Bringing context and perspective to the chaos

Shift with a capital $

America’s economy is the pride of it’s people, the envy of it’s enemies and fuels it’s citizens domestic dreams. Little can be contested in the statement that the American economy has developed a previously unknown wealth, and the same goes for the assertion that this novel wealth has been inequitably allocated amongst a select few. Recent years have seen a sharp increase in this trend. Voices the world over have attributed this shift, partially or fully, to the role of several factors: systemic social conditions impacting class ascension, the rise of outsourcing and automation fuelling a global spread of employment previously reserved for American talents, and the inherent greed of corporations. All are valid points. But what is often overlooked is a theory that can be offer insight by examining a question with a wider perspective: what exactly is an economy, and how does the make-up of a specific economy impact who benefits from what?

At it’s core, an economy is a system of exchange and valuation active within a set region or jurisdiction. This definition bears importance when considering how the make up of an economy (the base components that are valued and exchanged within an economic system) impacts how the value created through it is generated and distributed. An economy made up of a two types of goods, as anyone who has taken Economics 101 can attest, will directly enrich those parties selling goods for a higher price than they are purchased. An example is if the entire economy of a deserted island with two inhabitants were made up of coconuts and fish, with 1 fish being worth 4 coconuts (it being much trickier to trap a fish in a net than a coconut). If one party collects only 3 coconuts, the other has 10 fish, and there is no knife vendor in our economy, the ability of the coconut holding party to participate within the formal economic system is limited. This is because they cannot participate with their current earnings, and have no opportunity to do so unless they find more coconuts. As it would be for any additional third party who landed on the island and possessed neither good necessary to exchange for the other, forcing them to subsist off of seaweed and sand. This economy, through a lack of effective design and high levels of concentration, has created an environment where wealth is concentrated, and others lack the means to fully participate and receive set market value for their work.

This example, although notably exaggerated, serves to illustrate a broader point: the degree of concentration within an economy impacts the distribution of it’s returns to market participants, as does the valuation of goods. This can be directly seen in an economic system only slightly more complex than the island: the American financial sector. As New Deal regulations imposed on the financial sector were slowly dismantled following the 1970s, the sector within the United States grew from contributing 10% to overall GDP in 1970 to 20% by 2010. This shift denotes a notable concentration. Within this 40 year time period, the manufacturing industry’s share of GDP contributions fell from 30% to 10%. This trend was noted repeatedly by onlookers throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but was not formally identified until 2005 as financialization, a term used to denote the accumulation of profit through primarily financial channels instead of trade or commodity production. Supporters of this argument (who often misrefer to the trend as “post-industrialism”) point to indicators: the role of portfolio income as a percentage contribution to corporate incomes has drastically increased since 1950 and the growing percentage of profits generated in financial sectors of the economy versus non-financial sectors has equally increased.

It is important to note that structural shifts within a economy towards greater service-dependence for growth are normal and natural elements of development. Rostow’s 5 Stages of economic growth model highlights that all economies move from traditional subsistence-basis to the eras of mass consumption and sophistication. This issue here lies not in the transition towards a higher service base, but rather the concentration that accompanied this shift within the US economy. The increased wealth brought by financialization has been concentrated in the hands of those who work within the sector. Given that the field requires a skilled and highly educated labour force, it can be safely assumed that the majority of wealth generated by this sector’s growth has not been equitably distributed amongst the traditional American labour force.

This is not merely a problem for farmers in the American heartland – the world should worry. Unlike the commodities sector, financial sectors do not generate value through product creation or provision – rather, value is derived from the current value of already existing goods. This leads to wealth for some and higher prices for all. When executed at scale, issues can befall the populous from financial sector mismanagement, with the Great Recession serving as a recent example. And with the American dollar serving as the global reserve currency, interest rate raises within the Fed have much more of an impact upon global financial flows when the financial sector is relied upon as a growth engine. This will only exacerbate the risks to developing nations with high volumes of dollar denominated debts accrued, who may face periods of devastating turbulence in an increasingly volatile world.

Inequality within an economy is a tragic, but as of yet unresolved consequence of free market economics. Distribution of rents remains a key concern, and ideological divides exist within this debate that often temper our assessments of initial questions. But when considering economic design, from trading coconuts to commodities derivatives, it bears remembering that drivers within the system cannot fully be blamed for the design flaws within the system itself.


The Hum of Change

Across the boardrooms of the world, disruption has gone from being a catchy buzzword to a strategic reality that requires active management. The lifespan of a corporation listed on the S&P 500 has shrunk from 87 to 14 years and continues to decline, and multi/supranationals are placing ever greater emphasis on constant evolution to maintain relevance. One such example can be seen with Walmart, who made the news recently for filing a patent series with the US government that outlined schematics and blueprints for autonomous drone technology that replicated insect plant pollination. The drone technology, which would use cameras and sensors to allow carrying pollen from plant to plant, was one of six patents filed that outlined a strategic foray into agriculture cultivation for the Bentonville behemoth. The issue of the patent itself is by no means a guarantee of it’s deployment or implementation, but it does allow for strategic interpretations of actions and a greater idea as to what drives Walmart in a changing world.

The first implication is that Walmart’s foray into agriculture indicates a desire for greater diversification within it’s own supply-chain, as well as a strengthening of vertical integration mechanisms to penetrate the food supply. Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods added a new dimension to the battle for commercial retail supremacy, one in which retail grocery store chains can be used as testing grounds for the deployment of new technologies, including a cashier-less grocery store currently being tested by Amazon in Seattle. Walmart is no stranger to this competition, having purchased in 2016 to establish a firm foothold in the online retailing space. Both organizations have filed patents and are actively developing or testing drone technologies for home delivery. While Walmart is currently almost three times larger than Amazon, the increasing reach of the online giant into clothing and food has lead to the exploration of new revenue models for Walmart, including increasing the retailers reach into more of it’s own supply chain. Groceries currently make up 56% of Walmart’s sales, and these technologies signify a major attempt to increase margins in the grocery retail channels in the coming years.

The second major implication for this patenting is it’s significance for the commercialization of swarm intelligence technologies beyond research labs and into the mainstream. Although no public statements have been made regarding the specific technologies underpinning this patent, two general technologies (computer vision and swarm intelligence) can be logically deduced from examining the technology’s usage. Computer vision, a field of computer science that allows computers to gain high-level understanding from visual images or videos, is a logical fit for the programming of individual drones when making determinations about requirements to pollinate individual plants. This technology will also likely be deployed within Walmart’s other agricultural patents, including technologies to better track crop damage and monitor pests. But enabling a group of drones to act in a formation requires the use of swarm intelligence technologies, which cites that random interactions between decentralized, self-organized systems should follow an ‘intelligent’ global behavior. This is commonly seen in ant colonies and pollinating insects. Advances in this technology, potentially innovated by Walmart themselves should internal investments into this technology follow their development strategy, would allow for the deployment of drones that could make pollination decisions more efficiently and reduce redundancies in robotic decision-making. This is not to say that Walmart will be alone in championing or fueling development in the field – The US Military, along with every other, are investing in advancements in this technology to better deploy and manage autonomous vehicles on the battlefield. The warfare of tomorrow may soon inform our food cultivation technologies of the day after.

Finally, a lasting and slightly more tragic implication of the development of these technologies is the acknowledgement that pollinating insect populations continue to fall, especially within the honeybee populations so vital to our food supply. Pollinators are responsible for one in every three bites of food that North Americans consume, and contribute between $2931-$3251 of added value per hectare to global agriculture cultivation. But a purely economic argument does not illustrate the actual ecological significance of bees. Much in the same manner we have not typically included the externality of carbon in our economic assessments, valuations of bee populations do not include their contributions to natural ecosystems that provide incalculable natural services to humans. As this blog has previously discussed, the loss of bee populations would greatly impact the variety and nutrition density of our current food system given our current heavy reliance on flowering plants to grow fruits, vegetables and staple crops. Drone pollinators may help offset some of this – but likely not for free, and likely not towards the entire broader ecosystem. Humans do not live in glass domes away from the world, we exist within it and among its systems. Our world is set to change, in ways we have never seen, and we do require technological advances to feed the estimated 9-10 billion of us we will see by 2060. Still, it would be foolish to assume we had invented comprehensive solutions to problems we fully attest to understand very little about.

Much of this is speculative. Walmart has simply filed these patents without public comment as to their development intentions, and they are not just some soulless corporation; they have been long championed sustainable practices throughout their supply chain. This is less a case of corporate greed and more of evolution to a changing world. Theses advances illustrate a view of the future from Bentonville that, like it or not, is actively being shaped by those who design it. The factors threatening bee populations include the widespread use of pesticides and a changing climate, neither of which Walmart can control directly. There is also little indication Amazon would do any differently, should the opportunity arise. And advances in technology enabling greater productivity and quality of life have long come from the advent of military technologies, often with surprising applications, including microwaves, GPS and the tampon. The issue here is not that the world is changing – change is the only thing humans have ever known. The issue is that we must remember that as we plan for a future we cannot predict, there is much we still do not know or understand about the natural and social systems we disrupt. A discussion surrounding what type of world we wish to live in is one we should seek to be involved in , not leave entirely to firms. Otherwise the factors firms view as externalities and society views as essential may see their definitions shift more towards the former in the coming years.

From the Ground Up

Much of the world breathed a sigh of heavy relief on the morning of May 8th, 2017, when news rang out that Emmanuel Macron had defeated Marine Le Pen in France’s Presidential elections. The victory was to some a clear signal that the current mainstream populist platforms of anti-immigration and protectionism were a fad, a trend that could not be supported if a real alternative was presented. Others saw Macron as a type of populist himself – the “anti-populist populist”, whose effectiveness lay in mobilizing middle-class workers into the same frenzy that Marine Le Pen used to mobilize blue-collar groups. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle – while 24% of voters did support the candidate because of his politics and personality, 43% did so simply in opposition to his far-right rival. His policies in the election run-up were described as neo-liberal, centrist, liberal, progressive or even centre-left; much of the difficulty in categorization can stem from the fact that Macron himself claims no allegiance to any portion of the traditional political spectrum, claiming to be a “radical centrist” akin to a pro-business technocrat.

While the photo opportunities for such a title seem endless, Macron’s status in the world is actually supported by stronger substance: the President represents the views of the ‘elite’ class, who believe the left-right divide requires transcending to deal with real problems, care not for ideology, believe people should be supported, and business/ immigration opportunities fostered. He is the closest executive embodiment to ‘Davos Man’; Macron, simply put, is a populist for the elite class. There is no shame in this – Barack Obama was a self-professed populist who ran on a platform of “representing the interests of ordinary people”. The reason modern political populism is resented amongst the elite class is due to its ingrained nativism, anti-elitism and protectionism, three strong themes that do not adhere with the rules-based order on which the world has flourished in the past and which has allowed these elites to flourish as they have.

The key theme of the definition of populism that appears to apply to all politicians is that populists “seek to mobilize their supports against a common cause”, which can either be the self-serving elites or the fear-mongering nativists – a common enemy remains one so long as all sides cynically agree to disagree. But mobilizing a following is the responsibility of any politician seeking to be elected to office, and relying on class-based interest politics has always been a primary tactic. It is no longer enough for one to simply be the “least offensive” candidate – a failure to present new ideas or reforms in an engaging manner will see voters flee to the candidate that does, as has been seen recently in the wave of populist candidates across the globe. These candidates have received more media coverage in national elections than local, but the trend exists here as well – though with an important distinction.

By the year 2030, it is estimated that approximately 60% of the world will live in cities. This may sounds drastic, but the figure was 54% in 2014, indicating that migration will be incremental. The technological advantages and career opportunities in urban areas will become more substantial, and the cities that shine the brightest will be those who adopt the newest technologies most effectively for citizens. In the age of automation, it is widely acknowledged that the definition of effective must expand – cities must now look beyond productivity towards quality of life and equity for citizens. This trend of planning for the future is evidenced in almost every major city in the world currently developing or branding themselves as a “smart city”, most prominently seen in a 2016 AT Kearney Analysis of Global Cities that named the 15 ‘Global Elite’ metropolis’ ranking above all others as hubs of culture, economic activity and politics.

Top 15 Elite Cities Globally

The report theorizes that cities and metro regions play an increasingly important role in geopolitics and macroeconomics, with city strategies increasingly informing the investment decisions of business leaders and national governments. And to be defined as ‘smart’, certain city traits stand out: cities must have large academic institutions and populations of international students allowing for better information exchange. Cities must have global service firms, and the presence of large tech companies. Cities must have a favorable ‘ease of doing business’ rating, and a stable health care and environmental protection system to preserve individual quality of life.

Much of this is driven by these cities choices in local governance: a global economic hub with strong business interests is, by definition, a hub of elites. But governance strays from liberal to conservative, with strong themes of pro-business embedded throughout. In fact, it is in local governance that we see the most tangible priorities of voters consistently emerge: voters want good education for their children, access to healthcare and enough good jobs to go around. Practically every mayoral candidate runs on these three themes, and falls within partisan lines by standing with larger parties on social issues, or by picking a particular policy stance firmly within one section of the ideological spectrum and sticking with it (examples include “We need to cut back government spending” and “our neighborhoods are unsafe because of (insert group name here)”).

Despite party allegiance, mayors firmly understand that voters on the ground care less about what specific ideology they align themselves with and more about how government actually works for them in their lives. Liberal mayors understand the frustration of inequity on the working class, and conservative mayors understand that immigrants are part of the fabric of cities and towns just as much as anyone else. Because of this, cities are breeding grounds for innovative policies and do the work that actually affects voters in their day-to-day lives. Mayors can be populists as well, of course – but the trick doesn’t tend to last as long, since the impacts of policy endeavors are more concretely felt when vague scapegoating loses the ability to be vague.

We are in the age of the populist – Presidents Macron and Obama were wise to run on reformist platforms, but it must come with the acknowledgement that in their systems, any foe running against them presenting an alternative must be operating firmly in the camp of nativism to present a true opposition. The popularity of centrism has dove as voters seek change – change in whatever form that may bring. Perhaps it is time the world began to look to municipal elections to create the change in their communities they seek instead of peering up in idolatry at our Jupiterian Presidents of the modern age.

Written in Code

The now infamous Google memo, written by former employee James Danmore, became a swift lightning rod for condemnation upon it’s claim that Google’s practice of non-discriminatory practice of  hiring of women as software engineers created an ‘anti-male’ bias. His reasoning was that academically researched gender differences between men and women added up to women being less capable coders than men, concluding that practices that sought to increase the number of women in development teams amounted to a bias against choosing talent above all else, thereby creating a practice that unfairly discriminates against the hiring of men in the hopes of hitting a workplace quota.

Putting the topic of the memo aside, although it is asinine to extrapolate a few statistics over group averages in different communities across the globe to make assumptions about the abilities of a single individual, Danmore’s interpretation of data showed evidence of motivated reasoning (only finding information that supports what you already believe). He cites studies and findings from David Schmitt amongst others, a personality psychologist whose research has focused on sex differences. Schmitt’s research, along with regular publishing of blogs in Psychology Today, has helped inform the debate surrounding sex, gender and differences between men and women. It is important to note that Schmitt himself described Danmore’s use of biological sex to essentialize an entire group’s personality as “like surgically operating with an axe”, citing that women are not more emotional than men so much as they often display higher tendencies within ranges towards different emotions (women tend to be more empathetic, men tend to be more aggressive). How emotions are measured, where and when they are expressed, what type of emotions are expressed – all of these play a role in determining how much attribution a person’s gender can be assigned for the way they act. Even interpretation is subject to context: socio-structural conditions or barriers, prevalence of stereotyping, cultural gender norms, and workplace culture all play a role in the interpretation of how someone behaves and what it means.

Schmitt’s research begins with three warnings surrounding interpretation: 1, there is a difference between sex (biological differences inherent to our species), sexual identity (identification as a man vs. a woman) and gender (relevant local cultural norms aligning with perceived feminine or masculine tendencies). 2, Any conclusion reached pertains only to group averages, methodically measured over time, and does not refer to individuals. The phrase ‘women are shorter than men’ does not mean all women are shorter than all men. 3, biological, psychological and cultural influences play a factor as well, though not always how it might be expected. Culturally, men tend to prefer physically attractive traits in marriage partners over women. This trend equalizes out if higher rates of pathogens, disease and illness are prevalent, as women tend to emphasize physical attractiveness more than men by a low margin in these environments. A potential reason for this is that attractiveness is an indicator of good health.

One key finding of Schmitt’s is that in societies where roles are more balanced between men and women and sociopolitical gender equity prevails (ie. Nordic countries), sex differences are more significant. As a percentage of enrollment, there are more female science majors in Burma, Oman and Morocco than in Scandinavia. Schmitt theorizes that when all are treated the same, genetic predispositions become more observable and prominent, citing two researchers who conclude that fewer gender restrictions allows both sexes to pursue more freely the values they inherently care about. To re-iterate: this conclusion does not reflect individual preferences, capacities or capabilities. Danmore’s memo falsely concluded that this trend was indicative that because a statistically large sample in Scandinavia didn’t work in coding, it meant women didn’t want to work in coding as a whole. Danmore cites an unlabelled graph to illustrate his point, claiming that small differences in group averages create big differences in outliers. Danmore’s mistake here was in presuming that average natural interest can be correlated to individual preferences or capabilities. Once again, that is false.

Measures of personality and interest, while important, cannot be reliably correlated to measures of ability or performance. To say that is to conclude that genetic variables lead to inevitable choice outcomes, something that has been proven untrue time and time again. Humans are susceptible to evolutionary tendencies, like any other creature, but the complexity and variability of our local societies means straight lines cannot be drawn between you being born and your choice of a career should you be free to choose. Context is important. Schmitt interprets sexual differences and sexuality not as a binary state of ‘man or woman’, but as a series of dials for individual traits, with each contributing a small part to generating a small part of the differences in individuals across the globe.

The reason it is crucial to acknowledge that differences exist is because not all differences are as inane as height. Women have higher risk of depression, men have higher risk of autism and psychopathy. In order to understand and redress these issues, they must first be identified as existing. It would additionally help dispel some of the more unhealthy lines of reasoning about the role of women in the workplace that has had detrimental effects. Women are more likely than men to have GitHub contributions accepted – but only if their identities were concealed. Women are less likely to receive pay rises. Women are often given less useful feedback in project or program evaluations. By understanding the nature of the biological differences between sexes, we can move on towards addressing the cultural and gender-based issues that impede women from advancing on the workplace. And, if at the end of our exhaustive efforts, it turns out individual women choose to do whatever they had planned on doing in the first place, that’s fine. What matters is that any individual who chooses to pursue a life of excellence, ambition and achievement should not be met with anything other than opportunities to direct their passion into making the world a better place.

Celebrating Independence

Any previously colonized nation can attest to the sweet sense of satisfaction that comes with celebrating the day of Independence from former colonizers. The value placed on sovereign independence is a practically incalculable one shared the world over, with few states placing greater emphasis on the importance of freedom than the United States of America. Constructs of the American Dream, Manifest Destiny and free-market liberalism all speak to adherence to ideological ideals ingrained within the State’s constitution. America’s construction of a world order has equally followed these values – the collapse of the Soviet Union saw trends of economic liberalization, free trade and ‘American’ values of equity and individual rights spread across borders. America’s conquest has lead to a world order in which these constructs are the norm, with illiberal states pushing back viewed as laggards instead of representatives of an equally valid system. But the focus of the autocrat has shifted East as gazes turn to China to examine how the fastest growing economy on Earth has managed to upend these previous norms.

The greatest victory of the United States in establishing a global uni-polar system was not leading by the example of their proven might, but in showing what might be possible through following their example. Chinese leaders would later come to realize that thriving within a high-tech future, an inherent democratization of information and accessibility to markets, required the empowering of individual freedoms to develop a system wherein citizens had the wherewithal to experiment, fail and innovate. But fears of dissent and creeping US influence sought the pursuit of an alternative path; one where change drivers and equalizers are restricted or banned instead of allowed opportunities to prove their value in the market. In doing so, China has succeeded: the socialist market economy of China is the second largest economy by nominal GDP and largest by PPP. Growth rates skyrocketed and sustained themselves on the backs of Asian tiger manufacturing and export-driven growth. Recent years have seen an explosion in the Chinese middle class and advancement towards a strong services-oriented economic focus, transitioning that state from being the world’s factory to one of it’s main actors.

All this has lead to the development of a Socialist Sino Success model, known as the Beijing Consensus, that some see as an alternative to modern liberal free-market democracies; some in this case referring to political scientists, the CCP and the leaders of illiberal states currently searching for just such a thing. But closer examination shows that this idea is misguided. China’s incredible growth can be attributed to three reasons: the growth of its internal domestic market, strict market controls and guidance, and a heavy reliance upon state-owned enterprises.

China’s internal domestic market, which has seen hundreds of millions lifted from poverty in the last three decades, has seen in the explosive expansion of the Chinese middle class and enormously high rates of urbanization. But growth has remained uneven, with wealth heavily fragmented based upon industrial geography. As such, China has failed to appropriately take advantage of the benefits of specialization, since integration of inter-regional supply chains domestically remains relatively small compared to potential. China’s growing domestic market have become consumers as of late, helping fuel the economic growth of the past few decades, but may become burdens instead of assets as consumers seek better regulatory protections with their now-louder voices and wallets. The CCP may not worry about losing voters, but can afford little political strife from an upset middle class. Other countries who do not have China’s vast population, workforce and scale would do well to heed that even when existing, it can create problems.

China’s strict market controls and reliance upon state-owned enterprises overlap heavily. State-guided industrial policy has focused investment and development in key sectors wherein all investment decisions were planned centrally, originally through direct allocation of production targets and later through strategic guidance via incentive and taxation schemes. The Chinese state dictated which industries would develop what and when they would do it, all while simultaneously using a network of state-owned enterprises (SEOs) entirely funded through capital taken from debt issuance and taxpayers to accomplish parallel aims. Despite market forces growing proportionally faster than SEOs, SEOs were still allocated over 50% of all bank credit and are indebted to levels that threaten the stability of the entire economy. Additionally, SEOs tend to be sector-based strategic investments, making them risky if financial turmoil adversely impacts a key sector they operate in. China’s shadow banking system and capital controls on the Chinese stock market centrally imposed in early 2016 indicate an awareness of these risks and understanding of the importance of constant management of this fragile framework.

A final note is that adoption of the Chinese model has had little to do with economic growth: a 2013 internal CCP memo stated that “Western constitutional democracy” and “universal values” were trojan horses meant to weaken and destabilize China. China’s interpretation of Tiananmen Square protests and the collapse of the Soviet Union were that democratization posed a danger to stability, ignoring the subtler lesson that the changes demanded were only demanded because of the political context that bred discontent or instability. The growth in authoritarianism showed a focus upon slowing the natural cycles of political change in favor of maintaining power, a phenomenon personified by current CCP Chairman and President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping, who is attempting to abolish term limits on his presidency. Equally ignored are the consequences of China’s rapid growth – environmental degradation, rife corruption, insufficient tax collection infrastructure and social supports have all become major drags on Chinese populations. The compounding impacts have lead to a loss of CCP authority in rural regions and a growth in popular resistance, a dangerous combination when paired with a growing and demanding middle class seeking greater accountability and an improved quality of life.

To run from the discomfort of change demonstrates an adherence to a different sort of values – China too shares America’s vision of a chosen people, one who sees a world order upheld by their values and economic models. But global adoption of an inflexible model will only see its collapse under a state less capable of financially supporting every domestic sector and enterprise. Washington and Beijing have followed the same line of domestic hubris towards a different consensus – but analysis indicates the value of independence far outweighs the sense of false reassurance offered by the Sino model. Whatever values are held by stakeholders, they would do well to understand that.

An Unhealthy System

“Canada does it right” is a common enough phrase when discussing health care reform in the United States that it may rank high enough to justify its inclusion in congressional talking points bingo (other entries include “We have to pay attention to China” and “this is the red line we just can’t allow”, both of which can apply to literally anything at any time). Canada’s universal access to healthcare, enshrined nationally and administered provincially, is built upon principles of accessibility, universality of service, comprehensiveness of coverage and portability; whether an individual lives in Toronto or Whitehorse, they should have access to the same all-encompassing services and same level of care. The design of the National Medical Insurance Act and Canada Health Act were lauded as revolutionary steps towards national equity, as they well were. The issue with the Canadian system has never been its initial design, but rather it’s failure to adapt over time, and the limited resources that affect realization of its ideal within this fundamental social service.

Canadians have a different view of their medical care system than the rest of the world. A recent survey completed for the Conference Board of Canada indicated that 90% of Canadian believe health care and health care reform should be a main priority for federal decision-makers, surpassing the environment and economy as reform priorities. An annual report card published by the Conference Board of Canada sees Canada’s system rank 10th out of 17 developed economies, receiving a ‘B’, with leader Japan surpassing even the Nordic nations for overall quality. The primary reason for this is a failure to adapt a 1960s era chronic-disease care system in an age of community-based solutions and preventative medicine, as well as external drivers of increasing  costs placed upon provincial governments and a rapidly aging population.

Issues can be found at every stage of the health care chain, compounding as they proceed: the first sign of trouble emerges at the institutional design level. Designed for an era of younger and smaller populations, Canada’s healthcare system is overly reliant upon hospitals and physicians to back an original conception that health care systems were designed to protect citizens from bankruptcy issues of payment for chronic illnesses. This goal remains noble, but the incentives, financial supports and performance metrics have failed to shift alongside the social landscape. The once ‘comprehensive’ service only truly encompasses physicians and hospital care, leaving out dental, pharmaceutical purchases and long-term support care. It also prioritizes patients based on urgency – this is not unusual, and is in fact essential to any health care system. But Canada’s centralized medical care system means an individual cannot pay to bypass the line in order to see a necessary specialist, creating wait times that span years if problems such as joint replacements are deemed non-urgent (as they commonly are).

The impacts of stagnant institutional design ripple throughout; Canada’s primary care system is a pittance, with low accessibility for rural populations and only 2.2 physicians to attend to every 1000 citizens. Spending is directed towards institutions with effective treatment metrics, not those who play a role in preventing the requirement of treatment in the first place. Little focus is given to the integration of primary and emergency care systems, with patient information digitization initiatives often seen as ancillary and not fundamental towards improving inefficiencies. Accountability for patient outcomes is silo-ed and singular; 80% of healthcare costs are borne by 20% of the population, a figure easily recognizable when routine screenings and check-ups are bypassed and create a much larger strain on financial resources in hospitals further down the health care chain.

External financial issues are present to compound pressure – successive federal governments have slowly reduced cash contributions to provinces to meet national standards, and costs of hospital insurance continue to rise. Total spending on health care amounted to 11.1% of overall GDP in 2016, which constitutes a cost of approximately $6000 per citizen. The burden only looks to increase as retirees, the number of whom encompasses that of children in Canada, increase the average cost per patient at uneven rates. Atlantic provinces and Quebec are aging more rapidly than average, and without effective financial support or reform, the risks stand pronounced for these segments of the population.

Modern medical care has focused on expanding the breadth of health care mandates to not only curing disease, but encouraging the adoption of healthy lifestyles, which has the dual benefit of healthier populations and reducing the future burden on the health care system. Reform measures often follow this trend: Nurse practitioners (NPs) can provide primary care, and capacity issues could be addressed through the development of networks that allow for NPs to provide primary care service delivery to rural and under-served areas. Greater investment in digitization technologies would reduce waiting times by centralizing patient data and creating greater efficiencies between offices. Changes to compensation and performance metric measurements could focus more on patient health instead of patient treatment, empowering capacity-development in levels where it currently lacks.

Canadians understand that their health care system has its benefits, its limits and its flaws. Reform is required to redress policy gaps and return the framework towards its initial principles of effective universal coverage across the country. Contrary to popular belief, health care is not free in Canada – funding is directed through taxation on citizens and as such, they have a right to dictate terms of service and a personal responsibility to reduce the burden upon it, within the scope of what they can control. Reform shouldn’t be a term reserved for politicking bingo – it’s time to make sure that phrase becomes an automatic check on the scorecard.


A Bad Rap

Humans exist in social and cultural ecosystems; that is to say, at any point in time, there are mainstream and subcultures that individuals associate with that dictate the norms and behaviors in modern society, competing to attract attention. During an era, a given cultural movement will express the aspiration of a specific segment of the population. While the measure of difference between mainstream and counter-cultures is typically blurred, the important part is that it allows people within movements to share values and garner a sense of community. It also has a byproduct of creating a healthy sense of conflict: counter-culture is often taken up by youth in rejection of traditional values, leading to a criticism or repudiation of institutions and norms in the hope for a ‘better’ life or society. And, much like other healthy conflicts, it breeds change: When a counter or sub-culture reaches a critical mass, it can trigger dramatic shifts and become the dominant culture itself, as seen in the era of Romanticism in the early 1800s, Bohemianism in the late 1850s, and the global counterculture becoming trendy in the 1960s-1970s.

If the transition from sub to mainstream-culture is dependent upon adoption by a large enough number that it’s growth become self-sustaining (ie. a critical mass is reached, and further growth stems from the omnipresent influence a cultural touchstone now holds in our lives), it typically requires elements of originality than can be explored by laymans to gauge the attractiveness of joining a social movement. One way counter-cultures can be explored is through art created by it’s members: literature, art and music can explore themes of taboo or expose the world to new ideas or themes that start conversations around current norms, gradually leading to the shift over time that sees a genuine transition. A core example is the evolution of LGBT social movements, viewed as a strictly taboo issue at the outset of the 20th century, which spread influence through seeing gay men represented in literature and film. This fuelled awareness of the fight for equality in the Western world and garnered support for a movement that transitioned from being an underground culture largely shunned to a visible minority acknowledged, and mostly accepted, within modern society. Now, a formal public protest against gay rights is enough to see one labelled a zealot or intolerant radical – a far cry from the the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde for ‘gross indecency’ based strictly on his sexual orientation.

Resistance to cultural evolution, much like evolution itself, is completely natural. Non-conformists often take aim at perceived institutional failures, taking a strong artistic or political stance at the relative foolishness of social norms. Logically, they take aim at those who conform, questioning the very fabric of their values and beliefs. A post-war American society of parents watching the children of the 60s saw a generation of youngsters protesting war and using experimental drugs – it only follows logically that a generation who fought for their very survival in WW2 would find this protest non-patriotic, self-indulgent and naive. But the youth of their day lacked this context, and saw the conformity of the post-war boom as a failure to express oneself. Despite the nuances of the social movement of youth (some were active and confrontational anti-war protesters, others pleaded for peace in a more general sense), the movement as a whole was labelled as “long-haired drugged-up hippies” who were a threat to democracy and therefore should be ignored. But the damage was done; with time, rock n’ roll and self-determinism grew in significance to change the world, and America was politically redefined as a nation of doves and hawks conflicted about conflict.

This struggle is currently playing out in a very tangible way, though at a smaller scale and with a few prominent caveats, in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has banned 3 elements of modern counter-culture from domestic mainstream media: tattoos, cursing and hip hop. The transition of each element into the Western conscious saw the shaking of long-held taboos surrounding those who partook in consumption of each, and have redefined popular culture: four in ten young people have at least one tattoo, with the largest tattooed demographic being white suburban females. In 2017, rap and hip hop surpassed rock n’ roll as the most consumed genre of music globally, with rap artist Eminem holding the title of the best-selling musical artist of the 2000s. Cursing, as anyone who has ever spoken to another human being before can attest, is rather mainstream as well. China’s banishment of current mainstream culture from media sources is perhaps then more explainable in context: rap music has grown in popularity in Chinese culture since the 1990s, with President Xi Jinping even stating in 2014 that there was “room for imported art forms as long as they contained healthy and upbeat messaging”. Recent CCP propaganda films have even used rap-style delivery in attempts to generate support for the Belt and Road initiative, a infrastructure investment project currently underway across Asia.

Greater contextual examination indicates that some of the opposition likely stems from the lack of use of Mandarin, association of hip hop as “black music”, and a preference for puritanism that protects against Western cultural influence and upholds ‘Chinese’ values. But if China is truly interested in maintaining hip hop’s status as counter-culture, it should exercise caution: to protest change is natural, but so is change itself. A non-evolving culture risks growing stagnant, or worse, irrelevant in the face of an increasingly dynamic and inter-connected world. If China’s push to become a global cultural export is to be taken at all seriously, it must acknowledge and learn to navigate existing global culture, not ignore it in the hopes of redefining it entirely. Counter-culture becomes mainstream when a group in opposition to widespread norms hits a critical mass, and suppression of these voices may result in a greater hold of norms for longer, but never in human history has a society avoided change forever. Changing economic conditions and a growth in the middle class have seen Chinese consumers turn their more consumptive eye to the West to dictate their purchasing trends. If the CCP ever seeks to be seen as ‘cool’, it must allow for it’s own expression of individuality to grow organically and subsequently garner a critical mass. Otherwise, a group of older men will sit in a room and attempt to dictate cultural trends to youth – a cringe-worthy endeavor bound to fail if ever one was conceived of.

A final appeal for the inclusion of hip hop: counter-culture plays an essential role in developing a sense of community and identity for those who feel a lack of acceptance or belonging within the mainstream. Messages of truth and raw emotion resonate, regardless of whether those receiving the message can relate to the messenger. There is tangible value in truth, and hip hop has strong elements of social justice and accessibility other music forms sometimes lack. To participate, you need only to rhyme a few words over a beat a friend can create for you by tapping a desk. Self-expression is an invaluable tool, and often helps those who struggle with the notion of who ‘self’ is – a pivotal part in the lives of young people struggling in their quest for identity. And in darker times, the intensity and emotion that can be delivered through spoken prose can hold a significance for some far deeper than that of a guitar chord. If we exist in cultural ecosystems, allowing for the development of social niches ensures a sense of community and acceptance for all. Change is scary – but not nearly as terrifying as never changing in the first place.

Yielding Positive Results

Ask any mid-20 something the world over for suggestions on what they wish they had learned in high school, and a reasonable assumption can be made that almost every individual will speak about wishing they had been taught the financial literacy skills to understand the value of good credit, how to avoid pitfalls in accumulating debt, and just what exactly a mortgage actually is. Many of them will have learned these lessons, but too often because of harder lessons learned in the arena of life rather than in the safety of a classroom. And a world of low interest rates, accessible credit and skyrocketing house prices is one where everyone might benefit from a greater understanding of modern finance, especially if traditional investment routes such as the purchase of a house are less likely for young people than they have ever been before.

For being such a core skill needed to participate in modern society, surprisingly little focus in the developed and developing nations is given to ensuring children have the financial literacy skills needed to manage their own futures. In the UK, 96% of teenagers say they worry about money on a daily basis, and 52% of teenagers find themselves in debt by the time they are 17. In the US, only 27% of young adults can define inflation, or do simple interest calculations – a step up from Denmark, where 73% of young adults have little to no knowledge of what an interest rate actually is. In the developing world, the trend compounds; 15% of South Africans could not divide 1000 RAND equally between 5 people, despite 77% of the population using financial products as investment or credit vehicles.

Often, gauges of financial literacy are measured differently by country. Some involve asking simple questions around the difference between constant and compounding interest rates, others simply view having a bank account as an indication of being financially literate. But as seen in the South Africa example above, an individual within the latter framework may be perceived as financially literate without possessing the necessary skills or education to explain what it is a bank does or where their money has gone. With this, it is no surprise that within most countries polled, between 80-90% of survey respondents claim they would appreciate a greater understanding about household finances and feel they would greatly benefit from a financial education course.

The impacts of a lack of literacy are felt universally, but certain trends remain consistent as well: Women have financial literacy in almost every country, and literacy rates are lowest amongst the very youngest and very oldest members of society. Greater financial literacy is associated with higher levels of income and education, as well as more sophisticated investment and savings behaviors. Young adults who are financially illiterate show a general inability to select the best options from a range of financial products, and a lack of interest in undertaking sound financial planning. If a large enough population fits within this description, this can have worrying impacts at both the micro and macro-economic level. In Canada, a nation with relatively high-levels of financial literacy, the average debt level is $21,000 per person, meaning households owe approximately $1.65 of debt per $1 of household income. This puts households at major risk of default in cases of recession, or even in cases of interest rate increases that are imminent, given the trend of relatively low growth rates and stagnant wage levels across the developed world. A leveraged household is at greater risk of default, potentially resulting in a cascading effect that might destabilize systems in the years to come.

Institutions such as the OECD have long championed inserting financial education into the curriculum for children as young as 7 or 8 years old. Financial literacy is categorized as having two components: acquisition of financial knowledge and numeracy skills, and the development of skills and attitudes to encourage positive habits. These habits include saving for retirement, promoting household savings over high-risk credit, and investing money into financial products that yield positive returns. The difficulty for policymakers is that the effects of financial literacy programs have been subject to debate: some research indicates literacy increases responsible financial behavior by an exponential factor, others have found little to no correlation at all. One trend is that more innovative, hands-on programs stayed with students much longer – much like playing Monopoly has a dual function of teaching one about financial basics and the dangers of trusting other players. Simulations and role-playing activities where students learned about investments or insurance showed significantly higher returns for years moving forward than simply scribbling a PV function on a chalkboard and expecting someone to understand that it relates to owning a home.

A counter-argument is that schools should not waste resources on educating children on financial literacy skills because those skills can be taught at home. This assumes that parents have the financial literacy skills to pass onto their children in the first place.  The cycle of having to learn financial lessons the hard way, or early financial decisions made in positions of ignorance having negative impacts for year to come, is a destructive one. It perpetuates inequality by allowing rich and poor households to pass on their financial knowledge to their children respectively, cementing an existing unfair advantage to the next generation. But change can scarcely be expected – if no one is ever taught the fundamentals, how can one expect it to enter the home in the first place?

Perhaps if every single member of the graduating high school class from 10 years ago, all of whom are now of legal voting age, are asking for governments to make investments to teach people about investing, the returns could be evaluated on both the impacts of saving a young adult from drowning in debt and in preventing the collapse of an economy over the heads of those who didn’t fully understand it enough to stop it.

Misdiagnosing Democracy

What does it mean to be a “good citizen”? High school civics, the very class designed to teach teenagers the benefits of altruism (if ever there was a modern feat of improbability, that has to be it), attempts to force the recognition onto students that all who live within a society are citizens to it and have a responsibility to shape it how they see fit. The prominent values discussed include accepting responsibility within your community to help those in need, needing to respect and adhere to rules for socially responsible behavior and a willingness to participate actively. Since the introduction of the civics class in the mainstream curriculum, our definitions of “your community”, “socially responsible behavior” and “willingness to participate” have evolved and adapted to fit new platforms. But now, one phrase in particular bears re-examining as the fight for freedoms moves from the streets of the Polis to the moral heights of the digital Akros: “Your Community”.

The original definition has shifted from members of an ethnic or religious community to a more fluid version –  but the underpinning philosophy of associating with those who share an ideological view or values system sustains. A common argument amongst pundits and everyone’s loud relatives is that the sense of community we once held is shrinking, and that much of the erosion of discourse is attributed to increasing levels of partisanship. In this, partisanship is identified as the source of unrest fracturing our democracies. Congressional representatives attribute increasing levels of racial dialogue, violence against minorities and reduced tolerance undermining notions of oppositional legitimacy as being due to increased polarization within society. A world divided by ideology is one where opponents dehumanize each other and disassociate from the need to tolerate dissenting opinions, thereby reinforcing their existing biases and exacerbating every issues – or so the theory goes.

Labeling partisanship as causal to division is both lazy and mistaken. To suggest that s typically followed by a recommendation that the solution to increasing levels of intolerance is the adoption of a healthy detachment from ideology and use of an objective, non-partisan attitude. This conjures an image of complacency or disengagement; but recommending the solution to creating an engaged and active democracy is apathy is quite literally antithetical to the notion of citizenry itself. It further pushes a norm that discourse, healthy and engaged discourse, is simply a more tolerant version of what we see today. Herein is where the diagnosis becomes lazy. Active citizenry within a functional democracy involves tolerance, yes, but also division – we stand up for the values we hold dear and understand that when acting in the best interests of our society differs from our personal norms, we have a responsibility to speak for our views. Today’s political debate isn’t insular because we disagree with each other, nor because we don’t listen – it is because we now associate our sense of community with what political ideology we adhere to, and thereby view every disagreement as a encroachment on our own identities and worldviews.

Politics and religion share characteristics of zealotry and fundamentalism – each camp  holds extremists proclaiming the literal interpretation of  the values systems is the only way to true prosperity, but most adherents exercise a temperance and understanding of the need to adapt demands within a complex and dynamic world. In times of hopelessness and strife, we fall upon institutions that provide us hope, give us a sense of community and allow us to develop a sense of identity and shared experience. The 2008 Financial Crisis and War on Terror have created tumultuous times over the last two decades in the United States, during which historical trends would indicate there should have been an increase in attendance of faith-based institutions. But attendance at religious services has been steadily decreasing over the last 20 years, indicating that people are seeking their sense of community and hope elsewhere. It is perhaps not a coincidence that levels of political partisanship have spiked within the same time period, nor that digital forums now provide the insularity for individuals to form ideological communities where ideas can be freely shared across traditional boundaries, much like religious institutions did in the past. If the battle is between “the heart of America and the liberal coasts”, it is understandable why connection with others who feel equally geographically isolated could create a sense of community on digital platforms, and why neither side would understand where this division arose from – a subjective and individualized need for hope is a hard thing for an individual lacking the same contextual constraints to comprehend.

It is the view of this article that the causal issue facing societies is not partisanship nor a lack of community, but a failure to grasp how the provision of basic needs varies across groups, and how historical circumstance influences modern-day decision making. When one ceases to be objectively hungry, one has time to ponder the subjective questions of identity and purpose. In this search, it is logical to assume that one would align with individuals whose experiences are shared. If your community is discussing elections instead of religion, then that’s what you would do as well. We are, in effect, all in search of those with whom our values align so we can feel a little less alone.

To address this gap, policymakers must employ creative tools, some of which should be directed towards issues such as loneliness and isolation – increased screen time and a lack of connection with one’s geographical community have been categorically shown to make one more lonely, thereby increasing levels of stress, depression and anxiety. Engaged citizens who only mobilize digitally and remain insular, whatever institution they remain insular in, are a poor substitute for the image conjured up by the Greeks and patient teachers of civics classes. If you really want to get people to talk to each other again about the big things, perhaps getting them to talk again about the weather with their immediate neighbors might be an appropriate way to start.



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