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Robert Summers, who rose to fame with online comments he posted in response to a New York Times column about privilege, maintains Canada’s strength comes from investing in infrastructure, education and one another.
Robert Summers, who rose to fame with online comments he posted in response to a New York Times column about privilege, maintains Canada’s strength comes from investing in infrastructure, education and one another.

ROBERT SUMMERS

What ‘Bob from Calgary’ really meant when he posted his NYT comment Add to ...

Robert Summers is a researcher and instructor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta.

A number of years ago, while visiting Calgary, I glibly signed up to The New York Times to post an off-the-cuff comment in response to a Paul Krugman article. Apparently, that comment became the most popular of all comments in the history of the NYT and I became known as “Bob from Calgary” (I’m actually from Edmonton).

I’m surprised that the comment was so popular, and a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t taken better care to write it more eloquently and accurately. I admit to a little bit of unbridled Canadian patriotism, and to not fully reflecting the many challenges we face in this country.

With that said, I still hold true to the underlying intent of the comment, which is that a great many individuals in both Canada and the United States are happy to pay taxes in order to ensure an equitable and well-run society. It’s a simple reiteration of the 1904 quote by the American Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

A healthy capitalist system is founded on an understanding that both markets and governments can fail. Nuanced dialogue, analysis and engagement are critical to understanding what mix of government and free markets works to achieve the best outcomes.

Populist, anti-elite, anti-knowledge conservatives, such as Donald Trump in the United States, are the antithesis to such nuanced and informed consideration. To quote Mr. Krugman, “craziness has gone mainstream” in American politics. In contrast, when Stephen Harper took a turn at seeking to exploit anti-immigrant rhetoric in our last election, he was broadly panned in the media and punished by the Canadian public. Craziness doesn’t sell in Canadian politics.

When I think about why the response to blatant divisive populism was so different in Canada than it has been in the United States (Mr. Trump would be destroyed in Canadian politics), I believe it comes down to the fact that Canada has a more informed citizenry – a direct result of greater investment in our public education systems over the past half century.

Indeed, at the heart of the differences between the two countries is a willingness among their citizens to invest in one another: the belief that mothers and fathers should have time to bond with and care for their newborn children, or the belief that when one falls ill, the quality of their treatment should not be related to their wealth. I strongly believe that, as Canadians, we understand that such notions are not only morally just, but that they are also inherently part of developing a successful middle class and a society where the majority of people can prosper.

Such investments are key to sustaining social mobility – the ability for individuals to break out of the income class they were born into through hard work, also sometimes referred to as the “American Dream.”

It’s worth noting that according to research done by University of Ottawa professor Miles Corak, the American Dream lives on in Canada, but has basically been dismantled in the United States. (Although he raises concerns that it is under threat in Canada, as well.)

The Globe and Mail’s Michael Babad asked what my thoughts would be today with an NDP government in Alberta, low oil prices and a deteriorating economic condition. Honestly, it hasn’t changed my thinking. If anything, I suggest we double down on our Canadian traits and continue to invest in infrastructure, education and one another.

In my own province, I am hoping the NDP moves forward with an emphasis on good governance and that they continue to seek counsel broadly from those who understand the important balance of social, economic and environmental concerns.

I am also hoping the Progressive Conservative Party reinvents itself in a way that reflects the respect for rationality and a belief in the important role of government that their “Progressive” label suggests.

Indeed, I believe the problems in Alberta relate to our past failures to be prudent in building the Heritage Savings Trust Fund for the future where we will not be able to depend upon our oil for our economic success.

Adam Smith warned long ago that capitalism can fall prey to corporations and other powerful interest groups. I believe that has happened in the United States and there is a risk of it in Canada, as well.

Thus with my last moment of my “Bob from Calgary” fame, I make a call to all of my fellow citizens to remain involved and vigilant to ensure that Canadian politics remains healthy, that we continue to invest in one another, that we avoid demagoguery and that we work to ensure that Canada remains one of the best countries in the world to live in.

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