Saturday, April 04, 2020

A Crisis Of Character

Yesterday was a sobering day for Ontarians. The news was grim. Martin Regg Cohn writes:

On Friday, for the first time, Ontario’s top public health experts not only predicted how many people may die by month’s end. More importantly, they also estimated how many have been saved to date and will be spared in the days to come.
Yes, 1,600 are likely to die by April 30 on current trends. But if society can maintain vigilance and social distancing, the latest modelling suggests we would be saving — sparing — 4,400 lives that would otherwise be included in the grim tally of 6,000 total deaths projected in Ontario’s business-as-usual scenario.
In other words, and in precise numbers, we are on track to reduce the death toll by 73 per cent. That is a remarkable force multiplier and life saver, if only we stay the course. (Indeed, in a best-case scenario, we could reduce the death toll as low as 200 with even stronger measures, some of which were added Friday.)
It is also a powerful message of hope. But it also requires belief anchored in evidence and buttressed by resolve.

We're in a grim situation. But it could be grimmer. What -- or who -- will make the difference is us. That's the message from yesterday. We face a health and an economic crisis. But, most of all, we face a crisis of character.

Image: Google Sites

Friday, April 03, 2020

The Weakness In Globolization

The pandemic has exposed the weak link in the theory of globalization. The theory states that those nations which can easily produce certain products should produce them, while those countries which find it difficult to produce products should produce other things. Tom Walkom writes:

The theory behind globalization (or the liberal world order as Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland prefers to call it) sounds good. It is based on two principles.
First, nations should concentrate on producing goods and services for which they have a comparative advantage. Second, they should agree on a set of rules that allow them to freely trade these goods and services with one another.
At a basic level, this seems to make sense. It is more logical for Canada to buy bananas from abroad rather than try to grow them at home.

But times like these blow a hole in that theory:

Consider the crucial question of medical supplies. As Health Minister Patty Hajdu confirmed this week, Canada does not have enough personal protective equipment, such as masks and ventilators, on hand.
The federal government is scrambling to find as much as it can. It is hampered by the fact that, thanks to the logic of free trade, Canada does not manufacture such materials here. They must be imported from abroad.
Yet that is not easy. As a result of the pandemic, more than 50 nations, including all members of the European Union, have imposed restrictions on the export of medical supplies — to Canada or anywhere else.
China remains the world’s biggest producer of medical masks. But some recent purchasers, most notably the Dutch government, have questioned their quality.
A recent New York Times article paints the international medical mask market as a kind of Wild West, dominated by hustlers and profiteers determined to wring as much as they can from the pandemic.

The obvious answer is to produce what we need here. There is a vacant auto plant in Oshawa which could be retooled to do just that. But, so far, it remains empty.

Image: Fabulously Made

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Back To The Centre

For the past thirty years, Canada has been decentralizing. The coronavirus has halted that trend. Our central government is now where the action is. John Ibbitson writes:

Decades of decentralization have been reversed in a matter of weeks. Provincial governments are in desperate straits. Newfoundland and Labrador, the weakest of the lot, teetered on bankruptcy last month, unable to find anyone willing to lend it money.
Our province has run out of time,” Premier Dwight Ball told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a letter first reported by CBC. The province, he said, faces an “immediate and urgent financial crisis.”
The coronavirus pandemic “is a major disaster for the provinces,” Philip Cross, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa think tank, said in an interview. “They don’t have the fiscal capacity to absorb a shock like this.” In the weeks and months ahead, Ottawa will be paying everyone’s bill. And whoever pays the bill calls the tune.

As was the case during the Great Depression, only the government in Ottawa has the resources to deal with this crisis:

In normal times, provincial governments are dominant players on the federal scene, responsible for the things that matter most in people’s lives: schools, hospitals, highways, welfare. But in times of crisis, the normally weak federal government takes centre stage, because of its greater ability to borrow money and levy taxes.
In the economic emergency caused by the pandemic, Ottawa is using its spending power to protect workers and businesses and to help out provinces as they struggle to develop the capacity to treat patients.
“In past crises, we’ve had major changes in the way we collaborate as a federation," Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, told me. “And this crisis might also result in changes.”

It's all about which governments can afford to take on mountains of debt:

The biggest immediate challenge for provincial governments could be finding lenders to finance the staggering increases in the cost of health care and other emergency measures, even as revenues collapse, especially because many provinces are already carrying high levels of debt.
In such an environment, said William Robson, president and chief executive officer of the C.D. Howe Institute, a think tank, Ottawa could help the provinces out in three ways.
One would be for the federal government, which has plenty of room to borrow, to raise funds and transfer them to the provinces. But in the past that has led to finger-pointing and a lack of accountability.
“You’re diluting the ability of the citizen to know who’s responsible if they’re unhappy with the quality of their health care," Mr. Robson observed.
Another approach would be for Ottawa to guarantee a provincial bond issue. The third approach, and for Mr. Robson, the preferred one, is for the Bank of Canada to temporarily buy up provincial debt, which is exactly what the bank has started doing, through its Provincial Money Market Purchase program. With the bank’s help, Newfoundland and Labrador should be able to finance its operations.
These monetary moves have been supplemented by the federal government’s efforts to support businesses, workers and the unemployed.

For thirty years, conservatives have been railing at the levels of federal debt. But they may be forced to reconsider their position -- particularly in the aftermath of this crisis.

Image: National Post

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The Coronovirus And Climate Change

The coronavirus is reminding us that it's foolish to go to war with Mother Nature. Tom Friedman writes:

As Rob Watson, one of my favorite environmental teachers, likes to remind people: “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.”
You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot manipulate her. And you certainly cannot tell her, “Mother Nature, stop ruining my beautiful stock market.”
No, no, no. Mother Nature will always and only do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate, and “Mother Nature always bats last,” says Watson, “and she always bats 1.000.” Do not mess with Mother Nature.

If the coronavirus is making an impression on you, climate change should make a deeper impression:

Because there is one huge difference between the coronavirus and climate change: Climate change doesn’t “peak” — and then flatten out and then maybe dissipate or be permanently prevented by vaccine — so normal life resumes.
No, when the Greenland and Antarctic ice melts, it’s gone, and we humans will have to contend with the implications of sea level rise, mass movements of populations and various kinds of extreme weather — wetter wets, hotter hots and drier dries — forever.
There is no herd immunity to climate change. There are only endless impacts on the herd.

Clearly, Donald Trump knows nothing about Mother Nature. And, most certainly, he is blind and deaf to the lessons she teaches. The rest of us can not afford to follow his example.

Image: Nature Wallpapers Desktop Nexus

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Listening To Our Better Angels

Readers of this space know that I have had little good to say about Doug Ford. But Martin Regg Cohn -- who also has seen little to praise in Ford's performance -- writes in today's Toronto Star  that Ford is turning out to be the kind of leader Ontario needs at this moment:

He is listening, at last, to expert advice — not going with his gut. Where once Ford mistakenly encouraged people to fly off on March break, he is now a self-disciplined disciplinarian, admonishing people to stay home with displays of tough love.
Even if his briefings do not soar to the rhetorical heights of N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, they do not stoop to the buffoonery and bellicosity of Donald Trump’s White House monologues. While Ford’s audiences can’t compare to the record numbers of Americans watching their duelling leaders on daytime TV, and don’t match the reach of a self-isolating and importuning Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the premier is making his mark.
Ford’s daily performance is so remarkable because it is so unexpected, so unlike the public persona he has cultivated throughout his public life. Gone for now is the hostility and insecurity, the pandering and partisanship, replaced by a steady resolve and resilience in the face of tough questions.

He no longer speaks as the leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives, but of all Ontarians:

The premier is acting and talking, at last, like the premier of all Ontarians. Not a political messiah preaching an imaginary Ford Nation incantation.
“There’s no better army than I have behind me than the 14-1/2 million people of this province that are standing shoulder to shoulder united, working with us,” Ford intoned Monday. “We will conquer this, we will defeat this COVID-19.”

I admit my surprise. However, it reminds me that -- occasionally -- we listen to our better angels. We're going to have to do a lot more of that.

Image: CTV Troronto-CTV News

Monday, March 30, 2020


At a moment like this, Trust is the coin of the realm. Last week, the Trudeau government came close to destroying that trust. Robin Sears writes:

The Trudeau government should probably be saying a quiet thank you to Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh for pulling them back from the brink in their shaky handling of the emergency relief legislation. Inexplicably, the government sought the power to tax and spend, with no Parliamentary oversight, until the end of next year. It was unwise, unnecessary and fed directly into Liberal opponents’ favourite meme about the governing party as sneaky and power hungry.
They deserve credit for quickly moving to mend the self-inflicted damage. All parties, with the exception of some predictable showboat backbenchers, deserve credit for mostly foregoing the usual partisan hyperventilating, leaving the tough talk to private negotiations.
One may hope there were voices on the government side who said, “Wait a minute! This will destroy trust in us to govern fairly, openly and competently. Lose that trust and we lose the country!” I think we may be confident that all the political players will understand how essential it will be to avoid another such potentially disastrous moment.

However, this moment will last for quite a while. And, when the virus subsides, we will truly be faced with the problem of trust:

Discussion will soon have to turn to issues of recovery and payback. As the medical crisis crests and begins to come under control, the economic crisis will continue to deepen.
It is at that moment, perhaps over the summer in Canada, that trust in our politicians and business leaders will become invaluable. They will need to triage economic assistance, making some who get pushed down the list, even more frightened and angry.
Business leaders will need to be seen to be “doing the right thing” by their employees, customers and community. Those who now turn to making ventilators and PPE products for free or at cost for front line workers will have built a reservoir of trust that will help carry them through their own priority-setting nightmares.

COVID-19 is testing our national character. Let's hope we can pass the test.

Image: Facebook

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Denial Zombie

Paul Krugman has been writing lately about what he calls "zombie ideas." Climate change denial is a zombie idea. So is pandemic denial.  Both are zombie cousins.  Both are rooted in disdain for expertise. Krugman writes:

When you have a political movement almost entirely built around assertions that any expert can tell you are false, you have to cultivate an attitude of disdain toward expertise, one that spills over into everything. Once you dismiss people who look at evidence on the effects of tax cuts and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, you’re already primed to dismiss people who look at evidence on disease transmission.
This also helps explain the centrality of science-hating religious conservatives to modern conservatism, which has played an important role in Trump’s failure to respond.

Those who deny both climate change and the pandemic also fear the halo effect of government action:

Conservatives do hold one true belief: namely, that there is a kind of halo effect around successful government policies. If public intervention can be effective in one area, they fear — probably rightly — that voters might look more favorably on government intervention in other areas. In principle, public health measures to limit the spread of coronavirus needn’t have much implication for the future of social programs like Medicaid. In practice, the first tends to increase support for the second.

Modern conservatives have zeroed in on who and what they consider are their most powerful enemies -- experts and government. They've done this on the climate change file. And they're doing it during the coronavirus pandemic.