Finding merit in cycles

Chinook arch over the city of Calgary, Alberta...

Last Word: Finding merit in cycles
By Marzena Czarnecka

If you have an Albertan in your life – and I sure hope you’re lucky enough to have at least one of us lighting up your otherwise dreary existence – you’ve probably been tempted, at least once, to make a list of the things we say that you never, ever want to hear again. And I’d wager a fine Alberta unaltered bull that in a neck-in-neck tie for the No. 1 spot are our two favourite assertions about the market here: “It’s a meritocracy” and “It’s a cyclical thing.”

Am I right? Knew it. I hear you — I’m, frankly, as tired of saying “meritocracy” and “cyclical” as you are of hearing them. What is it that we are saying to the rest of the country when we call Alberta – and Calgary in particular – a meritocracy? Not particularly flattering, whatever it is. (“Our market’s a meritocracy. Your market, on the other hand …”)

Of course, it’s true: our market is a meritocracy, and your market … don’t get me started. But just ’cause it’s true doesn’t mean it’s kind. We shouldn’t be rubbing your noses in it. Starting today, I hereby resolve to never tell a Torontonian or Haligonian that Calgary is a meritocracy. ’Cause I may not be nice, but I don’t need to be that mean.

But the abuse of the word “meritocracy” is probably the lesser of our two clichéd sins. We generally only use it in the context of “What I really like about Calgary is that it’s a meritocracy,” whereas we tend to use “It’s a cyclical thing” as an answer to pretty much every question. “How’s business?” “What will the impact of the election be?” “Will the anti-oilsands campaign have an effect on international investment?” “What do you think about the Chinese resource plays?” “Did the feds get it right when they shut down the royalty trusts?” “What are you going to do when you retire?” “What time is it? … ”

It’s not just frustrating, it’s bloody annoying. There you are, in search of real insight, and you ask for it, humbly and eagerly, and what do you get? “Well, you know, it’s a cyclical thing.” And I don’t blame you for wondering whether our parroted claims of a meritocracy actually mean that the intellectually shallow and inarticulate have a better chance of ascending to the top than in unmeritocratic Ottawa or Montréal.

But it’s not that we’re intellectually shallow or inarticulate. We genuinely believe we are imparting critical information. “It’s a cyclical thing” is everything to us. It’s our central tenet, our Om and our Amen. Repeating it, believing it and holding on to it with all four hooves is how we hold on to our sanity when oil drops to $9 a barrel … and stays there.

“It’s a cyclical thing” explains our entire unpredictable, volatile universe. We’ll put up with most other things. You can abuse our lack of political savvy and tar us over the tar sands. You can prove to us, in black and white, with a dozen examples of oil patch dynasties and third-generation judges and litigators, that our idea of meritocracy is phooey. But the “cyclical thing” — don’t touch it. That’s all we have. It’s everything we are.

I’m not saying it’s entirely a good thing. But if you understand “It’s a cyclical thing,” you’ll understand, simultaneously, why this market is so wonderful — and why this province so dangerous.

When “it’s a cyclical thing” is the main filter through which you perceive your economic reality, you see the world in a constant state of flux. In some ways, that’s our greatest strength: when things are bad, Albertans are perpetual optimists. (As one prominent Calgary lawyer once told me, “We turn chicken shit into chicken soup.”)
It’s also our Achilles heel, because when things are really bad … we tend not to do anything to fix them, trusting instead that “it’s a cyclical thing” will do its thing and turn things around before they go from worse to worst. And when things get a hair’s breadth away from as bad as worst can be — hey, in our minds, it’s a clear indication they’re about to get better.

Enough to drive you crazy, eh? I’m not sure how you put up with us. Could it be because we really are the nation’s leading meritocratic market and therefore unconditionally deserving of your adulation and respect? No, of course not. It’s because, well, it’s a cyclical thing — and when our cycle peaks, we make you filthy, filthy rich. And so you put up with our inanities and reality-denying behaviour during the valleys. Lucky us.
Poor you.

Marzena Czarnecka lives in and loves Calgary, but suspects that living in a cyclical meritocracy (or do I mean meritocratic cycle?) does odd things to people’s neural synapses. Or it could be all the carbon emissions in the air.