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Building a healthy economy


I'd really like to say: you get a healthy economy, prosperity for all, by doing thing one, thing two and this other thing, #3. Just follow my advice, and we'll all be rich. Alas, that's falling into the pony fallacy. Truth is, there are no simple answers, no ponies to magically appear and carry us to economic nirvana.

There are, however, better and worse ways to structure our economy. The worse ways are those that concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, and which accrue benefits to a tiny minority of the most politically connected; the better ways are those that support broad ownership the economy which in turn provides for a broad cross-section of the populace.

So, no ponies from me. But I can give a handful of examples of the kind of restructuring I'm talking about:

Power We now go about power production, distribution and consumption in the worst possible way: each aspect is controlled by a monopolistic corporation (Nova Scotia Power) that has incredible sway over the political process that supposedly regulates it. There are many, many problems with this, but the biggest is perhaps that it reduces citizens' relationship with the power company as one of consumer to producer, only.

As a result, all the average consumer cares about is acquiring power at the absolute lowest cost possible at the present time; it doesn't matter how that low cost is achieved, or what that means for the environment, for labour or even for the future power availability and price. Electricity from highly polluting and greenhouse gas belching coal? Sure, it's the cheapest way. Oppressed coal miners in far-off Chile? Whatever. Institute policies for long-term energy security? Not if it increases costs.

Imagine, though, an alternative system that has municipally and community-owned power companies that controll both the production and distribution of power. Residents can, if they chose, invest their retirement funds in the local power cooperative; they can sit on the board of directors with their neighbours, vote on how the company is managed. For a local institution concerned about long-term viability and return (that is, not quarterly dividends for Wall Street day traders, but rather return for local retirees decades down the road), they'll be more inclined to look for renewable generating sources like hydro and wind that aren't dependent on far-away suppliers trading in an unpredictable world market that can be adversely affected by wild swings in commodity prices, wars, shortages and so forth. They'll also be more inclined to make the proper investments in line maintenance and the like, as its their own power that is at stake.

Sure, that means up front prices will be higher than they are with NSP. But people will accept some price disparity because, first of all, it's their retirement income they're dealing with---every investment pays off considerably down the road, for individuals. But also, it means the kind of long term price stability that businesses desire; there won't be unpredicted doubling in power prices over a few years, or even brownouts and blackouts because of disruption of fuel deliveries, for whatever reason.

Rather than the present consumer-to-corporation model, people can have the kind of relationship with their power supplier that they ideally have with their schools---it is a treasured community institution that brings value far beyond its cost. Just as no one would dream of cutting the school budget by using 10-year-old textbooks and broken science lab equipment, people will insist that the power company be properly funded so they'll have long-term, clean and secure access to power, and they'll recognize that when they're paying their power bill, they're getting much, much more than merely wattage coming through the lines.

I'm not the first to suggest such a model for power production; similar suggestions are in many of the recent submissions to the provincial hearings on the Demand Side Management plans for Nova Scotia Power. I don't have space to go into that here, but suffice it to say that the old model is prevailing--- it's now illegal for an individual to buy renewable power from an independent producer.

Education One of the province's largest industries is its university system, but it is being horribly mismanaged---Nova Scotia has among the highest tuition rates in Canada. The government did freeze tuition increases this year, which is a good first step, and it has pledged to meet the national average three years from now, but that milestone will apparently be met (if it's met) not by decreasing tuition but rather by waiting for other provinces to increase theirs.

But making university affordable is perhaps the single policy that could bring about the most economic benefit for Nova Scotia. For one, if graduates aren't saddled with so much debt, they won't feel the need to move west to take advantage of higher salaries, and many will be inclined to become local entrepreneurs. The spinoff benefits to low-cost college education are innumerable, really.

Creating a low-cost university system, however, means using tax dollars now going to bogus economic development schemes that benefit connected insiders only. The elite are horrified at the democratizing of opportunity, and on that count alone are opposed to low-cost university.

Food The province has made encouraging baby steps in the right direction on this front, but there's a long, long way to go.

The present system is still, almost entirely, one of global agribusiness firms and banks controlling farm production, which gets to the consumer through a ridiculous system of global distribution and processing, and delivery through mega middle corporations like Sobey's and Loblaw's. A very small sliver of economic elite benefit from this system, to the detriment of everyone else, financially, healthwise and environmentally.

I've written considerably about this before, so I won't go into it in depth here, but we need a new model that connects local farmers directly to local eaters.

Arts Another valuable local resource is our healthy arts scene. I haven't given this as much thought as it deserves, but it's more than apparent that local artists don't get much in the way of government support.

Hundreds of thousands of tax dollars are tossed at the Rolling Stones and Keith Urban when they come to town, but struggling Halifax musicians can't afford to fill their gas tanks on a cross-Canada tour. Similarly, government policy is serving to drive up rents on the peninsula, hitting local artists hard as they are priced out of studio space. All the candidates for city council I interviewed had something to say about the construction of high-rise office buildings, but not one of them mentioned the moribund cultural plan or the rent crisis facing artists. In the end, all the hoopla over the Waterside Centre involves profit for one developer, while the rent crisis is affecting hundreds of artists. The developer, however, is politically connected; the artists, not.

Well, that's my short list. Like I said, there are no ponies. I make some suggestions in four areas-- power, education, food production and the arts--- not because I expect my suggestions are necessarily the best, but rather to show that there are alternative ways to think about things. The point is we need to think about how to bring the most benefit to the most people over the long term, and not just short-term profit for the few.

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