Smoking a Legal Joint in Canada

Justin Trudeau, the new(ish) Canadian Prime Minster, has had quite a year in his quest of positioning Canada as the most liberal progressive country in the world.

Within his first month in office he moved Canada from laggard to leader in international climate change talks, leading global negations toward the most ambitious climate change deal in history. He hit full gender parity in his Cabinet and hit a home run on a health care deal with the provinces.

And now… Canada is on track to becoming the first G7 country to legalize marijuana at a national level. Yesterday, Trudeau introduced legislation that will legalize and regulate production, sale and possession of recreational-use marijuana.  And, by all accounts, the legal proposal is pretty sound: if you’re over 18 you can grow small amounts and posses up to 60 grams; sale will be regulated in a way similar to alcohol sales; there are strict limits on advertising, and possession by minors will be dealt with by ticketing.  The approach seems to capture well 50 years of experience in regulating cigarets and alcohol.

But hold on…. all this liberal progressive socialist bullshit must be destroying the economy… right?  Nope.  Canada has had the best economic growth in the G7 over the past decade, weathered the global economic meltdown better than any country in the OECD (granted that was under a conservative government) and the OECD forecasts Canada will have the best economic growth in the G7 over the next 50 years.

So, to those who say you can’t have economic growth, environmental protection and social progressiveness.. well… you can!

I’m not a pot user myself, but I know the science well enough to know where it sits on the spectrum of health risks.  This is – yet again – a bold and impressive move by Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau.

Making America Great Again – a (very painful) necessary first step

Like many last night, I watched in horrific amazement as Donald Trump was voted in as the US President.

His championing of disenfranchised American workers, his utter rejection of the status quo  (both politically and socially) and his promise to Make America Great Again .. it all resonated.

Firstly, and it pains me to say this, a lot of what Trump said was correct. Many, many Americans have not done well under the past two decades of trade liberalization, globalization and urbanization.  They have been left out of 20 years of increasing global prosperity.  Upward mobility – the pride and lynchpin of the American system – is at an all time low; never before has there been so much certainty in the US that if you’re born poor, you’ll stay poor.  And this simple fact rankles Americans at their most basic level.  The promise of upward mobility has been, for more than 100 years, the secret sauce in the America Dream.  Without it, all the myths that are core to the American identity – American Exceptionalism, City on the Hill – are completely undermined. And while these myth – as myths – are obviously fictions… the belief in these abstractions is what truly – in real life – make Americans truly exceptional.

And while all of these ‘real Americans’ have been left out of the American Dream, the ‘liberal elites’, in big cities, with college degrees and weird social values, have been hoovering up all the the (massive) economic benefits of those very trends – trade liberalization, globalization and urbanization – that have pulled the life out of rural America.

Along comes Trump and tells people (i) that all those pain they are feeling are not their fault – the liberal elites are to blame; and (ii) we can make things better through a simplistic set of protectionist and racist policies – policies that speak to our tribal base tendencies but have no basis in economics or policy realities.

Of course there is appeal in that message.  And he won.

This sucks right?  No!  It’s necessary.  In Canada we’ve recently come out of 8 years of the most divisive, right wing Prime Minister in our nation’s history.  He was similar to Trump in many ways, but not nearly as extreme.  He forced us to embrace what divided us – rural versus urban; educated versus uneducated; socially progressive versus socially conservative – and we started to hate ourselves for it.  When he lost in 2015 – and he lost badly – one of my pollster friends told me that the loss had nothing to do with his polices but everything to do with Canadians not liking the people they were becoming under Stephen Harper.

Americans will not like the people they become under Trump’s leadership.  Trump’s success depends on Americans to continue becoming more angry, more insecure and more scared of people and forces beyond their control. And this simply is not what Americans are.  Americans are bold, confident risk takers and they will – in time – resent Trump for taking that away from him.

The next, next American president in 2020 will be truly a great person and will serve during an era where America is truly  becoming great again.  The next 4 years are a necessary, albeit painful, precursor to the main event.

Globalized Free Trade and Threats to Sovereignty

Alert – Policy Wonk Post

Canada and the US have recently signed onto the Trans Pacific Partnership – a massive agreement to liberalize trade between North America and Asia. For the political right and economists, it represents the next big step in globalized free trade and all the economic efficiency that comes with it. For the lefties, it is a further infringement on national sovereignty and another barrier to strong domestic environmental and workers rights.

So… who’s correct? Well, the truth is that they both are… and they’re both wrong. We’re now 30 years into the great trade liberalization experiment. We have GATT, WTO, NAFTA. And we have some facts upon which to judge free trade:

  • Free Trade has generated wealth – there can be no doubt that, globally, freer trade has increased global wealth. Developing countries got access to markets that were previously inaccessible to them, and their low wages and low production costs allowed for business opportunities and jobs to open up. Yes… the rich got a disproportionate share and the jobs were often crappy… but there were jobs and wealth created. And by any objective measure, the average global citizen is financially better off.
  • Free Trade has infringed on sovereignty – It is impossible to credibly argue that individual countries not have forfeited bits of their sovereignty by entering free trade agreements. The very act of agreeing not to impose domestic trade barriers is a weakening of sovereignty. Further, by opening your economy to foreign imports you are certainly creating major barrier to domestic environmental standards, higher domestic wages and workers rights. Sure you can do these things (protect the environment and worker, but it will cost you… ergo your sovereign decision is subject to consequences by others).

But this polemic is missing the point. Giving up sovereignty can be a good and necessary thing. Lefties are all over it when it comes to global agreements on climate change or banning land mines. Similarly, creating global wealth is not always a good thing; not when it exacerbates inequality and diminishes welfare at the expense of wealth.

So lets step back, put aside our left and right tendencies, and discuss what we can all agree on:

  1. We need global approaches to address global issues. Some of our most prickly problems – climate change and combatting terrorism chief among them – require global solution. And they require nations to let go of bits of their sovereignty in order to manage within this global commons. So lets cut the knee jerk opposition to globalization. We’ve, quite literally, outgrown it.
  2. We need a more equal economic growth model. The rich are benefitting disproportionately to their contribution to the creation of new wealth. Adam Smith, the trickle down and free market economists and Ronald Regan got it right that we need private incentives for the creation of wealth, jobs and stuff. And capitalism has done an admirable job at creating the incentives for the owners of production (the rich) to make stuff, jobs and money. But come on. Do they really need to keep so much of it. Won’t a hedge fund manager feel equally incentivized if he makes $400 million instead of a billion. And that extra $600 million could be spread around to do a lot of good… and the hedge fund guy would hardly miss it.

These two simple ideas could change the world. Pull back on opposition to globalization of trade in return for more equal wealth distribution. How do you do it:

  • Expand power of the United Nations (and everyone pay their dues) and redistribute power to acknowledge role of larger countries;
  • Support a legally binding climate change agreement in Paris this December with internationally enforceable penalties for non compliance;
  • Impose a small tax on international financial transactions and use proceeds to economic development in less developed countries
  • Cease and desist on opposition to global free trade agreements.
  • Negotiate scalable international minimum wage and social services standards.

This is an audacious idea whose time has come.

Is there really anything more offensive than climate change?

You overhear an unsettling conversation in the cafeteria at the Florida Environmental Agency “Its fuckin’ hotter than a whore’s cunt in here!”; “Yeah! Must be that god damned climate change”.

Pretty offensive right?  Actually more than offensive – it’s illegal.

I know what you’re thinking – talking about a whore’s cunt is pretty shocking and tasteless, but illegal??? no Way!  Well, you’re right.  It is just fine to talk about a whore’s cunt in Florida.  But if you are a state employee and use the words ‘climate change’, a directive has been issued prohibiting use of the word climate change.

In the infinite wisdom that can only be generated by governments  in right wing, religious, red states Florida has issued a directive making it illegal for environmental workers to use the word climate change.

I don’t even know where to start describing how disturbing this is.

First, isn’t the Republican party the defender of the Constitution and freedom of expression? Neo-Nazis can spew hate toward Jews, but environmentalists can’t say climate change.  Just.. wow!

Secondly, don’t we believe in science anymore?  There is scientific consensus that man made climate change is real.  I can understand that is scary for governments to contemplate who they will deal with climate change; it is divisive and it is expensive.  But shotgun down the debate?  Isn’t that anti-American?

Finally, Florida is the US state expected to be most affected by climate change. If anyone should be saying climate change – at the top of their lungs – its Floridians.

I don’t want to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities but CLIMATE CHANGE – let’s start talking about it!

Canada’s New Prostitution Laws – What’s Really Going on in the Northern Liberal Bastion

Canada’s new prosecution laws came into force this weekend. So, as of Saturday, purchasing sex and sexual services in Canada is criminalized.

The new laws represent a far more aggressive and draconian approach to criminalizing prostitution than had previously been in place. This is ironic, since the old (less criminalization-aggressive) prostitution laws were recently struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Not surprisingly, reaction from civil liberties groups has been “Typical Stephen Harper/Conservative approach – you don’t like me violating your civil right, well I’ll violate them some more”. Reaction from the legal community has been that the new laws will fail again in the courts and, once again, get struck down as a violation of the Charter.

So, what the Hell is Harper up to? When the old laws were struck down, making prostitution and sex work in Canada legal and calling for regulatory oversight and frameworks, most commentators were saying this was a pretty decent outcome. Canadians largely felt sex work should be legal with some sort of regulatory oversight to ensure safety and minimize nuisance. The smart money, at the time, would say Hell would freeze over before you saw a Canadian politician try to introduce new prostitution laws.

Yet, less than 12 months later, Harper introduces the most aggressive prostitution laws the country has ever seen. They clearly will not work – they will neither protect sex workers (they will make it more dangerous by driving it further underground) and they won’t stop prostitution (because, well, nothing stops prostitution – that’s why its the oldest profession). And, perhaps most importantly, the laws themselves are illegal. As soon as someone challenges then in the courts, they will be struck down.

So, again, what’s he up to? Politics, of course. He is mobilizing the vote in advance of next year’s federal election. By introducing laws that are draconian and in violation of the Charter (which the current Liberal leader authored), he is forcing the Liberals and the New Democrats to declare themselves on sex work. And here is what will happen.

1. Stephen Harper will take out ads claiming the Libs and New Dem’s want a prostitute on every street corner and the Conservative’s base – rural folks, religious folks and immigrants – will get really angry. And, while they aren’t loving Harper these days, they will rush from their suburban homes, from their 4×4 trucks, form their Church basements and from their lumbar-supported easy chairs and they’ll vote, vote, vote for Harper. They may not like him much, but at least he’s not selling them sex like that rascally Justin Trudeau is.

2. Civil libertarians, young people, and progressive will get really angry. They’ll blog, Facebook, tweet and… well… whatever the hell else these people do to show indignation. They are amazing at showing indignation. They will claim Harper is a dictator, a monster, anti-democratic… All that. And on election day… they’ll stay home. Because voting… that’s so ‘the man’.

Well played Stephen Harper. Well played.

Reconciliations: Our Economy and Our Environment

Being Sunday, I thought it was a good day to reflect on how we can increase the harmony in which we all live – how can we reconcile on the issues that divide us.

One thing I spend quite a lot of time thinking about is how to reconcile our very legitimate desire for economic prosperity with our desire, sometimes, less overt, for a healthy natural environment.

To listen to politicians, a prosperous economy and a healthy environment is an either/or choice. You can choose to have either a healthy environment OR a healthy economy: lowering pollution will make gas and energy prices go up; having organic or local food will drive up food prices; having more urban parks will increase taxes. And any government regulations…. well that will cost you all a fortune and decimate the industry sector toward whom the regulation is targeted.

This is nuts. It is political posturing – scare mongering for short term political gain, at the expense of one of the most important reconciliations we need if we are to live viably on this planet in generations to come.

Out of the media spotlight, many mainstream organizations are believing that environment and economy are – for from either/or – can’t be healthy in absence of one another. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development – group of 120 of the largest corporations in the world – has said that being environmentally responsibility opens business opportunities. This week, the former Mexican President, Felipe Colderone, and a senior partner at McKinsey (the largest consulting firm in the world) will release a report that concludes that addressing climate change is actually good for the global economy.

To be clear, neither of these groups is environmentalists. They are organizations who want a strong economy and strong wealth creation potential. But they know that destroying the planet – while good for short term political posting – is really bad for business.

Politicians will tell us otherwise. Why? Because making it profitable for environment and economy to thrive together requires some heavy political lifting. We need to, as economists say, internalize externalities. This means tough stuff like switching taxes from ‘good things’ like income and employment to ‘bad things’ like pollution. It means investing in research and development in environmental technologies. It means building infrastructure like green electricity grids. This is sometimes counterintuitive and hard to sell to a fickle electorate, but the countries who have done it have ended up ahead economically.

We deserve a strong economy and a health planet and so do our kids. There is no reason we can’t have it.

Finding Common Ground: Healthcare

images-26Watching the US healthcare debate, from Clinton to Bush to Obama makes me weep.  Second only to environment, in my opinion, health care has been a pawn in the right/left political debate, where both sides have allowed short term political positioning to trump advances on an issue critical to our lives.  And it is, literally, killing us.

First a couple of facts

  • the US spends more per capita on health care than any other country in the world, by a lot.  At 8,500 per person he US spends 50% more than the second highest speeder (Norway)and almost twice as much as my home country Canada.
  • for this enormous investment, the US isn’t getting a great return.  The Word Health Organization ranked the US healthcare system 37th in terms of efficiency.  That’s efficiency – value for dollar.  In terms of outcomes, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that in nearly every major cause of premature death – from heart disease to interpersonal violence – the US does worse than its economic peers.

So, clearly there’s room for improvement.

I believe there are some core principles we can all agree on (some of these are a little controversial, but I believe they make sense if you think about them).

  • every American should have the right to basic healthcare, no matter their socio-economic situation;
  • given the level of US prosperity, this “basic’ healthcare should be pretty good and it should include treatment of pre-existing conditions and it should include end-of-life care;
  • given the aging US population and the high cost of healthcare (17% of GDP), costs must be controlled
  • health service providers (doctors, nurses, etc) must be provided with reasonable compensation
  • The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. The status quo is both horrible and unaffordable.  Yet every reform package (think Obamacare) is torn apart because it is sub-optimal in comparison to some idealized gold standard; we must except that not every healthcare issue or individual citizen will be ideally treated by any health care system and the media and political tendency to exploit every failure is simply a recipe for the status quo.
  • finally, politicians cannot design the details: heath care reform is simply to complicated and too easy to manipulate for political short-termism.   Politicians should articulate the principles and a bi-partisan, blue ribbon panel of experts should design the details.  Government should then implement whatever they come up with.

You may notice I took a different tact in this Common Grounds Blog.  I didn’t highlight where the religious right and progressive left disagree. This is because I honestly don’ think they really disagree on anything that is important.  This is why Romneys’s healthcare plan became Obama’s.  What has happened is this: the right and left wing politicians have convinced their constituencies that they disagree because it is an amazing wedge political issue.  What do they disagree on:  whatever the the other side proposed.