Canadians are settling for mediocrity. We don't have to.
Hard to disagree with anything that Matt has written here. Our fundamental underlying problem is probably ignorance (or stupidity). We continually elect politicians who are extremists and or idealogues. I am completely gob smacked that Justin Trudeau and his government have won three consecutive elections, and that the NDP get any votes at all. The Greens are a disaster and yet they actually have seats in the commons. And the Conservatives can't seem to open their mouths with saying the word "abortion". Governments at all levels are declaring climate "emergencies" and "crises" and talking about climate change as an existential threat, while the IPCC (you know, that body of experts and scientists who have been studying this stuff for thirty years) have only gone so far as to call it "concerning". How can we possibly achieve competence on a country wide basis when the people with their hands on the levers are full of hyperbole and panic? First we dial down the extremism. Then maybe we get a shot at competent.
Look, our history is essentially we threw together a bunch of people who didn't have a ton in common (US Loyalists, various First Nations, French settlers, British settlers) beyond not wanting to be American! That's set up our national past time: constantly comparing ourselves to Americans.
What we miss in doing that is identifying and leaning into our advantages and strenghts. We could be an effective middle power. I was suprised when I looked it up and discovered we have a bigger GDP than Russia. We could look inward and figure out what we want Canada to be on the world stage, instead on constantly patting ourselves on the back about being slightly better than the US on a few select measures.
Canada does have some significant advantages. We do a pretty decent job at scientific reserach, though we struggle to turn that IP into a business advantage. We have significant natural resources, along with a lot of related expertise. We have found a way to attract a lot of immigration and integrate those folks into Canada, which I think is an extension of our history of being a bunch of different people, kind of thrown together, forced to find a way to (somewhat) co-exist. We've been far from perfect (several Quebec referendums, longstanding hard feelings in Western Canada and the Maritimes and a very not-great history of engaging with First Peoples), we've managed to stumble along without a lot of violence or civil discourd.
I do think there is a community of democratic middle powers that should find ways to work togther to balance the superpowers. That would mean thinking about what Canada could bring to those kinds of partnerships besides words. We've established trade agreements with key partners in the EU and Asia, we could and should back that up with continued diplomatic coordination.
Besides all of that, I suspect that Matt is leaning into a more specific frustration (that I share) which is that our public and private sector institutions seem to be mostly non-evil but also not terribly competent. We can't seem to get stuff done. That's true for things like buying fighter jets. But, it also is true in a business class that seems focused on incremental improvements (look at our productivity) and an economic approach that still seems focused on foreign investment. We have brilliant people in Canada, but we mainly seem to see ourselves as a minor league economy where superstars will eventually leave rather than trying to create something big here. There are exceptions (Shopify, Magna) but mostly Canada doesn't feel like a place where you can dream big and realize your dream here. Part of that is having access to one of the biggest markets in the world right next door, but it also feels a bit cultural -- that we think of Canada as the small hometown you eventually need to leave. Why is that? Why can't greatness flourish here?
I can't think of a better allegory for Canada's mediocrity than the prime minister's residence @ 24 Sussex remaining in a state of disrepair for the entirety of the Justin Trudeau Years (all seven of them!)
Oh, would you like an example of us having our shit together on something, Matt? How about our financial system? The one just south of us, and the one in Britain, collapsed, with multiple bank failures, and more averted only by trillions in hastily-printed Fed-money bailouts. Their failure, sorry, let me spell that correctly, their F*A*I*L*U*R*E, crashed banks and whole economies around the world. Except in so-nearby, so-dependent Canada, which had zero bank failures, needed zero bailouts, and our economics-major PM correctly calculated our "stimulus" at half as much as Obama needed, per capita, and a third as much as Obama was given, allowing us to make the faster recovery.
That smart-manager PM being Harper, to whom I, an opponent, give due credit. As long as due credit is also given to governments of both parties, for decades, building the "norms" and rules into our strong, world-class-reliable, financial system. (Just as the American blunder of bank deregulation was bipartisan.)
There's cherry-picking here: America has far more ability to kill people and blow things up, which I guess is impressive to some, if not to the Afghans who beat them anyway. They really suck at healing and saving lives, though, with their medical system costing twice what ours does ($11K/citizen/year, vs $5.5K) but with worse outcomes. Three times as bad an outcome, for COVID, seven times as bad if you are under 50.
I'm just not jealous of the nation whose vast military power led them to defeat against rice-paddy farmers, Baghdad shopkeepers, and Afghan shepherds. Or the keen intelligence agencies that told them going in was a good idea. I'm not proud that we spent years deciding to buy their airplanes after all, though the delay saved billions; but I'd we way more ashamed if we'd *developed* the F35, an utter embarrassment to the profession of arms.
Can Matt explain why we keep appearing on all those "Best Countries on Earth" lists? Those make sense after my review; after his, not so much.
...I'll stop at three. Best quality of life, best for business, best reputation.
Canadians suffer from an extreme aversion to risk, which leads to a lot of mediocre outcomes. In government and the public service, this has manifested in an increasing concentration of control and decision making at the highest levels to minimize any potential political consequences of activity. This has disempowered and disincentivized civil servants from taking initiative, a predictable outcome of micromanagement. Why take the risk of doing something if somebody further up the chain will freak out and punish you for it later?
I would argue we are even failing at being Canadian hosers, emphasis on “Canadian”. We don’t even drink our own beer. What other country in the world fetishizes another country’s beer brands? What are the most popular beers in Canada? Likely Bud lite and Coors. How embarrassing is it that Saskatoon’s hockey barn is named the Coors Event Centre?
And…Timmies long ago sold out to an international conglomerate that only warms donuts up that are made in some vast central location. Pathetic.
As for the rest of the article, I couldn’t agree more.
Old age is taking quite a toll on my mind and body so when Matt's piece arrived this morning I was musing about the future faced by my beloved friends and family.
I was seeing a country with the finest social and legal protections ever designed by humankind. Prosperity providing the basics of life to virtually everyone and much more to most -- indeed, propane-fuelled smokers and lakes full of boats! Compassion, generosity, kindness and equanimity. Industry. Freedom. Education. Opportunity. Safety. Abundant beauty and bountiful natural resources. Adversarial politics to keep everyone thinking and improving.
And then, reading the comments, I found an endless litany of complaints and almost no plaudits. I have no problem with a microscopic examination of what could be better (I enjoy the debate) but could it not be contextualized in a macroscopic and realistic frame of wonderment -- gratitude for what we all have?
We are mediocre because we have uninspiring, value signalling, shallow leadership on all levels of government filled with individuals who are scared of challenging their party cronies for fear of being kicked out of their respective parties, gutless wonders who defer to a bloated ineffective bureaucracy who can’t successfully order a box of paper clips!
Fully agree with Matt’s article and I think the mediocrity extends well beyond Canadian public institutions and into the private sector. I would however disagree with Matt in calling our immigration policy a success. Full disclosure, while I was born in Canada I come from a family of immigrants. Ukrainian, Greek, Chinese, Indian - all are a part of my extended family. I believe this country is blessed to have people from such diverse cultures and backgrounds and an immigration policy that continues to bring people from all over the world to our country is indeed a success. However, our immigration policy has become an excuse for our nation’s mediocrity. Other than houses, we don’t really produce things in this country the way we used to be capable of. Not knowing how to grow our economy by getting better at what we do, our leaders grow our economy by growing the number of people in the economy. What could be so bad with that ?
Well, for one we have created a housing crisis because we cannot build at the rate we need, to keep up with increased immigration levels. All this talk of driving up the supply of housing is a bunch of BS. Anyone with a familiarity of home construction knows that the industry is operating at flat out capacity, has been for some time, and cannot produce at a much higher rate than it does.
Second, our immigration policy becomes an excuse for our private sector at having to get better at what they do. Getting better at what you do typically means you become more cost effective and more productive. Canada has some of the lowest productive gains in the developed world. Businesses in Canada have some of the lowest re-investment rates in the developed world. The reason is pretty obvious – in fact it comes across the news almost daily. Across the rest of the developed world, if your labour supply is relatively stable and you want to grow your business you need to get more productive with the employees you have. Very simple math. In Canada, you just complain that we need higher immigration levels or temporary foreign workers so that you don’t need to do the hard work of figuring out how to grow your business with the same general level of staffing. I own three businesses. High levels of immigration are great for me. A constant pool of hard working people low compensation people. Two of my three companies have set missions that aim to be the best at what they do across North America. Now that they are seeing competition that has not had access to a steady stream of low paid workers, they are realizing that there is a lot of catch up to do. I am happy about that because it means that over time, we are going to be able to increase what we pay our people. Growing your economy with an outsized reliance on growing the number of people in your economy means that the economy indeed grows but the GDP per person stays stagnant. Does this sound familiar Canada ? Mediocrity.
Finally there is an outright cost to using population growth as the sole source of growth and Matt refers to it in our infrastructure deficit. I live in BC. We have had high population growth for some time. With the exception of a few downtown cores that have become more livable I would be hard pressed to find one part of BC where the quality of life has improved. It is not due to the increased numbers of people per se. It is the lack of infrastructure. Compared to 20 years ago, it now is much harder to get around in any community in BC, much harder for your kids to attend a school close to their home, hospitals, etc are all over crowded. This is not even mediocrity but actual decline, and it comes from the policy of relying on growing your economy by growing the number of people in your economy.
No politician from any party is even willing to ask the question as to whether our immigration levels are good for our economy for fear of being branded a racist or anti-immigrant. So here is a policy proposal to tackle at least a portion of the mediocrity afflicting this country. Change the immigration level to either target a net zero growth in the labour pool, or some other labour pool growth target (eg .5%) so that we continue to bring people from around the world to our country, we don’t starve our economy with a shrinking labour pool, but crucially, we do not become reliant on immigration as the primary way to grow.
Does anyone honestly think Justin Trudeau has any idea on how to grow our productivity ? No, but he does know this. If he keeps juicing the immigration levels, it will appears from the headline economic growth numbers that Canada is doing well. But underneath it is mediocrity.
Rant over. Thank you.
We strive for mediocrity and excel in smugness.
I think many of us older people despair at the incompetence and mediocrity we see in our institutions and business.
What I have noticed is the fact many managers do not recognize who works and who doesn't. Personality traits are the criteria for judgement rather than straight talk and work ethic.
When using this criteria for filling our bureaucracy we have ended up with mass incompetence in so many areas. Health care, military, public works etc. All are inundated with this disease. Being a hooser is OK. No doing your job is not.
I think we would be lucky to attain mediocrity. We are actually overachievers among democracies when it comes to bad government, especially in the matter of sowing hatred, division, and discrimination among our citizens.
Nice post, Matt! I won't try to diagnose the issues. It's not clear there is a common cause, either. Lots of blame being put at the feet of Canadian politicians in the comments. I am not sure it's entirely or even mostly their fault -- many, many western democracies are struggling to deliver effective solutions to a host of issues caused by a host of what seem like wicked problems. Every solution (out immigration policies, for example, to deal with declining birthrates and increasing numbers of people needing old-age services) brings its own set of challenges.
And do we not have (relatively) good outcomes in education and healthcare?
What strikes me as completely correct about what you've said is that we enjoy a high standard of living because of the work of prior generations, our natural resources, and our proximity to the USA. For a country with half its working age population having post-secondary education, we have surprisingly little in the way of homegrown businesses. Not a lot of innovation. This is something Coyne seems to emphasize, we need to put economic growth at the forefront of out concerns because it will (mostly) rise all boats. We have educated people, we have a fairly business friendly system, but clearly there are things discouraging the investment that exists elsewhere. How do we change that?
I loved this...but you don't BBQ in winter and still call yourself a Canadian??? :)
Good article. I have lived in Canada for 53 years and in the US for 15 years and think I have been analytical in seeing the good and bad of both countries. Both countries have slid downhill in a multitude of ways; the US is more worrisome politically, socially and with violence. But Canada, with its vaunted and successful health care system essentially failing is very worrisome. We need a real, sensible evaluation of our problems in Canada and some real solutions. As a commentator below noted, Canadian politicians are failing. They simply are not smart enough or leaders who can focus on the most important aspects that need fixing (and then fix them). Doug Ford in Ontario is text book example of someone who is simply not smart enough to fix problems.
I couldn't agree more. It's not asking a lot of a government to get the basics right, that's the only reason why we pay our taxes.