Thursday, January 25, 2007

Investing in the Pacific Gateway to the Mind

Roadway schmoadway! Bridges schmidges! We need to invest in human capital instead of pouring billions of taxpayers' dollars into massive public infrastructure projects that are obsolete the moment the ribbons are cut at the opening ceremonies. Backward as the Lower Mainland's transportation system may be, its dilapidated state pales when compared to the status of the province's educational system. Dollar for dollar, investing in the development of peoples' brains has a far better payback than any road, bridge or container port.

What made me think of this is an interesting story in today's Van Sun by Michael Kane, entitled "Demand
boosts container imports by 30%". The stats cited in the article essentially confirm my long-held suspicion that most of the shipments from the Port of Vancouver (POV) consist of bulk cargo exports to Asia, whereas Asian countries are adding value to these imports and transforming them into manufactured goods which they then ship back to us. It's kind of the reverse of what you'd expect from a supposedly developed country such as Canada -don't you think? As if that weren't bad enough, 30% of the containers they ship to us full of manufactured goods go back empty! What does that tell you about our Pacific trading relationships? It's rather asynchronous, don't you think?
So much for the KBE or knowledge-based economy. It's just a variation on the old Canadian theme of hewers of wood and drawers of water, aka the rocks and trees economy.
Is this what the Pacific Gateway project is all about - facilitating more of the same? Are these the kinds of jobs we want for our children and grandchildren - driving trains and container trucks, working in the potash and uranium mines, chopping down forests, growing wheat, barley and canola on the drought-stricken Prairies, driving a giant loader at that stain on the human conscience which is Ft. McMurray, etc? Or do we instead want them to be innovators, getting Ph. D.s in neuroscience, finding cures for cancer, and developing leading edge software - these kinds of brainpower pursuits that are the way of the future? Investing in these sectors, and educating our young people accordingly, is how we're going to maintain a competitive edge over other countries, and especially emerging markets.
It's all about choices, isn't it? Choosing the kind of future we want for BC and then building it. We need to start investing in the Gateway of the Mind. Instead of building more roads and bridges to nowhere, and a costly and transitory winter olympics, we should be expanding the stock of intellectual capital of this province - fighting illiteracy; promoting numeracy and the development of patents; putting money into university centres of excellence, joint ventures, networks and clusters; developing incubator companies; making seed capital available to SMEs; and guaranteeing post-secondary education for all who meet the entrance requirements. Incredibly, BC boasts the lowest post-secondary participation rate of any province in Canada, a dubious distinction that is bound to be perpetuated so long as we persist in favouring the development of industries and sectors that require only a trade.

Roads don't generate ideas - creative people generate ideas! Bridges don't file patents - innovators file patents! We've got to move beyond the old Neanderthal approach to development as epitomised in the thinking of the Gordon Campbell's of this world - the petit bourgeois whose constituency seems to be every Tom, Dick and Harry who greases the Liberal Party pole.

Finally, I suggest a good way to start turning things around would be
to oppose the proposed massive expansion of the Deltaport terminal at Roberts Bank. That would at least give the endangered southern resident killer whales a fighting chance at survival.


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