One of my favorite jokes about economists goes a little like this:
“Man walking along a road in the countryside comes across a shepherd and a huge flock of sheep. Tells the shepherd, ‘I will bet you $100 against one of your sheep that I can tell you the exact number in this flock.’ The shepherd thinks it over; it’s a big flock so he takes the bet. ‘973,’ says the man. The shepherd is astonished, because that is exactly right. ‘OK, I’m a man of my word, take an animal.’ Man picks one up and begins to walk away.”
Then, suddenly: “‘Wait,’ cries the shepherd, ‘Let me have a chance to get even. Double or nothing that I can guess your exact occupation’. Man says sure. ‘You are an economist for a government think tank,’ says the shepherd. ‘Amazing!’ responds the man, ‘You are exactly right! But tell me, how did you deduce that?’
“‘Well,’ says the shepherd, ‘put down my dog and I will tell you.’”
That comes courtesy of the Wharton School of Business, via the Internet. My only edit would be that, in the end, the “man” refuses to reveal his true identity. After all, no self-respecting economist I’ve ever known can ever get enough pooches whose entrails are healthy enough with which to predict the future of humankind.
All of which suggests that New Brunswick’s corps of economists must be the smartest professionals of their ilk anywhere in the world. Not only have they unanimously deduced (in a bevy of Brunswick News Inc. organs) that the provincial economy is failing, they have picked up the right animal to prove their point (it’s a sheep, in case you missed the metaphor).
Said New Brunswick’s Chief economist David Campbell (who is actually a good friend of mine), the degree to which the labour market in the province is winnowing is alarming. In fact, noting a recent Statistics Canada report earlier this month, the 6,000 jobs we lost in February, amounts to the “size of your capacity to meet the labour needs of your economy.”
Added Craig Brett, an economist at Mount Allison University: “I don’t usually put much stock in month-to-month unemployment figures for small provinces. . . But a trend like this over several months is worrying.”
So concurred David Murrell, an economics professor at the University of New Brunswick: “I think there has to be a dynamic provincial economic plan that has to be followed and I don’t see it realized.”
No kidding. Currently, the overall unemployment rate in the province is a hair’s breadth shy of 10 per cent, up from 9.3, 8.9 and 8.7 per cent in each of the previous three months. The workforce participation rate is lower than it’s been since the early days of the global financial crisis of 2007-08.
What’s to be done? That, lamentably, is a question no economist can answer convincingly. The issue is not actually within their various wheelhouses of expertise. They can tell us that elected leaders are leading the rest of us, like sheep, to a dog’s breakfast. But changing the menu is ultimately up to the rest of us, and that process starts with asking hard questions, and demanding good answers – not only of the people we send to office, but of ourselves.
What, exactly, are the collaborative economic, commercial, social, and fiscal tools that we need to wield among us to build the durable, sustainable, prosperous society that befits neither sheep, nor dog, but just us: we helpless, hopeful, humans?