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Opinion: Don’t let technocratic biases shape child care policy

Commentary

If you cannot name or describe something, you cannot see it. And if you can’t see something, you are apt to destroy it. This is exactly what is happening with our child care debates in Canada.

Our failure to see, understand, and describe the dynamics of child care in Canada is leading us to pursue policies that have more in common with industrialists and capitalists than those who care about nurturing the next generation of Canadians. And, like clear cutting, and other technocratic approaches to life, it will leave us worse off as a country.

In his wonderful book Landmarks, the British author and conservationist, Robert MacFarlane tells a story about flying over the environmentally sensitive Brindled Moor located in Lewis, an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. As they’re flying, his seatmate — an industrialist who wants to turn the island into a power generating station — looks over the landscape and declares it a wasteland; “there’s nothing there.” Yet, as Macfarlane notes, “the moor is one of the world’s last great peat-bogs, whose ecological significance has been compared to that of the Serengeti…its biodiversity and appearance make it the centrepiece of the Hebrides’ £60m-a-year tourism industry. The moor, in its strange, wild beauty, is also at the core of Lewis’s embattled Gaelic self-identity.”

Now compare this to the way universal child care advocates talk about the landscape of care in our country. Public advocates for universal care decry the lack of capacity of child care in Canada, and declare the highly diverse social landscapes of places like working class Brampton, Kitchener, and, well, most of Canada as “child care deserts.”

These advocates are like the myopic industrialist who looks over a landscape that is so diverse and complex that locals compiled a “peat glossary” to help scientists describe the varied types of earth, and declares it a wasteland. There are all kids of examples of “modern practices” laying waste to rich ecosystems. Take, for instance, the way forestry managers almost destroyed the rare Oak Savanna at Ontario’s Pinery Provincial Park. They “viewed the open nature of this ecosystem as degraded,” and attempted to plant commercial pines in one of the rarest forest environments in Canada. Both the foresters of the 60s and those pushing Canada’s child care policy into a direction that prefers homogeneity are guilty of committing the “American-Puritan error” which equates “wild land with wasteland.” It’s no coincidence that both mentalities are rooted in the high-modernist era of the 60s and 70s.

The rich, multigenerational homes in which grandparents, and other family members that provide care — and that are far more common in immigrant and indigenous communities — are described as arid and not worthy of notice. These advocates can only see daycare spaces licenced and regulated by the state as worthy of attention, and government support. Should we be surprised that a place with such a high number of immigrants and diverse families such as Brampton are described as deserts, while the rich suburbs of Oakville are declared an oasis? Because the advocates deem licensed care as quality, child care in Oakville is declared quality. For the same reason, child care in Brampton is declared to be of poor quality, like cheap, imported goods. Where have we seen this before?

One of the core reasons underlying this narrow focus on licenced care is a faulty understanding of the asymmetry of information on quality being a core market failure in child care. This is a common point, and one that appears even in otherwise sensible policy research.

What does this mean?

The core of this concern is that parents can’t be certain about the quality of child care. Children can’t or don’t evaluate their providers care in the same way as parents, and can’t or don’t communicate concerns with quality of child care because, well, they’re kids. They’re not capable of the complex judgments that parents are. In a child care setting, parents send the kids in and head off to work. They really don’t know what’s going on because they’re absent and unable to observe it.

Stop undervaluing the possibilities of organic relationships and communities in the world of public policy.

And when they pick the kids up at the end of the day, the kids can’t really give a quality or reliable report on the quality of care. The best you’ll get is something like this:

Parent: “how was your day?”

Kid: “good” (or) “okay” (or) “mumble mumble” (or, most likely) “I’m hungry, what’s for supper?”

And that assumes they can talk. Infants can’t even give that much of a report.

Even if the child does give a better report the parent cannot really tell whether it’s trustworthy or not. That’s the asymmetry. There is some level of “quality” of care, but the parent, because they’re not there to observe, doesn’t have the data on which to make a judgment about quality, and can never really know. That’s the market problem.

The solution to this problem for proponents of licenced care is to introduce a signal that acts as a type of seal of quality, sort of like “Grade A chicken” is a seal that shows that you’re getting quality. The preferred signal for daycare advocates is a common regulatory signal: a license.

The license is supposed to indicate a base (or higher) level of quality that stands in for the information the parent lacks. Now, on the one hand, this isn’t bad per se. We can articulate standards and send signals to show they have been met, and a certain level of regulation (for instance, the requirement of police checks is a classic example of a good requirement) makes total sense.

But the assumptions that align “licenced” with “quality,” or the presumption that licences will solve the market problem of asymmetrical information — and particularly the way it’s used to place all government financial support toward regulated care as the federal budget does — is faulty. It doesn’t align with real life and can lead to potentially perverse outcomes.

Here are the key issues with the assumptions behind the asymmetry of information market failure.

The first is that it assumes a technocratic understanding of quality. That is, that child care (a complicated matter if there ever was one) can be given a rubric of indicators of quality from civil servants that will stand in for a genuine marker of the love and care that a child receives or not. Again, basic standards can make sense (staff-to-child ratios and background checks are a few good examples) but these standards all lean toward the legible and easily quantifiable.

As quality markers, the qualitative insight from a lot of these standards are very hard to find or highly debatable. Take, for instance, another preferred measure: an Early Childhood Educator certification of some sort. It’s plausible that ECEs can provide higher quality of care than say, your neighbour, or someone from your mosque, or temple, or your family (or anyone with whom you have an organic connection) but on what grounds? Often, again, it comes back to some sort of quantifiable measure.

The state is good at putting in measures, but how does this change the conversation between the parent and the child on the way home from daycare?

Moreover, and this is perhaps my biggest problem with the conflation of licenses and quality, it dramatically underappreciates the extent to which parents garner qualitative information organically and communally.

Think about how people go about finding a child care provider. You might go online to seek a licensed or government spot and say “done.” But that’s not what most parents do. Most parents ask their friends, neighbours, parents, and other members of their community for feedback. This organic grazing for information and gleaning of insight from people you trust and relate to is part and parcel of how parents evaluate quality. That’s why positive word of mouth feedback is the holy grail for any institution, because it’s the most reliable and trustworthy.

Another problem with this conception of a market failure is that it assumes that the parent/child communication feedback loop is functionally unreliable. Granted, children aren’t fully reliable, but parents are far more in-tune with the effects of care on their kids than this suggests.

On a given day a child doesn’t provide a clear binary good/bad signal about quality, but over time, patterns show up. You notice things. The author’s four children have been in the full range of care settings (from at home with mom or dad, to extended family, to neighbours, to friends, to unlicensed day homes to licenced institutional care), and in each case we had a pretty good read of the effect of each setting on the kids. We used a variety of things — conversations with other parents, providers, conversations with kids, our own intuitions — to evaluate the quality of care our children received. Was it perfect? No. But there is no signal that is. Assuming that licenses will provide certainty on quality, or even radically re-balance the symmetry of information is misguided. It’s one signal, but probably not even the best one.

This isn’t an argument against regulations of any sort, it’s a critique of using technocratic biases to shape daycare policy, and an argument against basing an entire system upon one feedback measure that is one among many.

More importantly, it’s a call for us to stop undervaluing the possibilities of organic relationships and communities in the world of public policy. The desire to make the complex, organic world of child-care and family/work life into something legible is an inherently corporatist project.

Note that this isn’t a call for libertarianism or even fiscal conservatism with regard to child care. As we note in a recent paper, “particularly for parents in low-wage occupations, child care may consume the majority of the income gained from employment, leading to a rational decision to forgo work outside the home. It is understandable, therefore, that governments consider policies to alleviate the financial burden of child care and boost labour-force participation.”

The state has a role to play, and an approach to policy that respects the ecosystem of care in Canada might end up spending more than the (wrong) estimates of the universal program. It’s not about the money, but the role. And the state’s role should be focused on enabling parents to make decisions that work best for them and their families, and on encouraging other parts of society (especially business, which seems to have gotten a free ride) to support families.

This article begins by noting that if you don’t have the language to describe something, you can’t see it. And if you can’t see it, you’ll end up destroying it. This is precisely what’s happening with our child care discussions. How to preserve the rich ecosystem of care in the face of the strong technocratic, corporatist tides that seem so strong?

Here it’s worth returning to MacFarlane. He says “those who wish to explain to politicians and others why landscape should be nurtured… face a daunting task where the necessary concepts and vocabulary are not to hand. What is required is a new nomenclature of landscape and how we relate to it.”

Canadian child care policy needs a new nomenclature and it should start with a definition of quality that is in line with the everyday practices of Canadians, and a definition of support that encourages and enables everyday Canadians to live the lives they deem best for their families.

Sean Speer: Canadian creators don’t need protection. They’re already winning

Commentary

If ongoing public concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic have overwhelmed most other policy and political issues for the past year, it may be a peculiar sign of progress that there’s a new political maelstrom brewing about the government’s legislation to regulate online content. 

Bill C-10, which was tabled in November 2020 and is now making its way through the legislative process, aims to extend Canadian content provisions (typically referred to as “CanCon” rules) to online streaming services like Netflix or Disney+.

The legislation’s underlying goal to address the asymmetrical treatment between traditional Canadian broadcasters and over-the-top streaming services is not unreasonable. But the government’s solution is wrong and is seemingly getting worse.

Canada’s broadcasting policy framework was conceived in the mid-1960s during a period of limited competition, airwave scarcity, and heightened cultural nationalism. The policy regime that came out of this era amounted to a “grand bargain” between the federal government and Canadian broadcasters whereby Ottawa granted the domestic industry protection from foreign competition in exchange for mandated investments in Canadian content. The Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was established in 1968 in large part to oversee and support this political economy arrangement.

The internet effectively killed the bargain. It has solved the problem of airwave scarcity and in turn eroded the need for (and ability of) the CRTC to manage its licensing requirements. The market has become increasingly dynamic, fragmented, and beyond the reach of the regulator. New over-the-top streaming services (such as Amazon Prime, Apple, and Netflix) are reshaping how cultural content is produced, promoted, disseminated, and ultimately consumed.

Our anachronistic regulatory model hasn’t kept pace. The CRTC continues to expect Canadian broadcasters to live up to their end of the original bargain, including, for instance, an ongoing requirement that they contribute at least 5 percent of their annual broadcasting-related revenues to the creation and production of Canadian programming. Yet the over-the-top streaming services aren’t subject to such rules. The CRTC exempted them in 1999 for various reasons including the practicality of imposing Canadian content requirements on foreign-based, internet companies in a global market that was changing “at a rapid rate.”

Online streaming services operate according to a simple premise: buy and produce content that consumers want.

Excluding the internet from regulation was, in hindsight, an inspired decision. One might argue that it was among the most important (and yet underappreciated) policy choices of the Chrétien government.

It has contributed to a burst of creativity, innovation, and new opportunities for Canadian creators and producers by massively expanding their market reach to a global audience. It is, in effect, a powerful case study of the growth-enhancing potential of deregulation.

This point is worth emphasizing: the large-scale opportunities represented in a deregulated internet is a direct challenge to the inherent protectionism of the “grand bargain.” The current broadcasting policy framework assumes that Canadian broadcasting and cultural players cannot compete in a free market system. It presupposes that we need to build a regulatory moat around the Canadian market and just be satisfied with our modest domestic audience.

The 1999 “new media” directive has enabled us to test this hypothesis. The real-life experience of the past 20 years or so has shown that it’s overwhelmingly wrong. There’s much greater global demand for Canadian content than policymakers or the regulator assumed. Canadian shows such as Anne with an “E,” Paw Patrol, Orphan Black, The Next Step, and Schitt’s Creek are a powerful rejoinder to the defensiveness and provincialism of the regulatory status quo.

Another consequence of the directive though is that it has led to an asymmetry between traditional Canadian broadcasters and the online streaming services with whom they are competing. It’s a government-induced distortion that has created what’s sometimes described as a “two-tier system.” Most analysts and experts agree that this is unsustainable and needs to be addressed.

It’s causing a competitive disadvantage for Canadian broadcasters who must still comply with silly, confusing, and costly government mandates even as they face growing competition from online streaming services that operate according to a simple and overriding premise: buy and produce content that consumers want. It’s no surprise therefore that traditional broadcasters have experienced a significant decline in their market share.

Something needs to be done. Basically everyone agrees. The question, of course, is what?

There are generally two options to level the playing field: one, liberalize the system for traditional broadcasters; or two; try to bring online streaming services within the Canadian content regime.

Bill C-10 chooses the second option. It aims to extend the reach of CanCon requirements to the internet.

There are two major problems with this approach. The first is it neglects the huge potential from reconceptualizing Canada’s broadcasting and cultural policy framework from thinking inward to looking outward. Canadian creators and producers don’t need government protection. They’re competing and winning in the global market enabled by the internet. Bill C-10 basically reflects a defensiveness and protectionism that recent history tells us is unjustified and possibly counterproductive. It’s a solution in search of a problem.

The second is that there’s no clear limiting principle to extending CanCon rules to internet-based content. If one believes that the internet ought to be subject to such requirements, it’s far from obvious how the government might differentiate between a Netflix show or a popular YouTube channel or an individual’s social media feed. Their market reach may be different but otherwise it’s hard to intellectually distinguish when the overriding goal is the protection of Canadian content.

This isn’t abstract point: it’s at the centre of the recent controversy over the Trudeau government’s bill. The original legislation exempted “user-generated content” — think for instance individual social media posts — from government regulation. In fact, a justice department “explainer” of the bill still reads: “Users of social media who upload programs for sharing with other users and are not affiliated with the service provider will not be subject to regulation.” The message was that Ottawa is targeting Netflix rather than individuals’ cat videos.

Yet in recent days the government has amended the bill to remove this exemption and in turn contributed to growing concern that if the legislation is ultimately passed, it will lead to creeping regulation of freedom of expression. As currently drafted, it would give the government the power to regulate individual posts on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok as if these individuals were themselves broadcasters. New attempts by Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault to assure Canadians that these powers will be exercised judiciously has only further confused things.

A common critique is that the Trudeau government has used a legitimate public policy challenge — the asymmetry of the application of CanCon rules between Canadian broadcasters and online streaming services — as a political tool to narrow the terms of public debate.

It’s hard to know the government’s motivation but it’s just as easy to think that imposing regulations on user-generated content follows logically from its view that CanCon regulations ought to extend from the analog world to the digital world. It’s not enough to capture Netflix and the other big players. They’re just the low-hanging fruit.

The idea that CanCon rules must apply to online content is an inherently licentious undertaking. The internet’s dynamism necessarily requires a degree of hyper micromanagement. It’s, by definition, a recipe for never-ending mission creep.

A simpler solution is to accept that the “grand bargain” is over. It’s not coming back and Canadian creators and producers don’t need it anyway. The right way to level the playing field therefore isn’t to extend CanCon rules to the internet but instead to extend the internet’s de-regulation model to Canadian broadcasters.

Eliminating CanCon rules wouldn’t mean the end of Canadian content. It just means that it would be driven by consumer demands rather than bureaucratic diktats. And there’s good reason to think that there’s significant global demand for our content. Federal policymakers ought to have more faith in Canadian creators and producers and less in their own ability to regulate the internet.