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Rob Leone: Conspiracy theories are here to stay, but strengthening our institutions would blunt their damage

Commentary

From flat earthers to 9/11 truthers, the world has seen its fair share of conspiracy theories. During the past two and a half years of the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories abound with people questioning the legitimacy of the state, from both the too many restrictions flank AND from the not enough restrictions perspective. The state, simply put, could not win. That’s if you listen to the echo chambers of social media and ignore the electoral reality that most governing parties in Canada were re-elected during the pandemic. 

Conspiracy theories are a special category of thoughts that have permeated our regular discourse. There’s a whole anti-vaxing underworld committed to proving that we are being hosed by the likes of Bill Gates who, as some have claimed, masterminded the entire pandemic. Websites exist that discuss the vaccine as poison and some even try to track the lot numbers of the vaccine to determine whether the injection an individual received was in fact a placebo. 

On the other hand, COVID-Zero proponents created an impressive online infrastructure extolling the virtues of completely shutting down life as we know it with the purported goal of making sure nobody got a viral infection. These folks are inclined to believe that government scientists and public health officials were making politically motivated decisions rather than keeping society as safe and as free as possible without overwhelming hospital infrastructure.

Everyone knows somebody in either of these two camps. There are countless stories of families who have literally been torn apart by taking sides during the pandemic for making whatever choices they wanted to make. One side felt hurt that the other side was acting stupidly. It doesn’t matter which side I’m speaking about. The one side always thought the other side was acting irresponsibly, and the differences were so significant that they were hard to reconcile. 

The question that begs is this: why do people view the same situation so radically different?

In the book, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing our Own and Other People’s Minds, Howard Gardner points to a few things that are important to acknowledge about the human mind. The first is that people hold on to their views because it feels psychologically safe. Our brain is preconditioned to think in terms of “us” versus “them.” We are predisposed to think about belonging to an “in” group versus an “out” group. We find attachment to what the “in” group is versus the “out” group based on feelings we develop about the situations that we are in. The “facts,” in this instance, are trivial. Emotional attachment to “belonging” is an important criterion to understand.

Ever try to get into an argument with somebody by giving them a bunch of facts of why your take is correct only to be met with a person completely unwilling to bend to the stack of evidence you have presented? While we tend to think that we are all reasonable people who reach conclusions by viewing the preponderance of evidence before us, we encounter people in our everyday lives that are polar opposite to our views who also believe that they are convinced by the preponderance of different evidence before them. We are even bound to think that if everyone was just as smart as me, they would reach the same conclusions. Yet, they don’t!

Gardner makes a different argument about the way the human mind actually works, which may help explain why people view the same situation differently. He says that we actually do not gather evidence and then make a decision based on where the information takes us.  The opposite is, in fact, true. People make an emotional decision about how they feel about a situation and then use evidence to support their perspective. 

The visceral reaction I am likely to encounter by stating this point, as I have with many points I have made during the COVID-19 pandemic, will only serve to reinforce how correct this take is.

Now that we know how the human mind works, let’s now discuss how every pandemic known to humans has been met with the most amazing conspiracy theories.  

In his book, The Psychology of Pandemics, Steven Taylor predicts much of what has transpired with the COVID-19 pandemic before it happened. He has a useful chapter on conspiracy theories that offers many reasons why conspiracy theories are prone to happen with every pandemic.

Taylor explains that disease outbreaks commonly bring about conspiracy theories because the nature of the disease is poorly understood. Taylor points to a study that looked at medically unsubstantiated conspiracy theories in the United States that found between 12 percent and 20 percent of respondents agreeing that certain conspiracy theories had validity.  

People who believe one medical conspiracy theory are predisposed to believe in other ones. That means, before the pandemic even occurred, 10-20 percent of the population was predisposed to thinking that some nefarious actors were going to be responsible for a pandemic that radically altered their lives.

The aforementioned study found that most conspiracies were fueled by a lack of faith in government institutions, suspicion of multinational corporations propagating a crisis to increase profits, large philanthropic foundations that had more than altruistic motivations, and suspicion that medical experts recommended treatment known to cause people harm.  

All of this must surely sound familiar for observers of news during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of these conspiracies are likely to continue to be part of the post-pandemic narrative of what happened during the pandemic. The facts, whatever they are, are contestable, and that is unnerving to a lot of people.

In a study of conspiracy theories on social media, several common features are evident. An important one is that those who believe in conspiracies go to great lengths to cite supposedly authoritative sources to support their views. How many times have we heard that X medical doctor said this was unsafe, hoping that we’d all somehow change our opinions? 

In addition, one of the principal perspectives is that the conspirators use stealth and disinformation to convince the masses to act in ways they otherwise would not. This makes falsification of conspiracy theories unsuccessful because those that try to debunk the conspiracies with “the facts” are considered part of the “brainwashing.”

Sadly, eliminating conspiracy theories during pandemics is virtually impossible. Understanding that they exist, and why, is important in determining how best to confront them. Changing minds is difficult, and restoring faith in institutions and information takes years to establish. The time to start work on this is now.

Alex MacDonald: What could (finally) solve Canada’s housing crisis

Commentary

Within the variety and volume of pieces The Hub has published on housing, the following theme has seemed to emerge: municipal governments are the most responsible for housing; while provincial governments have a political incentive to engage but little to offer, and; that the federal government also has a political incentive to engage, but even less to offer. 

The principle of subsidiarity—that when the government is needed, programs are best delivered by the lowest level of government that can meet that need—has been used to validate this theme and drive policy suggestions that concentrate both the problem and apparent solutions in the hands of municipalities. 

I too am a fan of the principle of subsidiarity. But in the context of housing policy, I think it has been applied in a rather one-dimensional fashion that has constrained the creativity of conservative-minded policy thinkers. This constraint has produced policy suggestions that municipalities have little to no incentive to enact, or suggested interventions by higher orders of government that could easily be contested or enrage intergovernmental relations. 

The principle of subsidiarity, however, can allow for multiple levels of government to be engaged in the same policy issue area while allowing each to bring an expertise, satisfy a particular responsibility, or offer a unique resource. In this way, subsidiarity can and often should be multi-dimensional. 

Subsidiarity, after all, should not be conflated with rightly ordered federalism. Subsidiarity is not ultimately a legal principle, but rather a moral-social principle in that its ultimate aim is the flourishing of the human person.

The Ford government’s most recent proposed legislation on housing demonstrates that multiple levels of government have particular responsibilities toward housing. The proposed legislation would, among other things, curtail the misuse or even abuse of housing regulations and planning authorities by municipalities, namely development charges, off-site levies, and parkland fees, all of which add hundreds of thousands of dollars onto the bottom line of new homes. 

This bold approach reminds us that provincial governments actually have a particular and unique responsibility in housing governance: to protect their constituents from short-sighted regulatory regimes that curtail economic prosperity and social advancement through thoughtful policy design and a fair regulatory environment. This is the second dimension of a multidimensional approach to subsidiarity. 

The third dimension of this multidimensional approach is the role of the federal government. This is perhaps where the mindset of one-dimensional subsidiarity has most constrained policy creativity and, in some cases, produced harmful federal policies on housing. In favour of localism, current federal policies have almost exclusively engaged the demand side (e.g. First Time Home Buyers Incentive or the new Tax-Free First Home Savings Account) or simply been performative (e.g. a ban on blind bidding, a house flipping tax, or a homeowners bill of rights).

One of the more popular policy ideas suggested by those of a conservative disposition has been the tying of federal infrastructure funding to housing densification. Sean Speer and Brian Lee Crowley suggested this back in 2016, it was in Erin O’Toole’s platform in 2021, and was more recently advocated for by both Pierre Poilievre and Scott Aitchison in their leadership bids. 

Realistically, this is the weaponization of the federal spending power, which although blunt in its character, has become more popular as a federal policy tool (but this doesn’t mean it’s a healthy form of federalism). Nonetheless, the prominence of this policy idea should remind us that a particular order of government may be most responsible for, or closest to, a policy issue that they are also sometimes the least likely to act on, or have the least incentive to do so. 

But let’s turn this idea on its head—what can the federal government do with its wealth of funding to incent homebuilding and densification? Rather than dictate, what could be done through partnership and the sharing of resources? 

The federal government could step in and help to reduce the bottom-line cost of homebuilding by establishing a grant program available to municipalities and designed to cover some of the most costly regulatory fees associated with homebuilding. For example, development charges and off-site levy fees are assessed by municipalities to maintain and build community infrastructure (e.g. sewers, wastewater treatment, sidewalks, highway on-ramps, local schools, libraries, and sports facilities) could be covered. While its common practice that developers pay to construct all the necessary infrastructure for a new development, like roads and sidewalks, they also are required to pay these fees to aid the municipality in managing and responding to the increased demand on and for community infrastructure. 

The federal government should recognize these aspects of homebuilding and community growth as traditional infrastructure—as it does highway overpasses, interchanges, or road widening—and fund it as they do other infrastructural projects. Namely, through cost sharing which is often done in partnership with the province. 

This could make a noticeable impact on the current cost of homes. According to a C.D. Howe Institute report, in 2020 it was estimated that municipal housing charges and taxes in Vancouver can result in an extra cost of up to $644,000 for the average new house. While in other major cities across the country home buyers paid an average of $230,000 extra. 

While the infrastructure associated with these charges is necessary for communities to comfortably grow and function, the question is who is best situated to fund their construction. Municipalities have long thrust this on to developers who have pushed the cost onto homebuyers, which has continually increased the cost of homeownership. 

With the help of the federal government, there is a better economy of scale to be had. While developers pass the cost on to a small segment of the economy, namely homebuyers, the federal government could distribute the cost across the entire tax base of the country, as it does with its usual infrastructure spending.

But should all taxpayers help to fund community infrastructure across the country? I say yes. These are public goods that are enjoyed indiscriminately by the local community at large, not just the new homeowners in the newly constructed subdivision or tri-plex. 

Rarely has it been controversial for the federal government to use tax dollars towards local community infrastructure projects (e.g. a hockey arena, overpass, wastewater treatment, etc.) in some town you will probably never visit in a province on the other side of the country from you. In our communities, we all have access to public goods that are funded by all Canadians. Housing infrastructure should be no different. 

This policy suggestion far surpasses those that call on municipalities to pause or waive their charges on new home construction at their own initiative (they have little to no incentive to do so, anyhow), or for provinces to mandate this via legislation. It’s necessary to go further because a pause or reduction will likely just delay the building of community infrastructure or make it prohibitively expensive to do so. Someone, at the end of the day, needs to pay for community infrastructure. The cost of affordable housing shouldn’t be a lack of community infrastructure. 

The federal government could support such a grant program without any net new spending by reallocating current infrastructure and housing spending. Specifically, federal funding allocated to the Canadian Infrastructure Bank and the National Housing Strategy could be utilized. While these two programs are exceptionally well funded they have woefully underperformed, as found by studies of the Parliamentary Budget Office, Office of the Auditor General, and the Standing Committee on Transport Infrastructure and Communities. It’s shameful to have a “housing strategy” with an annual budget of $3.7 billion that isn’t making any meaningful difference on the supply side.

The one-dimensional application of subsidiarity to housing has too often led to circular policy debates and buck-passing. Multidimensional subsidiarity where each level of government shoulders its particular responsibility, offers its expertise, and expends its unique resource may actually solve this crisis by getting more homes built at a more affordable price point for everyday Canadians.