Back in the Sixties, I interviewed a brilliant Canadian economist named John Deutsch about the upheavals that would come as the Baby Boomers entered the labor force. I was working for the Toronto Telegram back then, and I can still see the story’s headline on the pink front page of the newspaper’s final edition:
Hands are Too Expensive; Canada Must Depend on Brains
At least that’s how I remember it. Memory is a tricky thing, and the headline might have been different, but that was definitely the idea.
And, looking back, that’s the way things seem to have worked out.
By the mid-Sixties, Canada had evolved into a society where oppression and abuse were simply not tolerated. The federal and provincial governments were prepared to step in and ensure a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work. Health care was recognized as a basic human right, and steps were being taken to provide an income for those too old or incapacitated to continue working.
Of course, Canada is blessed with enormous natural resources. Bang two rocks together in Northern Ontario and they will ring like a church bell because of the metals they contain. Forests stretch as far as the eye can see, mighty rivers course through the land, and bottomless fossil fuel deposits are yet to be tapped. Vast prairies produce grain by the trainload, and Canadian beef and bacon are legendary.
But compared with many other countries, Canadian wages are high. They were high when I interviewed John Deutsch. Jobs were already leaving North America for low-wage countries. Providing employment for the Baby Boomers would not be easy. How would the country afford to fund its generous social programs and provide jobs for the millions who were born after World War II?
I don’t have to tell you that Canada has done it. Across the nation, great cities have blossomed (see Toronto construction scene above). Skilled jobs have been created and filled. Social programs remain in force. And I think it’s because the country’s leaders realized the futility of competing for the world’s unskilled jobs, concentrating instead on developing the skills that high-paying jobs demand.
I was reminded of the Deutsch interview as I listened to U.S. President Obama on one of the cable channels yesterday. He was talking about the soaring unemployment rate and promising to do something about it. And he was trying to figure out the best way to deploy some two hundred billion dollars left over from the Bush bailout of the financial institutions. Should the money go to roads and bridges? Tax breaks? Loans to small business? All of the above? Or should it be used to reduce the deficit?
I feel his pain. Whatever he decides, he will be pilloried for it. America’s first black President must deal with a toxic environment, where intense hostility is generated, at least in part, by the color of his skin. How dare he and his family move into the White House? A segment of America’s white majority simply cannot bear the thought of it.
But cope he must. And there are no easy short-term solutions to the problems he has inherited. I have a suggestion that might help: devote at least some of the bail-out money to encouraging creativity.
I’m not just talking about improving education. That’s part of it, of course, but educating the offspring of three hundred million Americans is definitely a long-term proposition. And it’s all very well to pamper math and science teachers and trivialize arts education, but that’s no way to foster creativity. It’s the daydreaming misfits and college dropouts who will probably stumble on the next Big Thing that triggers a renaissance like the dot-com revolution of the Nineties.
For the long term, how about scholarships – in the arts as well as the sciences -to develop the kind of brainpower America will need? And for the short term, we need retraining programs, of course, but how about creating competitions to uncover ideas that might lead to game changing discoveries?
I know, the “conservatives” will flay you, Mr. President. But they’ll flay you anyway. Why not give it a shot?