Saturday, August 15, 2020

What Are We Going To Do?


The world has changed, Lori Fox writes. And we're not going back to the old one:

The world we knew is gone. 
The life you thought you were going to have is gone.

The lives we all thought we were going to have are gone.

We're still trying to understand what has happened to us:

Since COVID-19 first emerged sometime toward the end of 2019, more than 741,000 people have died and 20 million have been infected, with 121,000 infections in Canada alone. With people locked into their homes, sick or afraid of getting sick, the economy came to a grinding halt, a shockwave of lost jobs and reduced or redistributed consumer spending. Canada lost around two million jobs in April, with the hardest hit – outside of people who were already un- or underemployed – being low-wage workers, of which women and younger people comprise a large portion, groups that were already at an economic disadvantage in the Before.

Those jobs aren’t just going to just magically reappear as we reopen; COVID-19 has reshaped consumer demand and will continue to do so into the future. Many small businesses – restaurants in particular – are permanently closed, and it will take time for something to replace them, if such a thing will even be possible in the near future.

 Maybe that's not a bad thing. However, we need some perspective:

For the working class who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, discussions around CERB – which some claim is a disincentive for people to return to work – and how some people, particularly millennials, spend that money, only serves to make the deep-seated class divide in this country more apparent. If $2,000 a month – about $12.50 an hour, or around $24,000 a year before taxes for a full-time worker – means that people are making more money than they were before, the problem is not CERB, but that workers are not fairly compensated for their labour with a living wage. Anyone who would weigh in critically on how that money is spent, moreover, should ask themselves if they believe that only the wealthy deserve financial autonomy, and the pleasure and dignity of human comforts, or if CERB is really just a subsidy for landlords.

The curtain has been pulled back on how our society operates:

The destabilizing effect of this pandemic has laid bare the economic inequality on which our society functions. Class disparity, the resistance to universal income, systemic racism, the militarization of the police and the rhetoric of the current political climate are not the result of the pandemic; they are the endgame of capitalism. We’ve merely paused the machine long enough to see them clearly.

So the question remains: What are we going to do about it?

Image: Pinterest

Friday, August 14, 2020

Why The Rush?

In Ontario, there is a rush to get back to school. Bruce Arthur asks, Why the rush?

On Thursday, provincial Education Minister Stephen Lecce delivered yet another version of the school reopening plan. He primarily announced that school boards can now access a total of $500-million in reserve funds to hire extra staff, and to lease space in order to reduce class sizes and ensure social distancing. And there’s a total of $50-million to upgrade HVAC ventilation systems.

Which means three-and-a-half weeks to remake a lot of schools. Lecce first brushed off the idea that school openings could be delayed, though he said he was open to staggered starts over the first week. He said some school boards had already looked at leasing other spaces, and hiring more teachers, or upgrading ventilation systems in buildings that, at last check, were not always easy to upgrade. If you’ve ever seen how long it takes to make a school playground smaller and worse, you might be skeptical.

Evenly applied, $500-million is about $109,000 per each of the 4,600 schools in Ontario, and it will be case by case as to how many teachers, HVAC upgrades, and facility rentals that produces. The Toronto District School Board’s projected cost to create full-time,15-to-20 kid-per-class, enhanced-protocol schools in a prudent manner was at least $20-million.

We know that children do not suffer from COVID as adults do. But we do know they transmit the disease:

The science evolves: children, as it turns out, can get and transmit the virus effectively, even if they mercifully suffer it less, especially under the age of 10. But that means they can infect teachers, staff, parents, caregivers, and their social circles. And yes, Ontario’s community transmission is blessedly low. The point is nobody wants schools, as they have in some jurisdictions, to drive outbreaks.

Meanwhile, parent advocacy groups, Toronto Public Health, Peel Public Health, and the Public Health Agency of Canada suggested smaller class sizes. The Sick Kids reports the province so widely lauded said, “smaller class sizes should be a priority strategy as it will aid physical distancing and reduce potential spread from any index case,” which the province ignored before the CEO of Sick Kids reiterated it.

And Dr. Michael Warner, an infectious disease specialist and Toronto's Michael Garron Hospital says, “The plan cannot end at the doors of the school. It has to make sure that when people leave the school, communities are protected from the school.”

So why not take the time and money to do it right?


Thursday, August 13, 2020

COVID And Higher Education

Higher Education is facing two unpleasant truths: A university education has become a commodity. And students are no longer buying what universities are selling. Megan McArdle writes:

A pandemic is an essentializing force; it strips away the frosting of rhetoric and habit and forces us to confront bare realities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in higher education, which over the past few decades has been one of two sectors that have just kept increasing their prices, the share of national income and, of course, the share of our attention they claim.

To a large extent, students have become customers. And professors should acknowledge their own role in getting us to that point, because the commodification of higher education is a direct byproduct of the transformation of college into the entrance examination for America’s middle class, something the professoriate has cheered on.

Markets are terrific, and we need them, but we also need institutions that are buffered from them. When those buffers break down, as they have in America’s colleges, dysfunction ensues. University business-think has meant bureaucratic overgrowth and an obsession with useless “metrics” — assessing faculty using student evaluations rather than student learning, goosing “selectivity” by soliciting applications in order to reject them.

And now COVID has broken the model. "Suddenly, the lectures and the homework were the only part schools could still deliver. Yet somehow, few students seem reassured that they’re getting most of what they were paying tuition for."

None of the other stuff students paid for was available -- "residential amenities, sports teams, networking opportunities, career coaching, dating service and so forth." The end result will be that tuition fees will have to go down -- and there will be far fewer professors walking the halls of academe.

In so many ways, the world has changed. Higher Education won't be the same.

Image: The Irish Times

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Kamala Harris

So it's Kamala Harris -- a graduate of Westmount High School -- who is the Democratic vice presidential nominee. She's the future, Frank Bruni writes. And, God knows, Donald Trump and his vice president -- Mike Pence -- are ghosts from the past. The vice presidential debate will be a study in contrasts:

There’s Mike Pence, white of hair as well as cheek, his demeanor more starched than his dress shirt, his smile so tight it’s the twin of a grimace. He represents more than the Trump administration, God help him. He represents an America that’s half memory, half myth.

And there’s Kamala Harris — younger, blacker and more buoyant. She’s only the fourth woman on the presidential ticket of one of the country’s two major political parties and she’s the first woman of color. She represents an America that’s evolving, fitfully, toward equal opportunity and equal justice.

Under her gaze, Pence has to defend a racist, sexist president. As he watches helplessly, Harris gets to talk about how that racism and sexism feel to a Black woman like her. This isn’t any ordinary clash of perspectives and philosophies. It’s an extraordinary collision of life experiences.

Harris can be razor-sharp. But intellectual nuance is not Trump's thing. He won't fight Harris with ideas. He has none. He'll call her names. And she'll  respond:

And oh, can she be nimble and fierce. That’s what Biden learned in that tense primary debate, cheap shot or no cheap shot. That’s what Jeff Sessions, Brett Kavanaugh and William Barr learned when they appeared before Senate committees and endured her grilling.

Pence -- who is afraid to deal with any woman except his wife -- will not have an easy time of it. Neither will Trump.

Image:  The Boston Globe

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Mess Biden Will Inherit

Donald Trump encouraged incoming members of his administration to consider his tenure as a TV show   -- a show which has turned out to be about fantasy. Take, for instance, his latest executive orders. Eugene Robinson writes:

The smoke-and-mirrors executive actions Trump signed this weekend are but the latest example. They don’t actually do anything concrete to help the millions of Americans thrown out of work by the pandemic, with the one exception of extending the moratorium on repayment of student loans, which is a good thing. Beyond that, Trump didn’t really forestall an expected wave of evictions; he just mandated a study of the issue. Trump didn’t really extend the $600-a-week federal supplement to unemployment benefits; he cut it to $300 and demanded that the states, which are basically broke, pony up an additional $100.

Behind the smoke and mirrors is carnage. And, if Biden wins, he will inherit that carnage. Most obviously, there is the wreckage of COVID:

Just look at the devastation and disgrace the United States has suffered. Other industrialized nations listened to their medical experts, shut down their economies comprehensively to drive infection rates to near zero, and then cautiously reopened. They have done so in fits and starts, with some setbacks and new closures, but most have been able to keep the virus at bay.

But here, in the nation that Ronald Reagan called a “shining city on a hill,” infection rates in most regions remain out of control. Europe has imposed a travel ban against Americans, who are deemed too likely to spark new outbreaks of disease. The developed world must see us as one of those “shithole countries” that Trump famously disdained.

Then there are the raw racial divisions which Trump has exploited:

Cities across the nation are still rocked by the Black Lives Matter protests over police violence and systemic racism. A police shooting in Chicago — which police have said was return fire toward a protester who shot at officers — sparked widespread damage and looting Sunday along the city’s glittering downtown Magnificent Mile. There were tense weekend protests in flash points such as Portland, Ore., and Louisville, as well as in smaller cities such as Asheville, N.C., and Stamford, Conn.

A president who put the well-being of the nation above politics would have sought to lead and guide the fractious national conversation we are having about race. Instead, Trump has made the moment into a confrontation between advocates of “LAW & ORDER” and demonstrators whom he calls “Marxists” and “anarchists.”

The federal government, through the Justice Department, could be aiding the process of police reform. Instead, through the Department of Homeland Security, it sent unidentified officers in unmarked vans to sweep up protesters in Portland and threatens other cities with similar treatment.

Should Joe Biden win, he will have to confront cascading crises. He will have his work cut out form him -- because, as Mark Antony said, "the evil men do lives after them."

Image: Pinterest

Monday, August 10, 2020

Throwing It All Away

Tom Friedman writes that recent events in Lebanon provide a stark warning. Things go horribly wrong when everything becomes political. In Lebanon, it's been that way for a long time:

Because of the sectarian nature of Lebanese society, where all the powers of governing, and the spoils of the state, had been constitutionally or informally divided in a very careful balance between different Christian and Muslim sects, everything was indeed political. Every job appointment, every investigation into malfeasance, every government decision to fund this and not that was seen as advantaging one group and disadvantaging another.

It was a system that bought stability in a highly diverse society (between spasms of civil war) — but at the price of constant lack of accountability, corruption, misgovernance and mistrust.

Friedman writes that the United States is going down Lebanon's path:

The United States is becoming like Lebanon and other Middle East countries in two respects. First, our political differences are becoming so deep that our two parties now resemble religious sects in a zero-sum contest for power. They call theirs “Shiites and Sunnis and Maronites” or “Israelis and Palestinians.” We call ours “Democrats and Republicans,” but ours now behave just like rival tribes who believe they must rule or die.

As in the Middle East, so increasingly in America: Everything is now politics — even the climate, even energy, even face masks in a pandemic.

Indeed, we in America are becoming so much like a Middle Eastern country that, while the Lebanese were concluding that the explosion was truly an accident, President Trump was talking like a Beirut militia leader, declaring that it must have been a conspiracy. “It was an attack,” he said his generals had told him. “It was a bomb of some kind.”

The danger of tribalism is that it can kill a democracy:

A society, and certainly a democracy, eventually dies when everything becomes politics. Governance gets strangled by it. Indeed, it was reportedly the failure of the corrupt Lebanese courts to act as guardians of the common good and order the removal of the explosives from the port — as the port authorities had requested years ago — that paved the way for the explosion.

“For a healthy politics to flourish it needs reference points outside itself — reference points of truth and a conception of the common good,” explained the Hebrew University religious philosopher Moshe Halbertal. “When everything becomes political, that is the end of politics.”

To put it differently, when everything is politics, it means that everything is just about power. There is no center, there are only sides; there’s no truth, there are only versions; there are no facts, there’s only a contest of wills.

We live in a time where facts increasingly don't matter. It's who wins that matters.

In short, we risk throwing it all away.


Sunday, August 09, 2020

Pretty Ugly


A pandemic, Alan Freeman writes, allows us to see our leaders' true colours:

In the U.S., President Donald Trump downplays the surging death toll of the pandemic, but sees it as a great opportunity to muse about delaying the November election he now seems sure to lose. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson uses the pandemic diversion to stuff the House of Lords with his cronies, including his brother, the son of a Russian oligarch and members of the Labour Party who backed Brexit. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau figures the pandemic is a great time to give those neat guys at WE Charity a $1-billion contract without bothering to look at alternatives.

Such is also the case with Alberta's premier, Jason Kenney:

This week, it emerged that the government of Jason Kenney had agreed to basically scrap this year’s environmental monitoring of water flowing downstream of the province’s oilsands facilities along the main branch of the Athabasca River. No need for field studies on wetlands, fish or insects. No more pilot project on the risks posed by tailings ponds. No study of water quality in response to concerns about environmental degradation at Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kenney's decision will make Alberta's oilmen happy. But it's not good news for the other inhabitants of the planet. And it's part of a pattern:

In the spring, Alberta’s energy regulator suspended environmental reporting requirements for the oilsands producers. Requirements to monitor ground and surface water were gone. Testing for methane was suspended. Air quality testing was reduced. A spokesman said the suspensions are likely to stay in place as long as COVID-19-related rules are around.

Interesting that this is the same province that tripped over itself to make sure that its beef-processing plants kept operating, even in the wake of a massive outbreak of COVID-19 among workers at Cargill. Yet these same geniuses somehow couldn’t figure out a way to make water-quality testing safe on a remote northern river. Are they afraid of catching the coronavirus from a duck?

In addition to shutting down environmental monitoring of the oilsands, with Ottawa’s approval, the Kenney government has also decided to revive another dinosaur industry — coal mining. In June, decades-old protections that stopped open-pit mines in parts of the Rocky Mountains and the foothills were rescinded, causing consternation among Albertans anxious to protect the environment. Kenney is also effectively banking on Trump’s re-election as he pours billions into the Keystone XL pipeline that Joe Biden has vowed to stop.

Kenney is hellbent on exploiting the oilsands. But he's moving in the wrong direction:

Last month, Total, the French oil company, dramatically announced plans to write off US$7 billion worth of Alberta oilsands investments, saying they were “stranded assets” with no future because of global carbon-reduction targets and high production costs. Total joined a long list of international investors, including Deutsche Bank, HSBC and BlackRock that have blacklisted the oilsands.

Instead of regretting the decision and explaining what the province is doing to make the sector more climate-friendly, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage decided to lash out, calling Total’s decision “highly hypocritical.” She then went on to make the gobsmacking argument that international energy firms should actually increase their investments in Alberta, rather than pull out. That’s because Alberta is an ethical democracy and “a stable, reliable supply of energy,” she argued, noting that Total was still investing in Myanmar, Nigeria and Russia, presumably a bad idea because of their poor human rights records.

In most cases, when a leader reveals his or her true colours, those colours look pretty ugly.

Image: Al-Qualem