Looking for the rumours of glory

I’m reading Bruce Cockburn’s biography this week so I have his music running through my head – hence the title of this blog.  Anyone of a certain age will know the song and its meaning.

I’ve been grappling with the concepts of optimism as a precursor to economic growth.  My old friend David Jonah tells the story of the “Greater Moncton: We’re Okay” campaign from the mid to late 1980s.  They had an acute awareness that in order for Moncton to turn itself around the people of the community needed to have an optimism about the future. If entrepreneurs were optimistic, they would invest. If people were optimistic they would stay and build their careers.  If governments were optimistic they would invest to support future private sector growth.

There is a lot of negativity in New Brunswick these days. It’s coded into social media and even mainstream media.  Yet at the same time we read that 99 percent of Riverviewians are satisfied with their quality of life in New Brunswick.

So there are at least two competing narratives here.

First, things have never been better in New Brunswick.  As the boomers head into retirement they have more money than any generation in history – less than their counterparts across Canada – but still more than the past.  The unemployment rate (and the employment rate) is low by historical standards and I would argue if you back out the seasonally unemployed (not the same as seasonally adjusted employment but I’ll save that for another day) the ‘real’ unemployment rate is much lower (i.e. the share of the adult population that is ready, willing and able to work at any given time).

The second narrative is that New Brunswick is on the verge of collapse.  People can’t sell their houses, young people are still leaving the province at a fast clip, the overall population is in decline, the public sector is in a large deficit heading towards a cliff and there is no hope for the future.

Long term readers of this blog will know of my aversion to dumbing things down to binary choices – something is either good, moral, righteous, etc. or bad, evil, toxic, etc.  That is where the paid and vested interests want to take public policy arguments but the rest of us just get caught in the vortex.

New Brunswick is not on verge of collapse but we are not in the nirvana that should drive a 99% happy with quality of life rating.   People need to understand that there are deep and structural trends that will fragment New Brunswick’s quality of life proposition in the future.  If we do not get our population growing again and if the economy doesn’t start to grow again at a moderate growth rate – it will ripple through our society.

And there are ways to address this.  Maybe there are rumours of glory. Maybe we could attract a lot more young immigrants.  Maybe we could attract a lot more foreign students as a pipeline for the future workforce.  Maybe we could develop our natural resources in a way that people would be comfortable with.  Maybe we could drive an urban growth agenda.  Maybe there are ways to expand our tourism sector.