Economy Health

Inflation and The Deal

I heard a pernicious argument from a Conservative commentator on Rosemary Barton’s morning show yesterday. In between condescending remarks (“now look, Rosie”) the argument ran as follows:

We are in a time of inflation so we should not pass measures that increase consumer spending. So we should oppose pharmacare and dental care. By contrast, though, large expenditures like the purchase of F-35 fighters are good because so little of the money remains in Canada. So goes the argument, which is currently being broadcast on all the usual channels.

This is all a part of the Conservative broad front against the agreement made by the NDP and the Liberals whereby the former would support the latter in confidence motions until 2025 so long as key NDP priorities were passed, and specifically, pharmacare and dental care. The budget this week will be the first test of that.

I also read in passing of a plan to offer high speed internet at $20 per month to low income seniors, as well as a tax on the banks, and this too seems to be part of a realization on the part of the Liberals post-pandemic that we need to take care of people who are not in a position to care for themselves. No doubt the Conservatives would oppose this too on the grounds of being ‘inflationary’.

But there is a price to the Conservative argument that they’re not prepared to admit. And it is this: there is a direct correlation between being poor and death. We saw this clearly when poor people died at a much higher rate during the pandemic than the wealthy. The less we help poor people, the more they die. That would be the cost of the Conservative’s anti-inflationary stance.

Of course, that stance is unreasonable in the first place. The poor contribute very little to inflation. The drive to higher prices, when it results from consumer demand, comes from spending by people with money. I mean, d’uh. Creating a more equitable society doesn’t cause inflation. Quite the opposite: the less equitable the society, the more vulnerable it is to inflation.

That said, in the current circumstance, inflation isn’t being caused by high consumer spending at all. Rather, the problem is at the other end of the spectrum: supply. We are, because of the pandemic, and now because of the war, facing shortages. The price of oil is especially at fault here, as it always is during wartime. And the labour shortages are another cause; it’s not only the deaths, but also the people with long Covid, and the people who decided minimum wage isn’t worth risking their lives.

For in the battle against Covid, just as in the battle against inflation, it is poor people who take the brunt. Higher prices don’t really hurt the wealthy; they can just spend their way through it, and perhaps salt a little less in their overseas nest egg. The poor are expected to work, to suffer higher prices and lower wages, and to take the risks. They become desperate, which is music to a Conservative’s ears.

That’s why the deal between the Liberals and the NDP is important. It is a recognition on the both parties that, at least for now, it’s time to put the needs of those most at risk ahead of those with greater means. And the way things have been going, that means more and more of us every day.

Health Transportation

The Anti-Vaxxers

As I write there is a caravan of ‘truckers’ nearing Ottawa at the conclusion of a cross-country trek to protest vaccination laws.

I put ‘truckers’ in quotations because they are not, for the most part, truckers, and those who are truckers represent a very small percentage of the people actually doing that work in Canada. The Canadian Trucking Alliance has condemned the protests.

They are nominally protesting a requirement that truckers be vaccinated in order to cross the border into Canada without taking a 10-day quarantine.

I say ‘nominally’ because it’s a ridiculous point: they already need to be vaccinated in order to enter the United States, so nobody is actually in the position of having to quarantine on return to Canada.

They call themselves the ‘freedom convoy’. In their own words: “Freedom Convoy is a rolling protest through town to draw attention to the violation of our rights and freedoms granted under the Charter.”

None of their Charter rights are being violated. There is no Charter right to refuse quarantine if you are a potential carrier of a deadly disease.

But none of this is about truckers, vaccines, freedoms or rights. That’s not why this protest has been organized. Look at pretty much every statement, every word, and you can see it’s a facade.

From where I sit, it’s yet another in a series of attempts by the far right in this country (with plenty of help from south of the border) to divide and disrupt the broader community. This makes us less able to respond to the real challenges we face today.

It’s the tactic being used by the right in the United States, where any attempt to discuss or debate, let alone govern, is met with blanket resistance. If the right can’t get its way, they seem to be saying, then nobody can get their way.

And in so doing they have appropriated the most ridiculous conspiracy theories, including the idea that the vaccine is somehow harmful or ineffective. Then they wrap themselves in a blanket of religion or patriotism and disrupt the social order.

To be clear: they are perfectly free to do so. It’s ethically questionable, but it’s within the rules, and the reason why our society and democracy are structured the way they are is so that they can make their point.

But we don’t have to agree with it, and we don’t have to take their words at face value, and I don’t.

Meanwhile, I stand with the vast majority of Canadians (and the vast majority of truckers) who have had enough of the anti-vax movement, and feel no obligation to stand quietly while they sow disinformation to the wind.

I have expressed my disappointment that the news media are giving so much time to the anti-vaxxer fringe movement. This misrepresents the true state of affairs and is broadly harmful. The media should have learned through past instances of false balance. But it has not.

We should be hearing much more in the media from the vast majority of us who are losing patience with the anti-vaxxer movement. This continuing resistance is only prolonging the pandemic and making lives more difficult for everyone.

Except, of course, the wealthy, who are making out like bandits.

Health Leadership

The Snowbird

Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips should resign, but he probably won’t, and he won’t be asked to.

In Canada we have this tradition of the snowbird. That’s a person who enjoys our beautiful summer months (often at their cottage by the lake) and in the winter packs their bags and moves to a warmer climate for several month, migrating, just like a snowbird.

It’s thought of as a tradition, but of course, it’s also a status. Not everybody can move south for the winter; you have to have a certain level of privilege and wealth. Most of us can’t move south for the winter.

And this winter, especially, the fiction has been that you’re not allowed to move south to escape the snow. The fiction has been (along with “we’re all in this together”) that unessential travel is prohibited, that we shouldn’t be taking a winter vacation at all. Heck, I can’t even go to Quebec, which is about 50 kilometers from here.

So it takes a certain about of hubris to do it anyway, and of course there’s a lot of nodding and winking all around because as we all know the rules about the pandemic don’t really apply to the sort of people who have the privilege and wealth to be snowbirds. No doubt Rod Phillips is just one member of a very large flock.

But he is also the finance minister for the government of Ontario, the same government that has instituted those restrictions, and more recently, even more severe restrictions, as the pandemic has worsened. Yes there’s a vaccine, but just as we saw with masks and personal protective equipment in the spring, it takes a certain amount of time to produce and distribute these. And meanwhile, people die if we don’t follow the rules.

So when the finance minister doesn’t follow the rules, he is showing a certain disregard for the people who die. And it leads us to suspect that this disregard applies to other aspects of his work and life as a finance minister, the sort of disregard that would, say, cause him to wait until after Christmas to implement a much-needed lockdown, instead of two weeks before, when it was apparent to everyone that otherwise we would see the record levels of new cases we are seeing today.

That’s bad enough. But the finance minister knew it was wrong to fly south for the winter, did it anyway, and then covered it up with a series of tweets and videos designed to make it look like he was still living and working out of his home in Ajax. We can see him patronizing local vbusinesses, participating in interviews, even sending a Christmas message from in front of his fireplace – all while he relaxed on the beach in St. Barts.

So he should resign. If he had any sense of decency and propriety he would resign. The last thing we need is that sort of deception in a finance minister.

But he won’t resign, and he won’t be told to resign, because despite what he said as the story broke, the Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, knew all along his finance minister was a snowbird, just as he knew when his finance minister also took a vacation to Switzerland in August. Ford says, “I can tell you I’m very upset. I’m very frustrated with the situation. I stand out here every single day and tell people to stay at home,” he said.

But who is he frustrated with? Phillips? Well, no, because he knew Phillips was on vacation and was fine with it. If he’s frustrated with anything, it’s that Phillips got caught. And now he will have a “tough conversation” with Phillips, probably along the lines of “you got caught, you can’t do it again.” And we’ll go back to the same sort of decision-making that puts the interests of his and Phillips’s business friends above the lives of the people of Ontario.

Overall, Ford has done a good job with the pandemic. But the cracks are beginning to show.

Update: Phillips resigned a few hours after I posted this.


The Covid Response

In these early days of the Covid pandemic in Canada my estimation is that our government has been doing the right things, taken the right tone, and made the right response. It has been a stellar example of good government.

I am relieved that we have competent even-handed people running the key instruments of public policy.

As the pandemic has progressed from a few cases in China to breakouts in Korea, Italy and Iran to widespread community contagion in the U.S., day after day sees evidence of a carefully considered emergency plan being rolled out in this country.

It has not just been a medical response. It has been a multilevel response.

When two presumptive cases hit our building, some of the earliest in the city, we had already taken the steps that we needed to ensure we could work online. Not just me – I’ve always been ready. But everybody.

When it began to look like people would be forced to stay home, immediate measures were taken to make sure they could collect unemployment insurance without delay. Finance minister Bill Morneau has been announcing progressive emergency financial aid packages.

A wave of panic buying on Friday barely dented our supply chains, as as people realized that the shelves weren’t going bare things quickly returned to normal. If you’re running your economy right at the limit of sustainability, that doesn’t happen, but we don’t do it that way in Canada.

Our Prime Minister is in isolation as his wife has the virus. He walks out, calmly delivers a press conference, still clearly on top of things, still clearly able to manage his responsibilities.

Our deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland has excelled, working with the provinces and various departments making sure everybody has the information they need and that everybody is working in the same direction.

Now this could change. The conservative opposition could prevail when the economic downturn really hits, convincing the government to cut back expenditures and remove the supports for workers both inside and outside of government. It could change as foreign-owned companies like Tim Horton’s apply foreign employment practices – no sick leave, no sick pay – on Canadian workers.

But for now, it has been the right response at the right time.


Scheer’s Promise

Andrew Scheer has made a pledge – and put it in writing – to “maintain and increase” health care funding to the provinces if he’s elected Prime Minister.

He had to. We know what happens when Conservatives are elected to office in Canada. They undermine the fairness of the health care system, cutting funding and eliminating programs.

We in Ontario are fresh from seeing the most recent evidence of this trend. One of the first things Conservative Doug Ford did after being elected was to start cutting health care and social services.

We know that it doesn’t matter what Conservatives say while they’re on the campaign trail. They want to cut health care and other services, and they’ll find a reason to do it. That’s why Scheer underlined that he had put his pledge in writing.

Should we trust Scheer this time? Well, no.

Here’s why: even if he keeps his pledge there are many ways he can keep it while at the still time undermining public health care in Canada.

After all, that’s why Conservatives cut health care funding. It’s not that they hate sick people. It’s that they think our health care system should be privatized, so it can make as much money for their business friends as the health care system does in the U.S.

If we look at what another recently elected Conservative is doing, we see where the road leads. In Alberta, Jason Kenney is looking to cut public health care and add private services. He has given Ernst & Young $2 million to figure out how this is to be done.

Andrew Scheer can keep his pledge by throwing money at private companies in an ongoing effort to undermine public healthcare.

He can undermine the Canada Health Act (which requires that provinces spend transfer money on public healthcare and that bans practices such as extra-billing) without cutting a dime from Federal transfer payments.

Nothing in his letter suggests he won’t do this. Everything in the performance of Conservative governments past and present suggests that he will.

This is the plan. Cut public services and privatize them. Look at how Scheer wants to spend public money providing rebates to people who send their kids to private school.

Scheer’s promise is worth nothing, not even the paper it’s written on.