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Opinion: Want to combat populism? Innovation and positive-sum politics are key

Commentary

When the two of us write about innovation and technology, we tend to mainly focus on its economic implications, including how it influences competitiveness, growth, and productivity. We’ve published various articles and papers in recent years (including a forthcoming one on an advanced research projects agency for Canada) that broadly make the case for greater public investments in applied industrial research in the name of cultivating more domestic firms that can scale and ultimately compete in the global economy. 

There’s good reason for this. The interrelationship between innovation and technology and key economic outcomes is quite strong. It’s often observed, for instance, that productivity is the main driver of long-run economic growth, and technology-enabled innovation is a major spur to productivity growth. The two essentially go hand-in-hand. As economist Paul Krugman famously put it: “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run, it’s almost everything.”

Yet, as important as the interrelationship between innovation and technology and productivity growth may be in basic economic terms, it actually understates the broader cultural, political, and social consequences of the sense of dynamism and optimism that’s derived from widespread innovation and technology adoption. 

The greatest benefit of innovation and technology may not even be that they make us wealthier and improve our material lives. It’s that they can contribute to a positive socio-political psychology in which people feel good about their condition and hopeful about the future. We can underestimate these political economy effects of progress. 

One could argue in fact that the entire liberal project is predicated on a set of growth assumptions that are a crucial ingredient for a positive-sum form of democratic pluralism. Our individual and collective understanding of human welfare and human flourishing necessarily depends on a sense of progress and development. 

Economist Benjamin Friedman recognized these political economy effects of economic and productivity growth in his 2006 book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. As he wrote

“The value of a rising standard of living lies not just in the concrete improvements it brings to how individuals live but in how it shapes the social, political and, ultimately, the moral character of a people… How the citizens of any country think about economic growth, and what actions they take in consequence, are therefore a matter of far broader importance than we conventionally assume…” 

One of Friedman’s major insights was that while broad-based growth can foster “social and political progress,” a collective sense of stagnation can induce the opposite reaction: what he describes as a “retreat into rigidity and intolerance.”

Contemporary evidence of this correlation tilts in the negative direction. It’s between what’s been characterized by economist Tyler Cowen as the “great stagnation”—that is, a slowing of economy-wide innovation, productivity, and living standards in recent decades—and our modern socio-political malaise marked by anxiety, pessimism, and political polarization. There is in short a crucial yet oft-neglected inverse relationship between progress and populism. 

Canadian academic and journalist, Andrew Potter, touches on this link in his recent book, On Decline, in which he aims to connect the dots between various economic, political, social, and technological trends in modern society. His analysis highlights how economic stagnation has come to manifest itself in populist politics and declining social trust. As he explains in a new Hub Dialogue: 

“This points to the other key factor in what is going on, in addition to the ‘great stagnation’, which is almost a downstream effect, which is the rise of conservative populist politics. Right-wing populist politics is, in many ways, a consequence of economic stagnation, including in household incomes.” 

Understanding this interrelationship between innovation, technology, and progress on one side and people’s feelings about their own circumstances and the society’s overall health and vitality on the other side is key for policymakers. We must properly diagnose the cause of our current socio-political malady if we’re to successfully treat it after all. 

While there’s certainly scope to pursue an equal opportunity agenda including various human capital and social welfare policies, an overemphasis on distributional considerations can underestimate the broad resonance of a political culture committed to growth, progress, and development. Even innovation and technology with narrow distributional returns but broad-based application (think for instance of the Apollo project) can contribute to a positive feedback loop of dynamism and optimism. 

The key point for policymakers is that innovation and technology have huge and underestimated political economy effects. People need to feel like the economy and society are progressing and their quality of life is improving. Innovation and technology are indeed major parts of such a political culture, but they’re still only means to an end. The fundamental goal is to cultivate a collective sense of progress—a new, different, and aspirational vision of the future. That is ultimately how we can replace today’s zero-sum politics with something more inclusive and positive. 

The good news is that Cowen and others anticipate that the “great stagnation” may indeed be coming to an end. Progress in a number of promising areas—ranging from energy to biotechnology to artificial intelligence—may soon provide a massive jolt to our economy in the form of lower costs, greater efficiency, and rising productivity. 

But the most significant gains may not come in an economic form at all and instead be reflected in a renewed commitment to aspiration, optimism, and positive-sum politics. That would be a true breakthrough development. 

Veronica Green: Ontario’s health care system is failing women

Commentary

It is well documented that women are not well-represented in health care research and that there are systemic biases that affect a woman’s access to both health care and health care-related information. 

A perfect example is cardiac health. 

Did you know that heart disease kills more women than men

Heart disease is a leading cause of death for women in Ontario each year, yet a study by Women’s College Hospital reveals that only 35 percent of clinical trial subjects in cardiovascular research are women. What’s more, many cardiovascular drugs have been on the market for years but have only been tested on men. 

It’s not a quantifiable bias to point to but anecdotally I cannot think of a scene in a movie or television show where the powerful female CEO crumbles to the floor, suffering from a heart attack, induced by a heated argument. 

It will therefore likely come as a surprise that women are more likely than men to suffer a heart attack and not know it.

To oversimplify, women are dying because they have been excluded from the research to create a treatment for a known disease. This is all because women do not make good “test subjects”—their hormones fluctuate too much. Heart disease goes under-detected in women because doctors do not recognize the risk factors and symptoms unique to this sex

These inequities are not new. In fact, medicine has a long and shocking history of absorbing socially constructed gender divisions. Elinor Celeghorn’s recent best-selling book, Unwell Women, Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-made World documents this trajectory. She begins in the third century BCE when Aristotle described the female body as the inverse of the male body, with genitalia “turn’d outside in”. Since then, the male body has been seen as superior and women defined by their uterus—an anatomical deficiency that defines the purpose of their existence. She chronicles that by the 16th century, women progressed from defective to demonic as King Henry VIII passed the Witchcraft Act. In the 18th century, medicine had been professionalized and defined by the works of educated men and the societal confines in which they write. She marks the 19th century as a time that popularized hysteria; made famous were the delusions and diseases provoked by the uterus. 

The word uterus, by no coincidence, in Greek is hystera. 

In the last 200 years, campaigners and politicians have rightly advocated for women’s representation and access to health care. It cannot be disputed that vast inroads have been made. But it is difficult to claim triumph knowing that, until the 1990s, women were not included in most health care studies. This means that the majority of prescription drugs and treatment protocols have been disproportionately studied on men and not designed to help women. 

The icing on this uneven cake is a lack of public education. 

In Ontario, health care education for young women effectively stops in Grade 12. Most often, women are confronted with harsh medical realities by happenstance. 

I have a friend who only learned of the presence of her hereditary cancer because she was pregnant and having tests done. Another found out they had perimenopause after a trip to the dermatologist to treat new acne. A third was diagnosed with endometriosis, a chronic and painful disorder, because the cramps she thought were IBS sent her to the emergency room. 

Did you know that once you turn 50 you’re supposed to get a mammogram every two years? That you can experience perimenopause at 30? That you can check your ovarian reserve?

If my tone comes off as alarmist or harsh, I am glad. As I get older, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time researching and engaging with health care resources trying to find the appropriate responses to my body’s changes. 

While I am struck by how much time and money one can spend just to learn the most simple facts about their health, it is how I arrive at the conclusion that women’s health is intimately connected to our economy. And more specifically, our province’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

It is a fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women’s employment around the world. 

While women make up 39 percent of global employment, they account for more than half of all pandemic-related job losses.

There is an opportunity for Ontario to lead a cross-ministry initiative to educate women to take control of their health and in turn empower their role in the workforce. The Ontario government’s interventions to address economic participation can also address these societal aspects of gender equality. 

First, the government can invest in maternal health, mental health, and access to care. Ontario currently spends more subsidizing electricity rates than it does on cancer screening, cancer treatment, mental health services—including for children and youth—and midwifery services combined.

Second, there can be long-term education campaigns to encourage preventative services in shots and screening services. A public target for increased preventative screenings communicated to Ontario’s women via a public advertisement campaign or a mailed info package to every household is both good politics and good policy.

Third, there might even be the opportunity to nudge the private sector to adopt family-friendly policies and fertility planning services. After all, these types of investments in the female workforce are cheaper than retraining and replacing over and over.

After a trying history, it is time for medicine, our health system, and the government to put women’s health and their role in our economy first.

With provincial elections just around the corner, these are platform planks that can be easily communicated by candidates, handy to have when knocking on doors. A premier that stands behind a women’s access to information to empower her healthcare and in turn support our economy? That’s a campaign everyone can get behind.