Nova Scotia’s political class bases much of their ideas and efforts on a bleak assessment of Nova Scotia that is wrong. Not just a little wrong. Totally wrong.
What happens if you make decisions based on wrong information?
Imagine you’re in the woods. You have to decide on a direction to go. But you don’t know where you are. This is the definition of being lost. If you know you don’t know where you are you’ll make certain kinds of decisions. If you have some tools to help you find out where you are, like a compass or knowledge about the sun, stars and waters, you’ll make different decisions. Trouble usually starts when people think they know where they are but don’t actually. It’s an old joke.
The trouble with politicians is not so much their ignorance as the tremendous number of things they know that just ain’t so.
Here are 5 things politicians get wrong about Nova Scotia.
These ideas are so widely shared across the political parties, pundits, media, and citizens that they are rarely discussed because everyone is in agreement. It’s a kind of religion of pessimism, cynicism and inability to imagine better. It’s not just a resistance to change it’s a disbelief in the very notion that things might change. Those few who challenge these ideas have done so at the peril of ridicule, rejection, and retribution.
5/ Everyone’s leaving
The “Going Down The Road”, or for city dwellers “Halifax is dying” trope is so ingrained in our culture that it’s a foundation stone of all political thinking and speech.
The truth is that for the last three years in a row more people have migrated to Nova Scotia from other parts of Canada than have left. And it would be easy to design household incentives to get more if we wanted.
4/ No one is having babies
It’s not that Nova Scotians aren’t having kids. It’s that our kids aren’t having kids when they are kids.
The fertility rate (the number of children born per woman) for Nova Scotian women age 29 to 49 has been climbing steadily for 20 years. The number of babies that 15 to 19 year olds are having is going down. Likewise with women in their 20’s.
Remember when government, and many families, thought teen pregnancy was a problem to be solved? Well, it’s getting solved.
Here's our recent fertility numbers.
Far from being a problem to be solved, people having fewer children at young ages is a globe-leading path to a sustainable future in a region where we've over-capitalized our resources, underpaid our workforce, pushed home ownership out of reach for many, and allowed near perfect capital flight from our communities.
3/ All Debt is Bad
Government is so convinced that ll debt is bad, or at least that citizens believe this that, they’ll do anything to avoid debt. Even today when Nova Scotia has a near perfect credit score and the cost of borrowing is as close to zero for the province as it is historically ever going to get, they refuse to do the math of borrowing.
They keep two sets of books; an operating and a capital budget. They’ll enter into agreements with corporations to hold and hide debt for them; they call this P3 arrangements. They’ll hold back the economy. They’ll defer desperately needed repairs, maintenance, and upgrades to infrastructure. And they’ll take the low price, crappiest, most short sighted and short lasting version of every single thing they can buy.
But citizens don’t think all debt is bad. Almost everyone knows the difference between mortgage debt, student loans, small business loans, credit card debt, car loans, payday loans, and debt that people owe for drugs and gambling. Debt runs the range from good to bad.
Let’s talk about debt properly, honestly and responsibly.
2/ Build it and they will come
The notion is that more tall buildings equal a more modern society and equal a better economy for all of Nova Scotia. In some places in the world in the past tall buildings have become a symbol of wealth and power. And, of course, for those in the business of getting the profits from building and selling tall buildings it is absolutely true. But it's not true for Nova Scotia.
The government in Nova Scotia has come to mistake the symbol for the thing symbolized. Tall buildings became popular in the 1920’s; nearly 100 years ago. That’s not really modern. And most don’t create wealth, they use it up. In a big way. They aggregate capital taking it from working citizens and putting into the hands of a very few. They distract us from owning our own properties to produce our own capital. They extract capital from the region to absentee owners, lenders and shareholders. They disproportionately require services and infrastructure. They make a more and more unequal society.
They don’t make our cities unique. They make our cities look more like the tired old cities people are working to change and get away from.
Beyond the buildings themselves government is obsessed with corporations, agencies, boards, and commissions, big box retail, tech start-ups, the chamber of commerce and government itself. Somewhere things got turned around. All these institutions are intended to work in the service of households and exist only at the pleasure of households. Households are the basic building block of the economy, not corporate dreams and schemes.
The trouble is politicians are locked in a death grip with the way we measure economic success. They call it GDP, Gross Domestic Product. It's a rigged game that counts polluters, prisons and profiteers as economic growth but places no value on the work we all do to make the lives of our friends, homes, and families better. We’ve incurred a social, cultural and environmental bill which we’ve not only failed to pay but we’ve failed to even recognize. Simple economic bookkeeping has morphed into a blinkered calculus that creates a culture that doesn’t care. It's to a point where bad accounting could break the province.
I've written more about GDP and the new Feminist Economics here: ONLY THE ACCOUNTANTS CAN SAVE US NOW.
1/ Everything is getting worse
In spite of changing demographics, negative news media, and political rough-housing, Nova Scotians are healthier, living longer, are more educated, more equal, more safe, better fed, more peaceful, better governed, and more in tune with the problems we continue to face, than they were 50 years ago. By any possible measure we are better off.
We are flourishing in every possible way. And with every step we are expecting even more and even better for ourselves. Most hopefully, recently with every step we take we’re becoming more and more conscious to bring along with us, and even put ahead of us, the weakest, poorest, and most vulnerable among us, recognizing that we all do better when we ALL do better. Never have we been so concerned about our impact on the environment and the natural and spiritual world in which we live. Never have we been more concerned about how we can help others in other parts of the world who long for and deserve our many blessings. Never has Nova Scotian society been more in control of its destiny and more filled with wild activist optimism that we can and should do better.
Plus, we're rich. Astonishingly wealthy by any measure. Plug in your household income to this calculator that'll show where you are on the global rich list corrected for exchange rates, consumer baskets, and other economic factors to make the comparison.
We're so rich that we can afford to make all these political mistakes over and over and over, and pour money into an endless array of hair-brained, self-serving, economic development schemes.
We’ve escaped not just from ignorance but from the terror of violence, starvation and disease and the belief that magical and often nefarious forces controlled the world and our daily lives.
And better still, we’re living in a world that’s getting better all the time.
Check out Max Roser’s miraculous web site OUR WORLD IN DATA to get the big picture.
Why are politicians like this? Why are they getting the basic facts wrong?
They say these things because we believe them.
A recent global survey asked “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse?” Less than 10% of respondents thought things were getting better.
Pessimists always sound like they're smart and trying to help you. Optimists sound either naive or like they're trying to sell you something.
People are most easily moved and driven by fear. It’s easier for people to imagine bad than good. It’s easier to picture things going wrong than getting better. Worry is the waste of a good imagination. Thousands of years ago it kept us safe. Today it just keeps us from sleeping well.
Politicians prey on our fears. Most of us only interact with politicians when we are angry and self-interested. We're not at our best and we're easy prey when distracted in this way.
This short list of five things could go on and on. Politicians get lots wrong. But they get them all wrong in the same ways. They reflect back our fears and lack of information. They over simplify complex ideas and data. They don't look for the hidden side of things. They take too narrow a view of things and don’t consider the long term and broader impacts. They’re careerists. They say and do whatever it take to keep their jobs, their power and their positions. They’re our leaders but fundamentally they’re joiners, people who don’t want to be caught on the outside of an in-crowd. They’ll say and think whatever they believe the crowd thinks.
It’s not a path to a better future.
It’s confusing because many of the politicians talking most about change are the ones most committed and beholden to the old ideas, repeated for generations. Development, corporations, resource extraction, leaving the most vulnerable to fend for themselves, low taxes, austerity.
So what do we do?
Look for the big ideas. You’ll find them in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable places.
"If what I say now seems to be very reasonable, then I will have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unreasonable have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen."
Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, speaking about A Vision Of The Future in 1960
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.