Gold Rush

The ephemeral success of chasing the taxpayer’s dime.

A hundred years ago, Cobalt, Ontario, was a spectacular, if serendipitous, success. Its rich silver deposits funded theatres, opera houses, countless saloons, an electric streetcar, a stock exchange and the national Silver Kings hockey team of the early NHL. As a world mecca for fortune seekers, the town secured the first detachment of Ontario’s Provincial Police. Its silver helped finance the Empire’s First World War expenditures. A post-war visit to Cobalt was a must for the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII.

Today’s Cobalt is a community that would prefer to prosper again by doing what made it famous, but carries on chasing publicly funded tributes to its past. It participates aggressively in what Pamela Stern and Peter V. Hall call the “proposal economy,” a broad term for today’s management of community boosterism, which allows dying towns or regions to fight on by battling for a share of public development funds, at a price senior governments cannot afford.

The Proposal Economy: Neoliberal Citizenship in “Ontario’s Most Historic Town,” by sociocultural anthropologist Stern and urban scholar Hall, analyzes this phenomenon using Cobalt’s experience as its focus. The book’s strength lies in its stories about the actors, the Faustian bargains they are forced to make and the long-term impact of these machinations. Its weakness is ideological: its insistence that the proposal economy illustrates the enfeebling logic of embracing neoliberalism.

By mid century, Cobalt was finished as a mining capital and was shrinking as a community. After years of decline, a shiny glimmer of hope arose in the 1980s; the town learned that there was a new way of making money. Instead of mining silver, it would sell proud memories, giving up the hard stuff for the soft stuff, for what development planners and local visionaries called “heritage tourism.”

Stern and Hall want us to think critically about how proposal economics has influenced the citizenry of a mining town that has not mined silver for 50 years. Taking their cue from investigative polemicists such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Engels, or today’s Naomi Klein and Chrystia Freeland, they set out to challenge the zeitgeist at ground level. Their preconceptions are clearly stated and then buffeted by what they learn.

They started their fieldwork in earnest in 2005. By that point Cobalt’s civic activists and relevant public administrators had spent decades thinking up and successfully pitching ideas, by engaging proposal writers, proposal reviewers and proposal champions in bureaucracy and politics. In their interviews with the authors, they shared sharp insights into how all this activity influenced them and to what extent they believed it altered the fate of their beloved Cobalt. In their analysis, Stern and Hall also provide extensive demographic, employment and financial data and in-depth survey research.

The narrative that emerges is of local leaders championing local renewal whether public treasuries were flush or bare. Their main interlocutors were development Crown agencies. Of course, these organizations are not led by disruptive right-wing ideologues, let alone fussy bean counters. What line administrators, along with their consulting retinue, are good at doing is keeping their political masters on the side of happy talk and hope.

As a development catalyst, Cobalt’s experience with proposal economics was a definitive failure. Although adorned now with mining museums and refurbished historic sights, it remains a bedroom community with minuscule employment in both resource extraction and tourism.

All this makes The Proposal Economy fertile ground for anyone interested in policy analysis or politics. (In fact, Proposal Politics might have been a more accurate title.) Stern and Hall show how writing a qualifying proposal is the indisputable first step in a process of co-optation. Community members’ energy is spent defining a future they will have to realize—with predetermined envelopes of senior-level public funds. As the community writes its own optimistic vision, a minister or a premier may respond with flattering words and a cheque, and the process continues, potentially ad infinitum.

To what end? In Cobalt’s case, a 2006 survey showed that residents placed even less hope on the community’s future in mining and tourism than they had three decades before. Stern and Hall choose to interpret this in ideological terms. They close with an uneasy observation: “The proposal economy involves an embrace of neoliberalism in which good citizens are empowered to imagine, engage, and propose but not to count on the state to provide.”

However, by the authors’ own account, Cobalt’s services and infrastructure remain in “remarkable” order; civic engagement is robust; and when it comes to core services, Cobalters overwhelmingly favour public over private delivery. Ironically, although Cobalt’s community leaders lobby according to the rules of the proposal mechanism, this does not stop their constituency (Timiskaming–Cochrane) from electing only left-of-centre Liberal and New Democrat members to the provincial parliament.

Stern and Hall acknowledge that the state still finances those services people want to pay for collectively. Also, they admit that the largesse of their fondly recalled Keynesian Age—with its empathetic responses to petitions for jobs rather than a ticket out of town and its case for fair prices rather than charity for commodity producers—could not fully preserve Cobalt’s quality of life or reverse its decline.

Could not a less dramatic but more precise argument be made that both Stern and Hall’s vision of neoliberal proposal making and old-style Keynesian petition making fall within one abiding liberal vision called nation building? This is the vision prime ministers John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier worked with, as did premiers such as Leslie Frost and Jean Lesage. Indeed, this vision serves all incumbents today who struggle with both credible and farfetched development proposals seeking public help. Every era includes proposals to build infrastructure, exploit resources and spread prosperity regardless of geography or changing global markets. And in every era they generate stardust as likely as progress.

Stern and Hall’s stories confirm that stardust does not deliver and is costly. In an open economy, development decision making must be about getting to yes smartly, and smartly getting past no as well. Doing either task poorly diminishes our prospects, especially for those who choose to put their faith in next year’s lobby.

Platitudes waste time and wasted time hurts.

So leaders have a responsibility to make clear decisions. Too often, however, they offer clever excuses. In Cobalt’s case, in 1968 Ontario’s municipal affairs minister Darcy McKeough dragged his feet on the first proposal to define mining heritage tourism as the cornerstone of the town’s renewal, insisting the province should not help unless Ottawa did as well. Today Premier Kathleen Wynne says she will put a billion dollars into a mineral development proposal fetchingly called “Ring of Fire” if Stephen Harper, of course, puts in a billion dollars as well.

It would serve scholarship, and politics as well, to tackle the moral complexity of community renewal itself. Should we easily salute the waves of public and private professionals working up dreams, for instance, to turn hundreds of fishing communities on our coasts and First Nations lands across the country into what Cobalt thought it would always be a century ago? Stalling further community decline—and, thereby, forestalling individual emancipation—will persist if we do not voice our cruellest questions.