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Benjamin Lamb: Politicians can no longer ignore Canada’s porn problem

Commentary

The past several years have witnessed growing policy and political attention on the economic, social, and moral costs of pervasive pornography in our societies. The 2015 British Conservative Party platform, for instance, committed to new age verification requirements for people to access websites with pornographic material. Last year, the European Union passed an omnibus Digital Services Act to regulate social media platforms’ content including removing child pornography.  

These developments have, in general terms, not yet found expression in Canadian political and policy debates. Canada ranks seventh in the world for daily porn consumption on PornHub, one of the largest and most significant pornographic websites in the world—and one which is actually owned and operated in Canada. We’re not just consumers, in other words. We’re effectively exporting pornography to the rest of the world.

This ought to cause some reflection on the part of Canadian policymakers and the broader public. There’s a large body of evidence that pervasive pornography comes with various detrimental effects —ranging from its normative consequences for our conception of human dignity to its neurological imprint on its consumers. This point cannot be overstated: research tells us that porn consumption is associated with a raft of negative individual and collective consequences that warrant greater attention in Canada. 

Start with the neurological research. Human minds are influenced by what they consume online and pornography is no exception. According to a 2014 study by German-based scholars, Jürgen Gallinat and Simone Kühn, continued consumption of pornography effectively rewires the brain to perceive pornography as a reward. As the brain’s neural pathways get “bored” with certain content over time, there’s a need for ”novel” pornographic experiences to better activate its cranial reward system (otherwise known as the “Coolidge Effect”).

It prompts the question: if porn consumption, has such a profound impact on the brain, what does that impact imply on human behaviour and relationships?  

The list is quite long. Just consider the following: 

  • Porn consumption is consistently associated with social challenges with loneliness and poorer mental health
  • It’s also found that those interested in graphic and abusive pornography are more likely to reenact it with their partner during sex. 
  • Research by Alberta-based scholar Kyler Rasmussen finds a relationship between porn consumption and dissatisfaction with romantic or marital relationships. 
  • A separate study correlates increased porn consumption and sexual violence, and the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the United States reports that pornography is the third most common form of sex trafficking. 

These examples are hardly exhaustive. They’re merely a sample of a growing body of scholarship that documents the harms associated with porn consumption. 

Canadians are not immune to these risks. According to PornHub’s 2022 Annual Report, for instance, Canadians averaged 10 minutes of daily porn consumption on the site, which is more than an hour per week on that platform alone. Three-quarters of this porn traffic consumption was done on smartphones. The risk of course is that the ever-present combination of online pornography and smartphone technology grants Canadian teenagers an unprecedented ability to access pornography including depictions of rape and other forms of sexual violence. 

This ought to be a concern for Canadian policymakers in light of the research that proves the effects of porn consumption are not just internalized by individuals but can spill out into the broader society. Canadians are not exempt from the mental and social ills that stem from pornography. 

What options are available to policymakers? 

It starts with investigating the effects that increased porn usage in Canada will have on the mental and sexual health of Canadians. This isn’t about moral judgement or shaming. It’s about trying to understand how to mitigate the negative effects of pornography in our society. Critics will say it is an unsolvable problem. They are wrong. We have what it takes to maturely talk about increased pornography use in Canada. We also have what it takes to deploy solutions. Drawing attention to the size, scope, and nature of the problem, though, is a necessary start. 

As for broader solutions, there is a range of other steps that federal and provincial policymakers could consider. At the level of education, for instance, provinces could update curricula for students, especially in elementary school, so as to educate their awareness about the consequences of consuming pornography.  

Outside of the classroom, society should exact greater transparency out of Canada’s domestic porn industry cabal, as they meticulously endeavour to ensnare more users, regardless of the moral and health consequences. This industry should not get away with attaching more and more people to porn addiction. Their business models should be subject to the highest scrutiny and toughest regulations including going so far as to try and make their for-profit scheme untenable.

There are practical ways to gradually reduce the porn industry’s operations in Canada. Legislators should make porn producers criminally responsible if they fail to verify the age of consent when they produce content for profit. Part of this offence should entail a complete and permanent shutdown order of operations if they do not verify the age of consent. The porn industry is not just another private business; they are producing content capable of wreaking serious damage to our children’s mental health. 

On the public health side, officials could recognize pornography consumption as an official mental health addiction. This gesture would draw much-needed attention to increased pornography consumption. Community leaders should prioritize and promote recovery programs that normalize healing from pornography addiction, such as Fortify, Conversation BluePrint, and Bark. 

The good news is that all of these policy responses, aside perhaps from regulating internet content, can be implemented relatively quickly. Addressing pornography in our society may be an uncomfortable subject. But we cannot afford to neglect it any longer.

There will no doubt be arguments against these types of policies including appeals to freedom and individual choice, but these considerations needed to be weighed against the economic, social and moral costs—particularly for young people—of today’s culture of pervasive pornography. The case for action seems increasingly self-evident.

Yet notwithstanding the odd murmur or acknowledgement in parliamentary debates, Canada’s political class has been largely silent on pornography. That silence should end now. For the sake of Canadians’ dignity and well-being, implementing porn-reduction strategies is not something we should scroll away from. 

Trevor Tombe: Printing more and more money isn’t the Bank of Canada’s only option

Commentary

Quantitative easing—where central banks purchase large volumes of government debt—has created significant challenges for central banks all over the world.

Canada is no different.

The Bank of Canada faces sharp criticism from many quarters. It has engaged in a “money-printing orgy,” according to Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre. It is also blamed for enabling federal deficits and, most recently, for incurring unprecedented financial losses

While most of these critiques are understandable, they can be avoided. There’s a better way to do QE, and it should be on the table when Canada’s next economic crisis inevitably arrives.

Simply put: we should allow the Bank of Canada to become directly involved in government “debt management” decisions. I know that sounds boring, but do keep reading.

First, some background.

In normal times, the Bank of Canada sets interest rates for very short-term (overnight) borrowing. That cascades through the banking system and affects borrowing costs for everyone. 

But when the Bank’s policy rate falls to near-zero—as it did in March 2020—they look to lower longer-term rates instead. It cannot set those directly, so it purchases massive quantities of long-term bonds to indirectly lower long-term rates.

The catch: to buy those bonds it must use newly created money. Not literally cash, of course, but commercial bank reserves that are deposited at the Bank of Canada.

That’s where the confusion comes in. 

Creating bank reserves is, in a very real sense, “printing money.” The Bank itself says as much. It also means the Bank is purchasing most government bonds at a time of rising deficits, which makes it appear to be financing the borrowing. And since it results in large commercial bank reserves, which earn interest, Bank of Canada expenses rise rapidly along with interest rates. That’s why the Bank is losing money today.

This way of conducting monetary policy leads to significant confusion among the public and politicians alike.

QE is better thought of as changing what type of government debt exists. 

That’s the key. QE doesn’t have to be about money printing. It can be about making government debt shorter-term. 

Instead of printing money, the government could issue a boatload of short-term Treasury Bills and use the proceeds to redeem an equal amount of outstanding long-term bonds. That is, issue three-month bills to finance the redemption of 30-year bonds.

The total amount of debt wouldn’t change, but the type of debt would. With less long-term borrowing, long-term interest rates tend to fall.

While almost identical to QE today, it is accounted for differently, which could solve a lot of problems. There’d be no change in the Bank of Canada’s balance sheet. No exposure of the Bank to higher expenses if interest rates rise. And since it’s just swapping long-term bonds for short-term ones (dollar for dollar!) it avoids accusations of money printing. 

Clean. Clear. Easy.

It may also lead to better decisions. By combining debt management decisions with monetary policy, the benefits of macroeconomic stabilization can be weighed against other objectives. It could also better coordinate the activities of government. Not too long ago, the government was issuing more long-term bonds at the same time as the Bank of Canada was trying to reduce its supply! 

This also isn’t a new idea. 

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Economists have recognized the connection between government debt management and monetary policy since at least the 1930s.

And in Canada, we’ve done more than recognize this. We’ve done it.

In 1958, the government engaged in truly massive quantitative tightening by redeeming shorter-term debt (the last of the WWII Victory Bonds) in exchange for new longer-term debt. The average time to maturity of government debt nearly doubled. Subsequently, research suggests it shrank Canada’s economy. At the time, the government recognized the move as anti-inflationary.

“Good debt management is essential to the maintenance of the purchasing power of the Canadian dollar…” said Finance Minister Fleming in 1959. And starting in 1961, this same minister engaged in a type of quantitative easing to deliberately lower interest rates by borrowing more short-term and repurchasing longer-term government bonds. 

Explicitly coordinating debt management and monetary policy is also found elsewhere. 

The U.K.’s Debt Management Office is mandated to “ensure that debt management is consistent with the aims of monetary policy.” And lowering the average length to maturity of outstanding debt is precisely what the debt office did during the financial crisis.

In Canada, federal debt managers are concerned only about the costs of borrowing. They aim to keep it as low and as stable as possible. That’s a worthy goal. But their decisions have broader economic effects that cannot be ignored. 

And during a crisis, macroeconomic considerations should probably take priority. The Bank of Canada could take the wheel when short-term rates reach zero, which could help protect monetary policy independence. Or it could be continuously involved in the process.

Whatever the details, one thing is clear: our current approach exposes the Bank to considerable risks to its credibility and reputation. There is a better way.