Mediocre prosperity scores point to underlying problems in B.C.

Prosperity is in the eye of the beholder. It can mean wealth. It can mean health. It can mean abundance. It can mean joy. Or all these things. Or something else.

What we know is that, even with our clear inequities, British Columbians perceive these are prosperous times. In recent years the Canadian economy has performed the best in the G7 and the province has performed the best in Canada. The unemployment rate is the lowest in nearly a half-century.

Still, the upbeat data is deceptive packaging on underlying conditions that ought to cause unease in any complacency.

Now, before anyone expects a rant on the BC NDP’s policies, be forewarned: the economic duress is not an NDP creation. It’s not even necessarily a BC Liberal creation.

It appears to be ours to own.

We’re learning much and living long – important ingredients of our well-being that contribute to prosperity. But we are not as innovative as we might be, attracting enough investment or operating productively – elements that build a prosperous place.

Those top-of-the-wave conclusions are part of an intriguing, substantial examination of indexes in our province by the Ottawa-based Centre for the Study of Living Standards. The Business Council of British Columbia commissioned what it calls a B.C. Prosperity Index, what will be an annual report on our business environment, societal well-being and economic well-being.

Among some 21 jurisdictions studied – our fellow provinces, our country, the western states of California, Washington and Oregon (ranked first, second and third in the survey) and such countries as Japan (fourth), America (fifth), Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the United Kingdom and France – B.C. ranked 11th. We were ahead of Canada overall (15th), but behind Alberta (eighth) and, yes, Newfoundland and Labrador (10th). Not bad, but not great.

On societal well-being, we ranked seventh of 21. Again, not exactly top-rate. And our environmental marks were surprisingly middling: eighth in air quality and 11th in air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions per capita.

Our economic well-being marks were similarly meh in placing us 10th of 21: seventh in household income, ninth in the unemployment rate, 10th in GDP per capita and a dismal 18th in housing affordability (only Ontario, the United Kingdom and New Zealand were worse).

Our business environment was by far the most worrisome, given we ranked 15th of 21. There were some consistently unimpressive marks: 11th in investment, 13th in innovation and 14th in labour productivity. That being said, our highest mark across the survey was the fourth place in education.

Before you wail on the provincial NDP for taking our economy down the chute, bear in mind that the data for the study comes from 2017. If you’re truly anti-NDP, your time to grouse may yet come – but not before the data reflects its stewardship next year or the year after, and certainly not now. To be fair, our underlying problems have been lying under us for some time, and they change little from year to year.

And those problems hint at an embedded culture that seems casual about what can address our inequities and lend prosperity more widely – working smarter (not harder, by the way), creating an environment to lure more capital and emphasizing and rewarding our inventiveness.

Which is not to say that the message for the province is to stay the course. It didn’t create these challenges, but it can confront them. What the study makes clear is that climate change is needed across the more cerebral elements of our economy, including the development and retention of a much larger and more mature clutch of innovative firms.

The most harrowing incongruence is how our top-flight education does not segue into top-flight economic performance. How we unruffle that path could make a meaningful difference not only in our prosperity but in how we confront our anxieties about the future and quell growing polarization and distrust. Our current state is evidently not taking us to where we want or to what we need. 

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, at Glacier Media.