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COMMENTARY: Dark humour: a Maritime tonic in a downturn


Recession? I hear you lurking round my kitchen door. So, apparently, does the Bank of Canada — though it won’t come right out and speak your name.

Last week, the CBC reported: “Canada’s central bank ... decided to keep its benchmark interest rate at 1.75 per cent, and says the timing of possible future hikes has become increasingly uncertain.”

Added the bank itself: “It is clear that global economic prospects would be buoyed by the resolution of trade conflicts.”

Clearly, to the country’s arbiter of all things monetary we look not for declaration, but understatement.

Still, don’t be coy, recession. Pull up a chair. Help yourself to the small change I found in the sofa the other day. I’ll even show you the hole in the ground where I keep my pirate gold.

I’m kidding, of course. Mostly.

As an Atlantic Canadian, “smartass” is at the very top of my ever-lengthening list of economic survival skills. But “stoic” is also there, which is good, because even high times in these parts can feel downright low.

According to Statistics Canada figures for 2018 (a relatively buoyant 12-month period in most developed societies), the Atlantic provinces comprised about 6.3 per cent of this nation’s population and only 5.6 per cent of its gross domestic product.

Meanwhile, the average annual household income was about the same as the average annual household debt (each roughly $60,000), which is as near to a zero-sum game as it gets and as close to a working definition of economic malaise as experts allow. And that was a good year.

‘Twas ever thus along the East Coast. The precarious history of money here reads like a cautionary tale told by an accountant who occasionally punctuates his story with frantic asides (“God save their souls,” for example) scrawled in red ink.

Under the circumstances, then, what’s a recession going to do? Reap what’s left in our mattresses and sock drawers?

Still, some economists insist, the next downturn could be different from others: It might be worse. These number-crunchers can’t tell us exactly when it’ll show up or how long it’ll stick around — maybe a year, maybe three — but the timing seems right. Apart from Donald Trump’s daily gems on Twitter, we’re overdue for a special kick in the nether regions.

Of course, those who moil for meaning in swamps of integers always assume that no one beyond their damp circles has ever experienced a real recession — just as no one has ever read a newspaper, talked to a neighbour or gazed at a mirror during dark moments of self-reflection.

In fact, I know, first-hand, it’s possible to learn from economic perdition. I once worked for a guy in the United States who truly believed that starting a magazine in the middle of a slump was a splendid idea. He reckoned there’d be no competition. Advertisers would flock to him.

The lesson? Don’t start a magazine in a recession. Actually, don’t ever start a magazine. Period.

The dictionary defines a “stoic” as a person who endures pain without showing his or her feelings, or as “a member of an ancient philosophical school.” Oddly, these are also the meanings of the term, “stand-up comedian.”

That’s why Atlantic Canadians tend to be the funniest people you’ll ever meet, especially during hard — that is to say, most — times. During the last verifiably deep plunge, I almost lost my house at auction. As I was fond of saying at the time, “I wept all the way to the bank.” Hilarious.

Almost as rib-tickling is this one-liner — for which, unfortunately, I can’t take credit — penned during the uproarious credit crunch of 2007-08: “The economy is so bad, a truckload of Americans was caught sneaking into Mexico.”

Or this: “Thanks to my financial adviser, I now have a small fortune. On the other hand, I started off with a large fortune.”

Or this: “How do you build a small business in a downturn? Start a big one and wait.” Ah, yes, I’ve got a million of ’em.

Recession? I know you’re out there, skulking around the tip jar. Pull up a chair. Enjoy the show. But not before I remember where I hid my doubloons.

Journalist Alec Bruce lives in Halifax. He sometimes writes for money.

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