Matt Gurney: Let's talk about what Canada being broken means
I have bad news. I also have good news. But then bad news again.
By: Matt Gurney
To the growing list of articles grappling with the issue of whether Canada is broken — and how it's broken, if it is — we can add this one, by the Globe and Mail's Tony Keller. I can say with all sincerity that Keller’s is one of the better, more thoughtful examples in this expanding ouevre. Keller takes the issue seriously, which is more than can be said of some Canadian thought leaders, whose response to the question is often akin to the Bruce Ismay character from Titanic after being told the ship is doomed.
(Spoiler: it sank.)
But back to the Globe article. Specifically, Keller writes about how once upon a time, just over a century ago, Canada and Argentina seemed to be on about the same trajectory toward prosperity and stability. If anything, Argentina may have had the edge. Those with much grasp of 20th-century history will recall that that isn't exactly how things panned out. I hope readers will indulge me a long quote from Keller's piece, which summarizes the key points:
By the last third of the 20th century, [Argentina] had performed a rare feat: it had gone backward, from one of the most developed countries to what the International Monetary Fund now classifies as a developing country. Argentina’s economic output is today far below Canada’s, and consequently the average Argentinian’s income is far below that of the average Canadian.
Argentina was not flattened by a meteor or depopulated by a plague. It was not ground into rubble by warring armies. What happened to Argentina were bad choices, bad policies and bad government.
It made no difference that these were often politically popular. If anything, it made things worse since the bad decisions – from protectionism to resources wasted on misguided industrial policies to meddling in markets to control prices – were all the more difficult to unwind. Over time the mistakes added up, or rather subtracted down. It was like compound interest in reverse.
And this, Keller warns, might be Canada's future. As for the claim made by Pierre Poilievre that "Canada is broken," Keller says this: "It’s not quite right, but it isn’t entirely wrong."
I disagree with Keller on that, but I suspect that's because we define "broken" differently. We at The Line have tried to make this point before, and it's worth repeating here: we think a lot of the pushback against the suggestion that Canada might be broken is because Canada is still prosperous, comfy, generally safe, and all the rest. Many, old enough to live in paid-off homes that are suddenly worth a fortune, may be enjoying the best years of their lives, at least financially speaking. Suggesting that this is "broken" sometimes seems absurd.
But it's not: it’s possible we are broken but enjoying a lag period, spared from feeling the full effects of the breakdown by our accumulated wealth and social capital. The engines have stopped, so to speak, but we still have enough momentum to keep sailing for a bit. Put more bluntly, “broken” isn’t a synonym for “destroyed.” A country can still be prosperous and stable and also be broken — especially if it was prosperous and stable for long enough before it broke. The question then becomes how long the prosperity and stability will last. Canada is probably rich enough to get away with being broken for a good long while. What’s already in the pantry will keep us fed and happy for years to come.
But not indefinitely.
So no. We aren’t wrecked or ruined. I’d still rather be here than most places. But I do think Canada is broken for two reasons. First, our institutions are, broadly speaking, not effective at their jobs, or, as Lauren Dobson-Hughes wrote so powerfully here, “fit for purpose.” Our military can’t procure stuff, we can’t get passports or children’s medicine, we have run up massive infrastructure deficits that we seem incapable of fixing, and our health-care system’s best and brightest have spent the last few years passionately debating the nuances of what “system collapse” would really look like in practice. Worse, our political culture is increasingly dysfunctional in ways that make it unlikely, if not effectively impossible, for us to fix those other institutions. Deliverology didn’t become a punchline overnight or by accident. It took work!
It is possible that this is temporary: some sort of post-pandemic hangover that'll clear on its own with time. That would be great. But I don't think that's a safe assumption.
There are pockets of resiliency, and even outright exceptions, to this gloomy picture. And certainly some of us are thriving as individuals. Still, it’s a lot easier today to list things that aren’t working than to list things that are. And some of those things are pretty important!
Back to Keller. His piece takes seriously the question of whether or not Canada is broken, or at least it tries to. Keller lays out a series of metrics that show that Canada is not broken, at least compared to the U.S. I'd quibble with that as a real test of our brokenness (or otherwise), but Keller also notes the areas where we are lagging. He is very, very fair.
But reading his piece, something bothered me. Keller missed something important: why compare us to the U.S., when most of the metrics he was using have data going back long enough that we can compare Canada’s performance today to Canada’s performance in recent decades? What would that tell us?
So I did that. I took Keller’s metrics, at least the ones that were specific enough for me to hunt down the sources, and compared how we are doing now to how we used to be doing. The picture that emerged was complicated and nuanced, but … overall? It wasn’t encouraging.
Take life expectancy. Keller notes that, “The average Canadian born in 2020 can expect to live nearly five years longer than the average American.” I pulled up the OECD’s data on life expectancy, and that’s true. But then I also pulled up the same data for 2010 and 2000. And what I found is that Canada ranked 16th globally for overall life expectancy in the 2020 report, 12th in 2010 and eighth in 2000. We remain better than America (yay?). But we’re falling behind globally — even though we’re living longer today than in 2000, other countries are improving faster. Why?
Keller also looks at education, using the OECD’s “PISA” reports, for Programme for International Student Assessment, as his preferred metric. I checked the reports for 2018, 2009 and 2000 (as close as I could to tracking with the decade-long gaps I used for life expectancy). Canada was globally a high performer in each of those years, but our test scores in math, reading and science have all declined over that period. Not massively, but observably. PISA’s own website is a nightmare to navigate, but Wikipedia aggregates the main findings in a much friendlier format. (I did confirm that the wiki’s Canada data conforms with PISA’s own datasets.)
A similar problem with Keller’s thesis emerges when we look at one of his other chosen metrics. Keller notes that our homicide rate is only a quarter of the American one. Okay, fair, but … it’s also getting worse. Not massively, but again, observably. Violent crime overall is also increasing, but that is a reversal of a low-ebb during the 2010s — it’s higher than it was, but at least until 2021, still below 2010 levels. Put that down as a win or a loss at your own discretion.
The most interesting fact cited by Keller, though, was this: “The children of low-income Canadians are more likely than their American counterparts to grow up and join the middle class, according to research by Miles Corak, a Canadian economist at the City University of New York.”
That was interesting. I remembered that work by Corak. There were a bunch of articles and even books a few years ago about this trend, claiming that the American dream wasn’t dead, it had just immigrated to Canada. I wasn’t sure if that would still be true, though, so I emailed Corak directly and asked for a comment. What he gave me was an extremely generous reply — so much so that I’d love to either publish some form of it as an oped here at The Line, or perhaps do a podcast episode with him. In terms of what he actually said, here’s the crux of it: it’s too soon to know if Canadian social mobility is retreating, because you can only measure that on generational timescales. But Corak is concerned.
“My reading of the evidence is in fact, that there was some deterioration in social mobility in Canada when we look at children born over the 1970s and into the 1980s” he said in his email to The Line. “This mostly reflects higher chances of an intergenerational cycle of low-income children … [being] more likely to be stuck in the bottom as adults.”
Corak noted that there have been policies implemented by the current federal government to address this issue, which is good, but they will only go so far. “As important as these policies are, they are paddling upstream and there is a need to worry a good deal more about inclusive growth,” Corak continued. A major concern? Sky-high home prices in Toronto, which used to be an engine for social mobility, a place people could move to, buy a house, and find good work, even if their hometowns were struggling. It’s not anymore, and now, the “housing market reflects the hard-baking of rising inequality during the 1990s across generations.”
Those are Corak’s words (lightly condensed and edited by me), and like I said, I hope to figure out some way of getting a fuller version of his views up here at The Line soon, because it was fascinating. But if nothing else, this should temper some of Keller’s optimism on the social mobility front.
Again: lag time. We are in it.
It’s not all bad news for Canada, and I don’t want to pretend it is. Keller cites the Human Freedom Index, which measures economic, civil and political freedom; Canada has been highly ranked and very stable over the last two decades. Some annual variation aside, we are among the most free nations around, and have been consistently. (See page 109 of the latest report.) StatCan, meanwhile, has some outright good news: poverty has fallen considerably in Canada in recent years. Even setting aside the weird 2020 numbers, which were unavoidably skewed by the geyser of pandemic-era social-support spending, poverty has dropped sharply in recent years. This is good news. Full stop. We can only hope that the gains are not erased by the current economic challenges.
The above shouldn’t be considered a rebuttal to Keller, per se, because again, his article was one of the better ones I’ve read on this issue. My point is simply to note that we can’t answer the question of whether or not we’re broken simply comparing ourselves to other countries, because being the least-broken country in the OECD (or on Planet Earth itself) isn’t good enough. Looking at our own performance metrics, at least the ones Keller chose, presents a mixed bag: some good news, some status quo, and some actual evidence of decline.
So we’ll see. I continue to maintain the problem in Canada isn’t the challenges we face — we have always faced challenges and these aren’t necessarily even the worst (though gosh, there’s a bunch all at once). The real problem seems to be that our institutions, and the political systems that oversee our institutions and create new ones, are dysfunctional in precisely the ways that will make fixing them a major problem. Meanwhile, of course, we face real, unavoidable challenges that are baked in: demographic change and a destabilizing, warming world, and the enduring problem of our rotten economic productivity, which our latest federal budget bothered to … note. That’s all.
Add it all up? As the world turns nastier, we’re less able to muster any kind of coherent response to challenges big or small, foreign or domestic, and we’re getting (relatively) poorer at the same time, too.
So yeah. We aren’t destroyed. This isn’t a dystopia. There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation, as Adam Smith wrote, and Canada has more ruin than most to fall back on. But not infinite reserves. There are going to be decisions we need to make, problems we need to solve and things we’ll need to do because reality will require it. And we aren’t. I’ve run out of charitable explanations why, and have been forced to include that we simply no longer can. The system has locked up before the real bills have even started to come due.
And to fix the system, we have … well, jeepers. We have the Canadian governments we have, and if you don’t like those, we have the opposition parties that’ll replace them when they eventually lose.
Mull that over for a bit, friends. We may not be able to fix any of the worsening problems that face us, but at least we can yell at each other online.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org