roads and rails bound for nowhere

A recent statement by Premier Dennis Fentie suggesting that the building of a road along the Lynn Canal is “responsible economic…

A recent statement by Premier Dennis Fentie suggesting that the building of a road along the Lynn Canal is “responsible economic development” is a non sequitur — a statement that does not follow logically from anything previously said.

But then logic has never been much of a rallying cry for good public policy.

Logic aside, anyone wishing to persuasively argue that blasting a road through a pristine ecosystem is “responsible” in any economic sense, must be willing to ignore a red flag or two raised about the “science” of economics in general.

A bit of economic history is in order here.

Economics first gained intellectual stature — some might say notoriety — in a formal way in 1969. For it was then that the Nobel committee awarded its first Nobel Prize in economics.

The committee, led by professor Erik Lundberg, praised economics as a justifiable science.

Economics, he said, “supported by mathematical and statistical analysis” is ready to take its rightful place alongside the likes of physics, biology and chemistry.

The real pressure to welcome economics into the family of other academic disciplines was brought about more by government and business than by university.

A new understanding of economics — one without its more humane components — was needed to justify the steady rise of the military industrial complex at the end of the Second World War.

Almost from the very beginning, economics as a science quickly metabolized into little more than a convenient tool by which the politically powerful could justify an even more robust capitalism.

Giving the elite “solid” reasons to manipulate discount rates and infusing new money into the system, the science of economics opened the floodgates to ever increasing corporate ownership.

This new economics — clustered around such notions as responsible economic development, continued economic strength and high-profile economic vitality — simply dropped its historical affinity for the small, moderate and gradual in favour of big, extreme and rapid.

The psychological impact of big-scale economics, reinforced by the always-persuasive kick of science, has been quite dramatic.

We mere mortals were quick to assume that any sort of economic development proceeded by multimillion-dollar feasibility studies must be for the greater good.

How could it, we ask ourselves, be otherwise?

If any one government, or a consortium of governments, is willing to pay out millions to investigate the economic feasibility of a road carved along the Lynn Canal between Juneau and Skagway, or a railway cut through the heart of the Yukon, who are we small people to stand in the way?

We automatically assume that economics is scientific enough, sophisticated enough, to somehow insure the rightness of such a large-scale development.

And, more foolishly still, we are led to believe that if it is right it will be successful and that once successful it will have been “responsible.”

We permissively have allowed economic feasibility studies to run roughshod over common sense and this has got to stop.

Quite frankly it is killing us.

There is every reason to believe that economics is not good science.

Given its intellectual high ground as a Nobel winner, economics has wiped itself clean of the need to reflect such notions as environmental ethics, ecological integrity, quality, workmanship, craftsmanship and pride.

The late British economist E.F Schumacher maintained that economics should be for and about people, reminding us very convincingly that first and foremost economics is a “humanistic social wisdom.”

Economics lost this deeper wisdom when, in 1969, bathed in its own complex statistical analyses and polished by its own specialized language, we ordinary folks were given little choice but to give in and give up.

Schumacher’s plea toward economic good sense should awaken today’s conservatives and liberals alike.

He reminded us “that economics has only become scientific by becoming statistical. But at the bottom of its statistics, sunk well out of sight, are so many sweeping assumptions about people like you and me — about our needs and motivations and the purpose we have given our lives.”

However, not all is lost.

We can regain our own economic senses by questioning in detail the merits of big-scale development.

We can argue for moderation and we can insist on a pace of development that encourages deeper personal and natural meaning.

We can — again according to Schumacher — “seek a nobler economics that is not afraid to discuss spirit and conscience, moral purpose and the meaning of life.”

Fentie, like it or not, is governing in an era of highbrow economics: a good man in a bad situation.

It will take great courage and vision for him to dust off and make use of a more humane economics.

Reversing ground and standing firm against the likes of Murkowski is certainly in the long-term interest of Yukoners.

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