Biden has taken up the challenge of his office and its history, proving Trump’s impact to be impermanent after all

For those on Twitter or otherwise tuned into the political world’s 24-hour spin cycle, the past 100 days have been marked by an unusual phenomenon: the casual hum of political discourse in the absence of Donald J. Trump.

On the streets and in the news, Trump’s legacy marches on through COVID denial, hysteria about the “BIG LIE” of election fraud and the steady purging from the Republican Party of common sense and dissenting opinions.

But the troller-in-chief himself has been notably absent from the airwaves, providing nary a peep on social media. He’s barely engaging in interviews, or even appearing in public for that matter.

Of course, Trump’s quiet is due in part to his exile from the platforms he once held dear, but it is also a sign that his grip on American life is fading — that most Americans have tuned out his vision of the world.

Astonishingly, it may turn out that after all the insanity of the last four years, the damage and the impact of Trump may prove to have been all sound and fury. That the impact may be as ephemeral as the man is bellicose. With a legacy as enduring as a Popsicle in the summer sun, save for the wretched cultural division it has created.

For the past four years, many people — myself among them — have despaired at the damage Trump inflicted on the stature and legacy of the American presidency. He eschewed norms, abandoned allies and at times transformed the pageantry of the office into a pantomime or worse, an infomercial.

“How,” I wondered “will his successor ever achieve any measure of greatness with an office so diminished in stature both in the nation and the world?”

For that reason, many expected that any president who followed one as disruptive as President Trump would need to be a transitional president. One who would give the country time to catch its breath and to throw off the chaos of the previous four years.

After the Watergate scandal, for example, left the presidency in tatters, it took the presidencies of both Ford and Carter before Americans were ready for another transformative president — Ronald Reagan

Now, just over 100 days since Trump left office, President Biden has determined to avoid the same fate. Far from proving Trump’s erosion of the office irreparable, Biden has shown himself capable of being so much more than simply an interim president.

In fact, he has chosen the opposite playbook. Biden has surprised many by enthusiastically and unapologetically taking up the mantle of his party. He has paid a homage to its history by expanding the American social safety net in ways unprecedented since the mid-20th century. With a sure-footedness that belies his status as a rookie president, Biden is moving, leaps and bounds, to transform the role of the state in American life. If he succeeds, his legacy will be paralleled only by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

What’s more, Biden’s undertaking is about much more than an injection of spending or increased supports for the middle and working classes. It is a move to reshape the social contract Americans have with one another and their government. And in doing so restore the stature — and power — of the presidency itself.

In his speech to both houses of Congress last month, Biden spoke of his plans as a “once in a generation investment in our families and our children,” acknowledging the position of his undertaking alongside FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Whatever moniker is bestowed on his own administration’s legacy — even if there is none at all — no one can call it an interim presidency.

If he fails to pass the legislation foundational to his vision, Biden will nonetheless have proven that the president can attempt truly transformational change. That the office he holds can still live up to the challenge of its history. In doing so, Biden will help to clear the rubble of his predecessor, further drowning out the sound and fury of a past presidency which stood for little beyond its own grim world view.

Border closures have proven to be a successful measure. We cannot allow what is politically convenient to guide our pandemic response

As the country struggles through the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have finally obtained enough distance from the first wave to consider it properly in hindsight.

In those early days of the pandemic, when we knew so little and feared so much, governments around the world tried all manner of policy responses. Among the most popular was some form of travel restriction or border closure: by some measures, international travel restrictions were the second most popular policy response, after public information campaigns.

If you were to listen to the global public health community’s response to this initial wave of closures and restrictions, you might think it was among the most disastrous decisions of the pandemic. The conventional wisdom was that travel restrictions were at best unhelpful, and at worst actively counterproductive.

This truism and the beliefs that underpin it — that disease does not respect borders, that people will find a way to travel regardless, and they will go through dangerous unofficial channels if you close official ones — all dovetails perfectly with the general left-wing viewpoint on immigration.

Though it may be politically congenital to those who wish to see open borders, the public health opposition to border closures was not grounded in any real scientific fact. It was based on hunches about human behaviour.

In fact, one of the professors who authored the international pandemic playbook for the World Health Organization (which recommended against border closures) was quoted in Vox last week, saying “I have now realized that our belief about travel restrictions was just that — a belief. It was evidence-free.”

This is a shocking admission. If the idea had no evidence underpinning it, then why was it so popular? Here in Toronto, we survived both the SARS pandemic and the travel advisories imposed on the city by the WHO. As a result, we were very familiar with the potentially damaging effects of travel restrictions. Perhaps a lingering sense of grievance contributed to the desire to avoid border closures this time around.

Eventually, most public health authorities concluded that travel restrictions did nothing to prevent SARS, and that they inflicted a great deal of suffering and economic damage on cities like Toronto.

In the years since, through scares like Ebola or MERS, travel restrictions similarly didn’t seem to work well. And so the belief that border closures don’t work, full stop, became the kind of conventional wisdom that can all too often be confused with scientific fact.

As countries scrambled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, they imposed border closures and travel restrictions, but based on political objections such as those cited above, these policies were porous to varying degrees. Even former U.S. president Donald Trump, who often touted his decision to close the border to China, left too many loopholes for the policy to be truly effective.

But while most countries included some manner of loophole, a few chose to go the full nine yards. Again with the benefit of hindsight, it seems possible to attribute those countries’ success in combating COVID to that fateful decision.

Take the country of Vietnam: at the end of 2020, the country had reported only 35 deaths from COVID. They had a paltry 1,465 cases over those first nine months of the pandemic, a fraction of its neighbours, including nearby China where the virus originated.

Experts now attribute this astonishing success in large part to the border closure. The country has also taken other policy interventions, such as test, trace and isolate, much more seriously — though even these additional measures are made possible by their low case count. Other countries that have experienced comparatively better outcomes, like Taiwan or New Zealand, have also featured extremely intense international border closures.

This is only one area in which we are beginning to reassess the conventional wisdom that has guided our response to date, and reconsider our steps and missteps in the earliest days of the pandemic. This episode speaks to the fallibility of our top doctors and public health authorities. If there is one clear lesson here, we must never allow what is politically convenient to guide our response, whether the issue is border closures, travel restrictions or vaccine allocations.

Will voters be persuaded by Erin O’Toole’s daring new climate plan?

This week Erin O’Toole ended months of futile speculation when he announced details of the plan he hopes will take him to 24 Sussex (or at least Rideau Cottage) — also known as the Conservative Party’s climate change plan.

The plan is built around replacing the Liberal carbon tax with a lower levy (a levy, not a tax!) to be paid upon the purchase of gasoline and the like. The money from that levy would go into a personal low-carbon savings account which Canadians could then use to buy certain “green” things.

This differs from the current Liberal plan, which provides direct cash rebates to Canadians.

Let us begin by acknowledging that O’Toole daring to embrace a carbon price at all is worthy of praise. Real political courage is rare, and O’Toole is likely to face significant internal dissent on this proposal.

But, for months, he has promised to bring forward a serious and credible climate change plan. Wednesday’s announcement delivered on that promise.

It follows from the calculation that without it, the party simply would not have been viable in Ontario, and in the 905 specifically.

The problem is that the Conservatives have also spent a significant amount of political capital savaging Trudeau’s carbon tax, only for them to introduce a program that appears, on the surface, to be eerily similar.

But if we look deeper, important distinctions emerge.

Under Trudeau’s climate plan, households in the same province or region get (more or less) the same size cheque, regardless of how little or how big their actual carbon footprint may be.

The Conservative complaint has always been that this unfairly punishes suburbanites or farmers, who necessarily have a bigger carbon footprint because of the need to heat their larger homes or drive greater distances.

Under the Conservative plan, the solution to this problem is that money spent on fossil fuels will instead be given back to the people spending it, through the proposed special savings accounts.

Therein lies the crucial distinction: the Conservative plan is not so much a carbon tax, as a carbon personal mandate (or “pricing mechanism,” to borrow O’Toole’s preferred formulation). The only redistribution at work is taking money that consumers spend increasing their carbon footprint and requiring them to put it towards spending that decreases their carbon footprint.

Viewed this way, the plan is an effective wedge tool. Armed with this policy, O’Toole’s Conservative candidates in the 905 or other similar regions can tell voters that while Trudeau’s Liberals are taxing them because of their lifestyle and sending the money to downtown condo dwellers without cars, their plan puts the money back in their own pockets.

In principle, this is an interesting idea; clever even. But in practice, there are many potential problems. How will the federal government track how much gasoline or other carbon-intensive products people buy? Will the financial services companies even agree to play ball when it comes to implementing this scheme, and how much will it cost to bring them on board? What about people who buy gas and pay with cash? While the proposal describes Canadians using their new personal carbon savings accounts to buy things like bicycles, energy-efficient furnaces or electric vehicles, it’s not really clear how much money would even flow into these accounts at a price point of $20 per tonne.

No matter — doubts and challenges faced the Trudeau Liberals in implementing their own carbon tax. It was only with this month’s Supreme Court ruling that some of those very problems were resolved.

O’Toole’s work is not done. It may well be that when voters ultimately go to the polls, they are unpersuaded by O’Toole’s proposal. Proponents of a price on carbon may be more likely to prefer the Liberal plan; opponents may be upset that O’Toole has embraced the idea at all.

But Wednesday’s announcement will be viewed as a watershed political moment because it marks the first time that a Conservative leader has taken such a serious position on climate change. Going forward, this will hopefully become the baseline for party leaders, even as the party irons out the details of any eventual legislation.

One last point not to miss: Wednesday’s announcement was broadcast live from a new Conservative campaign broadcast centre. With all the bells and whistles of a modern television studio, it was a slick, well-produced and technologically capable display. One that showed the party is more ready than ever to fight a virtual election, whenever it may come.

Our eventual return to the office will take new policies — and a new mindset

As the pandemic marches inevitably on toward its second summer of lockdowns and physical distancing, it can be easy to lose notice of just how much our lives have changed.

This is especially true, I think, for those of us who have grown accustomed to working from home and to the reliable, quiet drift of each day into the next that comes with it.

We may not miss the jetsam of our former lives — the habits and activities we were able to gladly throw overboard in the face of COVID-19. But the flotsam of this pandemic, the chaos and destruction it has caused, the upheaval of entire neighbourhoods, is a reality we can’t escape.

Nowhere is this wreckage more pronounced than in the ghost town of Toronto’s PATH system.

These days, a stroll through the PATH is a stark reminder that the office as we knew it has been turned entirely upside down. For many companies, this pandemic has been a forced foray into the world of working from home, or as some wags prefer: live at work.

For the most part, employees seem to be content with the changes to their routine. In fact, a recent poll of Canadians suggests that one in three would look for a new job if asked to return to the office full-time. That is a remarkable figure, especially given the precarity and general insecurity many are still feeling about their lives, their future and their work.

What’s more, it speaks to the reality that is dawning on the other end of this pandemic. Just as they had to adapt last year, employers need to prepare for a return to work that is responsive to all that has changed — and with it the new expectations of their employees.

I don’t belong to the category of those who think we will never return to the office. Quite the opposite. In my view, people will return to the office, in part, because they miss their old lives. But also because business imperatives will push us back.

Fundamentally, there are three crucial things that are lost without the chance to work together in the same space.

First, the element of companionship and camaraderie that solidifies our working relationships. Part of what’s missing in a virtual workplace is the natural ebb and flow of professional and personal time. In the office, we go from coffee to meetings to lunch and then back to work, all the while establishing enriching personal bonds.

Second, we lose the opportunity for collaboration and collision to organically improve the work we do. No chance for a conversation overheard or some coincidental synergy to make all the difference to a project. Something that given the tightness and closeness of our country, matters more to us than most.

Finally, without a return to the office, we lose much of the benefit of mentorship — which just cannot have the same impact in remote work. This is especially a loss for younger professionals, who won’t have the opportunity for crucial advancement and learning from their colleagues.

There, three quick reasons why the office is not dead — yet. But I also recognize that change is necessary. The best answer? Most likely a hybrid model, where solitary work that can be done with minimal collaboration is done in a new way, while work that requires collaboration is conducted (at least more often) in a shared space.

And, of course, we must recognize that for all the changes we can expect to our physical office experience, the policies that underpin our work life will need to change too.

Many companies will be more flexible about work schedules. Some will reconfigure how workload is allocated. Our own firm has implemented a policy of unlimited vacation, recognizing that strict allotments of vacation time are out of sync with the reality of how we now work and live our lives.

Whatever the specific solutions, the important thing is for business leaders to recognize the tide of change that’s taken place, and adapt accordingly.

Pandemic failures are disheartening, but they must move us forward

This has become a dispiriting phase of the pandemic. This week, Ontario slammed the emergency brake on — again.

At times like this, as we enter our second year of missing Passovers, Easters and birthdays — feeling like we are all being held hostage to a string of disheartening failures — it can help to take the long view.

I’ve written in this space before that COVID-19 is the second pandemic that I have lived through — the first one being the HIV-AIDS crisis weathered in the 1980s and 1990s.

And while you can’t comparatively rate loss and pain, despair then seemed endlessly prolonged by a string of failures, and because of the lack of a pharmaceutical salvation.

It has been 40 years since researchers started looking for an HIV vaccine, and the story has been one of failure after bitter failure. Even some of the characters in that pandemic — like Dr. Anthony Fauci — are reappearing in this one, the same then as now.

So it made for some welcome good news this week to learn that, according to a new paper published by economist Jeffrey E. Harris at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all of those failures have amounted to something precious indeed.

Harris finds that more than 85 per cent of the technology powering the COVID-19 vaccine candidates can be traced back to prototypes tested in HIV vaccine trials, from the synthetic mRNA in Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, to the viral-vector model used by Johnson & Johnson in their single-shot COVID-19 vaccine.

There is a certain poetic beauty in this realization. After a long winter of suffering and discontent, there comes a hopeful spring. (This is true in HIV-AIDS research as well, which still has no vaccine, but does have a prophylactic in the form of Truvada, a once-daily pill that can prevent HIV infection, in addition to the breakthrough antiretrovirals that truly turned the tide back in the mid-1990s.)

But in Harris’ finding, there is also an important lesson for the rest of us.

And by the rest of us, I mean here is where politicians and policy-makers can learn from scientists. Success can grow from failure — but only if we are honest with ourselves, rigorous and transparent in our approach, and clear-eyed about what works and what doesn’t.

The difficult part is that we can never know which failures or dead ends today will be redeemed tomorrow. That process begins with a clinical examination of what went wrong, and we are in the earliest stages of that process, even as we continue to grapple with COVID-19 in real time.

Auditor General of Canada Karen Hogan’s recently released report is only the first of what will no doubt become an entire genre of bureaucratic literature: the COVID-19 post-mortem.

In her report, Hogan found that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was unprepared for the pandemic, with some of the issues marring the early response to COVID having been flagged as far back as 20 years ago.

The picture of the agency that Hogan paints reflects a broader failing of the federal government, which is the atrophying of Canada’s state capacity (i.e., our ability to effectively mobilize its decision-making apparatus in a crisis). For a country that was traumatized by SARS to have a federal public health agency unprepared for a pandemic is inexplicable. It reflects a concerning inability to learn from our past failures.

On the other hand, it is not all doom and gloom. Hogan found that while PHAC’s response was fumbled, other branches of the federal government did an admirable job in quickly ushering out new support payments for workers and businesses in the pandemic’s early days.

If we accept that part of the reason for that decline in state capacity is our general inability to proceed without endless box-ticking and other forms of bureaucratic red tape, the rapid response exemplified by CEWS and CERB were the exception that made the rule. Turns out it actually was possible to move fast and adjust later.

These are our earliest learnings, but the trick will be to not be deaf to them. The trick will be to find the confidence to allow us to have our failure move us forward.