By Dian Cohen
My career got started 50-odd years ago when I convinced an editor and a producer that all the print commentary and TV talking heads were opining from a political bias and that what was missing was how ECONOMIC policy affected individuals and the economy in general.
This campaign has heard a lot of politicians talk about a few economic issues that they think will appeal to voters – issues like affordable housing and childcare. I’m sure these do appeal to many voters. Unhappily they are the icing on the cake. The cake, in terms of the necessary ingredients, is only half-baked.
No matter the promises, they are all unsustainable unless we have government plans to overcome the devastation of COVID and get onto a sustainable path that will simultaneously encourage new investment and entrepreneurism to drive productivity and growth, get people back into the workforce, meet our targets for reducing greenhouse gasses and pay down debt and deficits. Details of such plans have been in short supply.
The start and end point is acknowledging and incorporating into economic policy Industry 4.0 – the fourth transformation in the way we produce manufactured products. To refresh your memory:
1.0 industrial revolution (mechanization through water and steam power) 1770s – 1840s
2.0 mass production and assembly lines using electricity – 1863-1950s
3.0 adoption of computers and automation – late 1960s – 201x
4.0 enhancement of 3.0 with smart and autonomous systems fueled by data and machine learning. – 2011 –
We’re a decade into Industry 4.0 and we have yet to see any urgency about adopting policies needed to drive almost every transaction we make. The C. D. Howe Institute confirms that “businesses see Canada as a relatively unattractive place to invest, [which] bodes ill for future productivity, competitiveness, and incomes.” To change this requires major changes to the federal tax regime, to our Research and Development policies, our Intellectual Property Rights policies and especially to Telecommunications policy. And it wouldn’t hurt if the feds and their provincial counterparts could be on the same page more often. Who’s talking about this?
While the tasks seem Herculean, if I had to order them I’d say telecommunications is the starting point. Being able to connect – by phone, laptop, desktop – fast and efficiently is what drives Industry 4.0. It’s only been 20 years since we got 3G networks that allowed more data, video calling and mobile internet. Most of us now use 4G that’s 500 times faster than 3G and allows us to have high-definition mobile TV and video conferencing among other things.
5G reduces the time that passes from the moment information is sent from a device until it is used by a receiver, so upload and download speeds are up to 100 times faster. Connected machines can inform maintenance, performance and analyze data to identify patterns and insights that would be impossible for a human to do in a reasonable timeframe. There are currently four 5G wireless providers in Canada and coverage is sparce – maybe a few communities in Montreal have it. Canada has an uncompetitive pricing model. Says historian Guy Stanley, “High prices can only slow the pace of upgrading, and ultimately reduce the amount of generally available social and community value that this interconnectivity can provide.”
All this may sound too esoteric or arcane to be talking points for politicians on the election stomping ground. You and I will have to live with the policies of the next government. So after the election, drag this column out and start hounding your elected representative.
Remember these wise words from the C. D. Howe Institute: “Fiscal promises from all parties in this election appear to assume that governments can continue to borrow to finance consumption indefinitely. Canadians should be hearing more about how to ensure sustainable programs without endless increases in debt.”
And these from historian Guy Stanley, “Having abandoned our industrial policy systems that gave us … the CBC, Air Canada, Hydro Ontario, The Arrow advanced fighter, Connaught Labs, Nortel and Bombardier, Canada is now a very late starter and has significant administrative hurdles to overcome. However, overcome them we must. In a post-Covid world, Canada must be capable of doing more than letting global value chains decide what technology [it] champions. Otherwise, we will continue to see our most promising tech stars picked off at or before mid-cap stage, their products developed elsewhere and sold back to us while the profits and other benefits of ownership are enjoyed abroad.”
Dian Cohen is an economist and a founding organizer of the Massawippi Valley Foundation.