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For the impulsive, throwing all budget-balancing concerns during this election campaign to the four winds must be a gas. What if you had no bottom-line constraint in your household budget? You could eat, drink, indulge – even quit your job! Or in your business? First-class everything – and forget sales! At the C.D. Howe Institute and other charities? Gala events and all the perks – even if we deliver no value and attract no donations! Wouldn’t that be great?

Well, actually, no. It wouldn’t be great. Thoughtless overindulgence is bad – at home, in business or anywhere else. Especially in government.

The essence of wisdom is judgment in your choices: evaluating the options and striving for the most value in exchange for what you have to forgo. That’s the recipe for health, wealth and happiness.

In government, the bar is especially high. You have a fiduciary obligation to other people, who will benefit from, and pay for, the choices you make. But with pollsters and political tacticians saying deficits aren’t top of mind for many Canadians, the election has prompted a flood of excess, with too little serious costing and virtually no talk of trade-offs. The campaign to date has been a foolish fiscal debauch.

How foolish? Start with the baubles: handouts often disguised as boutique tax credits that pass no sensible cost-benefit test. Worse are the promises that would exacerbate problematic trends: increasing the age credit and boosting Old Age Security payments would increase the burden our aging population will put on young Canadians.

At least those baubles have verifiable price tags. Elsewhere, we have proposals – new federal spending on drugs, on dental, hearing and vision care, and on other health care – that, depending on details to come later, could shortly add tens of billions to Ottawa’s annual spending. Free postsecondary tuition? A pamphlet just arrived at my door talking about free public transit. What next? Free beer? Free pot? With no bottom line, anything goes.

These flights of fiscal fantasy coming from all the political parties are also affecting the revenue side. Not just the proposals to debt-finance personal tax relief, but lack of attention to, and consequent vagueness about, the parties’ revenue estimates. Tax something, and you get less of it. Will hiking taxes on businesses and high earners yield the expected revenue? Might collectors of a new wealth tax find there’s suddenly less wealth to tax? One day, answers to these questions might matter. But for the duration of the campaign, we are hearing that nobody is asking.

The release of fiscal frameworks from the NDP and the Conservatives on Friday is prompting fresh scrutiny of all the parties’ promises – and with it, we can hope, more acknowledgment that indulging every impulse is not a plan. Responsible politicians should acknowledge that whoever takes office after Oct. 21 will need to find real savings, raise actual revenues and give Canadians confidence in national finances over the long term. Notwithstanding a commentariat conditioned to think that the debauch promised to date is what voters are, and should be, demanding of the people who seek to form the next government.

Are Canadians really that impulsive? We know we shouldn’t – and we don’t – indulge our every whim in our personal lives. In our businesses and not-for-profits, we might not celebrate the need to work within our resources, but we know that it motivates our service to our customers and stakeholders, and discourages waste. We don’t want our governments to spend top dollar on anything and everything. We want value for the money they take from us at tax time.

This election campaign needs more wisdom, and badly. It needs acknowledgement that the next federal government should judge carefully when choosing where to spend, what to tax and how to avoid passing to future generations bills we do not feel like paying today – indeed, has a serious duty to do so. Enough impulsiveness already. We need a bottom line.

William Robson is the President and CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute.

Published in the Globe and Mail