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.

Social conditions in many of Canada’s First Nation communities are, by expectations of a modern society, intolerable. While, on average, social conditions among those who have “gone to town” are better, they remain intolerable for many urban First Nation families. What’s to be done?

At least since the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the dominant answer among First Nation and non-Indigenous political leaders, academics and newspaper editors has been affirmation of First Nation identities via an expansive interpretation of treaty rights and emphasis on autonomous Indigenous communities separate from mainstream society. A prominent image in the RCAP report is a “birch bark canoe, for the Indian people, their laws, their customs, and their ways a ship… for the white people, their laws, their customs, and their ways … Neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.” Here is a somewhat fuller exposition of the RCAP goal:

Assimilation policies have done great damage, leaving a legacy of brokenness affecting Aboriginal individuals, families and communities … Yet the damage is not beyond repair. The key is to reverse the assumptions of assimilation that still shape and constrain Aboriginal life chances … To bring about this fundamental change, Canadians need to understand that Aboriginal peoples are nations … To this day, Aboriginal people’s sense of confidence and well-being remains tied to the strength of their nations. Only as members of restored nations can they reach their potential in the twenty-first century.1

A quarter-century after the RCAP publication, it is time to ask: has the agenda succeeded? Arguably, the most important criterion of success is the ability of First Nation communities to create employment for their members. By this criterion, the answer is no. There are, obviously, relevant criteria other than employment. But however important these other criteria are, they are complements to, not substitutes for, employment.

Following each census, the federal Indigenous services ministry constructs the Community Well-Being Index (CWB), a heroic attempt to assess the social well-being of more than 600 First Nation and Inuit communities across Canada. The employment rate is one element in constructing the CWB. From the first CWB iteration, based on the 1981 census, to the most recent, based on the 2016 census, the employment rate in First Nation communities remained two thirds the rate in non-Indigenous communities. At a regional level, the rate has risen in some regions, stagnated in others and declined in one region.

In this article, I aim to illustrate the relevance of employment as a factor associated with three social pathologies that have received extensive attention in government reports and academic and policy studies: suicide, alcohol abuse, and homicide. Ideally, the analysis should be conducted at the level of individual First Nation communities, but in the absence of disaggregated data, regional-level data suffice to show the existence of dramatic differences in prevalence of these pathologies associated with differences in regional employment rates.

First Nation families voting with their feet is an indication that employment matters. In the 2001 census, 49 per cent of those who had the right to live on-reserve (“registered Indians” pursuant to the Indian Act) did so; in the 2016 Census, only 40 per cent did so. Another measure of mobility is the distribution of those who identify in the census as First Nation whether or not they are “registered.” In 2001, 45 per cent lived on-reserve; in 2016 only 34 per cent did. The majority of First Nation people now live in cities, and more than a third live in large cities (population over 100,000). Probably the best explanation for this migration comes from the large-scale survey of 2,600 urban Indigenous people (Métis and Inuit as well as First Nation) undertaken for the 2010 Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study:

When asked (unprompted, without response options offered) why they first moved to their city, equal proportions cite the opportunity to be closer to family (38%), and the pursuit of education (37%) and employment opportunities (37%). Smaller proportions say they moved to their city because it offered better amenities (18%), the chance to escape a bad family situation (10%) and the opportunity for career advancement (9%).2

None of the above implies that the urban Indigenous population enjoys overall social conditions on a par with their non-Indigenous neighbours or that urban natives have abandoned their Indigenous identity. Emphasis on the RCAP agenda has obscured the extent to which Indigenous communities display social pathologies – which also afflict many in non-Indigenous communities – that can only be addressed by the overall society. A key factor underlying these pathologies is absence of employment.


A frequently cited article on suicide among the Indigenous population is Michael J. Chandler and Christopher Lalonde’s 1998 study of suicide in British Columbia.3 Chandler and Lalonde established the residence of each Aboriginal suicide in one of 29 tribal councils. Then, using an index of “cultural continuity” that each tribal council achieves (based on such measures as the percentage of children attending on-reserve schools and the extent of band control of health and other services), they found a connection between this index and suicide: the higher the tribal council’s cultural continuity, the lower the suicide rate. I do not deny that “cultural continuity” matters. The major problem with this study is the attempt to attribute suicide to a single factor.

In 2017, a parliamentary committee submitted its report on “The Suicide Crisis in Indigenous Communities,” which is worth quoting at some length:

Jack Hicks noted there is a connection between “job losses, unemployment, social despair, and suicide.” Sheila North Wilson, in describing the recent loss of her cousin to suicide, noted he had trouble finding work when he returned to his home community, “How is a young man, a young father, and a young husband supposed to feel when they don’t have any jobs to provide for their family?” …

For those living in remote communities, the Committee heard there is clear connection between unemployment and hopelessness. For example, when the Weeneebakyo Area Health Authority asked a young First Nation woman why there are many suicides in her reserve she replied, “It is simple, no jobs, no future and no hope.” Will Landon explained how “a lot of suicides can be linked to low economic opportunity. They don’t feel there’s a lot for them out there. Sitting on welfare is not a great option for them and it gets depressing.”

In addition to providing a source of income to provide for their families, work can also be an important aspect of developing self-worth and confidence. For instance, Joachim Bonnetrouge from the Deh Gah Got’ie First Nation noted that about half of his community is currently unemployed and that more opportunities would substantially benefit the community, “If you have a family and a father, and they could give him a job, holy man, you’d see that would make a big difference in anybody’s life.”

This passage from the parliamentary committee report emphasizes lack of employment as the key factor associated with suicide. But like the cultural continuity cited by Chandler and Lalonde, employment is not the sole cause of high community suicide rates. In a recent Statistics Canada study that attempted to identify the role of several socioeconomic factors, Mohan B. Kumar and Michael Tjepkema conclude with respect to First Nation adults:

After adjusting for age and sex, the risk of suicide … was twice as high as that among non-Indigenous adults. Adjusting for household income resulted in a decrease in risk by 35%. After further adjusting for labour force status, level of education and marital status, First Nations adults were still at a higher risk of suicide than non-Indigenous adults. Together, these factors accounted for 66% of the excess suicide risk. Further adjusting for living on and off reserve resulted in a HR of 1.2, which was not significantly different from 1.0. Together, all these factors accounted for 78% of the excess suicide risk among First Nations adults.4

Not only are multiple socioeconomic factors relevant, but the factors are also interdependent. For example, higher education improves the probability of employment, which improves family income. It’s important to consider which socioeconomic factors are most subject to policy intervention. Employment and education stand out as obvious candidates.

That employment yields social benefits beyond the direct value of income for the worker is hardly a new idea. Historically, employment as a strategy to address poverty and social pathologies is associated with harsh poor laws in Elizabethan England. In current social policy debates, many – on both left and right – argue that whatever the excesses of poor laws and workhouses, high unemployment is a fundamental factor in explaining high rates of social pathologies. Social policy that ignores employment will not succeed.

Among those who have insisted on increasing employment among marginalized groups, William Julius Wilson figures prominently. Wilson is an American sociologist much of whose early research analyzed the role of unemployment 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.5

Wilson’s research has inspired recent studies on the decline in employment rate and working conditions among working-class Americans over the last quarter-century. Prominent in this literature is research undertaken by the husband-wife team of Angus Deaton (winner of the 2015 Nobel economics prize) and Anne Case. In several recent publications, they have analyzed increases in U.S. age-adjusted mortality rates due to suicide, alcohol abuse and drug abuse among populations defined by race, education level and geography. These three proximate causes of premature death they label “deaths of despair.”6 Following Deaton and Case, the second pathology to discuss is alcohol.


Large-scale surveys of alcohol abuse have found that excessive alcohol consumption is more prevalent among Indigenous than non-Indigenous Canadians.7 Rather than a summary of epidemiological studies, a better introduction to the consequence of alcohol is the memoir of Harold Johnson, a First Nation lawyer who, for two decades, acted as defence counsel and crown prosecutor in northern Saskatchewan. The RCAP commissioners concluded, “The widely held belief that most Aboriginal people consume excessive amounts of alcohol on a regular basis appears to be incorrect.”8 Johnson bluntly retorts, “The Royal Commission obviously got it wrong.”

He traces the link between alcohol and employment to the disappearance over the second half of the 20th century of traditional employment opportunities in the north: logging, trapping, freshwater fishing. The disappearance of such jobs exacerbated alcohol abuse. At the core of his memoir is a harrowing description of multiple cases in which alcohol figures prominently.

Johnson advances four interpretations of alcohol abuse in First Nation communities, each of which he finds wanting because each denies the obligation of First Nation leaders to assume responsibility and address the problem.

He first analyzes the victim model: present problems are the consequence of colonization. Obviously, White settlers were colonizers; they expropriated land and introduced alcohol. However, argues Johnson, “If we believe that the only reasons for our problems rest with colonization, we can never fix our problems, because we cannot go back and fix colonization.”9

The second interpretation is that the psychological trauma of colonization, and of residential schools in particular, induced destructive drinking habits. This, he concludes, is a variant of the first interpretation: “Many people who attended residential schools were severely traumatized. But traumatic events did not end when the residential schools were closed. Alcohol creates its own trauma. More often than not, the trauma our relatives experience occurs as a result of excessive drinking.”

He is equally dissatisfied with the medical model, which treats alcoholism as a disease similar to others, such as smallpox or tuberculosis. Once again, he concludes, the medical interpretation denies any responsibility within Indigenous communities to introduce social reforms.

The fourth interpretation is reliance on the law to resolve problems arising from abuse of alcohol:

On the northern court circuit, the judge and the prosecutor and the defence lawyer … fly into remote communities once or twice a month … We hold court all day and often late into the evening … After a day in court, after doing what the Law Enforcement Model requires, after hearing over and over again that, “when he’s sober, he’s a good guy; it was just the alcohol”, we are driven back out to the airplane by the RCMP.

Reliance on the law, concludes Johnson, is “insane.” Asking judges to weigh partial conflicting evidence presented by defence counsel and prosecutor requires that judges choose one side or the other and ignore complex reality:

Law can never solve our problem with alcohol in our communities and the devastation it causes, because law is not rational. It refuses to look at the whole of the problem, even though alcohol and its aftermath are the primary matters that the courts deal with every day, all day long. In its deliberate blindness, law is actually quite insane.

His tentative short-term solution turns around “sober houses”:

If you have a sober house, if you are one of the 35% of our people who never use alcohol, you put a Sober House sign on your door and people will know that you welcome sober people to come and join you … A safe place, a cup of tea, someone to talk to, some who understand: the experience of what a healthy life and a healthy home look like would be, for many of our relatives, something superior to any treatment centre.

Sober houses may be a weak reed on which to rely. Johnson has much to say about cultural revival of Indigenous values and employment as means to restore community health.


The causes of homicide are similar in many ways to those of the three deaths of despair analyzed by Case and Deaton. The recent report on murdered and missing Indigenous women (MMIW) is the most prominent official acknowledgment in Canada of the high homicide rate among the Indigenous population. Like the RCAP analysis of alcohol, the MMIW analysis of homicide is woefully inadequate. The report notes that in recent years nearly one quarter of female homicide victims have been Indigenous, a share far higher than the Indigenous share of the Canadian female population. The explanation for this state of affairs, MMIW concludes, is straightforward: White settler colonialism and continued White racism:

*Rate: annual average per 100,000 in the relevant population. Source: data in Tables 1-3 are author’s calculations from Homicide in Canada (Statistics Canada). various issues. Note: Indigenous includes both those identifying as First Nation and as Métis.

The violence the National Inquiry heard amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis, which especially targets women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people. This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence, death, and suicide in Indigenous populations.10

If past colonialism and allegedly persistent White racist attitudes are the only relevant factors to explain contemporary pathologies, perhaps the RCAP agenda of parallel societies is the only option to pursue. However, there is a great deal missing from the MMIW report – beginning with the absence of any discussion of homicide among Indigenous men, both as perpetrators and victims (see tables 1–3). Here is a summary of recent statistics11:

While a quarter of female homicide victims are Indigenous, male Indigenous homicide victims are also a quarter of all male homicide victims (table 1). Since the total male homicide victim rate is much higher than the female rate, three quarters of Indigenous homicide victims are male.

In terms of perpetrators of homicide, the overall rate is much higher among males than among females, and the rate is much higher among Indigenous males than among non-Indigenous males (table 2).

*Rate: annual average per 100,000 in the relevant population. Source: data in Tables 1-3 are author’s calculations from Homicide in Canada (Statistics Canada). various issues. Note: Indigenous includes both those identifying as First Nation and as Métis.

The distributions of relationships between perpetrators of homicide and their victims are similar among Indigenous and non-Indigenous victims (table 3). In both cases, the relationship is overwhelmingly one of spouses, family members, intimate nonfamily members and friends. In the case of Indigenous homicide victims, only 10 per cent of perpetrators are strangers to the victim.

Consistent with the data on relationships between Indigenous victims and homicide perpetrators, over a third of all homicide perpetrators are Indigenous (table 2), which implies that a large majority of homicides of Indigenous women are perpetrated by Indigenous men. Which brings us back to the discussion of pathologies associated with low employment.

Source: data in Tables 1-3 are author’s calculations from Homicide in Canada (Statistics Canada). various issues. Note: Indigenous includes both those identifying as First Nation and as Métis.
The link between “deaths of despair” and employment

What is the relevance of employment to this discussion of suicide, alcoholism and homicide?

In Canada, there has been no detailed linking of community-level First Nation employment conditions and “deaths of despair” comparable to the research undertaken in the United States by Case and Deaton and others. However, fragmentary evidence does exist. The Statistics Canada study discussed above reaches a firm conclusion that “labour force status” is a significant socioeconomic factor associated with high suicide rates among First Nations. I introduced the Community Well-Being Index (CWB), constructed from four subindices (per capita income, housing quality, education level, labour force status).12 The community employment rate is a second-order statistic that enters into calculation of the labour force status subindex.

Since the initial CWB based on 1981 census results, the employment rate in First Nation communities has remained at two thirds the rate in non-Indigenous communities. Regional employment rates, however, have diverged. In Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the Territories (one fifth of the total First Nation population), 2016 employment rates are higher than in 1981 by over 10 percentage points. In Ontario and B.C. (over one third the total), rates have risen at rates similar to those of the non-Indigenous population. In the Prairies (nearly half the total), employment rates in 2016 are either the same as in 1981 or slightly lower (see Figure 1).

Correlation is a crude measure to assess causality. But, in the absence of more detailed evidence, correlation conclusions should be addressed. The Statistics Canada study quoted above reports provincial-level statistics on suicides, in the form of ratios of First Nation to non-Indigenous suicide rates. Nationally, the ratio over the years 2011–16 is 3:1 (First Nation 24.3/100,000 vs. non-Indigenous 8.0/100,000). At the provincial level, the range of ratios is from 1.9 to 4.6. The three highest ratios are in Manitoba (ratio 4.6), Saskatchewan (4.5) and Alberta (3.5). There is a negative correlation between regional First Nation / non-Indigenous suicide ratios (highest in Prairies) and First Nation regional employment rates (lowest in Prairies).

There is also an obvious negative correlation between Indigenous homicide rates, for both victims and perpetrators (highest in Prairies) and First Nation regional employment rates (lowest in Prairies). Over the years 2016–18, two thirds of all Indigenous homicide victims and Indigenous homicide perpetrators were in the Prairie provinces. Indigenous homicide rates in the Prairies, for victims and perpetrators, are roughly three times comparable Indigenous homicide rates elsewhere in Canada (tables 1 and 2).

Strenthening employment and education

If past colonial relations and present White racism suffice to explain the incidence of suicide, alcoholism and homicide among the Indigenous, why are there such dramatic regional differences? If we exclude the Prairies, the Indigenous homicide rates (as victims and perpetrators) and suicide rate are approximately three times the respective non-Indigenous national rates. In the Prairie provinces, the Indigenous homicide and suicide rates are approximately three times the respective Indigenous rates elsewhere in Canada. This is strong evidence that addressing social pathologies requires addressing low employment among many Indigenous communities.

First Nation families that want to live in their First Nation communities should be able to do so with reasonable employment prospects. That is seldom the case at present. For it to be feasible, successful out-migration must become an option for those who want to “go to town.” At present, those living in a First Nation community with weak education outcomes face severely limited employment options – whether in their community or “in town.” Hence, many stay on-reserve and on welfare.

In the medium term, successful out-migration requires K–12 education outcomes that are similar to those among non-Indigenous children. Historically, on-reserve band-controlled schools have not performed well. The core obstacle is not inadequate government school financing. With honourable exceptions, First Nation leaders have not made sufficient commitment to strengthening student outcomes in their schools – which does not excuse provincial education ministries. Most First Nation secondary school students attend provincial schools and provincial governments vary widely in terms of the priority attached to successful First Nation student outcomes.13

For a small minority of First Nation communities, the RCAP agenda is succeeding in the creation of jobs. Thanks to the courts having strengthened treaty rights, communities with rights bearing on resource projects are now able to strike beneficial partnerships with resource companies, which generate income and employment for community members. We can get a picture of where these more successful communities stand by looking at the top decile, in terms of employment rate, among the more than 600 First Nation communities included in the CWB. It is well above the First Nation average, but still six percentage points below the average rate for non-Indigenous communities. In other words, fewer than 60 First Nation communities enjoy employment rates above or reasonably close to the non-Indigenous average.14

In the short term, affirmative action is justifiable. There should be no illusions: there is a long history of mixed results from past affirmative action initiatives. One avenue is decentralization of relevant federal administrative offices from major cities to small towns, which would increase the probability of Indigenous employment. Another avenue is to further strengthen treaty rights that engender sustainable employment, such as First Nation fishing and logging rights. An important, highly controversial precedent is the 1974 Boldt decision (named after the trial judge) in Washington state. It awarded American Indian tribes along the Columbia River the right to half the allowable salmon catch, a share far more generous than the equivalent allocation among First Nations in B.C. Over the decades, Washington state tribes have developed significant employment in processing salmon and managing an intertribal regulatory regime.15 Other controversial quota options exist: Ottawa could impose quotas regulating the minimum number of First Nation workers to be hired by firms wanting to hire temporary foreign workers.

None of this will happen as long as the dominant discourse is one of colonialism and White settler guilt.

Continue reading “First Nations, Employment, and Deaths of Despair”

Photo via Immigration Canada Services.

Among high-income OECD countries, Canada currently has one of the highest proportions of foreign-born individuals in its population. While Canadian immigration rates have risen substantially over the last three decades, Canada has long been a “country of immigrants.” Figure 1 shows the foreign-born share in Canada since Confederation. After hitting a low point of 13 per cent in 1901, the foreign-born share shot up to over 20 per cent through the next three decades. It then dropped and stabilized at 16 per cent until late in the 20th century, when it began to rise. In the 2010s, it once again surpassed 20 per cent.

Perhaps the most important distinction between the two periods of high immigration is geographic dispersion. In the early 20th century, immigration rates were highest in the western provinces, largely as a result of rural settlement in the Prairies, while rates were also high in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. In sharp contrast, over the last three decades, immigration has been concentrated in a handful of large cities. Over a third of 2019 immigrants settled in Toronto (35 per cent). Another third settled in four cities with population over a million – Vancouver (12 per cent), Montreal (10 per cent), Calgary (6 per cent), and Edmonton (5 per cent). The final third settled elsewhere.

To date, Canada has avoided the serious conflicts that have taken place in the United States over immigration levels and rural/urban political divisions. Whether we can extrapolate present-day immigration trends over the next two decades and avoid serious political divisions deserves discussion. In the latest poll on public attitudes, opinion was not enthusiastic about government projections of higher immigration levels: 17 per cent favour higher levels; 36 per cent favour lower levels; 40 per cent favour the status quo (340,000 immigrants in 2019).1

In this issue, we are publishing two articles on immigration. Mark Stobbe writes on the excessive resort to international visa students as a “back door” immigration route. Increasingly, colleges and universities are relying on visa students paying high fees (at least four times those charged to domestic students). From his experience as an instructor, he finds that most visa students are not much interested in his lectures, while university and college administrators are primarily interested in the fee revenue.

Click to read The Postsecondary Education Extortion Racket for International Students by Mark Stobbe.

Anne-Michèle Meggs dissects the complex channels whereby immigrants achieve “permanent residence” and citizenship. Over a third of the 340,000 immigrants accepted in 2019 did not come from abroad but were already in Canada, most under student or conditional work permits. She discusses the declining role of the “points system” in determining immigration, and expands on Stobbe’s concern over the unintended consequences for postsecondary institutions of the growing number of international students. In a second article on immigration in the Summer/Fall 2021 issue of Inroads, Meggs will examine temporary worker programs.

Click to read by How Immigration Really Works in Canada by Anne Michèle Meggs.

Continue reading “What Kind of Immigration Policy Does Canada Want?”

Harold R. Johnson, Firewater: How Alcohol is Killing My People (and Yours).
Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2016. 180 pages.

Harold Johnson is a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan, son of a Cree mother and a Swedish father (who assimilated into Cree culture). He has lived a very full life. Before pursuing his present “job” as both fiction and nonfiction writer, he undertook many careers. In his youth, he was a logger, miner, trapper and fisher. He joined the navy; later he decided to be a lawyer and got a law degree from the University of Saskatchewan, and subsequently a master’s degree in law from Harvard. For two decades he was  a senior crown prosecutor in northern Saskatchewan. He insists on describing himself as “Indian” as opposed to other labels, and enters into the debate over the origin of the word (Columbus’s confusion as to where he landed in 1492 vs. evolution of the Spanish in Dios – with God). Currently, he lives “off grid” with his wife, near his family home.

I was aware of this book, but did not read it until recently. It deserves a review in Inroads, even if four years late. Incidentally, Firewater was shortlisted in 2016 for a Governor General’s literary award.

Johnson’s thesis is straightforward: alcoholism is the key dysfunction in First Nation communities. To date, he concludes, the Canadian elite – both Native and non-Native – has avoided discussion of its seriousness. In discussing the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), he writes that alcoholism “was too blatant a subject to ignore … The commissioners argued back and forth about this study and that study and which might be correct … They said, ‘the widely held belief that most Aboriginal people consume excessive amounts of alcohol on a regular basis appears to be incorrect.’” Johnson’s response: “The Royal Commission obviously got it wrong.”
       From his experience as crown prosecutor he describes many harrowing cases involving alcohol. To give a sample:

I know a young man from a community near here who had a girl friend. The two of them were having a few relationship problems and had walked away from the community … They were standing on the bridge consuming alcohol. The girl decided to punish the young man by committing suicide – she jumped in front of a semi-truck that was passing by just then. The young man was devastated and confused … The experience haunted him, and he went to talk to an aunt for advice. She told him, “Go get good and drunk and let it go.” … He drank as much as he could for as long as he could. He woke up one morning in his car. The police were knocking on the window. They were investigating a hit and run. They found the victim’s DNA under the young man’s car. Sometime during the night he had run over his cousin and killed him … At that moment, he quit drinking. Trauma, grief and drinking seem to go together in our communities.

Is this case representative? There is no definitive evidence on the prevalence of abuse of alcohol in First Nation communities and the extent of negative consequences. Johnson thinks the case studies he raises are representative; I agree with him. There is also a great deal of anecdotal evidence. Johnson refers to conversations with police, probation officers, judges and a forensic anthropologist, and personal experience with Indigenous friends, primarily those who do not drink. He cites the indirect evidence arising from coroners’ reports of proximate causes of death in northern Saskatchewan, where roughly two thirds of the population is First Nation. In the north, the leading cause of death between 1998 and 2007 was “injury” (at 23 per cent). In the province overall, “injury” was far less prevalent (at 6 per cent), and would have been lower yet (at 4 per cent) were the north excluded.

“Injury” (which includes suicide) is one of a dozen standard causes of death listed in coroners’ reports. It is, admittedly, an ambiguous residual category. One of the few comprehensive studies to make use of “injury” statistics is a study nearly two decades old, undertaken by the First Nations and Inuit branch of Health Canada.1 This study analyzed the difference in distributions of proximate causes of death between on-reserve First Nation and non-Indigenous Canadians. The study used the concept of potential years of life lost, a measure that accords a higher weight to death at early ages. The overwhelming difference between causes of death in the two populations is the dramatically higher importance of “injury” among First Nation relative to non-Indigenous Canadians. To my knowledge, no subsequent comprehensive study has been undertaken.

As evidence that non-Indigenous elites are also unwilling to address alcoholism, here is the conclusion of a (highly negative) review of Firewater in Quill & Quire, a representative organ of respectable literary opinion in Canada: “Johnson’s basic argument – that alcohol is killing so many indigenous people – is flawed from the start … He offers no supporting research, no police reports, coroner reports, or medical records, to back up his claim.”2

Johnson has pursued many careers, but statistician is not one of them. He realizes, as does the author of the Quill & Quire review, the need for better statistical evidence. He describes in some detail an unsuccessful attempt to persuade a statistically competent colleague to research evidence on the role of alcohol among First Nation people in Saskatchewan:

I wanted to find out many things. How many deaths were the direct results of alcohol? What percentage of accidents? How many cancers? How many heart attacks? How many suicides? Could he determine how much shorter a child’s life would be because the parents were drinking and not providing proper nourishment during the child’s formative years? What is the cost to society for one child with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) during that child’s life?

Johnson rejects various explanations that make deterministic arguments based on historical wrongs: “If we believe that the only reasons for our problems rest with colonization, we can never fix our problems, because we cannot go back and fix colonization. We cannot go back and change residential schools.” His tentative short-term solution turns around “sober houses”:

If you have a sober house, if you are one of the 35% of our people who never use alcohol, you put a Sober House sign on your door and people will know that you welcome sober people to come and join you … A safe place, a cup of tea, someone to talk to, some who understand: the experience of what a healthy life and a healthy home look like would be, for many of our relatives, something superior to any treatment centre.

“Sober houses” may be a weak reed on which to rely. Johnson has much more to say than advocacy for sober houses. He hopes that a cultural revival of Indigenous values will restore community health.

In thinking about potential policy to realize reconciliation, I have been influenced by the late Allan Blakeney, a politician much ahead of his time in his concern about the condition of the Indigenous population. Many would now dismiss as inadequate his attempt as Premier in the 1970s to create Native-run municipal governments throughout northern Saskatchewan. At the time, they were valuable innovations. Given Blakeney’s longstanding engagement, Brian Mulroney appointed him to RCAP as a commissioner. Prior to publication of the report, Blakeney resigned. Why, I asked him? I take the liberty of summarizing here his response in a personal conversation:

In my opinion, roughly a quarter of those who identify as Indian or First Nation truly want a communal lifestyle available on self-governing reserves, and that should be acknowledged and respected. Another quarter are reasonably well integrated in mainstream Canadian society. The half in the middle are migrating between reserve and town and facing many difficulties in both contexts. For two years, I travelled with other RCAP commissioners across Canada and could never generate a serious discussion about education and employment. My frustration was such that, finally, I thought it preferable to resign.

Blakeney placed more emphasis than Johnson does on formal education and employment, and the desirability of most – not all, but most – “Indians” opting to go to town. Maybe Johnson is right, and Blakeney wrong. Whatever the ultimate explanation of excess Native death by “injury,” Johnson makes a very convincing case that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous elites are ignoring a fundamental social scourge.

Continue reading “Is Alcoholism First Nations’ Key Dysfunction?”

In February of this year, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won its third mandate to govern the Indian state of Delhi, comprising the city of that name and its immediate surroundings. The AAP is a maverick political party born in the wake of a decade-old anticorruption campaign. To the surprise of many, it defeated the Hindu nationalist anti-Muslim campaign waged during the election campaign by the BJP, Narendra Modi’s governing national party. Survival of the AAP government is more than a regional election in a (relatively) minor state with a population of 20 million; potentially, it is a major event in Indian politics. But first, a digression on Hamlet.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the tradition of the unreliable narrator. For four centuries, people have debated what he intended as the “something rotten” in Denmark to which the guard Marcellus alerts Horatio after the appearance of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. In the next scene the Ghost denounces his brother Claudius who has usurped the throne:

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts –
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce! – won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!

One interpretation of rot in the state of India is that Modi is a “beast” who has “seduced” the “seeming-virtuous” people of India. “What a falling-off was there” from religious tolerance as preached by Gandhi, now abandoned by the Hindu majority, who are indulging a “shameful lust” that entails persecution of Muslims. The rightful king of India (whoever is the present leader of the Congress Party) has been assassinated – literally in the case of Rajiv Gandhi (killed in 1991), figuratively at other times.

More or less, this is the interpretation of Indian politics among cosmopolitan liberals. A good example is Asim Ali, writing in the New York Times under the headline “Modi lost the Delhi Election. It Doesn’t Matter.”1 Why doesn’t it matter? Because Modi’s Hindutva and intolerance of Muslims define the present state of Indian politics. The fact that the Delhi election winner chose not to challenge Modi’s discriminatory citizenship law and instead campaigned on quality of public services is proof that Modi has won the ideological debate over religious tolerance.

Shakespeare’s villains are never one-dimensional. Claudius may have assassinated Prince Hamlet’s father and usurped the throne, but he is portrayed throughout the play as a competent ruler.  Perhaps Hamlet’s father (the assassinated king) and the usurper Claudius are both rotten. Shakespeare lived in the 16th and early 17th centuries, a time of religious wars across Europe, which resulted in multiple acts of regicide in a context of rampant papal corruption. The usurper was usually neither better nor worse than the usurped. In 20th- and early 21st-century India, Congress tolerated political corruption on such a massive scale and for so many decades that a plurality of Indians have become as disgusted with it as 16th- and 17th-century Protestant Europeans were with the papacy. Apparently Indians are willing to be governed, at the national level, by the BJP, which may – or may not – govern the country more efficiently. Worth noting, the AAP not only defeated the BJP’s attempt to mould the Delhi election into an affirmation of Hindutva and opposition to Islam, but also decimated the Congress. Of 70 seats in the Delhi legislature, the AAP won 62, the BJP 8 and Congress 0. For many, the BJP’s introduction of a discriminatory citizenship law that grants citizenship to all religious refugees other than Muslims is a minor matter relative to the abysmal state of public services in much of India.

A government focused on public services

Soutik Biswas, the BBC correspondent in India, interprets the AAP victory much as I do. In one of several stories he wrote on the AAP reelection, he summarized: “Rather than being seen as a vote against the BJP, Kejriwal’s comfortable win owes more to the triumph of welfarism and effective governance – revamping state-run schools and health clinics, and providing cheap water and electricity.”2

Asim Ali acknowledged that “Mr. Kejriwal, an anti-graft activist turned politician, focused the electoral campaign of his party on his record of governance – the significant improvement he made to the delivery of services in public hospitals, the quality of education and infrastructure in schools, and the cost of electricity in Delhi.” Nonetheless, the victory “doesn’t matter” because the rot in India is simple: it is Hindutva and hostility to Islam. As an aside, Ali would be more convincing in affirming that the rot in India is primarily religious bigotry if he generalized his thesis to include criticism of Pakistan and – with more qualifications – Bangladesh.

Biswas and Ali agree on one thing: the AAP is a party led by earnest middle-class professionals primarily interested in better social services. Kejriwal is a former accountant. Atishi, the most prominent AAP spokesperson on behalf of better government schools, has a degree from Oxford. If readers want a Canadian parallel, the 1944–64 Saskatchewan government of Tommy Douglas and his successor Woodrow Lloyd (minister of education for 17 years before becoming premier and successfully implementing medicare) comes to mind. It was an earnest government led primarily by a charismatic preacher and several very smart teachers and farmers. For two decades it pioneered multiple social programs that were adopted across Canada in the 1960s. The progressive movement in the United States prior to World War I, largely motivated by middle-class disgust with the post–Civil War era of corrupt Tammany Hall politics, is another parallel.

The heart of the AAP’s raison d’être is better schools. The AAP has spent much more on schools than its predecessors but, more important, most of its senior leaders are obsessive about improving and decentralizing school management, empowering teachers as professionals and assessing school outcomes. In 2019, AAP leaders trumpeted the result, unthinkable a decade earlier, that students in Delhi government secondary schools were marginally ahead of the average performance in Delhi private schools.

The AAP victory over the BJP and Congress is encouraging, but its breach in conventional Indian politics is fragile. There is little evidence that the major political parties are willing to undertake self-criticism and constrain, if not eliminate, the complex web of corruption, patronage and electoral intimidation that has characterized politics in the subcontinent for the last half-century. The result of weak governance has been a shamefully weak set of social programs, especially with regard to schools.

The “shameful history” of Indian government schools3

In the century before India became independent in 1947, several commissions assessed the daunting task of organizing universal education in the subcontinent. The last initiative prior to independence was the Sargent Committee in 1944. It recommended an agenda stretching over four decades:

  • free and compulsory basic education of five years for all children aged 6 to 11, to be realized within four decades;
  • compulsory senior basic education of three years for four-fifths of the children aged 11 to 14;
  • secondary education, with a duration of six years, for the age group 11–17 for approximately one out of every five children who completed the primary school.

At the time, adult literacy was 18 per cent and only a quarter of school-age children were attending a school. Post-independence, Indian political leaders scorned the committee’s four-decade timetable. The first Five Year Plan reduced the time for realizing the committee’s first goal from four decades to one.

Far from achieving universal basic education in one decade, India proved the Sargent Committee’s timetable wildly overoptimistic. Seven decades after independence, the Lok Sabha (national parliament) continues to enact legislation and set ambitious targets – which it consistently fails to meet. The most recent major legislative initiative, the 2009 Right to Education Act, stipulates a right to “free and compulsory” education for children aged 6 to 14. In great detail, Rangachar Govinda and A. Mathew discuss the laws, commissions and five-year plans from the 1940s to the present. They reach the depressing conclusion that “through the decades … political leaders set specific targets and time frames … but these remained unmet every time.”4 This conclusion is shared by nearly all who have studied education policy in South Asia.

Following the launch of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in 2000, India and other South Asian countries responded with improvements in school inputs: more teachers (which allowed for reductions in student/teacher ratios), school improvements (such as toilets, books, electricity) and higher teacher salaries. India, Bangladesh and Nepal claim to have more or less fulfilled the “letter” of MDG2 – universal primary education by 2015 – but they did not fulfil its “spirit.” Enrolment of the primary-age cohort is now over 90 per cent in India and Bangladesh (but not Pakistan), and primary completion rates are about 80 per cent. However, “free and compulsory” education has not led to a better-educated young generation. Governments achieved high completion rates by lowering standards in government schools. In general, the quality of Indian primary education in government schools remains shamefully low.

How low? An indirect measure is the flight from government schools among those with some discretionary income. In the most recent survey by the Indian nongovernmental organization ASER (see box above) in 2018, the share of sampled children attending government primary schools has declined to 64 per cent. In other words, more than a third of all rural children now attend a nongovernment school. In the cities the share is probably higher.

A key ASER benchmark is the share of sampled Grade 3 students “working at grade level.” Nationally, the average is 27 per cent in terms of reading, and 28 per cent in arithmetic. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate progress through the five elementary grades in terms of ability to undertake the reading and arithmetic problems drawn from the Grade 2 curriculum of the relevant state. The ASER statistics illustrated are the national average for all school types. (For reasons explained below I have added the analogous average progress for West Bengal students and for an NGO school in northern Bangladesh.) There is a very large difference between average performance in government relative to nongovernment schools. Among Grade 3 students in government schools, only 21 per cent are reading at grade level, as opposed to 41 per cent in nongovernment schools. With respect to arithmetic, the comparable statistics are 21 per cent in government schools and 44 per cent in nongovernment schools.

There are many qualifications to make, but they do not seriously blunt the conclusion: government primary education in India is, as my colleagues and I concluded in an earlier Inroads article, a “shameful failure.”5 Some of the gap between government and nongovernment student assessments can be attributed to differences in family characteristics. Parents of children in nongovernment schools have higher incomes on average and, more important, are more likely to be literate. Having a literate parent is the most important family determinant of whether children achieve literacy as adults. Also, while average outcomes in nongovernment schools are dramatically better than in government schools, there is much variance among nongovernment schools. For example, Bangladesh national assessments indicate that madrassa students perform below the level of students in government schools.

An NGO school in northern Bangladesh

I am one of several Canadian volunteers who have supported an NGO school adjacent to a “cluster village” in Nilphamari, a remote district in northern Bangladesh close to the Indian border. Cluster villages are a form of social housing in Bangladesh for families of rural labourers who own no land. The nearest government primary school is at a distance of several kilometres. The NGO school began six years ago in an old building with one classroom that, in a squeeze, accommodated 50 students and a second that accommodated 10 students sitting elbow to elbow around one large table in the middle of the room. Enrolment rose, so we operated morning and afternoon shifts. In 2018, we decided to build a new school with five classrooms, a latrine, a teachers’ room and a dedicated recreational area. Someone – I don’t remember who – decided to call it Bluebell.

In February 2020, we organized an in-home survey using the ASER protocol to assess basic reading and arithmetic.6 The sample included 57 children from the cluster village in grades 1–5, roughly two thirds of present enrolment in the school. (The survey found a small number of children who attended a government school. Their performance was very weak.) The sample is minute relative to the large ASER surveys conducted in India. Its primary value is feedback to Bluebell teachers on student progress. And yet, despite being a sample of one small school, perhaps there are tentative conclusions to draw from the school as a case study.

To begin, the relationship between Bangladesh and the adjacent Indian state of West Bengal is somewhat similar to that between Wallonia and France: separate countries with the same language and many shared cultural references. At least in the early primary grades, West Bengal dominates India’s national reading results; for the final two grades the regional and national results converge. In reading, Bluebell’s performance clearly outpaces the outcomes in West Bengal and India overall, in all grades. In arithmetic there are inversions: West Bengal and Indian students overall outperform Bluebell in Grades 1 and 2; West Bengal and Bluebell are essentially equal in Grade 3; and Bluebell students progress more quickly in Grades 4 and 5 than do students in West Bengal or India overall.

Why are Bluebell students faring better than the average student in West Bengal?

On average, children in nongovernment schools in India come from families with higher incomes than children in government schools, and that partly explains the superior nongovernment outcomes in ASER surveys. That cannot be the explanation here. The majority of children in our sample live in families where neither parent can read. There is also no doubt that family incomes in our sample are below the average in West Bengal.7

The NGO school has benefited from consistent donations by Canadian volunteers, which have enabled hiring an appropriate number of teachers. With five teachers for the 85 students in the primary school, there is an attractive student:teacher ratio of 1:17.8 Nevertheless, it is hard to make a case for generous foreign donations as the explanation. The NGO pays teachers at only half the level of government primary teachers. Hence, annual Bluebell per-pupil costs, including overhead costs, are under US$200 – which is roughly 25 per cent below comparable government spending per primary school student.

If pressed to explain Bluebell’s relative performance, I resort to the old saying among education administrators: “The three most important factors in any school are teachers, teachers and teachers; everything else is minor.” Bluebell has benefited from its ability to attract teachers motivated to teach. The NGO leadership of Bluebell has tried to follow the Bangladesh school curriculum while treating teachers as professionals. Bluebell should not rest on its achievement. It has outperformed ASER’s West Bengal statistics, but the ASER reading and arithmetic thresholds are hardly demanding. A good school is more than ASER expectations.

To conclude, if the BBC Delhi correspondent and I are right in our interpretation of what is “rotten in the state of India,” and if electorates in the rest of South Asia want to replicate AAP outcomes – both assumptions are debatable – citizens must tackle the ongoing damage wrought by conventional politicians.

Continue reading “Something is Rotten in the State of India”

I am writing in Vancouver four days after our desultory general election. By coincidence, Greta Thunberg is in town. Ten thousand paraded in the city centre today and cheered her stern Old Testament sermon delivered on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery:

If the adults really loved us, they would … do everything they possibly could to make sure that we have a safe future – a future to look forward to. But they are not doing that … It feels like they are doing the exact opposite, that they are desperately trying to change the subject every time the climate crisis comes up … They are trying so hard to delay the actions required for preventing this crisis from getting worse. Because they are so afraid of being unpopular and making uncomfortable decisions. It is like they are selling our future for their comfort and profit.1

Perhaps she should have devoted a few words to China. China has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Thanks, in part, to a massive increase in electricity production, primarily from coal-fired plants, the average Chinese citizen now enjoys an income level that, a generation ago, was available to only a tiny minority. There is a case to be made that the Chinese had the right to pollute in order to put an end to dire poverty. My generation of Canadians – I turned 75 this year – cannot use that argument. Basically, Greta is right: my generation has enjoyed a living standard better than any in human history, but at the cost of massive environmental damage, with worse to come. An item on the news tonight was mass evacuations caused by half a dozen fires raging along the California coast.

Relative to Greta’s sermon, along with David Attenborough’s lament on vanishing wildlife and the experience of families abandoning their homes in suburban Los Angeles, our debates on climate policy during the campaign were tepid affairs that soon will be forgotten. A short review is in order, if only to impress how parochial the Canadian political debate on climate change is.

In December 2015, shortly after his election victory, Justin Trudeau attended the UN “Conference of the Parties” on climate change (COP21) in Paris. On our behalf, he committed Canadians to adopting the target proposed by Stephen Harper a decade earlier, namely a 30 per cent reduction of Canadian GHGs by 2030 relative to 2005 levels. It was a commitment to do something, although obviously not enough to impress Greta.

The government estimate of 2005 emissions is 730 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent. A 30 per cent reduction implies that our emissions would fall by 2030 to 511 megatonnes. Emissions in 2017 were 716 megatonnes. Commissioned by the CBC, Navius Research took a stab at modelling the GHG reductions by 2030 that would arise if the promises of each of the four major parties were implemented. As figure 1 illustrates, only the Greens would successfully lower emissions below the promised 2030 target.

Here, in summary, is how the Greens intend to realize their GHG reductions by 2030:

  • reduce fossil fuel production immediately and drastically;
  • impose a carbon tax with a promised annual rate of increase;
  • regulate to reduce energy consumption across all sectors;
  • scrap new pipeline projects and build a trans-Canada electricity grid;
  • invest immediately and substantially in renewable energy production; and
  • undertake significant reforestation and afforestation.

Supporters of the “progressive” parties (lumping together all except the Conservatives and Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party) might reply to Greta that they had voted for a party cognizant of her message. If Greta looked at figure 1, she would probably spare the Greens – who won 7 per cent of the vote and elected three MPs – but say something rude about the rest of us, Conservatives and progressives alike:

You who voted Conservative, especially those in Alberta and Saskatchewan, want to perpetuate Canadian dependence on oil and gas. You want to change the subject and talk about pipelines to tidewater. You who voted for a “progressive” party are smug because you promise to do somewhat more than the Conservatives. In terms of the impact of your parties’ promises, the differences are trivial: Conservatives would lower Canada’s 2030 emissions to 1995 levels, Liberals and NDP to early 1990s levels. Except for the Greens, you Canadians are all guilty of delaying the serious initiatives required.

There are many arguments raised by the 93 per cent who rejected the Greens and opted to do very little:

  • To realize significant GHG reductions via a carbon tax, the rate needs to be six times higher than the present proposal of $50 per tonne of CO2. At $300 per tonne, the redistributive impact would be too great for any government to tolerate – even if the losers were generously compensated.
  • Maybe aggressive regulations on major emitters can substitute for an aggressive carbon tax and the Greens’ other disruptive policies. But aggressive regulations will quickly generate significant increases in many prices and disruption of many industrial sectors. Hence, aggressive regulations may well become as politically unpopular as an aggressive carbon tax.
  • Maybe Bernier is right: We are only 2 per cent of the problem. Let’s wait and see what technological innovations the rest of the world can come up with before we disrupt our way of life.

And even the Greens have yet to acknowledge what is probably required if Canada ever aspires to be a leader in containing rising temperature. The International Panel on Climate Change wants midcentury GHG reductions to be over 50 per cent, and high-income countries to make more aggressive reductions than developing countries. Modelling of the Green agenda implies reductions of nearly 40 per cent by 2030. If Canada aimed to, say, double its reductions, from 40 per cent to 80 per cent, what then? Presumably, any government rash enough to propose such an agenda would experience an electoral fate similar to the destruction of the Mulroney-Campbell Progressive Conservatives after they imposed the GST.

Many environmentalists believe that benign renewable energy sources (wind and solar) could completely defossilize our economy in a generation, with minimal increases in energy costs. The costs per megawatt-hour of wind and solar power have declined dramatically this decade, but neither is a source of “base load” (“dispatchable”) power. To provide power when the sun is not shining and/or the wind is not blowing requires either massive increases in storage capacity for renewable sources or power plants powered by fossil fuels, nuclear or hydro.2 Traditionally, Green parties have opposed major new infrastructure investments in nonfossil “base load” sources and have glossed over the limitations of wind and solar. Incidentally, those European countries that are reliant on nuclear base load power (such as France and Sweden) have per capita emissions less than half that of Canada.

Inroads has not published much on climate change but we did, two years ago, publish Chris Green’s incisive critique of Trudeau’s promise in Paris to implement Stephen Harper’s GHG reduction commitment.3 Green quoted Thomas Schelling, a Nobel economist, on the 1992 Kyoto Agreement:

I cannot help believing that adoption of such a commitment is an indication of insincerity … A serious proposal would specify policies like taxes, regulations, and subsidies and would specify programs (like research and development) accompanied by very uncertain estimates of their likely effects on emissions.

Until we find our own Greta capable of drawing 10,000 to a more-or-less spontaneous demonstration in Vancouver – and a much larger number to an earlier demonstration in Montreal – Canada will probably continue with our parochial preoccupations. We will fiddle while California and many other places burn.

Continue reading “Canada Fiddles While California Burns”