Musing on economic development, politics, paradigms, professionalism

You could argue any focus on economic development in the Maritime Provinces is one of the casualties of a minority federal parliament.     This argument would be based on the big moves to secure votes in Quebec and Ontario.   I guess the alternative view is that in a minority parliament small places like the Maritimes matter because every seat counts.   I lean towards the former view – it’s a complex game of triage.  Of course I readily admit my political acumen is limited.  I think I have predicted the loser would be the winner in six of the last eight federal or provincial elections.

The truth is that the economic-related issues facing the electorate here in 2011 are not that different than in 2008 or 2005 for that matter.  I think I mentioned before that a senior federal government official told me the demographic wave hitting Canada will hit here first and the rest of Canada will watch to see how we deal with it.  He was referring to the fact that New Brunswick’s population is aging even more quickly than the rest of Canada and our pool of younger workers is shrinking faster.

Most demographic problems have an economic soul.   The reason why NB is about to hit a wall is tied to decades of out-migration and a lack of immigration because there were not enough good jobs here.

This is a long winded way of saying the one time the average joe should think about the stuff I think about on a daily basis should be at election time.    They should be asking the politicians what is their plan for economic development in New Brunswick?

The NB government is looking at some big changes in how it does economic development.  Much of this has yet to be fleshed out but the language is there.   I would say the time would be ideal for the Feds to also do a forensic audit of its own efforts over the past decade to determine how much positive impact – or negative impact – they have had in the region.      At the most superficial level I find it odd that all levels of economic development in New Brunswick – local, provincial and federal – continue to talk about all the success when there hasn’t been a net new private sector job created in New Brunswick in almost four years.  In the private sector, this would be setting off alarm bells all over the place.

There doesn’t seem to be any similar mechanism in the public sector.  In fact,  I am told on a regular basis that “it would be far worse” without our efforts.  But if the vision for economic development in NB is to keep things from getting worse, I think we have a problem.

Two of my favorite books in college were Mancur Olson’s the Rise and Fall of Nations and Thomas Khun’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Both of these books are worth dusting off these days because they clearly show how we can get locked in a system – and can’t even see the need to break out of it.   There can be huge warning signs all around and yet we will defend what we know – the status quo – the paradigm – to the death.

In many ways the economic development profession is more sophisticated now than ever before.  I see examples of my colleagues in the consulting business using advanced stakeholder consultation techniques, a community level kind of psychometric testing, technical modelling such as shiftshare and location quotient, asset mapping – but when I read much of the output – charged at $100k and up – it looks to me like a lot of data and information but little insight.

Take something as simple as measurement.  We are building the most sophisticated techniques to measure the success of economic development and ignoring the only measure that really matters. Economic development over time – it doesn’t matter if you are a tax cutter or an interventionist – has to be fundamentally about growing the tax base that supports community and social objectives.    If we went back to that basic premise, we would probably change how we think about things.

I realize this is quite a ramble but there is a connective thread here.   There is a federal election.  It should be time to help politicians think about this stuff.  We should try to secure a commitment to do a broad-based review of federal economic development efforts down here.  Not in a heavy handed, accusatory way but to thoughtful assess the impact of the hundreds of millions of federal dollars spend in the Maritimes every year.

3 thoughts on “Musing on economic development, politics, paradigms, professionalism

  1. “There is a federal election. It should be time to help politicians think about this stuff.”

    Should be, perhaps, but trying to get politicians to discuss this stuff in the middle of an election campaign would be difficult.

    In the past, it was possible to have fact-based analyses (often with policy presecriptions attached) carried out between elections. Sometimes the policies were poorly implemented, sometimes the underlying data were poorly analyzed, and perhaps a few times the right thing was done. I am not sure that it is still possible to expect to even have a debate based on the facts; we have one side that no longer believes in facts but instead pursues policies based on either an ideological belief or the desire to punish the opposition.

    We can have plenty of heated debates on the basis of the accepted facts, but when the facts are ignored rational debate is no longer possible. Until that problem is fixed on the federal scene, we will have to that hard work ourselves. We may not have the money to solve the problem, but we do, as a province, have the resources to collect and analyze data and develop policies. We just need to marshall the resources and do it.

    Waiting for the feds to do this for us will be an exercise in frustration.

  2. An interesting topic – Do we, should we, have a NB centre of economic analysis and planning? Eons ago (during the Hatfield years) when our public service was not nearly as large as today, there was an Office of the Econmomic Advisor. It was barely staffed, but at least it existed. In addition, there was a Cabinet Committee on Economic Development, with a staff of 4-5 professional economists supporting it within the Cabinet Secretariat. Today, there must be some similar type of analysis being carried on within the corridors of BNB, but there is no identifiable centre for ecomomic analysis within government. Many Departments have a stake, but their work is not drawn together effectively. ACOA has considerable capacity, but tends to keep its light under a bushel.
    Now, following last November’s economic summit, there is a fledgling effort to develop an economic strategy involving government, private sector, labour, education, and third sector players. We certainly need a coherent and recognized plan.

  3. > a senior federal government official told me the demographic wave hitting Canada will hit here first and the rest of Canada will watch to see how we deal with it.

    I think, based on what I’ve seen thus far, the workforce will be shrunk to match the new, diminished, economic base, and services will simply be cut. Those who can afford it will move, and the new, downsized NB, will keep wages low and development to a minimum.

    The only alternative involves increasing immigration and granting actual economic leverage to people from outside the province, and I don’t think New Brunswickers are ready for that. NB may be small, they’ll say, setting their jaw, but it’s ours.

    I will watch, disappointed, from my new home out west.

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