By Dian Cohen
“Never let go of what you’ve got until you’ve got hold of something else”, cautions the first law of wing walking. Preparing for the future is like wing walking – no one can be blamed for refusing to yield the relative security of a good firm grip on what we know. Even if what we know is dissolving in our hands, holding us back from a smooth transition to the next normal.
We now have a new government for the next indeterminate period of time. What we heard on the campaign trail may or may not come to pass – and may or may not be the correct course of action. It’s vital to our own planning processes that we understand that our institutions are more than the physical structures we live and work in – they are the written and unwritten rules we live by. The tax system, the parliamentary system, the collective bargaining system, education, social welfare, the healthcare system all evolved as part of the “rules of the game” for a world that no longer exists.
The “game” and that world have been changing for decades – what you’ve just read are words I wrote in 1984. Most of us were still fixated on improving our extractive and manufacturing economy. Yet well over 50 per cent of Canadians were already employed by providing services to others. IBM’s first personal computers went on sale in the US in 1981. (I purchased my first PC in 1984.) The digital age was on the horizon with Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web still five years into the future. The federal election of 1984 pitted Brian Mulroney against John Turner. Though Mulroney won in a landslide, Canadians were already beginning to display more anger and annoyance with their leaders than adherence to the “peace, order and good government” that has forever distinguished us from our neighbors to the south.
Today, most Canadian households have home computers (84 per cent) and slightly more own mobile phones (88 per cent). As expensive, slow and spotty as it is, 33 million of us use the internet, spending at least three hours a day shopping, using social media, emailing, banking and catching up on news and current events. The economy has been moving in fits and starts, but inexorably toward what is now clearly a digital economy. The anger, frustration and divisiveness that we see so clearly in other countries is here too and has much to do with feelings of exclusion from the promises of what we can look forward to.
The future of the Canadian economy was in trouble before COVID-19 emerged. The pandemic is just nailing the coffin closed. What a perfect opportunity to reflect on what the next Canadian economy needs to make the transition as painless as possible.
For starters, Canada’s last thorough review of the tax system was concluded in 1971. Says the Association of Chartered Professional Accountants, “Since then it has become bloated, complex and inefficient, having accumulated a patchwork of credits, incentives and narrow fixes. This dated, inefficient system is holding Canadians back.” According to a recent Nanos poll, over 81 per cent of Canadians see a comprehensive tax review as a priority for the federal government.
According to the Canadian Parliamentary Review (founded in 1978 to … promote the study of and interest in Canadian parliamentary institutions, “the 2008 prorogation debate demonstrates an example of a government willing to misrepresent basic principles of the Canadian parliamentary system, using the language of “populism,” while seeking to discredit other institutions (the House of Commons, the office of the Governor General, the Supreme Court) in the minds of the public.” They go on to say that “while no polarizing figure comparable to Donald Trump in the United States or Marine Le Pen in France has yet to emerge, … some observers warn that Parliament is failing its citizens and risking political legitimacy because it no longer has the ability to hold the government to account.”
Collective-Bargaining Law Reform seems a log way off. Osgoode Hall lawyer and labor historian Sara J. Slinn writes, “The future will likely continue to be characterized by ongoing, if not accelerating, stagnation or decline in union density, growth of smaller workplaces, waning of traditional employment relationships, and increasing inequality.”
I’ll get to the education, social welfare and the healthcare systems in the coming weeks and months. Suffice to say now that these are all examples of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise was a runaway best-seller in 1985. Here’s Time Magazine’s review from 2018. “It was about a world defined by consumerism and the ubiquity of technology, set against a backdrop of looming ecological disaster. Reading the novel today, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that DeLillo’s vision of the world has come true. Shopping and consumption are seen as therapeutic exercises by the characters — in a way that echoes today’s “self-care” and wellness economy. The central character and his family also inundate themselves with news from TV and the radio, consuming a constant feed of information in the background of their lives to the point of inducing fatigue. White Noise doesn’t necessarily predict specific events or advances, but DeLillo perfectly captures the fatigue of living in a hyperconnected world.”
That’s exactly where we’re living. What can we agree to do to arrive at the next economy and make it work better for more people?
Dian Cohen is an economist and a founding organizer of the Massawippi Valley Foundation.