Sunday, May 02, 2010

Alberta! Whose Province is it Anyway?

Kevin Taft’s excellent piece on the Alberta economy and what has happened to growth, taxes and public policy directions in our province is worth a careful and reflective read. It begs a couple of serious public policy questions about what kind of Alberta we have and who’s province is it anyway. I think I will be doing many more posts on those questions in the future.

In his op-ed piece “Public Spending Stayed Flat as Alberta Economy Grew” he “follows the money” with some very disturbing observations about the balance of power in Alberta. He underscores the lack of attention to the needs of the greater good giving way to the profligate pursuit of short term private profit by keeping taxes low to attract investment. We all want low taxes but not so low that we can’t provide for our children, our vulnerable citizens, our safety and security and preserve natural capital and expand our human capital.

Then add the absurdly low royalty rates we change our tenants on energy exploitation crown lands and you can see where most of the money from our non-renewable resources is going. To excessive private profits at the expense of the long term common good of Albertans now and in the future.

Like Taft, I agree that profits are important and a reasonable rate of return on investments relative to risk is vital to a successful economy and a viable society. What I see happening these days is the society is subservient to the economy instead of the economy being in service of the social goals of Albertans, including the environment. Our government is not the proxy of the public interest as much as it is pandering to the private interests of the energy sector as forestry, agriculture, manufacturing and innovation languish.

The argument is not about which is better, big business or big government. Neither is appropriate to solve the problems we face or to achieve our potential as a province and a people. We need an efficient adaptable sustainable private sector economy that creates real wealth for a society not just short term excessive profits for a few. And we need a values based empowering public governance model that enables and empowers citizens to achieve their personal potential in a safe, secure, adaptive, resilient and self-reliant way that also contributes to society.

I think there are two overarching critical uncertainties that cause a creative tension between our market-based capitalist economy and our responsible representative democratic society. One critical uncertainty is that we need to balance the constantly moving ground between the rights and responsibilities of individual self-interest and the collective interests of the common good. We are all in this world together and alone so how do we rationalize the various personal roles and relationships within our culture as contributing members of our society?

The other critical uncertainty we constantly grapple with is the creative debate as to what is best done in the private sector versus the public sector. Grappling with this question provides both its benefits and show the shortcomings of each alternative. I am a big fan of the market place, but only in its place , where business can flourish but not risk the need to serve the greater good where profit is an ineffective motivation. The market place strength of competition and the “invisible hand” is not the end all and be all of a health society, just one aspect.

That competitive principle is often a marketplace myth as we see the concentration of control and ownership, poor governance controls, short term thinking, greed is good attitudes and “too big to fail” corporations that need taxpayer bailouts because of their morally bankrupt, casual corruption and crass self-aggrandizing cultures. The marketplace is allowed to be blind to inequity, injustice, and prejudice – just to name a few blind spots in those “masters of the universe” types that are too often tolerated by governments who look to them for validation and contributions. Markets are supposed to be good at efficiency – they are not always! This is often our fault as consumers.

I am also a big fan of responsible democratic government that is principled, values based, focused on governance over politics and representative and concentrated on serving the best interests of voters – not themselves. We need more politicians who are intelligent, wise and courageous enough to know what they stand for, speak out clearly about it and champion causes that reflect their personal principles and values – especially at election time. We don’t have a very good record of providing a comprehensive sense of good government in Alberta. The future for comprehensive good government looks even bleaker with the few political and policy options we are being offered from the PCs and the Wildrose. Governments are supposed to be good at effectiveness – they are not always! This is often our fault as citizens because we disengage from our civic responsibilities.

So thank you Kevin Taft for this insight and analysis of what has actually been going on in Alberta’s public spending. It is a crime that we can’t seen our way to meeting our social and environmental obligations to each other and this place we call home compared to the wealth we are creating and concentrating in the big corporate sector in this province. It is a fair assessment of a situation that is not fair to Alberta’s best interests or the best interests of ordinary Albertans either.

We Albertans can only blame ourselves. We seem to have abdicated our civic duty to this place environmentally, socially and politically…hell 60% of us can’t be bothered to get up to speed on the issues and learn about the political options so we can cast an informed vote. And while we were sublimely indifferent and disengaged our government has defaulted in its duty to serve the greater good too. It has put corporate profits ahead of the public good in a short-term shallow thinking view of Alberta’s best interests. As a once proud member of the PC Party of Alberta I take no joy in saying that. We get the government we deserve in a democracy. Too bad our expectations of ourselves as Albertans have been so apathetic. Our indifference towards realizing our full potential means that we settle for so little from ourselves, our government representatives and our industry tenants.

Wake up Alberta. It is a new century and citizenship is important again. Our democracy is in danger due to your indifference and distain for politics. Politics suck because we allow them to suck. Take control of your democracy. Create some space for viable alternatives to flourish and start demanding the end of stupid rules, insipid policy and that partisan politics trumping public interest. Thanks again Kevin for shining some light on what has been going on in the Alberta economy beyond the rhetoric and partisan positioning.