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I've pulled all the Canadian levers of power. They aren't connected to anything
We seem to have a country that can just barely keep doing the things it's already doing, but can't add anything new
Hello, Code 47 readers. It's tax day! Yay! Pay yer taxes!
I was thinking a bit about this, and not just because I hate sending the government money. I was thinking about value for money and how Canadians are going to perceive government performance when this is all over. Let's start with the good news: Canada remains an objectively good place to be. By any metric, we are safe, well-educated, healthy, prosperous and, generally, happy. All of these blessings land unevenly, of course. Many Canadians are none of those things! And there're obvious dividing lines in our society, along economic or racial lines, that matter here. I'm not denying that. But it's still objectively true that most of us are doing very well most of the time. You might not feel like that a lot of the time. I know that a lot of us don't feel like that lately. But even with all the pandemic's damage and danger, you're still basically living in the best possible moment of history ... with the possible exception of like 2019, before all this began.
I'm not here to lecture anyone. Some of you are carrying burdens I can only imagine. But in a historical sense, we are doing amazing, on every big-picture metric. It's not a denial of remaining challenges or an insult to the less fortunate to say so.
Like, seriously, when and where would you rather be living?
But yikes. As I get set to send Ottawa a lot of money, am I getting much value for it?
In some ways, absolutely. Canada's relative awesomeness is not an accident. We rest on the accomplishments of prior generations and some of what we do today contributes directly to the common prosperity. A ton of stuff happens behind the scenes, every day, that contribute enormously to our way of life — really, make it possible. But in other ways, the pandemic has revealed just how incompetent and inept our governments have become meeting new challenges. It's like every last bit of bandwidth our governments have is used up just keeping the status quo running along, and if we ask it to do anything new, it's like hitting a computer with one process too many for its CPU. It just locks up.
Real-life example: I was watching today as the Ontario and federal governments continued bickering about the proper border controls we should have during what will probably be the last phase of this crisis. And what struck me was the sheer insanity of not having settled this a long time ago. I'm not even saying what I think the answer should have been. There's a lot of genuinely competing interests there. I have my opinion, you can have yours. But can we at least agree that what to do about the goddamn borders ought not to still be under active decision 14 frickin' months after this all began?
Certain provinces have done better than others. It's tempting to point at them and go, ah ha, there's what we should have done. And I think this is in large part fair and true. But it's hard to make direct comparisons. Nova Scotia is not Ontario, and what worked in Nova Scotia wouldn't necessarily have worked here. Believe me, if I could have swapped in their leaders for ours, I would have. It would have been an upgrade for sure. But the right solution, and personalities, for one crisis, in one time and place, aren't necessarily the right solution for even that same crisis, at the same time, in a different place. I suspect we'll spend a long time arguing about this once it's all over, but I think that's more or less where I've landed. Most of us would have been better off trying to be more like the Atlantic, but that doesn't mean it would have recreated Atlantic-like successes everywhere.
But all that being said, there have been enormous basic failures, both in leadership and execution. You've all heard the joke about how someone new to government is shocked and dispirited to finally seize the levers of power, only to discover they're not connected to anything. You can push and pull the levers all day long. But they don't do anything. In Canada, both federally and in some of the provinces, we've been shockingly slow, again and again, to pull those levers. And sometimes, even after they're pulled, nothing happens.
I don't know if I have this thought through yet in a meaningful, useful way. This is a big, big idea that I'm starting at from different angles, trying to even conceive of its dimensions and scope. But if there is one problem we have — we have more, but if there is a meta-problem — I think it is that Canadian governments have lost the ability to execute new policy agendas. What we already have will generally work, more or less. But new things, or updates to old things? We routinely accept that failure is an option, or that even our successes will be late and overbudget — beyond acceptable real-world margins. (Life is always more complicated than theory.) There are things in my life that I just take for granted will work. If I get into my car and it doesn't start, that surprises me, even though I am intellectually aware that that's a possibility every time I try. But too often, with government, there is an entirely justified skepticism that it'll succeed at all, let alone as intended, and yet, we shrug, because, hey. It's Canada. Things are still good. How upset can I get about another program failure when I can just go fire up the barbecue and watch some hockey or something.
A strange thought I keep having is that, as an individual, I'm more or less fine with this, because I can continue living a very comfortable life despite all the weirdness. But as a citizen of a country, I think we need there to be a real cost to failure, and we might only get angry enough to demand one after a failure so terrible it's not even fun to contemplate.
But we have to contemplate it. Before the big failure would be better than after. But we all know what won't happen, right?
For the recap this week, I thought I'd try something different. You can honestly tell me how you feel about it at the email below. Does just putting all my output into a Twitter thread I regularly update work as well? It would save a lot of time, and I'm wondering if you all think it still has value. Let me know.
And have a wonderful weekend. It's hard not to in Canada.