When Simon Fraser University decided to hold a summit on B.C.’s economic future, organizer Shauna Sylvester went looking for an economist who specialized in this area.
Sylvester is executive director of the SFU Public Square, which oversees the university’s community-engagement efforts. But much to her surprise, she couldn’t find anyone who focused exclusively on the B.C. economy—or who taught a class on the topic.
“There is not a course that I could find,” Sylvester told the Georgia Straight in an interview in her office at SFU Harbour Centre. “I was quite startled.”
She acknowledged that there are outstanding economists who address certain aspects.
As an example, she pointed to UBC’s Craig Riddell, who is an expert on labour markets. She noted that SFU’s Krishna Pendakur has an excellent reputation for his work on inequality, in which he looks at its relationship to immigration status and race.
Sylvester also mentioned the Business Council of British Columbia’s Jock Finlayson, who focuses on taxation and the economic impact of regulations.
Helmut Pastrick of Central 1 Credit Union has devoted a great deal of attention to housing and looks at the impact of monetary policy on the economy. Marc Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analyzes environmental issues through an economic lens, and his colleague Iglika Ivanova has written extensively about inequality.
Sylvester said that SFU decided earlier this year to convene a panel with expertise in various areas to conduct an analysis of B.C.’s economy, identifying its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).
There were many strengths cited, including B.C.’s strategic location near Asia on the west coast of North America, as well as the province’s abundance of resources. The experts felt that B.C.’s governance, its human capital—the province attracts 28 percent of Canada’s foreign students with just 13 percent of Canada’s population—and its diverse population also constituted strengths.
The identified weaknesses included rising inequality, ineffective skills training to meet market demands, a poor relationship with aboriginal peoples, a boom-and-bust resource economy, too much political conflict, and perceptions of too much red tape.
Opportunities that were mentioned involved leveraging B.C.’s location for international trade, making better use of the diasporas living here to make connections abroad, investing in infrastructure and education, and developing markets in the knowledge sector. Finally, a global economic slowdown, competition in commodity markets, and uncertainty around the land base were among a list of threats.
The SWOT analysis was part of the process leading up to a community summit on B.C.’s economic future, which will involve a series of events that will take place between September 28 and October 4. One of the summit’s highlights will be an October 3 appearance at the Orpheum Theatre by author and former U.S. secretary of labor Robert Reich. His last two books have sounded an alarm about how rising inequality contributes to economic slowdowns and depression-style collapses. He’s warned how this elevates the risk of fascism.
But the summit isn’t entirely serious. On a lighter note, comedians Charlie Demers and Richard Side will host a cabaret-style discussion on October 4 at SFU Woodward’s.
“It’s going to be called ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ ” Sylvester said. “They’re going to have a very good time with us on that.”
Sylvester has been involved in democratic-development efforts in Canada and abroad for more than two decades. She admitted that people like her, who come from a progressive background, are often very good at talking about the redistribution of wealth.
She said she hopes that the economic summit will help reduce polarization so that those who are concerned about rising inequality might give some thought to growing B.C.’s economy.
Conversely, she wishes that those who focus on wealth creation might pay greater attention to environmental sustainability and creating a more level playing field for the disadvantaged.
“We’re kind of challenging each side of the political spectrum to go to those places where you haven’t gone,” Sylvester added.
She also wants to shatter the myth of B.C. as a resource-dominated economy. In advance of the summit, the university is promoting “100 community conversations” across the province about the B.C. economy.
A handbook for participants points out that service industries account for 76 percent of B.C.’s gross domestic product. The goods-producing side—led by construction and manufacturing—makes up only 24 percent of provincial output.
Finance, insurance, and real-estate services contributed $44.3 billion in 2012. Agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting were only worth $3.4 billion. Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction added up to $10.2 billion.
“It’s a very diverse economy,” Sylvester commented. “To a certain extent, that helps us with resilience, but it’s also challenging because we are so diffuse.”