Tag Archives: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

Economy and environment are not mutually exclusive

 

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For many, if not most, New Brunswick’s peripatetic Green Party Leader David Coon whistles past the graveyard of the province’s economy when he insists that we, in this struggling part of Canada, must strive to break our addiction to fossil fuels.

It’s no good, he says – a rum thing that can only bring us and our our planet more misery. In one of his blog posts in early June, he wrote, “The Green Party will create new jobs in a new economy, powered by. . .green buildings, renewable energy, local food, information technology, smart grid, electric vehicles, local business, public transit, health education, and sustainable farming and forestry; this is the Green Party’s vision of our future, not the old pollution-based economy the other parties are trying to resuscitate.”

Last week, he reiterated his message while campaigning in the province in what is certainly another doomed stab at political relevance, come September’s general election. 

But is he as defiantly deluded as his detractors claim?

Traditionalists – a group that includes most of us – contend that economic development simply can’t proceed in any meaningful way without the heavy use of oil and gas. After all, that’s how we built our job-generating, tax-producing industries under the long shadows of our various industrial revolutions. 

How else would we have invented plastic bottles, plasma TVs, rayon? Without the cheap, accessible energy afforded by fossil fuels the world would be devoid of super-conducting metals, which give us the integrated circuits that power our smart phones. 

By God, how would we cope?

The corollary argument, of course, is that true environmental stewardship is anathema to economic development, both practically and on principle. It requires a degree of tree-hugging and hair-shirt-wearing that stifles innovation and turns entire segments of the populace into Whole Earth Catalogue readers.

If these mantras hold true, then one would guess that the richest, most successful economies the world necessarily post the worst track records on the environment.

Well, dear reader, guess again.

The ninth most-affluent nation on Earth is Switzerland. It also happens to be the greenest country on the planet. Luxembourg is the second-wealthiest nation, and the also the second-most environmentally circumspect.

According to recent economic research aggregated by the popular website, top10thebest.com, “Switzerland, a rich nation in the European continent, is among the most prosperous countries in the world. It boasts (a) diverse and stable economy, and it has managed to maintain its excellent record in terms of. . .GDP. What makes Switzerland one of the wealthiest countries is its extensive sources of income, such as agriculture, tourism and banking. It is also known as the leading exporter and maker of the finest watches, and well-off individuals consider the country as a financial haven to increase their money.”

Meanwhile, swissworld.org reports, “At the end of 2009 the (country’s) Federal Council decided to continue with the SwissEnergy Action Plan until 2020. SwissEnergy is the main national platform for economical and intelligent energy use and the use of renewable energy. Energy-saving measures are implemented by SwissEnergy in partnership with the cantons, municipalities, business and environmental organisations.”

As for Luxembourg, top10thebest.com says that nation “is among the most prosperous countries (and) also recognized as a tax heaven. In fact, several billionaires from other parts of the world choose to live in this nation to free themselves of expensive taxes in their native countries. . .The sources of income (in) Luxembourg include telecommunications and steel.”

And yet, referencing a 2010 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report, a Wikipedia entry states, “Despite its growing GDP and population, Luxembourg has made progress in decoupling environmental pressures from economic growth and has developed a National Plan for Sustainable Development. The annual vehicle tax is now calculated as a function of CO2 emissions. A National Plan for Energy Efficiency has been introduced, together with economic incentives targeted at the construction industry. A national body has been created to provide information and advice on energy savings and renewable energy.”

All of which suggests that Mr. Coon is on to something. We who think him deluded may, in fact, be the deranged ones.

 

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Canada’s civically disengaged citizenry

 

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The stunning news isn’t that New Brunswick’s citizens comprise the second-most civically engaged population in Canada (only Prince Edward Islanders are more inclined to head to the polls). 

The stunning news us that we manage to pull off that feat with a score of only 5.2 out of 10 relative to other regions in an international assessment of voting habits. 

The tidings come courtesy of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s new “interactive” website which lets users compare and contrast their region’s performance according to eight indicators of “well-being”: Civic engagement, access to services, safety, health, income, environment, jobs, and education.

According to the Paris-based group of countries established in 1961 to promote world industry and trade, P.E.I. ranks 6.6 in its fondness for the polling station, followed by New Brunswick and, then, in shamefully descending order: Quebec, 4.5; Nova Scotia, 4.3; Ontario, 4.2; British Columbia, 4.0; Manitoba, 3.8; Alberta, 3.0; Northwest Territories, 2.6; Newfoundland and Labrador, 2.3; and Nunavut, 0.9.

This puts New Brunswick in the bottom 47 per cent of the entire OECD. Still, that’s nothing compared with Canada as a whole. Among the OECD’s 34 member countries, ours ranked 26.

Moreover, “concerning inequalities across regions in civic engagement, Canada is in position 25/33.” That’s doing just slightly better than Chile and Mexico. Meanwhile, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic continue to eat our lunch at the ballot box.

Of course, the news isn’t all bad. 

 The OECD says, among member regions, New Brunswick occupies the top 31, 29, 10, 33, 39, and 33 per cent, respectively, for access to services, education, environment, income, health, and safety.           

The province’s mortality rate is eight deaths per 1,000 people. The murder rate is one in 100,000. Life expectancy is 80 years. Meanwhile, in Canada, only Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador boast cleaner environments.

As for dear, old Canuckistan, compared with the rest of the OECD pack ours is the fifth-richest, eighth-cleanest and eight healthiest nation.

Naturally, not everyone is buying what the OECD is selling. “If people think, as a result of this, OK now we’ve got the definitive statement of where New Brunswick ranks in Canada, well then they’ve really got it wrong and that’s actually dangerous,” Ronald Colman executive director of the Genuine Progress Indicator for Atlantic Canada, told the Telegraph-Journal this week. “Everyone likes simplicity, everyone likes quick results. . .but it can be a little bit tricky if you run roughshod over some of the more detailed and important evidence.”

In fact, regarding the OECD’s definition of civic engagement, Mr. Colman wonders whether the organization is missing some useful nuance. “I would go so far as to say if you have very poor choices at the polls – if you have two bad choices – maybe not voting could be a sign of the poor quality of the candidates rather than voter apathy. . .You can’t just use one indicator to demonstrate something.”

With respect to Mr. Colman, that dog won’t hunt.

A poor field of candidates is never a legitimate reason for not voting. If it were, then citizens of this country would have had to resign themselves to their ill-fitting, authoritarian yokes long ago. 

Besides, in the parlors of party politics, one man’s poutine is another man’s poison. I’m not especially enamored of regressive, scare-mongering right-wingers. My neighbour, with whom I get along just fine as long as we don’t discuss his theories about roving bands of juvenile delinquents, thinks they’re swell. 

Who’s right? Who knows? Does any of this curtail our choices in this democracy to the point of nullification?  

Inasmuch as any respected, 52-year-old economic development organization’s statistics are trustworthy, I’m prepared to take the OECD’s findings about Canada’s comparatively poor showing as a civically engaged society at face value.

More’s the pity. 

In a world where wars and sectarian savagery have turned 50 million men, women and children into refugees – the largest number since the end of WWII – the right to vote is an increasingly precious commodity.

Certainly, it’s no mere bauble for tossing away when irked.

 

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When some are more equal than others

 

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It is one of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s favorite yakking points. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair bangs on about it every chance he gets. Even Canada’s esteemed Prime Minister Stephen Harper has raised the subject, albeit delicately, in public from time to time.

Now the worthy Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has jumped into the fray in its first country report on the Great White North in two years: Canada is, indeed, a nation of unequal opportunity and in all the ways that matter.

While “Canadians enjoy high levels of well-being and social progress” and though all of the country’s “component scores exceed the OECD average,” the report also concludes that “disposable income inequality has increased by considerably more in Canada since 1995 (11 per cent) than in other countries with data (2 per cent) to a level that is now 12th highest in the OECD.” 

What’s more, “in an era of high commodity prices has created wide regional economic disparities, while much of the public revenues from non-renewable 

resource extraction are spent on current government programmes, rather than being saved for the benefit of future generations. Incomes have risen in resource-rich provinces, but the resulting currency appreciation has placed pressures on manufacturing.”

The nation’s traditional mechanism for redistributing wealth from have to have-not provinces, federal equalization transfers, “only partially offset inter-provincial disparities in fiscal capacity.”

Housing is a special concern, says the organization. Prices in major cities, especially Vancouver and Toronto, are preposterously out of sync with the asset wealth that underpins homes and condominiums there, raising the specter of a market bubble and subsequent crash. 

If that happens, only banks and other lenders will prosper, thanks to Canada’s uniquely generous mortgage insurance system which guarantees institutions 100 per cent payback in the event of loan default – a circumstance that if repeated often enough would, itself, accelerate the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us poor schlubs.

Still, whenever politicians and pundits grumble about income inequality – which U.S. President Barack Obama has termed the “greatest threat” to contemporary society – other members of the chattering class are sure to point out that sour grapes never helped anyone, rich or poor.

Unerringly, they cleave to arguments that justify, legitimize or merely accept disparity as a fact of life. 

Writing in the Washington Post earlier this year, economist Joann Weiner cited four reasons why Mr. Obama is sort of stuck. 

First, America  is a “Great Gatsby” nation where “the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.” Second, “winning the ‘birth lottery’ is the biggest factor in determining” one’s like pay grade in life. Third, birds of a feather flock together; rich, educated, people marry other rich, educated people. And fourth, the uneducated are unlikely to reverse their fortunes because college has become too expensive to pursue. 

Ironically, though, these conditions, which hamper efforts to inject the system with greater equity, are themselves the product the widening disparity that first appeared in the late 1970s thanks to what former U.S. Labour Secretary Robert Reich and others have identified as two concurrent developments: the appearance of spectacular, new business technologies; and a wholesale assault on private unions.

The former lowered labour costs, while the latter undermined wages and job security. Consequently, as Mr. Reich notes on his blog, “We are heading back to levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. The pertinent question is not whether income and wealth inequality is good or bad. It is at what point do these inequalities become so great as to pose a serious threat to our economy, our ideal of equal opportunity and our democracy.”

In fact, the best practical reason why everyone, from the improbably wealthy to the grudgingly poor, should worry about disparities in wealth and income is economic. Without a sturdy middle class around to keep buying the stuff rich people’s factories make, the whole game implodes.

Progressives among us are certainly not inured to the status quo. They note with confidence various fixes, including universal early childhood education to provide economically disadvantaged kids with the same start in life as their wealthy counterparts. 

The real question is whether our collective Trudeaus, Mulcairs and Harpers will ever be ready to put their money where their mouths are.

 

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