On Harry Truman, Billionaires and Economic Development

I am reading the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Harry Truman these days. I like to read the bios of transformational political leaders – either for good or bad – because I still think that transformational leadership is what we require of our politicians here in New Brunswick and because I really have a hard time reading fiction – always have – my wife thinks it contributes to my boring and bookish persona.

But I digress.

Anyway, I am about 300 pages in (out of 1,000) and I just getting to the part where Truman is in the Senate and is starting to pull together his convictions and become the kind of politican that would end up in the White House and making what could be the single most impactful decision of any President in history.

Here’s a couple of interesting excerpts from the book:

“He saw the country’s unemployment and unrest as the fault of too much concentration of power and population, too much bigness in everything. The country would be better off if 60 percent of all the assets of all insurance companies were not concentrated in four companies. A thousand insurance companies, with $4 million each in assets, would be a thousand times better for the country than the Metropolitan Life, with its $4 billion in assets. Just as a thousand towns of 7,000 people were of more value than one city of 7 million.”

“We worship money instead of honor. A billionaire, in our estimation, is much greater in the eyes of the people than the public servant who works for public interest. It makes no difference if the billionaire rode to wealth on the sweat of little children and the blood of underpaid labor. No one ever considered the Carnegie libraries steeped in the blood of Homestead steelworkers, but they are. We do not remember that the Rockefeller Foundation is founded on the dead miners of the Colorado Fuel & Iron company.”

Couple of comments here:

I am starting to think that a thousand towns of 7,000 people would be preferencial to one of 7 million. Don’t get me wrong. You need a couple of large urban areas within a 2-3 hour car drive of small towns. Large urban areas have things like international airports, specialized hospitals and other regional services that wouldn’t make sense in small towns. But take the case of New Brunswick. Why can’t we have a 30-40 vibrant small communities spread around the province anchored by two or three larger urban areas? What is the benefit of emptying out all of New Brunswick except Moncton and Fredericton? As I study and analyze these things, I am coming around to Harry’s viewpoint. Small towns can engender the sense of community not found in large cities. Small towns can be helpful places and places with strong values and commitment. I would even argue there would be better potential for economic development in a distributed model as costs would not spiral through the roof as they do in larger urban centres (land costs, wages, taxes, etc.).

Now, for those of you that see small town New Brunswick as dying communities with undereducated citizens, working in deadend jobs, with above average use of prescription drugs – that most of the youth are dying to leave – you may be somewhat right. There is statistical data that provides some support for all of these points.

But that’s because the 21st century reality of small town New Brunswick is that it is a place that is being boiled down to some core reality (someone once said to me “those with any ‘get up and go’ already got up and went”) that is not overly positive. For small communities to be vibrant and dynamic they need strong economies with new industries and opportunities. They need to be (or should be) situated within 1-2 hours of a larger urban centre so that kids can have educational opportunities and other big city benefits but still be anchored in their small town. Somebody recently told me that there are many in government that believe that a lot of small towns in New Brunswick just need to die or be severely downsized. They say it costs way too much to maintain small towns. Why should urbanites pay for ruralites to live their lazy lives?

But that is again another reflection of how far we have come in the past 100 years. In the old days, we built roads to open up communities for development. We were proactive about using transportation infrastructure to stimulate economic development. Now, in order for a road to be considered for expansion, there needs to be a minimum amount of traffic. Consider the irony. A four lane highway from Moncton to the Acadian Peninsula might be the single most important piece of infrastructure to support long term development, but the highway will never be twinned becuase the traffic counts are declining.

In the old days, we spent millions on rural electrification – this is considered to be one of the great contributions of government in the early to mid part of the 20th century. Now, in the era of broadband, how much money do you think the New Brunswick government has spent rolling out broadband in rural New Brunswick? Alberta spent $400 million. I think NB announced something a few years ago – all I know is that the vast majority of rural NBers have no access to broadband and many ruralites just don’t even bother. New Brunswick has the lowest percentage of households using the Internet in Canada.

We used to invest in growing our rural communities. Now, we grit our teeth and spend because we have to. And we get what we want (or deserve) – 7o% of our rural communiites are in population decline as of 2001 and I suspect (looking at some of the forecast data) that the number might increase to 80% or more in the 2006 Census.

I just realized that this rant was getting long so I won’t be commenting on Truman’s characterization of billionaires and the concentration of power. I’ll just say what I have said all along. It doesn’t seem that this movement to concentration (the sexy variant of this in the 1990s was the ‘cluster’ effect) has been overly beneficial to New Brunswick…