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Sean Speer: Meritocracy matters—even if it’s imperfectly practiced

Commentary

This week The Hub ran an article by Karamveer Lalh in which he makes the case that the idea of a “pure meritocracy” is a “noble lie.” His basic point is that, notwithstanding our society’s tendency to tell itself that individual initiative and merit alone determine one’s fate, various other factors at play —including even systemic racism—often stand in the way. The upshot of his argument is that conservatives ought to abandon (or at least reorder) their ideological commitment to notions of meritocracy and redouble their focus on the social structures such as the family that ultimately shape and guide us. 

Lalh’s call to recognize the possible limits of meritocratic thinking is well-taken. His dismissal of meritocracy as a “utopian ideal” is not. 

Let’s start where we agree. Of course it’s true that we can come to overstate how inclusive and democratized the path to success is in our country. There remain too many barriers for some people to live out their aspirations and maximize their human potential. 

Some of these barriers are familial. There’s overwhelming evidence, for instance, that growing up in a two-parent household is associated with better economic and social outcomes. There’s a good argument even (as Lalh alludes) that family breakdown and single-parent households may be the biggest cause of inequality in modern society. 

Some of the ongoing barriers are indeed systemic. Conservatives shouldn’t be averse to recognizing that the legal structures and conventions governing Indigenous peoples in Canada are an expression of systemic racism. How else should one describe a system of laws that’s fundamentally predicated on race? The status quo facing too many Indigenous peoples in our country is a tragic indictment of a worldview that de-emphasizes individuals and categorizes them according to immutable characteristics such as ethnicity and race. Conservatives should be more offended than anyone by such a regime. 

Yet the answer for Indigenous peoples and others for whom the meritocratic aspiration too often remains elusive isn’t to abandon notions of meritocracy. It’s to double down on them and extend their promise to as many Canadians as possible. 

That the idea of meritocracy isn’t “pure” is hardly an indictment. It’s a silly measure. The conservative test is never perfection or purity for that matter. That would be a radical—indeed utopian—expectation.  

It’s instead a call for ongoing cultural and political efforts to remove the impediments to a society in which individuals are ultimately judged by their character, merit, and hard work rather than immutable characteristics like class, race, gender, or sexuality. 

The alternative followed logically would have conservatives come to effectively match the group categorization of today’s modern Left. The groups (defined perhaps by family structure rather than race or sexuality) and solutions (hiring quotas for the children of single parents) may differ but the unhealthy emphasis on “social hierarchies” and “privilege” is essentially the same. Not only is that a bad path for conservatism, but it’s a worse one for our society. 

That doesn’t mean that we ought to neglect social relationships, institutions, and the various other factors that help to shape, mould, and elevate individuals. Conservatism at its best is committed to the preservation and strengthening of such a healthy and vibrant civil society. As I’ve written before: 

Personal success is typically neither the result of solitary pursuit nor bestowed by a benevolent state. It’s usually a consequence of the contributions and sacrifices of one’s family and friends. It’s why NHL draft picks thank their parents or award-winning movie stars recognize their spouses or successful entrepreneurs acknowledge their friends. They implicitly understand that their accomplishments are shared with those closest to them.

I recognize that I stand in large part on the shoulders of my parents and grandparents whose choices, support, and love have helped me immensely. But to effectively distil my entire life up until this point according to my family relationships is to eliminate any role for personal agency. It’s the essence of the wrongheaded Obama-ian idea: “You didn’t build that.”

One can recognize the gifts that our families have given to us without abandoning the idea that it’s still up to us to make something of ourselves. That’s not some kind of “stubborn libertarianism.” It’s a basic insight of conservatism. 

I’ve previously argued that the future of cultural and political debates will be between who I’ve come to call the “structuralists” and those with an expansive view of human agency. The latter, in my view, have a built-in advantage not only because their outlook is more positive and aspirational, but it’s rooted in an understanding of the equal distribution of human dignity. It would be a huge mistake therefore to abandon it in favour of losing arguments that define people downward based on characteristics or traits that they cannot control. 

The upshot is that while Lalh offers a useful corrective to the tendency to lionize the meritocracy and neglect the real barriers still facing too many in our society to realize their potential and have a better future, his call to essentially abandon meritocratic ideas is the wrong prescription. The solution is more meritocracy, not less. 

Trevor Tombe: The lasting consequences of interest rate hikes

Commentary

Next week the Bank of Canada will announce its third rate decision of the year. After signaling a pause in further tightening, it is unlikely to move off its current 4.5 percent policy rate.

But inflation is currently at 5.2 percent, far above the Bank’s target range of 1 to 3.

So why would our central bank pause further increases while inflation remains so high?

Two reasons: first, inflation pressures have likely already ended, despite the high headline rate most coverage focuses on; and second, it takes time for interest rate hikes to have their full effect—and today, thanks to the large number of variable rate mortgages out there, it might take longer than usual.

On the first point, the data is crystal clear.

Excluding volatile components like food and energy, and excluding the policy-driven increase in mortgage interest costs, inflation is consistently within or below the target range for most of the past seven months.

Excluding these items doesn’t mean they don’t matter, to be clear. Increases in the price of any item can strain household budgets. But excluding volatile components provides a better indication of where inflation may be headed. Excluding mortgage interest costs also narrows our focus to prices determined by supply and demand rather than policy. 

But even including food and energy, prices have increased at an average annualized rate of less than 0.3 percent over the past three months and only 2.5 percent over the past six months.

The reason reported inflation remains so high isn’t because prices are rapidly rising. Instead, it’s because the calculation reflects all of the monthly price changes for the past year.

So despite the sharp recent decline in the pace of price increases, we have to wait until the large increases in the first half of 2022 fall out of the calculation. If recent trends continue, though, we could see close to normal rates of inflation by this summer—so there may be no more need for the Bank to tighten further.

The second point—that rising rates take time to fully affect the economy—is even more important. Especially today.

Higher interest rates affect our spending in several ways. Borrowing is more expensive, so we spend less on items that we typically use debt to purchase (such as vehicles, renovations, new homes, and so on). Higher rates also make many of us poorer (look at home prices recently), which leads to lower spending. 

Recent estimates suggest that each one percentage point increase in the Bank’s policy rate tends to decrease consumption spending by 1.7 percent—but this effect can take well in excess of two years to fully materialize. 

Today, another channel may complicate this picture and lead to even longer lags than usual.

When rates rise, people pay more to service their debt and so have less to spend on other things. Those with variable rate mortgages are particularly exposed, but not right away.

Many households with variable rate mortgages—which account for roughly one-third of all mortgages, and most of which have fixed payments—now have monthly payments that are less than what they owe in interest. Depending on the Bank, somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of all outstanding residential mortgages are in this situation.

The result: instead of the total amount owing going down as payments are made, their mortgages are actually growing each month. This “negative amortization”, as it is called, will continue until rates decline. And when these mortgages come up for renewal, monthly payments may have to rise significantly to make up for it. 

In effect, variable rate mortgages shift some of the burden of recent rate increases well into the future. And there were a lot of such mortgages issued right before the tightening cycle began. In fact, a majority of new mortgages had variable rates.

Much depends on the path of future rates, of course, but consider someone on a variable rate fixed payment mortgage that started at one percent on a five-year initial term. If they renew at three percent at the end of their term, monthly payments could rise by roughly one-third or more. On a $400,000 original mortgage, I estimate that could mean an extra $500 to $600 per month more than what they paid during the first five years. 

It will take several more years for recent rate increases to fully affect these borrowers.

Of course, one option to avoid a sharp increase in payments may include extending the mortgage amortization at the time of renewal.Be sure to talk with a professional advisor or mortgage broker; I’m not providing any advice here, just illustrating some general issues. But even this comes with significant, though somewhat hidden, additional interest costs over the life of the now-longer mortgage.

Either way, thanks to the larger number of variable rate mortgages out there, pressure on many households to lower spending may continue even long after rates fall back to normal levels. 

The Bank of Canada’s job is never easy; it is especially difficult today.

A pause in any further rate increases is entirely warranted, and we may even see cuts in the not-too-distant future. But since rate hikes over the past year may have unusually long-lasting consequences for Canada’s economy, our central bank’s job of managing recent disruptions is far from over.