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Let’s fathom the fiscal stimulus

January 10, 2009
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Have you noticed that the word “infrastructure” is enjoying a starring role in recent discussions about how to give “the economy” (locally, globally) a needed shot in the arm?  As I manoeuvre around the potholes dotting our roads and as I eye those tired, shabby, and occasionally leaking parts of the UNBSJ campus in need of some tender loving care, I must admit the call for “infrastructure spending” strikes a welcome chord.  In its brief to the federal finance minister, AUCC makes the case for targeting funds towards needed maintenance and renewal work on Canadian university campuses to bring their infrastructure up to the standard required for today’s teaching and research needs (AUCC brief).  Such projects, AUCC notes, would help to employ workers in a variety of building trades while drawing down the “university infrastructure deficit.”  Win-win.

Operating on the assumption that the government will adopt this line of action, I’ve leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and smiled at the thought of traveling on a pothole-free road to work at a rejuvenated UNBSJ campus.  However, my happy reflections have been interrupted by a nagging question.  Why does all this talk about infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy focus so much on things like roads and buildings, on what we might call “physical infrastructure”?  Is that all that a society’s “infrastructure” entails?  Googling definitions of “infrastructure” suggests that the physical assets comprising transportation systems, water and sewerage systems, and power systems as well as the physical facilities housing hospitals, schools, libraries, and recreational activities spring readily to mind when people think of infrastructure.  But there is another notion of infrastructure circulating out there, that of “social infrastructure.”  To cite one definition, from the County of Simcoe (Ontario), social infrastructure refers to “the system of social services, networks, and facilities that support people and healthy communities… [I]t means ensuring necessities like quality childcare, education, adequate income, shelter, safety, recreation and cultural expression.”  So more than improving our roads and upgrading our buildings, enhancing our social infrastructure focuses our efforts on investing in and strengthening the social capacity of our communities.

When it comes to post-secondary education, we might consider CAUT’s suggestions to Minister Flaherty:  invest in the knowledge and skills of people by expanding access to post-secondary education and training, and boost Canada’s research and development capacity (with the caveat that this be guided by science rather than politics, with the funding of research being determined through a peer-review process focused on assessing the scientific merits of various research proposals, rather than by the priorities of particular political parties in power).

That would be a start… in one area.  But how might we use this demand, this opportunity, necessitated by the state of the economy, to invest in our communities in ways that will pave the way toward a better future for every child?  Such efforts would help to employ workers in a variety of social service occupations (many of whom are women, which would provide a nice balance with spending that will employ workers in the building trades, most of whom are men), and at the same time strengthen the social fabric in ways that would draw down our social infrastructure deficit.  Win-win.

Something to fathom….

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