay way more than it's worth for politically correct electricity was going to break the bank, the McGuinty Liberals decided to break their promise -- which at least suggests a certain primordial instinct for rational self-preservation. And while they botched their initial response by annoying the people already in line for a promised handout, when they saw more than 20 seats in peril they deftly reversed course again, buying off the early adopters while seeking to put a lid on runaway costs. Which is definitely cunning.

So they can't be completely stupid even though the whole mess was created by unadulterated, grade A pure stupidity on economics compounded by a hefty dose of it on the one subject, politics, you'd think they actually know something about.

Besides, if you reviewed the CVs of Dalton McGuinty's caucus, or gave them IQ tests, you'd find that far from fitting the dictionary definition of stupid, most of them are clever, determined and accomplished.

Yet they are manifestly licensed buffoons when it comes to elementary principles of political economy. And to exhibit an impressive degree of primal cunning once cornered by their own ineptitude argues that they are at once both clever and stupid. Moreover, the Ontario government's latest stand on the issue, trying to buy their way out of trouble while not buying more trouble, suggests they see clearly how people respond to the very incentives they got into this mess by ignoring.

If it were just them, we might write it off as a quirk. But it's not. As I noted last week about the federal Tories, modern politicians in every party and every region clearly think citizens respond to incentives in the sense that they, citizens, will give votes in return for money. And yet politicians do not expect us to change our behaviour in other ways when they change our circumstances. How can this be?

The paradox disappears if you realize that they think of the mass of humanity as reliably grateful for state benefits precisely because we are too inept to manage our own affairs rationally. Thus we respond to one incentive and one incentive only.

To paraphrase Orwell, it is precisely the sort of stupid thing only an intelligent person could believe. It is also insulting. But as long as we keep electing them, we are looking in the right place for cunning when we scrutinize our politicians, but in the wrong place for the dunces.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson