Dispatch from the Front Line: Man, Biden even BOMBS people nicer than Trump did!
Good news for the PM (and Canadians), bad news for some dudes in Syria, and bitter realities for Albertans.
It's been a long week for your intrepid Line editors, friends. We tried to abstain on writing this dispatch, but we thought that that might look bad. So then we tried to get Marc Garneau to abstain on it for us, but that didn't pan out. Then we tried to just have Chrystia Freeland write it, but she wasn't available, on account of having 19 other jobs already. So I guess we'll just have the muddle through as best we can.
It was a long week, but it ended on a relatively good note. On Friday, Health Canada approved the AstraZeneca vaccine. Further, the prime minister announced that doses will begin arriving soon — in small quantities, at first, accelerating throughout the second quarter. There were no specific promises, but having another vaccine available is obviously helpful. The AstraZeneca version hasn't matched the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in their spectacular ability to prevent even moderate illness, but it is highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths. With signs of a possible third wave coming on in central Canada — ugh — the more vaccine we have, the better.
It's tempting to do as many have done and boil this down to a raw political analysis — Good news for Trudeau? Bad news for O’Toole? — and let's not be naive. Of course there will be political implications. A successful vaccine campaign may be all Trudeau needs to win again; a botched one likely seals his fate. The PM no doubt felt 20 pounds lighter after Health Canada gave the new vaccine the sign off, all the more so because he was able to announce extra doses have been secured from a production facility in India. It was probably all he could do to avoid rapidly changing into Indian formal wear and busting a few moves.
But he restrained himself, and so will we. There will be political implications, yes, but this is not political. More vaccine means fewer dead Canadians. It means life getting back to normal sooner rather than later. It's good news. It's nice to have some to share, for a change.
In other news indicating a return to something more normal and familiar, the U.S. bombed the Middle East this week. American warplanes struck targets in Syria believed to be used by Iranian-backed militias. This operation, the first (known) offensive mission of the Biden presidency, came after different Iranian-backed militias — we think they're different, anyway, it's hard to keep up — fired rockets at U.S. positions in Iraq.
We're not going to get bogged down in Middle Eastern politics or strategy here, but we are going to remind you of something we said when President Biden took office. We wrote this on Friday, January 22nd, just days after Biden took the oath.
We expect that there will be a difficult transition for many in the press as they enter the post-Trump era. With any luck, the next four years will be nowhere near as bonkers-on-steroids as the last four years. The world has operated at the speed of Trump for an entire term, and there will be a very real danger in failing to give President Biden and his team necessary, warranted scrutiny, simply because, well, God, things can't ever be that bad again, right?
And here we have Exhibit A of that, a tweet by Amy Siskind, an American author and podcaster.
A few notes of fairness: Siskind is media-adjacent, sure, but she's not exactly the D.C. journalists we worried would be hit hard by normalcy shock in the post-Trump era. And, also of note, she deleted the tweet.
Ironically, we think Siskind mostly had it right — we do trust Biden to use military force more than we would have trusted Trump to do the same, and the less-crazy tone out of the White House on this (and all other matters) is refreshing. Further, we also think the strike was proportional and reasonable, in the circumstances. If anyone thought that a Biden presidency was going to magically fix the various overlapping crises in that region, we don't know what to tell you. Iran is obviously testing the new president. We’d say he responded well.
But we did warn you that people, even smart people who should know better, would get mesmerized by Biden's non-insanity and lose their minds a bit. There is no more serious decision by any world leader than to commit troops to battle. Biden's choice here was defensible and arguably warranted. But we decided that because we studied the issue, thought about it, and made an informed decision. Not because we trusted Biden and his team.
That’s not our job. Our job is to learn, study, analyze and relay. When we give kudos to a leader, it’s because they earned it, not because we’re so traumatized by the last guy that literally anything fills us with gratitude.
So let’s have no more of this, OK? (The reflexive Biden support, we mean, not the bombing … well, we guess, less bombing would also be good, but we’re realists.)
Meanwhile, some of us here at The Line have been watching Alberta's budgets for more than a decade and, we have to admit, Friday's figures were the worst we've ever seen.
As you can see from the figure above, Alberta doesn't bring in enough in taxes to cover its health-care system, much less its education, social services, treasury, or justice department expenses. The province's financial situation has been growing more dire since the oil bust knocked a hole in resource royalties. But for a still-wealthy jurisdiction to post a budget with a deficit that is 30 per cent of overall spending is some baffling dumbfuckery. It's also not remotely surprising for anyone who has been watching these budgets for a few years.
If you want to get a feel for the scale of Alberta's financial problem, play with some of the budget sliders on this website. In order to make up a $10 billion deficit, Alberta would need to implement a 5 per cent provincial sales tax, increase income and corporate taxes across the board, and make 4 per cent spending cuts to pretty much everything to zero out the deficit. Play with the tool for a minute, and you start to see that every partisan's pet solutions are woefully inadequate to the scale of the problem.
And then it should dawn on you.
Alberta just posted a deficit that is $18 billion. Not $10.
For the past 25 years, the left has been screaming about Alberta's revenue problem. The right has been screaming about its spending problem. Meanwhile, the hole under everyone has grown so deep that there is now no way out of it except to raise taxes, cut spending, and accept significant deficits for years to come. Privately, people on both the left and right acknowledge this. The math is not hard. Yet publicly no one will just come forward and admit we need to use every tool at our disposal to get the finances back in check. The conservatives don't want to piss off their base, and the NDP doesn't want to piss off the unions, so both spout the same talking points while failing to make the necessary course corrections. As a result of this endless, counter-productive little pas de deux, we've done nothing about spending or revenue, and the deficit continues to get worse year after year after year.
Now we also have to deal with COVID- 19, and everything only gets harder from here.
So, to our conservative friends:
Yes, we have a spending problem. But if you think we can cut our way out of 30 per cent of the budget, you are living in fairy-fuelled fantasy land. Most of our budget goes to health care and education. We would have to cut all of the money we spend on elementary and high school education to get there. Twice over. Wages and contracts are sticky, and the province is aging, and continuing to grow. We actually can't cut enough to fix a deficit this large.
We need these government services to be in good shape. Being fiscally conservative should not just be about making spending cuts for the sake of making spending cuts. It should be about being fiscally responsible, and that means not passing on subpar services and structurally broken government finances to your children and grandchildren. The longer we delay the inevitable, the worse it is going to get for everybody.
Our per capita spending is the highest of almost any province in the country. Yes, we do need to bring that in line with our closest comparator. But that's going to take time. And if you're going to sit here and argue that our per capita spending should be in line with, say, B.C.'s, then why not our taxes?
And to our lefty friends:
Yes, we do have a revenue problem. We need to raise taxes. That has been inevitable for years, and the longer we put that tax increase off, the more interest we're going to wind up paying in debt servicing in order to finance our denial.
However, we can no longer afford to carry some of the most highly paid doctors, nurses, and teachers in the country. Those wages were once justified by the fact that they were a reflection of high private-sector salaries in a rapidly growing jurisdiction that was vying for limited talent. That world is over. Public-sector workers are going to have to suffer the same kind of hit that private-sector workers have been dealing with over the past six years. Our best-case scenario is that public-sector wages will stagnate until they come in line with national averages through inflation. Our worst-case scenario is more significant cuts.
Being progressive shouldn't be about fighting for higher public-sector wages just for the sake of winning higher public-sector wages. If the province is to succeed, we all need to be in this together.
It's true that we could bring our tax regime closer in line with B.C.'s, and still have the most competitive tax jurisdiction in the country. But if our taxes ought to be at B.C.'s level, then why not our per capita spending?
For generations, Albertans have not paid their own freight. Resource royalties have filled the gap between what we spend, and what we take in. This has allowed Albertans the luxury of low taxes. It's also allowed us wage growth and public spending unchecked by painful tax hikes. The royalties are not coming back. So we can either fix this now, or we can fix it when it gets worse.
To start the week, your Line editors whipped up a public-service explainer (but we called it a PSA, because PSE sounds weird) that explains what is, and is not, killing legacy media across the Western world. It’s not whatever your personal little gripe is — it’s money. That’s it. Money. “The advertising revenue that news organizations had come to depend on began to dry up in the ‘90s,” we explained, “and it only got worse as time passed. This was not because readership or ratings were dropping — that's the first myth that needs to be murdered, viciously, outright. Mass media audiences today are vastly larger than they ever were in the halcyon days of easy revenue. No, what changed is that the advertising market became more competitive. New digital options provided better value for dollar; cheap digital ads could be better targeted to specific audiences, and better tracked for their effectiveness. Advertising spends ballooned enormously over the past generation, but legacy media outlets have been claiming a smaller share of the pie.” (A follow-up piece to our PSA, responding to reader questions, will run next week.)
Michael Solberg wrote a fun piece about a serious issue: everything our science has discovered tells us that the universe is full of life, and even believing that alien life has maybe contacted Earth is no longer strictly ridiculous — even the U.S. military has admitted taking the possibility increasingly seriously. But even if it’s true, and our governments know it’s true, would they tell us? “The one overarching truth I have learned about governments of all political stripes,” Solberg says, “is that they rarely feel obliged to tell you the whole truth (or even some of the truth) on issues that are difficult to communicate or have limited political upside. This would no doubt be true about aliens. I mean, what is the political win for a government who wants to share classified material about UFOs and little grey men?”
In a blistering column, Kaveh Shahrooz unloads on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to skip the vote on whether China’s brutalization of the Uyghur people constitutes a genocide. “Trudeau’s response to the Uyghur genocide motion stands out from [his prior scandals] simply because it put all his hypocrisy on display at once, reminding Canadians that he never believed a word of the feel-good pablum on which he built his entire career.”
Following that, Matt Gurney came down to shoot the wounded in a column on a similar theme, noting that while Trudeau can semi-plausibly justify his decision to skip the vote — two Michaels, trade relationship, rallying economic support, bla bla bla — this is exactly the kind of decision that he’s previously taken such obvious pleasure in apologizing for before … so long as the person who actually did the bad thing is long dead, that is. “The PM who proudly declared that Canada was back was given a chance to put his vote on the right side of history,” Gurney wrote. “He didn't show up. And a century from now, someone will probably feel moved to apologize for that. Indeed, it might not take that long.”
Alright, folks. That’s it from us. We’ll be back on Monday with more. In the meantime, take care of yourselves.
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