I just listened to an excellent podcast featuring Jared Diamond and his latest publication Natural Experiments of History. Diamond is the guy who wrote Guns, Germs & Steel and another book I read called Collapse -both highly entertaining and informative.
The new work looks at a number of examples throughout history of why certain peoples or countries develop at a different pace. He looks at Haiti vs. the Dominican Republic or whether or not Napoleon was good for the countries he took over.
By modelling these natural experiments we can attempt to determine what large factors were influential to development and then try to apply the learnings. Of course you have to make every attempt to control for other factors that were at play before the perturbation but I found the concept fascinating.
For example, think about Atlantic Canada. When a few people dare to question whether or not joining Confederation was the best thing to do for this region, the typical response from central and western Canada (and many here) is indignation. Atlantic Canada is part of one of the most successful and prosperous countries in Canada. Furthermore, you (we) have been on Equalization for decades. Where would this region be if not for its being part of the greater Canada?
I wonder what Diamond would think of that. If you used his model you might find that Atlantic Canada might have been far more prosperous as a separate country. If you read Donald Savoie’s work, you see clearly that many of the leaders at the time in Atlantic Canada predicted this region would wither and be entrenched as the poor region of the country due to Upper Canada’s political domination. And it’s hard to deny that we have become the entrenched poor region of Canada in the intervening years.
To many folks this is an inevitable consequence of history. The Maritime region is in a bad geography. It has relatively little oil and gas (at least until now). It is physically far from the centres of power and control. Too bad. Every country has poor areas. Accept your destiny.
But I think that is too simplistic. If I had the cash, I’d get a guy like Diamond to look at it. Why didn’t Halifax become Boston? Why did this region (and I guess we can include northern Maine) stagnate while other areas boomed?
As I said before I think the next 50 years will be less kind to Atlantic Canada (if you can use that term) in terms of the generosity of the federal government. Notwithstanding the Constitution, there is less connection here with Ottawa than ever before and and increasing number of the those weilding the power have never even been to this region. That will only increase over time.
I know a lot of you bristle when I talk about this stuff but I think there are short, medium and long term policy issues that need to be discussed. Short term, this region needs a serious economic development effort that leads to significant private sector investment and builds up the economy. Medium term we need to become less dependent on the federal government (we are at 40% of our budget in NB coming from the Feds) and longer term we need to understand where this region fits in the Canada of the next 100 years.
I don’t think it is acceptable that this region repeat its role as the labour market incubator for Central and Western Canada. For one thing we are having far fewer children to send west. For another, there are longer term structural challenges associated with this stuff.
I’ll get back to the nitty gritty of economic development again but I still think we need to talk about this stuff.