Appeared in Business in Vancouver – December 4, 2014
The photo of a woman recently caught my eye. Days later I casually read the caption. No! Really? She was a meltingly brown-eyed blossom of a teenager when we casually met 25 years ago. Now she was a middle-aged woman. Still very attractive. But … 25 years had passed. Or was it more? The years mischievously dodge, dissolve, hide.
More happily, Business in Vancouver was a bouncing baby 25 years ago, in 1989, spanked into life by founding father and still superlative columnist Peter Ladner, and even within my brief apprenticeship – more or less as a mixture of tsk-tsking Old Bore and comic relief – has become typographically handsomer with age. Incidentally BIV shares a 25th anniversary with Bard on the Beach, founded by cherished Sir Christopher Gaze, a knighthood he’d have now if still in his native England.
On the larger world stage, a profound year, 1989. Under the shrewd strategy of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, assisted by communism’s inherent ineptitude and wild misreading of the human animal, the Soviet Union abruptly disunited, astonishing most of the world, including experts caught with their ideological pants down. There has been no shortage of talk. Pretty fair nominees for the ideological bookends for the last 25 years are Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 thunderbolt essay The End of History? (the question mark subsequently was dropped), arguing that communism’s crash heralded the arrival of global liberal democracy, the ascendancy of markets as the natural state of societies and the end of ideology. The other is Thomas Piketty’s 2014 bombshell Capital, which certainly disproved Fukuyama’s thesis that ideology slept in its grave.
For a while Piketty seemed to intimidate liberal economists into awed silence. That’s over. Critics, including Philip Cross, former chief economic analyst for Statistics Canada, say he puts on the same blindfold as Ricardo, Malthus and the Club of Rome in the 1960s: he doesn’t factor in unforeseen change, specifically the inventiveness and creative technological change that torpedoed Malthusian pessimism (are you there, global warming dogmatists?). The race keeps staving off disaster, no matter what part-time gloomsters like me suspect.
The chattering classes aside, the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was struck in 1989, evolving into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) five years later. In power in 1989 were Brian Mulroney, five Canadian prime ministers ago; Bill Vander Zalm, eight B.C. premiers ago; and Gordon Campbell, five Vancouver mayors ago. Time, as they say, passes.
Though discovered by earlier celebrities like Rudyard Kipling, Bing Crosby and John Wayne, few would have predicted a few decades ago how far Vancouver would rise in cosmopolitanism and international profile and popularity.
By 1989 it was well on its way. Ethnically diverse, rich in cuisine, with more music, theatre, opera and ballet than any arts glutton could consume … well, one can only add that B.C. marijuana became a sought-after export, and even Metro Vancouver murders have become more big-city. (Homicides are actually on long-term decline.)
Such rapid growth brought problems too – not that you’d trade them for slumping back, like Detroit, Buffalo and our own (indeed my own) Hamilton.
Being on top famously offers only one possible direction. A few years ago Britain’s authoritative magazine The Economist handed Vancouver the palm of world’s most livable city. But, largely because of a negative for persistent traffic problems, it’s fallen to third place. Yet any city but Sydney and Vienna (Nos. 1 and 2) would die for third place.
At my age you get annoyed that everyone is too young. None of today’s experts knows of English writer V.S. Pritchett’s perceptive essay more than 50 years ago titled “The Pacific Sadness.”
His theory: eager Easterners move to the West Coast – Pritchett included B.C. with the U.S. Pacific states – and are smitten by its beauty and embrace its hedonistic lifestyle. Then the Pacific Sadness slowly afflicts them. They have gone west. They can go no further. Is that all there is? They are drawn back by the energies, the this-is-where-it-happens-ness, of the east.
Doubtless some Vancouverites wish more would.
Affordable housing is almost a cynical shrug. Some executives have turned down Vancouver jobs when they did the arithmetic of selling their homes and getting less for more here.
Urban planner, developer and media commentator Michael Geller, quoted recently by the Sun’s Pete McMartin, says most people he talks to believe the city isn’t as good as it used to be.
Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of BC, nudged me toward some sobering trends refreshingly free of hype. Such as: B.C., economically once in the top tier of provinces behind Alberta (which is lengthening its lead), has slipped to the high-middle, largely because former have-not Newfoundland and Saskatchewan have slipped past it.
Although resources still constitute about three-quarters of B.C.’s exports, their contribution to gross domestic product and as job sources have slightly declined since 1989, and the share of services has grown. Many studies indicate that real income per person and per household in most of the rich Western world has risen only modestly since the 1980s.
As for our general but naturally unequal prosperity, half a century ago Robert Bonner, the sole lawyer and only university grad in W.A.C. Bennett’s first cabinet, said unforgettably – at least I haven’t forgotten it: “British Columbia’s economy is like sex. When it’s good, it’s very good. And when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”
Words, qualified of course, to live by – and that middle-aged woman, 25 years on, still looks pretty good to this eye.
© Trevor Lautens, 2014