Wole Soyinka, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2021. 464 pages.

For many years, I have known of Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s most prominent literary figure, as a prolific writer of plays and poetry, plus a few novels. I knew that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature (long ago, in 1986). At age 87, he has published a new novel, a devastating satire on the failings of his homeland. I admit that Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is the first major work of Soyinka that I have read.

In his review in the Guardian (see accompanying article), Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer who fled his home country in the 1970s under death threats, characterizes Chronicles as “a vivid and wild romp through a political landscape riddled with corruption and opportunism and a spiritual landscape riddled with fraudulence and, even more disquietingly, state-sanctioned murder. This is a novel written at the end of an artist’s tether.” The key difference between Soyinka and many African writers is his insistence that, whatever the sins of colonialism, postcolonial African elites enjoy “agency” and writers should hold them accountable for the outcomes in the countries they govern.

With more than 200 million people, Nigeria has the largest population of any African country – nearly double that of the second, Ethiopia. Currently, both are enmeshed in civil war: the Tigray attempt to secede from Addis Ababa and the Boko Haram attempt to install a violent version of Salafist Islam across northern Nigeria and elsewhere in the Sahel. Like many African countries, Nigeria’s boundaries reflect colonial administration, not ethnic or tribal communities. Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups are the Muslim Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast. Post-independence, citizens of Nigeria would probably have been, if not the happiest people in the world, at least happier had they been citizens of three sovereign countries, enabling each of the three major communities to construct a society compatible with its ethnic heritage. Probably, but not certainly – there is no certainty in such speculation.

The one event in Nigeria known by at least some Canadians (mostly those of my generation, the generation that came of age in the 1960s) is the fate of the Igbo-dominated breakaway republic of Biafra, which lasted from May 1967 to January 1970. It ended after the Yoruba- and Hausa-dominated army imposed a brutal blockade that resulted in mass starvation, with Biafran deaths estimated at approximately one million. It was a cause célèbre at the time: many contemporary rock stars sided with Biafra, and John Lennon returned his MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) because the U.K. supplied arms to the central government and thereby contributed to Biafra’s collapse.

The Igbo were not innocent lambs led to slaughter. Shortly after independence, political violence erupted, and Igbo elites participated in some of the politically inspired assassinations over the decade. In early 1967, leaders of the army and regional political leaders met in Aburi, Ghana, in an eleventh-hour attempt to avoid civil war. The core of the Aburi Accord was transformation of the country into a decentralized federation with significant powers accorded to each of three regions. All representatives at Aburi signed the accord, but General Yakubu Gowon, head of the national government, never allowed it to be proclaimed.

Soyinka’s roots are with the Yoruba. His family descended from the royal family of Isara, one of several Yoruba dynasties. His father was an Anglican pastor and school headmaster, his mother an ardent Christian feminist. In the years leading to Biafra’s secession, Soyinka held a comfortable position as Chair of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s first university to grant degrees. In a quixotic attempt to avoid the looming civil war, Soyinka secretly met with Colonel Ojukwu, military governor in the Igbo southeast. When his unofficial intervention became known, Soyinka was arrested and kept in solitary for nearly two years. Another quixotic attempt to hold politicians accountable came three decades later, in the 1990s. Soyinka publicly condemned Sani Abacha, the general then running the national government. Soyinka was obliged to flee Nigeria, which he did on his motorcycle. Abacha arranged a trial in absentia, which resulted in Soyinka’s being condemned to execution.

The Igbos lost their independence, but they have won the historical interpretation of events. Long after the civil war, in 2006, Chimamanda Adichie, an Igbo, published an award-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (the title refers to Biafra’s flag).¹ The novel is the equivalent of Tolstoy’s treatment of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Another Igbo writer, Chinua Achebe, served as a Biafran cabinet minister during the war and 40 years later published his memoir, There was a Country.²  The following is an excerpt from the memoir – the parallel with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is obvious:

Said Baroness Asquith in the British House of Lords, “Thanks to the miracle of television we see history happening before our eyes. We see no Igbo propaganda; we see the facts.” Following the blockade imposed by the Nigerian government, “Biafra” became synonymous with the tear-tugging imagery of starving babies with blown-out bellies, skulls with no subcutaneous fat harboring pale, sunken eyes in sockets that betrayed their suffering. Someone speaking in London in the House of Commons or the House of Lords would talk about history’s happening all around them, but for those of us on the ground in Biafra, where this tragedy continued to unfold, we used a different language … the language and memory of death and despair, suffering and bitterness. The agony was everywhere. The economic blockade put in place by Nigeria’s federal government resulted in shortages of every imaginable necessity, from food and clean water to blankets and medicines. The rations had gone from one meal a day to one meal every other day—to nothing at all. Widespread starvation and disease of every kind soon set in. The suffering of the children was the most heart-wrenching.

Achebe’s most famous novel is his first, published a decade prior to Biafran secession. Things Fall Apart is the iconic novel about cultural disruption arising from Europeans’ intrusion on Africa’s tribal societies. In English-language schools and universities throughout Africa, it is on all relevant reading lists. Achebe’s novel has been linked to Soyinka’s famous play, Death and the King’s Horseman, written in the 1970s. The play is inspired by an actual event: a colonial official prevented the suicide of the horseman of a recently deceased tribal chief. According to Yoruba tradition, once dead, the horseman guides the chief to his life after death. Like Achebe’s novel, the play deals with incompatibility of Western and traditional cultures. Soyinka wrote an introduction in which he insisted that the play was an indictment as much of traditional African culture that sanctioned suicide as of imperial hubris. The play is set during World War II, when modern “civilized” countries were engaged in an all-consuming war. In 2009, the Guardian interviewed Soyinka on a London performance of the play:

I find it necessary to caution the would-be producer of this play against a sadly familiar reductionist tendency … At the time , the tendency – in the theatre, the cinema and the novel – was to present everything that dealt with things outside western culture as being understandable only as a “clash of cultures”. This covered everything, and it encouraged analytical laziness.³

Soyinka is not a guerrilla opponent of a corrupt national government. He is among the elite of west Africa. His best historical precedent is perhaps Voltaire. On occasion, Voltaire avoided prison by fleeing abroad (to Switzerland); at other times, European royal circles feted him. Though a critic of the “ancien régime,” Voltaire did not share the revolutionary ideas of contemporaries such as Rousseau. Soyinka has refused to identify with Marxist colleagues who blame all on French and British colonialism. His critique: Third World Marxism is reductive and ignores the complex realities of postcolonial societies. Soyinka has taken his distance from Léopold Sédar Senghor’s ideas of négritude, which he views as a romantic attempt to paint precolonial African society as ideal.⁴ A recent documentary film has used asynchronous film clips of Senghor and Soyinka elaborating on their respective literary and political ideas.⁵

When I searched for a Canadian review of Soyinka’s Chronicles in a national newspaper, all I found was this squib in the Globe and Mail:

Half a century after his last novel, the playwright and Nobel-winner returns to the form with aplomb in a bustling satirical tale about contemporary Nigeria, one of whose most memorable characters is Kighare Menka, a surgeon who runs a lucrative side business selling the amputated limbs and organs of suicide-bombing victims.

The squib is a testament to parochialism among Globe journalists. Not only is the brevity an insult to Soyinka; the squib’s author lost the plot. Probably, he or she never read the novel. Far from running the “lucrative side business,” Menka plays the role of Voltaire’s Candide, the naive moralist horrified by the lucrative elite-managed secret society that sells amputated limbs. The source of body parts is Boko Haram’s tactics and application of shari’a in northern Nigeria. (Spoiler alert: at the head of the society are the Machiavellian Nigerian prime minister and a prominent religious leader in the tradition of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry.)

Chronicles has parallels with Dostoyevsky’s finale, The Brothers Karamazov. In both novels, a whodunit mystery is a central plot device enabling the exhaustive discussion of a wide range of human behaviours and beliefs among closely entwined characters who enter into multiple conversations. Not until the final chapter in each novel does the reader discover who murdered a central character. The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoyevsky’s last major piece of writing; given his age, Chronicles may well be Soyinka’s. I hope not.

A Novel Written at the End of an Artist’s Tether
by Ben Okri

Ben Okri is a Nigerian poet and novelist, forced to flee his country in the 1970s. He won the Booker prize with his novel The Famished Road. Reprinted by permission from the Guardian, September 27, 2021.

Soyinka’s new novel tells the multidimensional story of a secret society dealing in human parts for sacrificial uses, whose members encompass the highest political and religious figures in the land. It details how the conspiracy and cover-up of this quasi-organisation affect not only the life of the nation but, more specifically, the lives of four friends. This is essentially a whistleblower’s book. It is a novel that explodes criminal racketeering of a most sinister and deadly kind that is operating in an African nation uncomfortably like Nigeria. It is a vivid and wild romp through a political landscape riddled with corruption and opportunism and a spiritual landscape riddled with fraudulence and, even more disquietingly, state-sanctioned murder. This is a novel written at the end of an artist’s tether. It has gone beyond satire. It is a vast danse macabre. It is the work of an artist who finally has found the time and the space to unleash a tale about all that is rotten in the state of Nigeria. No one else can write such a book and get away with it and still live and function in the very belly of the horrors revealed. But then no other writer has Soyinka’s unique positioning in the political and cultural life of his nation.

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth opens with the sentence: “Papa Davina … preferred to craft his own words of wisdom. Such, for instance, was his famous ‘perspective is all.’” This alerts us from the beginning that we need aesthetic distance to make sense of the twists and turns, the baroque engineering, the curious structure and the paradoxically exuberant tone of this strange novel.

Papa Davina is the religious guru, whose all-purpose spiritual ministry, Ekumenica, is an elaborate front for practices so sordid and monstrous that even when one learns what they are the mind still refuses to grasp them. He is in cahoots with the head of state, the wily and pragmatic Sir Goddie, and it seems that this racket, this secret society, encompasses the entire power structure of the land. Is this a metaphor for the extreme nature of corruption and lies that strangles the life out of that potentially great nation or is it a case where the metaphor is in fact the thing itself? If the latter, then the writer is dealing with one of the most existential problems in fiction, which is how a writer deals with the unspeakable in a medium in which things must be spoken of and a story told. How do you tell a story of the unspeakable?

Soyinka is one of Africa’s most representative writers. A poet, playwright, essayist, memoirist, activist and novelist, he was jailed in the 60s for his outspoken condemnation of the Nigerian civil war and was the first African recipient of the Nobel prize for literature in 1986. He has been one of the most caustic critics of dictatorships and bad governance in Nigeria.ᵃ This novel is the fruit of all that experience. It is his first in 48 years and only his third. His debut, The Interpreters, was the story of a generation of friends, each one representing one of the gods or goddesses of the Yoruba pantheon. It opens with the sentence: “Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes.” His second, Season of Anomy, was his fictional and poetic response to the Nigerian civil war. In the intervening years he has written more than 20 plays, poems, autobiographies, polemics and various forms of literary hand grenades. Apparently it took the forced solitude of lockdown to compel him to finally write the novel he has carried in him for some time.

It is a portrait of how a generation betrays and is betrayed by the prevailing ethos of moral entropy At the heart of Chronicles … is the tale of a quartet of friends who form themselves into a fraternity called the Gong of Four and how they maintain their integrity and are drawn into the maelstrom of political life that surrounds them. In a microcosmic sense it is a portrait of how a generation betrays and is betrayed by the prevailing ethos of moral entropy.

One thing to be clear about from the outset is that with certain writers of highly individualised voices, highly cultivated ways of seeing, there is nothing you can do about their styles. It is an inescapable fruit of how they see the world. Like Henry James,ᵇ like Conrad, like Nabokov,ᶜ there is no choice but to get used to the style, to saturate yourself in it. But once you nestle into that tone, something wonderful happens and a rollercoaster ride of enormous vitality is the result.

It is a high-wire performance sustained for more than 400 pages and it makes for uncomfortable and despairing reading, but always elevated with a robust sense of humour and the true satirist’s unwillingness to take the pretensions of power seriously, even when it is murderous in effect.

There are many things to remark upon in this Vesuvius of a novel, not least its brutal excoriation of a nation in moral free fall. The wonder is how Soyinka managed to formulate a tale that can carry the weight of all that chaos. With asides that are polemics, facilitated with a style that is over-ripe, its flaws are plentiful, its storytelling wayward, but the incandescence of its achievement makes these quibbles inconsequential.

If you want to know what kind of novel can be written by someone who has survived as a sort of insider in a difficult land but who has kept their creative conscience and their powers of invention alive then Chronicles… answers that question. It is Soyinka’s greatest novel, his revenge against the insanities of the nation’s ruling class and one of the most shocking chronicles of an African nation in the 21st century. It ought to be widely read.

Continue reading “Nigeria’s Voltaire, or Maybe Dostoyevsky”

Mario Polèse, Le miracle québécois : récit d’un voyageur d’ici et d’ailleurs. Montreal: Boréal, 2021. 336 pages.

His parents were Viennese. His mother was a Jew. Not surprisingly, they fled after the Anschluss in 1938. Mario Polèse was born in Holland, in 1943. His parents subsequently emigrated to the United States, where Mario obtained his PhD in urban studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He came to Montreal as a young academic – and decided to integrate into francophone Quebec. His first language is German, his second Dutch, his third English. French, his fourth language, is now, in the jargon of the Canadian census, his “language most used at home.”

Le miracle québécois is, in a sense, a lengthy “love letter” to Quebec francophones who, against the odds, have survived as a nation over two and a half centuries.¹ Polèse is diplomatic: he does not enter into partisan jibes at individual politicians, nor is he hostile to English-speaking Canadians. He apologizes for not addressing the problems faced by francophone Canadians outside Quebec, in particular Acadians, in his book. Nor, he acknowledges, does his book address the problems facing the Indigenous population, inside and outside Quebec.

Polèse begins with a 1960 quote from a prominent French academic:

A powerful sentiment underlying all ideas among French Canadians is their sense of inferiority in the province their ancestors created. The inferiority is real: the levers of command, in finance, industry, large firms, are all in the hands of English-speaking strangers.²

His opening paragraph summarizes the “miracle”:

The miracle is first the history of cohabitation of two peoples on the same territory and in the same city, two peoples separated originally by religion and language. It is the history of eliminating the social gulf between two peoples, the elimination of a historical relation of domination. It is, finally, the history of a cultural revolution, of a people who literally metamorphose – who transform their institutions, change social norms and change the definition of their nation.³

The Quiet Revolution

Polèse divides Quebec’s Quiet Revolution into two phases. The first was expansion of the Quebec government in the early 1960s, triggered by the équipe du tonnerre of Premier Jean Lesage. René Levesque, a member of the équipe, championed nationalization of the Quebec electric power system. Eric Kierans, a close friend of Lévesque’s, played an important role in maintaining the financial credibility of Quebec’s government.⁴ The single most important accomplishment of the first phase was creation of a modern state-run education system, from primary school to a network of new francophone universities – plus the innovation of cegeps – general and vocational colleges – as an accessible introduction for those wanting to pursue postsecondary studies. Before 1964, publicly funded Catholic and Protestant schools operated autonomously, with little state involvement.

The second phase was the necessary promotion of French and limitation of access to English-language public schools. Bill 101, adopted in 1977, was needed to ensure that Quebec’s future would belong to well-educated francophones – and not to well-educated immigrants integrating into the anglophone community.

As an aside, Polèse mentions the prominent bust of Camille Laurin, the articulate champion of Bill 101 in the first Parti Québécois government, in front of Office Québécois de la Langue Française headquarters in Montreal. Laurin’s accomplishment is not without critics. Some argue that Bill 101 has not adequately limited access to public English-language education and that French linguistic hegemony in Montreal remains in doubt; some argue that linguistic protection unnecessarily accelerated Montreal’s loss of status as a finance and head office city and increased its unemployment rate. Polèse interprets the second argument as the unavoidable cost of survival of French as the dominant lingua franca in the province.

At one level, Polèse’s book is a discussion of the Quiet Revolution’s success in closing many of the socioeconomic gaps present in 1960. In point form, here are key statistics he cites, along with a few others I’ve added:

Education
  • Average years of education among nonagricultural ethnic groups in Quebec, 1961: German 10.2 years, British 9.6, Jewish 9.5, French 7.0, Italian 5.5.
  • The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the most credible comparative assessment of secondary school systems in 80 middle- and high-income countries. Canada fared well in the most recent PISA round, conducted in 2018. Disaggregated by province, Quebec’s 2018 comprehensive PISA score was significantly better than the nine other provinces in mathematics (Quebec 532, rest of Canada 507) and close to the national average in reading (Quebec 519, Canada 520) and science (Quebec 522, Canada 518).
Income
  • Average annual male earnings in Quebec, by ethnicity, 1961: British $4,940, Jewish $4,851, German $4,254, French $3,185, Italian $2,938.
  • In 1961, learning French was of minor value to anglophones, while learning English was of substantial value to francophones. Francophone-anglophone earnings premium in Quebec by French-English bilingualism, 1961: anglophone, bilingual $6,049, unilingual $5,929; francophone, bilingual $4,523, unilingual $3,107.
  • Quebec’s family income has risen from 70 per cent of Ontario’s in 1960 to above 90 per cent of Ontario’s in 2015.
Integration of immigrants into French as opposed to English
  • In the quarter century from the end of World War II to 1970, the share of immigrants’ children enrolled in English-medium schools rose from 50 to 90 per cent.
  • In 1976, 20 per cent of students with neither French nor English as mother tongue attended French-medium schools. By 2015, this figure had risen to 90 per cent.
  • In 1971, the share of Quebecers using French as home language was about 80 per cent. In the 1970s, projections indicated that the share of Quebecers speaking French at home would consistently decline, especially in Montreal. This has not happened. However, on the basis of census data from 2001 to 2016, Charles Castonguay concludes that French as the major home language declined from 83.1 to 80.6 per cent.⁵
Income inequality
  • Since 1990 income distribution, as measured by the Gini coefficient, has consistently been somewhat more equal in Quebec than in Ontario and in Canada overall.
Québécois pragmatism

Let me turn to Polèse as amateur political scientist and historian.

As the son of parents forced to flee a cosmopolitan city in a small country – with a large neighbour intent on establishing an empire based on German cultural superiority and antisemitism – Polèse emphasizes the rarity of successful countries containing multiple national communities. Perhaps the Slovak initiation of a separatist initiative, culminating in the 1993 “velvet divorce” in Czechoslovakia, is a European equivalent of peaceful resolution of Quebec’s secessionist movement. No one would describe interethnic relations in Ulster or Belgium as “velvet” or “quiet.” In France, third-generation Maghrebi immigrants are less integrated into French society than first-generation ones. Terrorism by Muslims in France over the previous decade, combined with large-scale Maghrebi immigration, elevated immigration as the dominant theme of the 2022 French presidential election.

The exceptionalism of (usually) respectful relations between Québécois and the rest of Canada is worth emphasizing. Many cases can be cited in which interethnic conflicts over the last half century have escalated beyond tension to civil war.

Immediately following collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia erupted in civil war. Africa and the Middle East contain multiple festering ethnic and religious conflicts motivated by communities that perceive themselves as exploited. The Igbo in southeastern Nigeria harbour bitter memories from the Biafran genocide 50 years ago (see my review of Wole Soyinka’s novel elsewhere in this issue). Rural Muslim nomads and villagers throughout the west African Sahel resent more prosperous urban elites, in countries from Mauritania to Nigeria.

The Tutsi, victims of the Hutu-inspired genocide in the 1990s, now control Rwanda via an astute dictator who has been in power for nearly three decades. Since the death of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1975, Ethiopia has known a Marxist military dictator, a war culminating in Eritrean separation, Tigray dominance for a quarter century and currently a second civil war pitting Tigray against the central government in Addis Adaba. With the exception of Somaliland, Somalia has degenerated into an anarchic dystopia. One could name many other such conflicts – from Mozambique to Sudan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In 1759, Wolfe defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Had Polèse read Gary Caldwell’s 2001 review article in Inroads, he might have discussed the crucial role of Sir Guy Carleton, an Anglo-Irish Protestant who was governor of Quebec between 1768 and 1778. Carleton was in London in 1774 and his advice prevailed in drafting the Quebec Act: the Catholic Church preserved its status.⁶ The major argument of Carleton and his allies was that London needed to avoid a repeat of the “imbroglio” of Protestant rule imposed on Catholic Ireland. Support for the Quebec Act was far from universal. A century earlier, James II had attempted a Catholic restoration and the Whigs agreed with the American revolutionaries that a law legitimizing “papist intolerance” should not be enacted. Passage of the act depended on royalist members of Parliament opposed to liberal Whig sentiment.

Polèse discusses the response of the Continental Congress, for which the Quebec Act was one more reason to reject British rule. Benjamin Franklin, a sophisticated diplomat fluent in French, headed the delegation that visited Quebec in 1775, with the intent of gaining Québécois support for the forthcoming revolution. Carleton praised the sophistication of the Catholic bishops who led resistance to Franklin’s proposal. The Quebec Act was, for them, a “bird in the hand” relative to Franklin’s promise of “two in the bush.”

Similarly, in 1812, American elites considered the war with Britain an opportune moment to eliminate all British presence in North America. In correspondence in 1812, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching; & will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, & the final expulsion of England from the American continent.” Again, the Catholic bishops made a pragmatic decision. They sided with the Loyalists in Upper Canada in opposition to the Americans.

Lord Durham was a Whig. He had no animus toward Québécois but assumed they were constrained by papist intolerance of modernity. His report in response to the Patriote rebellion of 1837 recommended unification of Lower and Upper Canada, which would dilute the influence of the Catholic bishops and prove beneficial for both Loyalists and Québécois. Polèse poses the question, “In the 19th century, could Quebec indulge the luxury of a liberal Quebec, laïc in the French anticlerical tradition? My blunt response is ‘no.’” However noble the Patriote revolt, Polèse is relieved that it failed. Had it succeeded, the Americans would inevitably have subjugated Lower Canada – and probably Upper Canada. Once again, Québécois pragmatism prevailed.

And again in 1867. The bishops supported the British North America Act, which replaced Durham’s union with a federation. Confederation restored a provincial government dominated by Québécois, a government with substantial – if constrained – powers. Polèse does not discuss a relevant detail: pre-1949, the ultimate court of appeal on constitutional matters was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Much to the distaste of John A. Macdonald, in several important cases the Judicial Committee strengthened interpretation of provincial powers under section 92.

The consistent theme of Quebec history from 1759 to 1960 is that the Catholic Church was the sole powerful institution committed to the national survival of the Québécois. Neither the British nor the Americans could be trusted, but the British proved more willing to accept Quebec autonomy than the Americans would have been, had Quebec chosen American allies.

Polèse admits that, over the 200-year period, Quebec women paid a price for loyalty to the church. The local priests advocated “la revanche des berceaux” – good Catholics should have large families to maintain Quebec’s population relative to English-speaking Canadians. At the turn of the 20th century, the total fertility rate in Quebec was an average of 4 children born per woman. By 1960 it had fallen to 3, but it was still well above the Canadian average. The political revolution in Quebec in the 1960s was accompanied by dramatic changes in cultural expectations. Quebecers abandoned the church en masse; by 1970 the fertility rate was 2, and it is now below 1.5.

Polèse supported the Oui in two referendums, but, in retrospect he is not bitter over the fact that Quebec remains a unit within a federal state as opposed to a sovereign country. Québécois pragmatically appreciate their accomplishments since 1960 and acknowledge the advantages of an alliance with the rest of Canada. Belonging to a country of 40 million, as opposed to one of nine million, probably provides Québécois with a better chance of national survival than would a rancorous separation. Polèse concludes with a caveat:

Does the undeniable success of Bill 101 as an instrument of integration mean that the battle for French hegemony in Quebec has been won? No. It will never be won definitively … English, the language with which French is competing, is not just any language. It has become the dominant world language in commerce and science, as well as being the majority language in Canada and North America. Any Québécois with the slightest ambition to undertake international professional activity must learn the language of Shakespeare … To refer to my country of birth, any self-respecting Dutch person speaks English and does so well.⁷

The caveat is timely. This spring, the Quebec government enacted Bill 96, legislation intended to limit the share of places in English-language cegeps accessible to those whose education has been in French and to strengthen requirements for use of French in large firms. Predictably, the anglophone community in Quebec and editorialists at the Globe and Mail and National Post oppose the bill. Perhaps details of the bill should be amended, perhaps not. Canada is a successful federation that the majority of Québécois support – provided that the rest of Canada accepts jurisdiction of the Quebec National Assembly over language policy and resists the temptation to create a fuss based on Charter language rights promoted by Pierre Trudeau.⁸

If there is a major omission by Polèse, it is absence of discussion of these language rights. In its enthusiasm to invoke the Charter, the Supreme Court expanded French-English rights in a commercial context in its 1988 Ford decision. That decision generated militant Québécois opposition to Quebec’s federal status and catalyzed the dynamic leading to the second secession referendum in 1995.⁹

Le miracle québécois is an excellent summary of Canadian history as understood by the majority of Québécois. It is a book that non-francophone Canadians should read. Hopefully, there will be an English translation.

Continue reading “Love Letter to Quebec”

Image: Oleksandr Pidvalnyi, via Pexels.

There are various ways of measuring well-being at a national level. One potential candidate is per capita GDP; another is life expectancy, or disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).¹ Each of these indices has flaws, and calculating each requires a complex statistical apparatus. So why not cut the Gordian knot as to what goal we should pursue by simply asking people how happy they are? This is the core rationale for assessing happiness.

Furthermore, relative to economic and health status indices, gathering evidence on people’s happiness is a simple exercise. The principal source of the happiness scores in the UN’s World Happiness Report (WHR) is the Gallup World Poll,² which “asks respondents to evaluate their current life as a whole using the mental image of a ladder, with the best possible life for them as a 10 and worst possible as a 0. Each respondent provides a numerical response on this scale, referred to as the Cantril ladder.”³

Having gathered the life evaluation data, happiness researchers seek to explain national scores. One approach discussed in the World Happiness Report is a relatively simple tactic: a statistical exercise that regresses national life evaluations on six variables.⁴ The six variables don’t explain all the difference in national happiness scores, but they do explain most of it.

The first two variables are objective measures of economic prosperity (per capita GDP) and health status (healthy life expectancy); the remaining four are responses to subjective questions. Because the per capita GDP variable is in logarithmic form, the contribution of an additional $100 to national happiness, while remaining positive, declines as GDP levels rise.⁵ Also, implicit in the healthy life variable is that a good public health system improves happiness by lengthening life expectancy. Both of these variables are statistically highly significant. Combined, these two account for about half the explained national happiness score.

One of the subjective variables is perception of corruption, in government (“Is corruption widespread throughout the government in this country or not?”) and in business (“Is corruption widespread within businesses in this country or not?”). The perception of corruption variable is highly significant. This variable explains a good deal of the happiness of most high-ranking countries, while in most low-ranking countries it explains little. In other words, most high-ranking countries have succeeded in suppressing corruption; most low-ranking countries have not.

Another subjective variable is freedom to make life choices (“Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”). This question is open to many interpretations. It can be interpreted as a measure of free speech and basic civil liberties. It can be a measure of freedom from religious constraints (on women in particular). It might be interpreted as a measure of access to adequate income required to escape the constraints of poverty.

The two remaining subjective questions are measures of social cohesion (“If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” and “Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?”).

The top 20 countries, ranked in terms of national happiness score, are all members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – sometimes mocked as “the rich countries’ club.” The difference between the happiness score of the top-ranked country, Finland (7.8), and that of the 20th, France (6.7), is not great. All 20 achieve reasonably high per capita GDP, reasonably long life expectancy, reasonable control of corruption and reasonably free speech and basic civil rights.

An alternative approach to explaining happiness rankings starts with realization that four of the six variables (per capita GDP, healthy life expectancy, control of corruption, freedom to make life choices) measure what most people expect of their national government. With the exception of countries with very large per capita mineral resources, such as the petromonarchies, no country can realize a high per capita GDP without nearly all young adults completing secondary school and the majority completing some form of postsecondary certification. No country can expect long life expectancy without a reasonably good primary and secondary health care system, and public health measures such as vaccination and sanitation. No country with high corruption, or with an arbitrary police and justice system, achieves high-income status.

There is a high correlation between rankings of national happiness and indices of national governance quality. One of the most frequently used governance indices is the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI)⁶. These indicators estimate annually the rank of 200 countries along six dimensions: (1) voice and accountability (free speech and honest elections), (2) political stability and absence of violence/terrorism, (3) government effectiveness in delivering services such as health and education, (4) quality of government regulations, (5) rule of law, and (6) control of corruption.

Whether we measure Finland’s relative ranking among countries in terms of the Cantril ladder or in terms of the WGI 2020 ranking does not make much difference. Finland is above the 99th percentile on five of six WGI dimensions. You can guess the exception: it ranks at the 82nd percentile in terms of political stability, as a result of its neighbour to the east.

In conclusion, happiness and governance indices are more or less measuring the same thing. Between the two, my preference is for the governance indicators. They imply that, for an “unhappy” country to become “happy,” there is no quick solution. Success requires the hard-to-implement reforms that increase national scores on the six dimensions of the WGI. This is not easy.

Based on the evidence provided by the great mid-19th-century novelists who described “unhappiness” and “bad governance” – Dickens and Dostoyevsky come to mind – national happiness scores on the Cantril ladder would probably have been less dispersed in the 19th century than they are in 2022. Life chances for most people living in Britain and Russia were probably not much different in the middle of the 19th century. In 2022, however, the U.K. ranks 16th in the World Happiness Report; Russia ranks 80th.

Continue reading “Happiness by the Numbers”

John Richards’s review of Paul Collier, Exodus: How Migration is Changing our World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) appeared in Inroads 35 (Summer/Fall 2014).

Paul Collier’s Exodus, which I reviewed in Inroads in 2014, is an economist’s assessment of the pros and cons of large-scale immigration. He began the book with a précis of his family history. Prior to World War I, his grandfather, Karl Hellenschmidt, migrated from an impoverished German village to Bradford, at the time a prosperous city in northern England. Come the war, a “gutter rag” newspaper labelled Hellenschmidt a traitor and a mob ransacked his shop. Paul’s grandfather was interned; his grandmother sank into terminal depression. His father, age 12, left school to run the shop. A quarter-century later, the threat of European war reemerged and Paul’s father decided to change his name and his identity and become English.

Given this family history, the reader might reasonably expect a vigorous denunciation of host-country nationalism and a defence of immigrants’ rights. That is not Collier’s conclusion. A strong national identity, he argues, is a necessary – although obviously not sufficient – condition for a society to have a successful set of social programs. Without a reasonably strong national identity, he argues, the rich will not agree to pay high taxes to fund programs that disproportionately benefit the poor. While the host country has an obligation to suppress violent anti-immigrant activities, immigrants have an obligation to integrate and accept core features of the host country’s national culture – such as expectations of group reciprocity on social programs. More on reciprocity below.

In 2014, I agreed with Collier’s conclusion. Immigration is a mixed blessing. As I wrote at the time,

Immigrants clearly benefit from immigration. The benefits to members of the host society are ambiguous and often unevenly distributed. Those left behind in the country of origin may benefit from emigration via several routes, starting with remittances … However, if the state of governance (in the home country) is very low, emigration of the most capable may well be at a level that serves to entrench dysfunction. Collier cites Haiti: most decently educated Haitians are living in New York and Montreal (I should have added Paris). Were they living in Port-au-Prince, they would be less prosperous but their political weight would improve prospects for decent governance.

In 2021, I essentially agree with what I wrote in 2014. Were I writing the review now, I would elaborate on the role of immigration to Canada in explaining the disruptive increase in housing prices over the last decade, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver. There are multiple causes for housing price increases, but among them is the high concentration of new immigrants, nearly half of whom opt for one of those two cities.

Collier reworked and expanded the arguments in Exodus in his 2018 book The Future of Capitalism.¹ This book is his attempt to summarize conclusions from a long career as a World Bank economist in Africa and as a senior professor at Oxford University. As in Exodus, he slips fragments of his family history into this book. The reader learns about his cousin: “Aged fourteen, my cousin and I were in tandem: born on the same day, the children of uneducated parents. (We) had won places in grammar schools (academically oriented government schools). Her life was derailed by the early death of her father; shorn of that authority figure, she became a teenage mother, with its attendant failings and humiliations.” A dramatic contrast with his own education and career.

Reciprocal obligations and the welfare state

Collier chose his title to honour Anthony Crosland, a prominent Labour Party MP and public intellectual in the quarter-century following World War II. In 1956, Crosland published The Future of Socialism, in which he made a sharp distinction between social democracy, a set of policies intended to equalize opportunity, and Marxist-inspired strategies that seek to contain corporate power via nationalization of major firms. Both Crosland and Collier conclude that the evidence of the last two centuries is unambiguous: strategies that accommodate private corporations and markets are the only institutional basis through which the majority in a country can escape poverty – whether it be the 19th-century U.K. or 21st-century China. While capitalism is the necessary basis for economic productivity, left to itself capitalism does not assure high-quality basic services for all – and on occasion, as occurred in 1929 and 2008, it derails.

Collier and Crosland emphasize that the realization of social democratic goals in the mid-20th century owes much to the distress arising from the Great Depression of the 1930s and the sacrifices of World War II. Ultimate victory over fascism and mass unemployment bequeathed to the U.K. and U.S. a strong national identity among their citizens. Collier’s summary:

Social democracy worked from 1945 until the 1970s because it lived off a huge, invisible and unquantifiable asset that had been accumulated during the Second World War: a shared identity forged through a supreme and successful national effort. As that asset eroded, the power wielded by the paternalistic state became increasingly resented.

An element of this asset was agreement (more or less) among the majority, including the rich, to pay much higher taxes to fund massively expanded postwar social programs – the most important being universal health insurance and good-quality kindergarten-to-college education. Collier makes passing reference to parallel developments in continental Europe, but he primarily discusses the New Deal in the United States and the postwar Labour government in the U.K. Funding social programs required that government capture about 40 per cent of GDP via taxes, at least twice the share captured in the 1920s. The Democrats created better education programs in the United States than did Labour in the U.K. (for example, the GI Bill catalyzed U.S. expansion of college education); Labour created better health care programs (the single-payer National Health Service providing universal medical, hospital and pharmaceutical insurance).

The Magna Carta of the U.K. welfare state is the Beveridge Report, tabled in Parliament in 1942. William Beveridge was an economist who devoted his career to social policy reform in the U.K. (Leonard Marsh participated in research under Beveridge. He subsequently emigrated to Canada and authored a Canadian equivalent, submitted to Ottawa’s Parliament in 1943.) Beveridge perceived the welfare state as a set of reciprocal obligations among citizens. His report contains many passages on the obligation of the rich to pay highly progressive income taxes and the obligation of the working classes not to abuse health insurance, unemployment insurance and other social insurance programs.²

As have others, Collier describes the post-1980 lowering of global trade barriers, rise of manufacturing capacity in East Asia and technological change favouring jobs that require education over those that require manual skills. With some justification, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan succeeded in portraying centre-left governments and unions of the 1970s as “special interest groups” hampering economic development. When they came to power in the 1980s, major U.K. and U.S. coastal cities thrived; however, many cities dependent on traditional sectors fell into prolonged decline (shipbuilding along the Clyde, car manufacturing in Detroit). Income inequality has risen throughout high-income countries, more prominently in the U.S. and U.K. than in most others. In statistical explanations of family income distribution, a variable that looms large is parents with a college degree relative to those without. Geographic distribution of college graduates correlates closely with prospering and declining regions. In terms of group identity, Collier follows David Goodhart’s characterization of well-educated “Anywheres,” who increasingly identify with cosmopolitan international communities and who are abandoning their earlier identification with domestic “Somewheres.” ³

Communalism

Cataloguing the factors that have worsened income distribution in high-income countries is hardly novel. The “big” idea that Collier pursues in this book is communalism: for better or worse, he insists, the human being is essentially a communal animal. Most of us identity with members of our extended family – albeit to varying degrees. Prior to settled agriculture 10,000 years ago, identity did not extend much beyond small villages. Among the changes brought on by industrialization, most of us now identify, at least to some extent, with our nation. Since the 19th century, we have extended our sense of identity from city to region to the country of which we are citizens. Collier makes references throughout to loyalties among working-class families in industrial cities (such as Bradford) in northern England.
Our portfolio of identities may extend beyond the nation-state but, as the travails of the European Union repeatedly reveal, most citizens of nation-states are loath to cede ultimate political authority to supranational bodies. Our identity with communities beyond our own country does exist – for example, in the form of foreign aid in times of natural or human-made crises – but this identity is weak relative to that accorded to citizens within our country. Depending what programs one counts, Canadian governments spend about 25 per cent of GDP on social programs for Canadians, and about 0.3 per cent on official foreign aid. Admittedly, new immigrants over the first and second generations usually maintain an identity with their country of origin far greater than most.

Collier relies heavily on Jonathan Haidt, champion of “moral foundations” theory.⁴ According to Haidt, human communities construct their moral conventions intuitively, with scant attention to complex implications and intellectual consistency. Dominant moral conventions are based on six fundamental values: loyalty to members of the community however defined; a sense of fairness among community members; extent of individual liberty; behavioural norms that define sanctity of community members; care or empathy for suffering among others; various concepts of equality. Different communities accord varying salience to each of these values. Haidt’s six intuitive human values are open to much debate. Here is how Collier interprets them.

Having staked out his belief that humans are fundamentally communal in both Exodus and The Future of Capitalism, Collier vigorously condemns academic economists for constructing elaborate models that envisage the economy as a series of market exchanges among individuals, each possessing a set of preferences and maximizing their utility (personal well-being) subject to their income and market prices. The idea is not wrong if the goal is maximizing national GDP. Deng Xiaoping understood the insights of The Wealth of Nations. Among his first accomplishments was to allow farmers, as opposed to government bureaucrats, to decide what crops to grow. Allowing farmers to choose crops yielding maximum expected income resulted in a doubling of wheat production from 1978 to 1985. By the end of the 1980s, Chinese production of grains and tubers was three times that of India.

Collier acknowledges that, post-1980, free trade “neoliberal” economic policies have increased world average per capita income and have modestly reduced worldwide income inequality – thanks to hundreds of millions of peasants in China and India moving to town and earning higher incomes in manufacturing jobs. But, he argues, this has been at the cost of increasingly polarized societies within high-income countries. Individual income maximization overemphasizes individual liberty and underemphasizes values of fairness.

Also, Collier has little good to say about Rawls. Rawls insists that we should make moral decisions as if each of us is behind a “veil of ignorance” as to our own future placement in the social hierarchy. Rawlsians will assent to a proposed policy that increases the sum of utility among those in a country if it offers benefits to those with the lowest utility. This reasoning, Collier argues, overemphasizes equality. It invites formation of minority identity groups defining new judicial rights. In reaction, populist demagogues (mostly conservative) and anticapitalist ideologues (mostly neo-Marxist) emerge in defence of the majority. Pragmatic policies of compromise may well become impossible.

Pragmatism, a nebulous philosophical trend that arose in late-19th-century America, rejects the search for philosophical and scientific certainty.⁵ It is associated with John Dewey and other liberal reformers of the first half of the 20th century, who argued for incremental progress and rejected ideological certainty. To give the flavour of Collier’s conclusions, I quote at some length a polemical passage:
In its origin (pragmatism) is communitarian, seeing the task of morality as doing our best to fit our actions to the values of our community and the specifics of the context … it rejects ideology, no one value is overarching, absolute and timeless. In real communities, the relative importance of values evolves; pragmatism asks “What, here and now, is more likely to work?”

In contrast, ideologies each lay claim to supremacy, derived from reason, over those who disagree with them. The custodians of the supreme ideology are a vanguard of the cognoscenti. Religious fundamentalists invoke a unique divine being as the ultimate authority; Marxists invoke the dictatorship of the “proletariat” guided by a hierarchy. Utilitarians invoke the sum of individual utilities and Rawlsians invoke “justice,” as defined by themselves. Just as pragmatism stands in contrast to ideology, it also stands in opposition to populism.
Collier acknowledges that “pragmatism has its dangers. The freedom to deduce moral actions situation-by-situation has to be bounded by our inherent limitations … Worse, we are tempted to fit reasons to our values. Worst, our judgements are no better than our knowledge.” At this point, an example helps us understand Collier’s over-the-top critique of utilitarian and Rawlsian moral theory.

Given Collier’s extensive work on African development, he not surprisingly has much to say about ethical responses among high-income countries to the increase over the last three decades in refugees from Africa and the Middle East – not to mention Afghanistan. The proximate cause of rising refugee numbers has been civil wars in, for example, Algeria, Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. A second proximate explanation is religion: in all these cases, conflicting interpretations of Islam are implicated. In some cases, all participants are Muslim, one side moderate and the other committed to various Salafist perspectives. In Syria and Iraq, the conflict has pitted Sunni against Shi’a – exacerbated by unsuccessful U.S. and NATO interventions. In Algeria and West Africa, conflict has erupted between educated urban elites whose incomes have risen dramatically in the half-century since independence and a rural population whose incomes have not risen. In rural areas, Salafist imams define morality and jihadist extremists attack schools as institutions leading to apostasy.

Rawlsian moral policy, combined with economists’ emphasis on global utilitarianism and the responsibility of care for those faced with war and natural disasters, implies large-scale immigration of refugees as the appropriate response to civil wars. Not surprisingly, Collier disagrees: we have plenty of evidence, he argues, that large-scale immigration of refugees with values profoundly different from those of the potential high-income host country is a catalyst for populist anti-immigrant demagoguery (Donald Trump in the U.S., Nigel Farage in the U.K., Marine Le Pen and gilets jaunes in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy).

The clash between the “moral foundations” of immigrants from developing countries and citizens of high-income countries readily leads to a breakdown of pragmatic policy. As I write in mid-October, U.K. leaders are mourning the assassination by the son of a Muslim immigrant of a highly respected MP as he met with constituents. The recently elected Labour leader, Keir Starmer, spends most of his energy attempting to shift the public view of Labour from Jeremy Corbyn’s neo-Marxist tiers mondisme to some version of social democracy.

Among European countries, France has been the most dramatically afflicted by a Huntington-style clash of civilization between well-educated citoyens de souche and Muslim immigrants who have been in France for three generations at most. To some extent, the French have themselves to blame. Their social policies are overly generous and contain few reciprocal obligations (such as transfers conditional on employment) designed to accelerate integration.

In 2015, jihadists assassinated the editors of Charlie Hebdo, a high-profile satirical weekly. In 2020, a radicalized Chechen immigrant assassinated Samuel Paty, a secondary school teacher who, in conducting the required curriculum lecture about laïcité and free speech, displayed caricatures of Muhammad. Between these two high-profile events, Islamist jihadis killed some 250 people in targeted attacks throughout the country.

Emmanuel Macron is a pragmatist, but the chattering classes in Paris are not currently talking about pragmatic policy innovations to hasten integration. They are discussing the rising public profile of Éric Zemmour, an articulate Jewish journalist born in France to Algerian immigrant parents. Zemmour is convinced that the key policy innovation needed to preserve French secular values is a halt to Muslim immigration and deportation of those found guilty of serious crimes. Zemmour may, or may not, enter the 2022 presidential election. His latest poll result (mid-October) is 17 per cent, second only to Macron at 24 per cent for the first round of the election.

If not large-scale immigration, what? Collier does not discuss a Canadian point system designed to keep out those with low education levels and unable to speak English or French. His response turns around a responsibility of high-income host countries to finance employment opportunities in countries abutting the source of conflict. A good idea, but international support for such major interventions is, at present, marginal.

Anywheres versus Somewheres in developing countries

Collier’s thesis is that social democracy tamed capitalism and afforded a “good life” to the great majority of residents in high-income countries. It took two centuries after Adam Smith for countries in Europe and North America to abandon revolution and 19th-century Manchester liberalism. If the post-1980 lowering of global trade barriers, rise of manufacturing capacity in East Asia and technological change have polarized income and political identities in high-income countries, should we not expect a somewhat similar dynamic in developing countries? This is a question that Collier does not pose.

In the mid-20th century, a national identity on behalf of sovereignty accorded legitimacy to the first generation of postcolonial elites. It is an understatement to note that the governing elites of most newly sovereign countries emerging from European empires did not pursue social democratic goals consistent with Collier’s expectations. They did not prioritize good-quality health clinics and hospitals, good-quality primary and secondary education or adequate employment opportunities beyond the major cities. Many countries (e.g. India and Pakistan) copied the Soviet obsession with centralized investment in heavy industry; many collapsed into deeply corrupt dynastic regimes (e.g. Uganda under Museveni, Iraq under Saddam, Syria under the Assad family, Libya under Gaddafi, Algeria under geriatric FLN leaders, Zimbabwe under Mugabe, Pakistan – intermittently – under the Bhuttos).

With many national differences, the post-1980 factors that have fractured national identities in high-income countries have done the same in low-income countries. Over the decades, urban elites in the rapidly growing megacities of developing countries have identified with the lifestyles of high-income countries. Many young adults living in villages have migrated to urban slums in hope of gaining access to higher-income employment. Some succeed in gaining a formal-sector job, either in the public sector or in a labour-intensive sector such as construction or garment manufacturing; most remain in the informal sector earning not much more than they would have if they had stayed in their village.

Admittedly, per capita GDP has risen in the developing world post-1980, even in the poorest regions, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. But averages tell us nothing about income inequality, which is very high. Over half the South Asian population lives below the World Bank’s lower-middle-income threshold of US$3.20 per person per day.

These observations are not new. They have motivated international bodies such as the World Bank and various UN agencies to “nudge” the governments of developing countries into adoption of social democracy. The highest-profile initiatives have been the UN’s 2000–2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) campaign followed by the 2016–30 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) campaign. These campaigns have realized some success, but public sector corruption and underfunding remain pervasive and most SDG goals are unlikely to be met.

In South Asia, the urban elites have long since abandoned public education and health services. Among the near-poor (those with some discretionary income), an increasing share have abandoned government schools and health clinics in favour of low-fee private schools and mediocre private health care.

European and North American countries took two centuries before they decided that “tamed capitalism” was the best of many imperfect options. I wish the SDG campaign well in attempting to make the transition in 15 years.

Continue reading “If Not Immigration, Then What?”

Image: Francis Mckee, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited by Inroads.

On the one hand, liberal greens will tell you that the world is ending – but that we must not use nuclear power, an abundant source of clean energy, to stave it off. On the other hand, conservative greens will tell you that the world is ending, but that we can’t burden people with a carbon tax or a gasoline tax to slow global warming.

On a third hand, suburban greens will tell you that the world is ending, but that they don’t want any windmills, solar farms or high-speed rail lines in their backyards.

On a fourth hand, most of today’s leaders will tell you that the world is ending, so at Glasgow they’ve all decided to go out on a limb and commit their successors’ successor to deliver emissions-free electricity by 2030, 2040 or 2050 – any date that doesn’t require them to ask their citizens to do anything painful today.

This is not serious – not when you’re talking about reversing all the ways that we have destabilized Earth’s systems, from ice caps and ocean currents to coral reefs and tropical forests to the density of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is pretend.

Serious was how we responded to Covid-19, when it really did feel like the world economy was ending: We fought back with the only tools we have that are as big and powerful as Mother Nature – Father Profit and New Tech.

— New York Times columnist Tom Friedman¹

Friedman succinctly makes an argument with which I strongly agree. With exceptions, the political leaders speaking at the Glasgow UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) were not “serious.” Perhaps the most ominous evidence of a lack of seriousness is paragraph 36 of the Glasgow Climate Pact:

36. (The Conference of the Parties) Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phase-out phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.²

Optimists note that this is the first mention in a COP statement of eliminating use of coal to generate electricity; realists note that, at the last minute, India and China amended the text by substituting “phase-down” for “phase-out.”

Whatever the interpretation, paragraph 36 is not “serious” in Friedman’s terms. His implicit definition of serious is that politicians invest their political capital in launching programs that (1) are undertaken now, as opposed to being scheduled to ramp up over time or come into effect in future decades, and (2) have the potential to make a major impact in lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Where should we start?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a UN organization responsible for assembling climate change scientific studies. In a 2018 report targeting policymakers, it put forward four pathways that would probably hold the increase in average world temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial estimates (see Box 1).

Box 1

IPCC pathways to limit future temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsiusa

Pathway 1

The first scenario requires that innovations can simultaneously reduce energy demand and increase living standards, especially in the global South. A downsized energy system enables rapid decarbonization of energy supply. Afforestation is the only carbon dioxide removal option considered. There is no need for either fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage or bioenergy.

Pathway 2

This scenario requires faith in international cooperation with a broad focus on sustainability including energy intensity, human development, economic convergence, shifts toward sustainable and healthy consumption patterns (e.g., substitution of plant-based protein for red meat), low-carbon technology innovation and well-managed land systems. It requires some limited societal acceptability for carbon capture and storage, and bioenergy.

Pathway 3

This scenario implies that social as well as technological development follows historical patterns. In other words, final energy demand continues to grow. Central to this pathway is that we support universal acceptance of nuclear power. The scenario projects a fivefold increase in use of nuclear, a ninefold increase in nonbiomass renewables and a sevenfold increase in carbon capture and storage plus bioenergy. (At present, adding carbon capture from fossil fuel power generation roughly doubles the cost per kilowatt-hour).

Pathway 4

A resource- and energy-intensive scenario in which economic growth and globalization lead to widespread adoption of greenhouse gas–intensive lifestyles, including high demand for transportation fuels and livestock products. Emissions reductions are mainly achieved through technological means. We need faith in new technology removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, faith in carbon capture and storage and faith in bioenergy fuels.

a Summary of pathways defined in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5℃ Approved by Governments (Geneva, Switzerland: Author, 2018), p. 14.

Each of these pathways requires policies that, at present, are highly unpopular in high-income countries or depends on technological innovation that may or may not materialize. Pathway 1 requires reduced world energy demand, a massive increase in forest cover and emphasis on increased living standards in the global South. Pathway 2 requires high levels of international cooperation, lower energy intensity and a major shift in diets from meat to plant-based protein. Pathway 3 assumes extrapolation of historical trends in energy use. Central to this pathway is a massive increase in the share of energy derived from nuclear power as well as an increase in nonbiomass renewables and in carbon capture and storage. The fourth requires optimistic trends in technology for CO2 removal from the atmosphere and faith in carbon capture and storage.

The value of the pathways is to illustrate what “serious” means. My choice is Pathway 3. The case for it is that the majority in all countries – developing or high-income – will never agree to “phase out” or even “phase down” fossil fuel energy without a reasonable substitute. Pathway 1 requires Brazil, Indonesia, countries in tropical Africa and Russia, among others, to halt illegal logging and find ways to expand forest cover. It also requires that the global North reduce energy demand and leave room for the global South to increase its energy demand and the contingent GHG emissions. All good ideas, but they require Scandinavian quality of governance. Pathway 2 requires that the world abandon meat, especially red meat. Good luck in persuading the majority across the world to become vegetarians, or perhaps eat chicken along with vegetables, fruit and pulses. (No fish! Substituting fish for meat accentuates the pressure on world fish stocks.) The IPCC is dubious about realization of the technological innovations required by Pathway 4.

As with the other pathways, Pathway 3 poses obstacles. Relative to 2010, it assumes a doubling of nuclear power capacity by 2030 and a fivefold increase by 2050. What about disposal of spent fuel? What about more Fukushimas? What about the history of cost overruns on ex ante construction cost estimates? An obscure white paper answers these questions adequately. The good news about this pathway is the consensus among engineers that (relatively) small modular reactors (SMRs) are much safer than large earlier designs. Furthermore, engineers expect that use of standardized modular components will enable lower construction costs per megawatt capacity than earlier designs for much larger reactors.

In 2018, a committee composed of a half dozen Canadian power companies as voting members and Natural Resources Canada as a nonvoting member published a white paper on the potential to construct multiple SMRs.³ While the white paper addresses the technical questions, it does not address the major problem: public opinion in most high-income countries, including Canada, is opposed to expansion of nuclear power. One recent Canadian survey found overwhelming support for substituting renewable and “clean” energy for fossil fuel–based energy, but only 21 per cent were prepared to endorse nuclear as a clean energy option.⁴

Despite public attitudes, nuclear is making a comeback among some of the world’s “deep thinkers.” The well-respected Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) publishes carefully researched reports on numerous U.S. policy issues. In 2018, UCS published a monograph advocating expanded investment in U.S. nuclear power capacity.⁵ In its November 13 issue, The Economist published an editorial and two articles on the potential of nuclear power in reducing greenhouse gases associated with power generation. All three are positive. Bill Gates has decided to put serious money behind his pronuclear advocacy and is investing half the cost of a $4 billion modular nuclear reactor to replace a coal-fired plant in a Wyoming coal town. (The U.S. government is paying the other half.) Gates is partnering with Warren Buffett on other nuclear projects.⁶

And in Canada? The white paper mentioned above and a more recent “action plan” are not on the Natural Resources Canada website.⁷ Nominal action plan supporters include six provinces and territories (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, PEI, New Brunswick, Yukon – but not British Columbia or Quebec), major provincial power companies in supportive provinces, a few universities (not including my university, Simon Fraser), several Indigenous organizations and municipalities, civil society groups, industry associations, heavy industry (e.g., Suncor), engineering firms and would-be SMR vendors (e.g., CANDU). You are forgiven if you have not heard of this “action plan.” It is probably the least visible climate change policy initiative developed in Ottawa.

Neither Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson nor Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is likely to ask my opinion on how to activate the SMR “action plan” – and change public opinion. However, I would be delighted to forgo my consulting fees if one or both want advice. Here are a few strategic arguments:

  • Wind and solar power are valuable renewable nonfossil energy sources, but solar does not generate power at night and wind must blow. Hydro and nuclear are the two Canadian sources of significant “dispatchable” power available at all times. Unfortunately, there remain few unexploited sites for large-scale hydro dams.
  • While Canada gets most of its power from non–fossil fuel sources, it still gets nearly a fifth from coal, natural gas and petroleum. Over this decade, Canada could eliminate nearly all fossil fuel–generated electricity by building 100 SMRs.⁸ An investment by Ottawa of, say, $50 billion over the next decade might be considered “serious.” Construction jobs for SMRs could be a suitable substitute for many jobs linked to fossil fuel power generation (see table 1).
  • The estimated levelized cost per megawatt-hour of electricity generated by SMRs is probably similar to that for natural gas or hydro. There are many SMR designs on the drawing board, and no consensus on optimal design. Hence, there is considerable uncertainty about the range of unit costs of energy generated by SMRs. By making a commitment to build multiple SMRs in Canada, we can contribute to developing optimum designs (see figure 1).
  • Canada was a leader in the mid-20th century in nuclear power technology, and could become a leader again. Since Canada generates 15 per cent of its power from nuclear plants, it has considerable engineering capacity in nuclear power generation.
  • A commitment to invest in nuclear power would, in time, probably generate an export potential. If Canada was prepared to invest heavily in multiple SMRs – some based on Canadian designs, some on designs from elsewhere – and thereby eliminate domestic fossil fuel power generation, we would within a decade build a comparative advantage over other countries in constructing and managing SMRs. If SMRs become widespread, Canada would be in an ideal position to export its expertise.
  • Canada could designate aid to SMR construction in developing countries as a major priority for our foreign aid budget. Eliminating the 18 per cent of Canadian electricity currently based on fossil fuels should be an initial goal. Most developing countries rely on fossil fuel–based power, and lack of adequate power capacity is a major impediment to their economic development. (“Load shedding” refers to the frequent shutdown over many hours of regions of a country because system demand exceeds capacity. It is one of the most widely understood English words among the poor in the global South.)

Pursuing serious climate change policy inevitably exposes a country to potentially losing out in some future unpredictable collective coordination game. I have sketched the potential of Canada promoting the IPCC’s Pathway 3. I acknowledge the risk. Others may prefer to sketch out one of the other IPCC pathways – or invent an altogether new pathway. Whatever the option, if serious, it will entail significant financial and political investments now, with uncertain future benefits.

For more from our Inroads 50 feature on climate change, click to read A Carbon Tax that Pays the Cost of Climate Change, by Marvin Shaffer and John Richards.

Continue reading “Getting Serious About Climate Change”

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

On occasion, my interest in South Asia comes to the fore and I prevail on my Inroads colleagues to publish relevant articles, some written by me, some by others. In Summer/Fall 2018 we published Why is South Asia Poor?, a précis of a chapter in a book that I and two Bangladeshi colleagues have written. The book surveys the lamentable state of primary education in most of South Asia – and the difficulty of reform (it will be published by University of Toronto Press this fall). In Summer/Fall 2020, we published Something is Rotten in the State of India: An Election in Delhi, a Ghost in Denmark and a School in Bangladesh. The motivation for that article was the concerted, but fortunately unsuccessful, campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political party to dislodge the reform government in Delhi in a bitterly fought state election. We continue the tradition here with Sumbal Naveed’s article on the decline in reading habits among young Pakistanis. Her evidence comes from a USAID-supported survey.

Click to read Why Young Pakistanis Don’t Read by Sumbal Naveed, and our accompanying photo essay, In School, But Are They Learning?

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of literacy in understanding why some countries are rich and others poor. Figure 1 illustrates literacy trends over three decades, by gender, in South Asia’s three populous countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The data are estimates by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Obviously, there was progress in the intervening decades. However, literacy is a complex concept; the UNESCO threshold defining literacy is low (e.g., ability to read short articles in a newspaper) and literacy is self-reported in many of the national surveys on which UNESCO relies. Also obvious is persistence of a gender gap in literacy – even among young adults in school in the 1990s and this century.

Naveed refers in her article to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a large-scale early-grade assessment conducted in India and Pakistan. In India the sample size is about 500,000, in Pakistan about 80,000. ASER’s literacy threshold is the ability to read a short story (about 200 words) in the Grade 2 curriculum in the dominant regional language. In Pakistan, the three languages are Urdu, Sindhi and Pashto. In the most recent (2018) survey in India, 27 per cent of Grade 3 students could read the story, in Pakistan 17 per cent. By Grade 5, in both countries about half could read the Grade 2–level story.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

The following essay on Pakistani schoolchildren is an accompaniment to the article Why Young Pakistanis Don’t Read, by Sumbal Naveed.

These photographs illustrate school life in what was previously Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The former FATA is bordered by Afghanistan to the north and west with the border marked by the Durand Line, KP to the east, and Balochistan to the south. The largest city nearby is Peshawar. All statistics cited in this photo portfolio are national statistics, derived from the 2018 ASER-Pakistan survey.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

In most countries, girls outperform boys in learning to read in early primary grades. However, in Pakistan boys outperform girls. One reading measure of the ASER protocol is the ability to read a short paragraph at the Grade 1 level. Among Grade 3 children in the 2018 survey, 47 per cent of boys could read a paragraph in Urdu; 43 per cent of girls could do so.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

The Millennium Development Goals were launched in 2000; the second goal was universal primary education. Over the next 15 years, enrolment dramatically increased across South Asia. By 2018, the enrolment rate for children ages 5–16 was 81 per cent. However, South Asia is facing a serious “learning problem.” Most children are in school, but not necessarily learning.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

Pakistan’s patriarchal culture results in important gender gaps in enrolment. The gaps are accentuated after accounting for family income as well as gender. Among the lowest quarter of families in terms of income, in 2018, only 46 per cent of girls ages 5–16 were enrolled, as compared with 67 per cent of boys. Only at the top income quarter were gender gaps more or less eliminated – 83 per cent for girls, 87 per cent for boys.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

Among young children ages 6–10, the share of children who had either never enrolled or dropped out was 13 per cent. This rose to 17 per cent among children ages 11–13, and 27 per cent among ages 14–16.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

There is a wide range of ages at which children enter Grade 1, and grade repetition is common. In the 2018 ASER sample, the grade distribution of children aged 9 years is 10 per cent in Grade 1, 19 per cent in Grade 2, 31 per cent in Grade 3, 27 per cent in Grade 4, 10 per cent in Grade 5 and 2 per cent in Grade 6.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

A good teaching tactic at all grades is to organize the class into small groups and encourage peer learning to take place.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

The UN’s Social Development Goals call for all countries to achieve universal primary and lower secondary education by 2030. On the basis of present trends, this goal will not be met in most developing countries, including Pakistan. Over the entire 6–16 age cohort surveyed by ASER-Pakistan in 2018, approximately 11 per cent never enrolled. The dropout rate was only 3 per cent in the primary age cohort (ages 6–10), but it rose to 8 per cent in the lower secondary cohort (ages 11–13) and 16 per cent in the upper secondary cohort (ages 14–16).

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

The two “foundation skills” for all formal learning are reading and mathematics. In Grade 3, 28 per cent of children could perform two-digit subtraction and divide a two-digit by a one-digit number. By Grade 5, the share of children able to perform these operations rose to 53 per cent.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

A crucial feature of a “good” primary school is that children have fun.

Photo via United Nations Development Programme.

Like India, Pakistan faces the problem of multiple languages. Urdu is the national language, but in many regions the dominant language is not Urdu. Pashto is important in the Territories, as is Sindhi in Sindh; in Punjab, the most populous state, the dominant language is Punjabi. In addition, English is an important language for secondary and tertiary education.

While you’re here, why not read the rest of our section on Literacy: In South Asia, Literacy is Crucial by John Richards.

The following article is a response to Elaine Power and Jamie Swift Respond.

Power and Swift conclude that the B.C. Expert Panel report “gives no indication that the (panel members) themselves met with or spoke to anyone living on low incomes … Nor does it appear that Professor Richards spoke with any of the low-income people, often with complicated lives, who might benefit from basic income.” The expert panel did meet with many on low incomes, but maybe fewer than Power and Swift. The same applies to me. The basic income debate should not turn on counting the number of poor that we have met.

Power, Swift and I all agree that people living on low incomes “with complicated lives … might benefit from basic income.” I think more would benefit from the B.C. Expert Panel’s agenda of incremental reforms. Maybe I am wrong; maybe the B.C. panel is wrong. However, Power and Swift might have devoted a passage in their response to assessing the tradeoffs.

Central to my critique of basic income proposals is an argument, admittedly controversial, that communities in which transfer income becomes the major income source are prone in the long term to serious social dysfunction. In the early 1990s, the share of the Canadian population in receipt of social assistance exceeded 10 per cent, and long-term seasonal reliance on unemployment insurance (“lotto 10/42” – 10 weeks work, 42 weeks UI) was prevalent. These realities underlay work-oriented reforms to social assistance and unemployment insurance. In the United States, similar unintended consequences of intergenerational social assistance prompted President Clinton to accept work-oriented reforms to social assistance programming.

Power and Swift dismiss these issues as a “trope.” They make no mention of William Julius Wilson’s analysis of ghetto life in American cities, Case and Deaton’s “deaths of despair” analysis of opioid addiction, alcoholism and suicide among White working-class communities in the United States or exceptionally high suicide and homicide rates among Canadian First Nation communities in low employment regions.

Click to read the original article on the case for Basic Income, Work, Idleness and Basic Income, and the case against in Basic Income Provides Dubious Benefit at a High Cost. And while you’re here, check out the rest of the Basic Income Section in this issue of Inroads Journal!

Pictured: Doug Ford, whose government cancelled the Liberal government of Ontario’s basic income pilot in 2018. Photo by DickieBuckShot via Flickr.

The following article is part of a larger debate in our Basic Income section of this issue of Inroads Journal. To read the other side of the debate, check out Work, Idleness and Basic Income.

Employment is a key determinant of social outcomes

This century, the compounding of disruptive events has generated animated debates about reconfiguring the welfare state – among them, the pros and cons of a basic income.

The first major disruption to the social policy status quo was the financial collapse of 2008 and ensuing recession. Prior to 2008, an important social policy, pursued most aggressively in the United States and United Kingdom, was aid to low-income families wanting to buy a house. As long as house prices continued to rise, as they did from the early 1990s to 2007, the policy more or less worked as intended. When prices stopped rising, the fragile portfolios of many large banks and many working-class families led to cascading bankruptcies. The political fallout was collapse of confidence in centre-left and centre-right governments. While some of the ensuing populist upheaval occurred on the left (e.g. Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the UK Labour Party), most was on the right (e.g. “tea party” Republicans, Trump’s election, Brexit referendum).

The second disruption has been the massive shift of basic manufacturing from high- to middle-income countries, China in particular. With the post-1989 demise of traditional Communist conventions of five-year central planning as a viable development strategy, pragmatic elites in east and southeast Asia enabled private and state-owned firms to operate free of many previously entrenched corrupt practices – practices still prevalent in much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. They also assured decent primary and secondary education for all. A reasonably well-educated population is a prerequisite for creating a large labour force able to “go to town” and become productive workers in export-oriented manufacturing. Consumers in Europe and North America have enjoyed the low prices at Walmart; the working class has not enjoyed the loss of well-paying manufacturing and resource-sector jobs, replaced by low-paying service jobs. In the West, income polarization has worsened.

The third disruption is the COVID pandemic, which has led governments in high-income countries to protect lives over jobs. Instead of a job, millions of laid-off workers have received income via ad hoc transfers.

Not surprisingly, many on the left and on the right now argue to cut the Gordian knot implicit in our complex set of conditional social programs and convert the new ad hoc transfers into an unconditional basic income for all adults. Conservative advocates of a basic income – Milton Friedman is the iconic example – envision a basic income that substitutes for many conditional social programs and leads to a net reduction in government transfers. Progressive advocates envision a basic income as a more solid foundation to reduce poverty.

Elaine Power and Jamie Swift present a well-argued version of the left-wing case. In brutal summary, they make three arguments:

  • The ethical component: Poverty is a miserable state of affairs, and a basic income could more or less eliminate it.
  • Minimal adverse consequences: Incorporation of a basic income in the social contract would not generate reduced employment or family dysfunction.
  • Manageable financial implications: Financing a basic income does not require major, politically unacceptable changes to Canadian taxation conventions.

I am not persuaded. Let’s take each argument in turn.

The ethical argument

Our communal identities begin with the family. Over millennia, the scope of human identities has extended to our village, our tribe and, in the last two centuries, our respective nation-states. Identification as citizens of a nation, with accompanying benefits and obligations, came to prominence in the 19th century. In most high-income democratic countries, national identity is sufficiently meaningful that citizens elect governments intending to impose taxes equivalent to 40 per cent or more of GDP, a third of which is redistributed via provision of core services (basic education and health care) and cash transfers.1 At present, cash transfers are provided to the old, the poor and the disabled. In Canada, since the 1990s, a new category of conditional transfers is large-scale transfers to low-income families with children. This was a quid pro quo for simultaneous tightening of access to social assistance.

At the current stage of human evolution, meaningful identity with the old, the poor and the disabled beyond the nation-state exists, but it is a marginal concern. Some high-income countries adhere to the UN admonition to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development, but most countries, including Canada, spend less than half of 0.7 per cent on development.

The major disruptions that predated public support for the present welfare state were the Great Depression of the 1930s and the horror of World War II. For the UK and Canada, the “Magna Carta” of the welfare state is the Beveridge Report, tabled in the UK Parliament in 1942. Born in India, William Beveridge was an economist who devoted his career to social policy reform in the UK. Leonard Marsh, who participated in research under Beveridge, subsequently emigrated to Canada and authored a Canadian equivalent, submitted to Ottawa’s Parliament in 1943.2

Both reports called on governments, following World War II, to create a new social contract, with a dramatic expansion of expenditures on social insurance programs, education and pensions for the old. In 1945, the uncharismatic Labour leader Clement Attlee defeated Winston Churchill, the war hero. The postwar Labour government’s most important innovation was universal health insurance (the National Health Service). By the late 1960s, Canada achieved a similar set of expanded social programs.

Beveridge perceived the welfare state as a set of mutual obligations among citizens in a democratic society. His report is filled with passages on the “citizen’s obligation,”of which this one, on the obligations implicit in provision of unemployment insurance, is typical:

The correlative of the State’s undertaking to ensure adequate benefit for unavoidable interruption of earnings, however long, is enforcement of the citizen’s obligation to seek and accept all reasonable opportunities of work, to co-operate in measures designed to save him from habituation to idleness, and to take all proper measures to be well. The higher the benefits provided out of a common fund for unmerited misfortune, the higher must be the citizen’s sense of obligation not to draw upon that fund unnecessarily.3

Assar Lindbeck, one of the most important Scandinavian economists to have analyzed the welfare state, reached the same conclusion as Beveridge.4 For Lindbeck, the welfare state is a “triumph of western civilization … (However,) the day the ‘Lutheran ethic’ subsides in the population, and ‘Prussian discipline’ ceases to be exercised by the controlling administrators, the welfare state is in trouble.”5

A recent contribution to analysis of the postpandemic welfare state is the 500-page report issued by British Columbia’s Expert Panel on Basic Income in December 2020.6 The panel outlines many incremental reforms to improve and enlarge transfers to the poor; however, the authors reject a basic income on several grounds, the first being that it ignores Beveridge’s “citizen’s obligation” or Lindbeck’s “Lutheran ethic”:

The basic income philosophy is conceptually consistent with our stated goal of moving to a more just society … However, there are two major differences between the (principles espoused by basic income advocates) and our broader social justice–based framework … (We emphasize) two elements of public trust that are sometimes overlooked by basic income advocates: policy stability and reciprocity. Specifically, (policy stability) relates to the cost of a program, how it would be financed, how those costs would be distributed, and the overall economic effects. Reciprocity refers to mutual respect between those who are beneficiaries and those who are mainly paying to fund the supports … By emphasizing (individual freedom from poverty) and downplaying the collective interest, important considerations related to public trust – cost, economic implications, and reciprocity – are downplayed in the basic income principles.7

Opinion surveys are snapshots of opinion at a point in time. They are not the final word, but if we are concerned with mutual respect between those paying for social services and those receiving them, surveys should not be ignored. In mid-2020, the Angus Reid Institute released a national survey on support for a basic income (see table 1). The headline of the release (“Majorities Support Idea of Basic Income”) sins by omission. The majority (59 per cent) support the idea of a basic income, but only a third (36 per cent) are prepared to pay more in taxes to finance it. This statistic is similar to the willingness to pay (34 per cent) in a 2016 Angus Reid survey posing the same question. Admittedly, there are important differences in willingness to pay based on region, age, income, education and preferred political party.

Adverse consequences

Advocates of a basic income point to several large-scale pilot projects that indicate no dire employment consequences over the length of the pilot. The B.C. report agrees that, over the length of typical pilots (three years or under), changes in employment are minor.8 However, the authors of the B.C. panel report do not find this evidence convincing:

We do not believe that basic income pilots provide information that accurately reveals the effects that a permanent, ongoing, fully implemented basic income would have on people’s behaviour … people will not respond in the same way as they would to a permanent basic income available to all eligible persons, rather than a sample.9

The implication is that adverse long-term consequences emerge slowly and randomized control pilot studies (assessing “treatment” samples versus “control” samples) are not able to answer misgivings about long-term consequences. For basic income advocates to be convincing, they need to discuss some long-term “success stories” – examples of communities, formerly poor, faring better thanks to some unconditional intergenerational income transfer available to all members of the community at low or poverty-level incomes. To my knowledge, no such cases exist.

On the other hand, there are many potential counterexamples: low-income urban neighbourhoods in which intergenerational reliance on social assistance is the norm; rust-belt American cities that have suffered significant loss of stable manufacturing jobs and are reliant on social assistance; remote indigenous communities in high-income countries, from First Nations in Canada to the Sami in Scandinavia and Aborigines in rural Australia; native-born citizens of petromonarchies in the Gulf.10

In each of these counterexamples, basic income advocates can argue that factors other than reliance on transfer income are to blame for adverse social conditions. Admittedly, racism features in any analysis of urban poverty in U.S. ghettos; low education levels are associated with dysfunction in the American rust belt; disruption by European settlers of tribal societies is a lingering problem; dependence of industrial societies on Middle East oil extensively distorted political and economic incentives in the Gulf. All these qualifications matter, but nonetheless a common feature among these cases is serious social dysfunction arising from unemployed men.

Advocates of a “traditional” welfare state – I include here Beveridge, Marsh, Lindbeck and the B.C. Expert Panel – want high-quality universal social programs, in education and health in particular. They support generous in-work benefits to those with low earnings and generous transfers to the elderly, disabled and dependent children in lower-income households – categories that most citizens do not expect to be employed. However, they also want employment earnings to remain the major source of income for most households with adult members able to work. Not surprisingly, the B.C. Expert Panel’s report contains recommendations to supplement low earnings as well as to improve labour standards and pay for lower-skill jobs.

There is a long tradition in social policy that emphasizes the role of employment – young adult male employment in particular – as a key determinant of social outcomes in a community. There are several motivations behind this emphasis:

In general, two-parent families realize better outcomes for children and for themselves than do one-parent alternatives. In any community, women, when choosing marriage partners, use employment as a proxy for men’s suitability as fathers. In marginalized communities, where many young men experience a low employment rate, young women often seek second-best alternatives (such as grandmothers as prime caregivers) for raising children.11

Adverse employment conditions are particularly damaging for men with low education levels relative to the norm. Over the last quarter century in the United States and most other high-income countries, men with high school or less have disproportionately experienced employment and income declines and above-average prevalence of many pathologies.12

Adults typically form unions and begin families while in their 20s. Those in their 20s who are not in education, employment or training – NEET, as they are called – are less likely to form stable unions than the non-NEET. The NEET group is less likely to participate actively in raising children that arise from a union and is prone to depression and abuse of alcohol and drugs.13

As summarized in the above bullets, the emphasis on employment may appear excessive. There is, nonetheless, extensive evidence that unstable and poorly paid employment is central to any understanding of intergenerational poverty in high-income countries. William Julius Wilson, a prominent American sociologist, developed his ideas on the role of employment in family formation primarily in the context of American inner-city ghettos. Writing in 1996, he summarized:

The disappearance of work and the consequences of that disappearance for both social and cultural life are the central problems in the inner-city ghetto. To acknowledge that the ghetto still includes working people and that nearly all ghetto residents, whether employed or not, support the norms of the work ethic … should not lead one to overlook the fact that a majority of adults in many inner-city neighborhoods are jobless at any given point in time.14

In several studies, American economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson have analyzed the impact of the decline in stable manufacturing employment over the last quarter century. In a recent study, in 2018, they analyzed change in manufacturing employment and social outcomes using detailed U.S. census data at the local level between 1990 and 2014. They concluded,

On average, trade shocks differentially reduce employment and earnings of young adult males, compared to young women, and shocks to male relative earnings reduce marriage and fertility. Consistent with prominent sociological accounts, these shocks heighten male idleness and premature mortality, and raise the share of mothers who are unwed and the share of children living in below-poverty single-headed households.15

Over the last decade, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have analyzed cohorts of Americans born since 1940 in detail. They focused on the prevalence trends of numerous morbidities and sources of distress – suicide, chronic joint pain, difficulty in socializing, heavy drinking, mental distress, sciatic pain, drug/alcohol mortality – and paid special attention to those who were not married or had never married and those who were not in the labour force. Adjusted for age, these symptoms of community distress were more prevalent among those born more recently. Not only has prevalence risen among younger cohorts, but the increase in prevalence rates has also accelerated among cohorts born since 1980.

Case and Deaton make no claim to have the definitive explanation for these trends. However, they introduce evidence on the importance of declines in wages and in labour force participation among White working-class Americans with education levels below a college degree. Among younger cohorts of men with low education levels, the accelerating prevalence of these pathologies is more pronounced among White than among African and Hispanic Americans.

There have been no studies in Canada as rigorous as those studying social problems in low-employment U.S. communities, but there is abundant cross-section evidence – fragmentary and some of it dated – to the effect that First Nation communities with low employment rates experience high social dysfunction. Statistics Canada publishes descriptive studies on homicide statistics in Canada, disaggregated in terms of Indigenous/non-Indigenous identity, gender and province. Averaging results over three years, 2016 to 2018, the Indigenous homicide victim rate outside the Prairies was four times the national non-Indigenous rate. In the Prairie provinces, the Indigenous homicide victim rate was 12 times the national non-Indigenous rate. Three quarters of Indigenous victims of homicide are men. A disproportionately large share of Indigenous homicides (two thirds of both Indigenous victims and Indigenous perpetrators) take place in the Prairie provinces, where the Indigenous employment rate is lowest. A similar tragic story can be told about Indigenous suicide rates.16

Financing a basic income

In 2017, the Liberal government of Ontario launched a basic income pilot, which was cancelled by the incoming Conservative government the next year.17 The basic income was set at $17,000 for a single individual and $24,000 for a couple. These amounts were 75 per cent of the relevant Low Income Measure, one of the poverty thresholds calculated by Statistics Canada. The federal Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) has estimated the annual gross cost of a national basic income, based on parameters of the Ontario pilot. Canada-wide, the lowest gross cost of the basic income was estimated at $92 billion and the highest at $196 billion,18 depending on variation in the rate at which the basic income is reduced as earned income rises (benefit recovery rate or BRR, illustrated in box 1). To give some perspective, total estimated federal tax revenue for the 2019–20 fiscal year (prepandemic) was $286 billion. Depending on the BRR, the basic income would cost between one third and two thirds of total federal tax revenue.

The PBO offset gross costs by eliminating numerous federal and provincial tax credits and other programs targeting low-income households. Including these offsets, the net annual cost ranges from $46 billion to $150 billion. Note that some of these offsets imply sizable tax increases for all Canadian taxpayers. The “basic pesonal amount” is a nonrefundable tax credit that implies no federal income tax is payable on the first $13,200 of taxable income in the 2020 tax year. The provinces offer a similar tax credit, which varies by province; in B.C., it implies no provincial income tax on the first $11,000 of taxable income. These tax credits are available to all taxpayers, but are of greatest relative benefit to those with low taxable incomes. Elimination of these credits would raise the annual income tax liability of each B.C. tax filer by $2,500.19

Simulating the impact of a basic income

The B.C. Expert Panel undertook many simulations of the impact on poverty to be expected from a basic income, varying two key parameters: the value of the basic income transfer to those with no earnings and the rate at which the basic income is reduced as earned income rises (benefit recovery rate or BRR). In one case, which is discussed in detail, the estimated decline in poverty rate is from 8.6 to 2.7 per cent (in terms of the Market Basket Measure, a poverty threshold calculated by Statistics Canada):

  • the basic income for an individual is $18,000 annually;
  • the BRR is set at 50 per cent;
  • the break-even earnings level beyond which no basic income transfer is disbursed is $36,000.*

We need to introduce one more concept, the marginal effective tax rate (METR). The METR is simply the sum of the relevant BRR and relevant tax rates (personal income tax, Employment Insurance and Canada/Quebec Pension Plan) based on earned income.

In figure 1, the blue line illustrates the METR at different earnings levels arising from the federal plus provincial personal income tax, with no benefits provided. At earnings below approximately $13,200, the METR is zero or negative. Why zero? The “basic personal amount” is a nonrefundable tax credit that implies no federal income tax is payable on the first $13,200 of taxable income; a similar B.C. credit implies no provincial income tax is payable on the first $11,000 of taxable income. Why negative? Canadian social policy also includes an earnings supplement for those with earnings above a lower threshold and below an upper threshold. Increases in earnings within this range increase the size of the supplement. Above the upper threshold, the supplement remains in place. At a somewhat higher earnings level, the supplement is subject to a BRR. The effect of the earnings supplement BRR, added to personal income tax rates, is a METR between $15,000 and $20,000 of close to 40 per cent. Once the break-even earnings level for the earnings supplement has been reached, the METR declines until earnings place the taxpayer into a range with a higher marginal tax rate.

The orange line applies to those receiving temporary assistance in British Columbia. It illustrates the “welfare wall,” a major disincentive for anyone “on welfare” to seek employment to get “off welfare.” Beyond a $400 per month exemption in B.C. (now raised to $500), the welfare BRR is 100 per cent. Once earnings exceed the break-even temporary assistance level, the METR falls to the blue line.

The purple line assumes a basic income of $18,000 for an individual, subject to the 50 per cent BRR associated with the basic income. Until the basic income break-even income, the purple line lies 50 percentage points above the blue line. Tax credits and the earnings supplement keep the METR below 50 per cent until approximately $11,000. Thereafter, the METR rises to 80 per cent until the $36,000 basic income break-even earnings level. The METR associated with this basic income model entails a “wall” lower than in the case of temporary assistance, but sufficiently high that the BRR over the $15,000–$36,000 earnings range is 80 per cent.

The choice of parameters for this illustration was based on minimizing the program cost while reducing the provincial poverty rate below 3 per cent. A lower BRR reduces the METR and hence the employment disincentive, but it increases program cost because the break-even earnings threshold at which recipients no longer receive any basic income rises. If, all else constant, the BRR was lowered to 30 per cent from 50 per cent, the METR “wall” would decline to 60 per cent over much of the range between $15,000 and the break-even earnings level of $60,000. The estimated cost of implementing this revised model in B.C. rises from $9 billion to $15 billion. To give perspective, the basic income cost with a 50 per cent BRR is nearly twice the province’s preK–12 education budget, and with a 30 per cent BRR nearly three times the preK–12 budget.

* British Columbia Expert Panel on Basic Income, Covering All the Basics: Reforms for a More Just Society, p. 363.

Instead of a basic income

If we ignore potential long-term unintended consequences, the basic income undeniably generates benefits to the poor in B.C. (the Expert Panel assessed a B.C. basic income, not a national program). For example, the panel estimated that the model discussed in the box will reduce the province’s poverty rate from over 8 per cent to below 3 per cent.

The Expert Panel’s final argument is that the opportunity cost of a basic income is too high. At an annual budgetary cost between $3 and $5 billion, the panel concluded that many poverty-related problems, more urgent than a basic income, could be addressed. Among many other changes, the report’s 65 recommendations included:

  • reforming disability assistance programming, including an increase in the monetary benefit for those on disability assistance to the Market Basket Measure poverty threshold (at a cost of approximately $900 million);
  • increasing temporary assistance benefits and reducing the associated BRR to 70 per cent (over $300 million);
  • increasing the earnings supplement for adults without children ($400 million);
  • extending targeted health benefits currently available only to social assistance beneficiaries, including dentistry, to low-income families not receiving social assistance (about $800 million);
  • increasing services and financial support for young adults transitioning out of care (under $200 million);
  • providing rent assistance (about $900 million).

My one major criticism of the Expert Panel is that it said little about the potential for high-quality preK–12 education to reduce intergenerational poverty. Admittedly, among the 65 recommendations are school bonds and funds for training social assistance recipients. One of the proximate goals for poverty reduction should be to reduce the incomplete secondary school rate among young adults aged 20 to 24. (Currently, this rate is about 9 per cent nationally.) Among those not achieving secondary certification by age 25, the most important group is the Indigenous population. On the basis of 2016 census data, among those on-reserve, fewer than half (48 per cent) have achieved secondary certification. The ability of those lacking such certification to find permanent employment at decent wages, whether living on- or off-reserve, is severely restricted. Among those who identify as First Nation but live off-reserve, secondary completion is higher (75 per cent). Among Métis, the share is 84 per cent, and among the non-Indigenous it is 92 per cent.20

Reducing incomplete secondary rates is feasible – but it is expensive. Among the most successful programs is Pathways to Education, a program of intense secondary-level mentoring and tutoring in low-income neighbourhoods. Its first pilot was in a public housing project in Toronto; Pathways has slowly expanded to inner-city neighbourhoods across Canada. The annual cost per student is about $5,000. The program has undergone several rigorous evaluations, which indicate its efficacy.21 Had I been on the Expert Panel, I would have argued for the array of services provided instead of a basic income to include several hundred million dollars spent on programs such as Pathways.

While you’re here, why not check out the other side of the debate in Work, Idleness and Basic Income, and the rest of our Basic Income section of this issue of Inroads Journal?

And for the rebuttal to the case against basic income, click to read Elaine Power and Jamie Swift Respond.

Continue reading “Basic Income Provides Dubious Benefits at a High Cost”

Pictured: Assar Lindbeck, laureate of the Global Economy Prize for 2017. Photo by Kielinstitute, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

No Canadian public intellectual has exercised the influence that Assar Lindbeck enjoyed in Sweden, where he played a prominent role in academic and public affairs over four decades. The obituary published in the Financial Times of London on his death in 2020 spoke to his reputation in Europe.

Lindbeck combined advocacy for generous social programs with insistence on containing what he described as “hazardous dynamics.” The most prominent manifestation of his public role occurred in the early 1990s, when he chaired a commission that redesigned many core Swedish social and economic programs.

At the time, both Sweden and Canada were experiencing financial crises, brought on by the bursting of respective speculative housing bubbles and the general recession in Europe and North America. Those of us over 50 can recall Canadian initiatives in the 1990s equivalent to those Lindbeck championed in Sweden. Ottawa limited access to unemployment insurance, reduced conditional transfers to provinces and doubled Canada Pension Plan premiums. The provinces closed underused hospitals, rendered welfare assistance more difficult and severely constrained civil servants’ wages.

We invited Inroads contributor Richard Murray, a protégé of Lindbeck’s, to write a personal note on his career.

Click to read Assar Lindbeck 1930–2020: A Personal Reflection.