Chris Pecora

Flights of Fancy

Fantasy budgets vs fantasy sports.

By Fred Stenson

Some in Canada would say that politics has slumped to new lows—but not brand-new lows, really. All this was precursed by the politics of the ’90s in Alberta and by most of federal politics in the new millennium. But don’t get me wrong: We are low now and, as stock market pundits say, “trending lower.”

Last night, in a period of neurotic wakefulness, I was struck by a relationship between election budget promises and fantasy hockey and football. When a politician promises and brags about a future budget and when a sports fan drafts a crew of players from all teams who will be his/her team for the coming sports season (winner decided by total points scored), both are expressions of hope for the future—and both are fantasies. What I will argue is that, of the two, fantasy sports are more related to reality, especially if the budget predictions precede an election. I will further argue that political budgets are subject to “fixing” in a way fantasy sports would never tolerate.

This year’s election round is all about the economy. In Alberta, pipeline constipation and US oil overproduction have vaporized well-paying jobs. Though Alberta’s ruling NDP could not have prevented nor caused any of this, their rightist opponents argue it could have and did. The entire world economy is coming unhinged, but, in the tradition of our politics, the ruling NDP and federal Libs are at fault. Alberta’s UCP and the federal Conservatives, each with an anxious (even desperate) lad in waiting, have been wary of saying how their budgets will be made to balance, but both claim they will achieve balance. Ruling governments have to be somewhat more honest, because they have already created budgets that deepened deficits. Much harder for them to say they will, by gum, reverse the tide in coming years.

Back to fantasy sports. The drafter of a fantasy team has in common with a budget-predicting politician a wish for success and a lack of agency. The fan cannot make a fantasy fullback run farther or a prized sniper score. The politician cannot affect the future economy. Politicians speak of “economic levers” (bringing to mind Jason Kenney and Andrew Scheer co-piloting a steampunk time machine). But let’s be honest. These levers are not attached to much. They are more like a fan’s Superbowl towel or sliver from a Gordie Howe hockey stick. Something to rub in the heat of play.

Why do I think fantasy hockey is closer to reality than a bridesmaid politician’s budget prediction? Because in fantasy sports, actual hockey is played! Real skaters go out and shoot at real goalies. Statistics are compiled. Also, you pick your players before the season begins. You cannot, as does a politician, say, “Based on world best practices, we will eliminate programs that fail to produce benefits.” Such beefless sandwiches are a dime a dozen at a election time. A fantasy football player must deal with actual weekly results.

Then there is the matter of fixing the game. When faced with a bad economy, a government has ways to reduce the cost side of a current budget. Mr. Kenney has spoken about tolls. This is code for more than tolls. It also includes P3s and P5s: public–private partnerships. These produce economic activity now, but appear on the government balance sheet much later or not at all. Instead of paying a corporation current government dollars to build a highway or bridge, you might, for example, pay them in land (perhaps what Mr. Kenney had in mind when he said he might sell bits of northern Alberta). The actual cost appears farther down the road and doesn’t get in the way of reducing a current deficit. If you do a P3 or a P5 to push cost into the future and charge a toll on the new highway or bridge, the tolls go into current income (more hope of balance). These things do exist. Megaprojects with deferred costs and tolls were a reason Christy Clark’s Liberals had a string of election victories in BC. But, like a debt, someone has to pay sometime.

The other thing Alberta’s UCP promises in order to achieve balanced budgets is austerity. Though this electoral tactic has worked before in Alberta, it still mystifies me. A politician promises not to build nor fix hospitals but to privatize portions of Medicare. (The teeth and eyes are already private; why don’t we enlarge the picture? The nose, maybe? Perhaps the throat?) For some mysterious Albertan reason, promised austerity appeals. The same voters who scream blue murder if government taxes their carbon and puts the money into clean energy projects are told they can expect less help and less service from a future government, and they say, “Oh goody. Privatize my nose. Just don’t tax my gasoline.”

Fantasy hockey makes so very much more sense. You pay to play. Your players go out and try their best. Some do better than you hoped, some worse. But actual hockey is played. Not pretend hockey; not deferred hockey; real hockey.

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday). Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.

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