Since my undergraduate degree is in chemistry, I have an ongoing interest in things chemical, and in the history of science, much of the early work being Alchemy. The alchemist Robert Boyle is considered by many as the “father” of modern chemistry.
One of the major quests of the Alchemist was to “transmute” base metals like lead and iron into precious metals – gold and silver. Alchemists had many mystical beliefs that accompanied their intense focus on observing natural phenomena, and these beliefs were an underpinning of all of their efforts. In modern terms, we would say they sought ways to “add value” to things of “low value”.
Given the title of this Blog, I must quickly provide some context, before you decide I have finally caved in to the pressures of the modern world and “lost it”. This story from my youth just might provide the necessary context.
The occasion was an assembly at Saint John High School, Saint John, New Brunswick. We had an entertainer visit – a musician who played a guitar. I don’t know his name, and I can’t even tell you his music style. What I do remember vividly is that part way through his program, he stood and held up his guitar.
“You see this guitar? It is made out of Canadian wood. We Canadians shipped two dollars worth of Canadian wood to Sweden, and those clever Swedes turned it into a guitar and sold it back to us for four-hundred dollars.”
That I remember it clearly, decades after the event, is a testament to the trans-formative impact that simple example had on my young mind. It has shaped my thinking about national economies to this day.
I didn’t have the concepts and language of systems theory, lean enterprise, economics, or business back in nineteen fifty-nine. Today I would draw on all of those to explain the “alchemy” that is the simple fix for our economy. But in that instant, I “got it”.
In Salvaging Capitalism / Saving Democracy, I use the “box game” to describe the economies of North America. The box game is a way to explain the concept of an open system with capital and resource flows, and to poke fun at a certain politician who either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand, the simple logic that was so clear to that musician, and by extension, me – at sixteen years of age. (to download for free the chapter containing the “box game”, see my earlier post: https://rabellblog.com/2015/09/04/chapter-14-a-new-face-for-government/
Curiously enough, there is clear historical evidence that at least one politician did “get it”. And during his time in office, he worked diligently to fix the systemic problem. He did not succeed in effectively communicating to the population as a whole, including me, just what he was about. Only in the last few days have I learned the true extent of his (temporary) transformation of Canada’s economy, in a book called Toward a Just Society. The impact was staggering. But successive governments, and foreign governments and individuals, quite deliberately undermined and reversed many of the gains of that period in our history.
As we talk over the next while about the Canada that we would like to see, and leave to our children and grandchildren, we can only hope that particular politician’s son also “gets it”, and with the help of broader media choice and a technically literate population, the son will succeed in implementing and communicating what his father began – the conversion of an economic “colony” into a prosperous, independent, land of hope for all that toil – and a bright beacon for the world.