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Ginny Roth: It’s time to stop panicking about parenthood

Commentary

“You’re buckling the car seat wrong—and it’s a matter of life or death.”

“Want to survive the first week home with baby? This bassinet is non-negotiable.”

“Top 7 ways to properly play with your newborn. Hint: You’re doing it wrong.”

Wait, what?

I shake myself out of my 4 am Instagram-reel-induced stupor and recover my rational brain. There is no proper way to play with a newborn. A baby young enough to be called a newborn can’t even really play at all. You feed them and change their diapers and that’s sort of it.

Not that caring for a newborn is easy. The best way to feed a baby is a source of countless mommy wars and provides endless fodder for fear and shame-inducing Instagram reel content and what economist and author Emily Oster calls “panic headlines”. As a first-time mom, despite my personal obsession with skepticism and critical thinking (some might say to a fault), our overbearing parenting culture even got to me. I was constantly second-guessing myself, doubting my choices, and making absurd middle-of-the-night Amazon purchases, convinced I was messing up if I didn’t have the thing, or do the thing, our culture told me I needed.

I gave birth to our second child about seven weeks ago, and the second time around, I’ve wizened up. I’ve also had a lot of time to think about Lyman Stone’s important new research on Canadian birth rates. Fertility and natalism are having a bit of a moment in North American intellectual circles these days. Cultural conservatives have been talking about declining birth rates for years but turning points in Chinese and Japanese population data mean even mainstream thinkers are starting to care about what might happen if fertility rates in Canada and the U.S. continue to decline.

What makes Stone’s research design unique is that he doesn’t start by leaping to convenient assumptions about why we’re having fewer babies—not enough childcare or workplace benefits—like so much fertility analysis does. He starts by asking women about their childbearing choices. Most interestingly, he asks them what factors make them more or less likely to have kids, drilling down to the likely cause of the important gap between how many children women say they want to have and how many children women end up having. And there is a gap. A meaningful one.

It turns out, not only are Canadian women having fewer kids than they’d like to have, but the reasons why are not what you might think, nor are they easily solved for. There are a few popular theories about why Western birth rates are dropping. One, that it’s become too expensive. If young people can’t even afford to buy a house, how are they supposed to raise a family? Two, that it’s about secularization. As Westerners lose their faith, they lose the spiritual drive to have big families, and, three, that our work-obsessed culture is replacing child-rearing with career advancement as the thing that gives people meaning in their lives.

All three theories resonate with those of us in our twenties and thirties who think about why we and our peers aren’t having more kids. And as Stone’s research bears out, they each seem to play a bit of a role, but in and of themselves, they feel incomplete. And for the optimists among us, particularly those seeking to buck the falling birth rate trend in our own lives, it feels important to better understand the source of this troublesome gap. Because if we can truly understand it, maybe we can fix it. And Stone’s insights uncover root causes that while daunting to address, seem truer to life than any other analysis to date.

Stone concludes that there are two major interrelated cultural trends that drive the fertility gap in Canada: intensive parenting and capstone childbearing. Intensive parenting speaks to the content my Instagram algorithm is currently serving me. The very idea that there’s a correct way to play with a newborn speaks to the absurdity of parenting culture in Canada. Capstone childbearing refers to the idea that having kids is something you do after you’ve achieved other milestones, like establishing yourself in your career, travelling the world, or both.

These trends are connected to financial factors in so far as it’s easier for wealthy women to take on the high costs of intensive parenting (you are, after all, a failure as a parent if you don’t buy the $1000 UPPAbaby stroller) or to seek out expensive fertility treatments later in life once they’ve achieved other milestones. But Stone’s research reveals that public policy designed to close the financial gap won’t be enough to close the fertility gap. Indeed, Canada already has incredibly generous parental leave benefits and (in theory), ten-dollar-a-day childcare. Despite all that, the fertility gap persists. The problem is cultural. And if politics is downstream of culture, public policy definitely is.

Stone’s explanation is cause for both optimism and pessimism. For a natalist like me, it’s exciting to think we could be getting closer to understanding what really drives childbearing behaviour. On the other hand, culture is notoriously hard to shift. The tidal wave of toxic, conflicting parenting advice and the pervasive (but biologically false) notion that a woman’s thirties are her new twenties feels almost impossible to reverse. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Fortunately, amongst the toxicity and fear-mongering some thought leaders are trying to usher in a culture shift. An American pediatrician constantly reminding parents that the nightly activities they have their kids signed up for are in fact, optional. An economist who’s made a career of convincing women that pregnancy and parenting must not be joyless, anxiety-inducing endeavours. A mom of six with a big Twitter following reminding parents that they don’t need to invent new activities for their kids every fifteen minutes, they can just have them help with the laundry.

These leaders neither glorify nor vilify what it means to be a parent. Sure, it’s hard. But it’s not just hard. The complexity of what it means to be a parent—the simultaneous ease and difficulty, joy and dismay, comfort and inconvenience—is precisely the point. Parenting isn’t convenient. But it also isn’t awful. And more importantly, it is intensely rewarding, as too many women learn too late in life when they think to themselves “If only I’d started earlier”. We owe it to these women to push back against a culture that tells them they can’t. We owe it to these women to build a culture that says, parenting must not be so intensive. You can travel with your kids, not just before you have them. Childbearing can precede the climax of your career, punctuating your life with meaning. Having children isn’t something you should tackle after you’ve tackled life. Having children is life.

Stephen Kelly: Lowering telecom prices won’t come from policy tweaks. We need a drastic rethink

Commentary

In August of 2007, I strolled up the driveway of the Governor General’s residence, Rideau Hall for a cabinet swearing in ceremony. My next stop was my minister’s department: Industry Canada.

A policy priority for us was the upcoming Advanced Wireless Spectrum auction. AWS is a wireless telecommunications spectrum band used for mobile voice and data services, video and messaging. Pre-billed as a policy to lower prices through more competition in the cell phone market, the details remained for department officials to advise and the minister to decide. I would be the guy in the middle. Working with officials, debating, scrubbing, mapping, incorporating the minister’s values and judgement, and knitting together political and public interest matters.

The end product of the work can be found in the 2007 AWS spectrum auction framework and the subsequent auctions which now form a major subset of the 15-year history of inertia in Canada’s telecom/broadcast and internet policy.

What follows are my thoughts on why the policy failed. And why the failure doesn’t matter and an outline of a new policy approach reflecting other events since 2007.

Key factors that contributed to the policy’s failure were specific to the initial auction while others migrated into future auctions and one was a critical policy choice unhelpfully left out of the framework.

Timing. The auction was held very close to the 2008 financial meltdown and related credit crunch. The financial scaling of new entrants began shortly afterward and proved to be less than ideal.

Continuity. A change of minister in November 2008 was unhelpful. The policy development was initially led by a minister who knew and understood all proponents, market dynamics, and corporate relationships across the industry. I mean no disrespect to those who followed, but simply observe that the minister who created the policy would likely have had a stronger hand in its implementation.

Policy consistency. Cabinet overturning a key CRTC decision on the foreign control status of one of the new entrants was unwise. The rules, in my view, were clear. There, the auction proceeds from the new entrant should have been retained, the new entrant disqualified, and its spectrum re-bid, possibly with a set-aside. Given all the churn amongst incumbents and new entrants, government efforts to preserve one additional new entrant at the expense of time and political capital were disproportionate to its importance.

Usage. Deployment of spectrum became and remains a serious problem. I’m not an advocate of “use it or lose it,” but I do wonder the result had governments enforced usage in a consistent and escalating manner, up to and including revoking licenses. In private sector hands, a licensed public asset (in this case unused spectrum), is converted into a bankable asset. If it’s just sitting on a corporation’s balance sheet accruing value, that’s a private, not a public benefit.

Network access. Lastly, the initial and subsequent policy left the matter of network access to commercial terms, negotiated between commercial parties. Some favoured a third-party arbitration model. Ultimately, in my view, its absence is the main reason the policy failed. New entrants, particularly those who couldn’t trade services or assets had no leverage in “commercial” negotiations with what are in effect oligopolies. Most players wishing to access a competitor’s network infrastructure, then and since, get access only if it accords with the business interests of the owner, at rates that reflect the interest level, which are too often higher than commercially justified and inherently anti-competitive.

In summary, the 2007 policy leaned into bundling of telecom, internet, cable, and cell under one bill to advantage new, regional entrants and vague terms of network access for non-bundled new entrants as stand-alone national carriers. More than fifteen years later, the policy has been given time and it hasn’t worked.

What’s next?

Fixing the price problem won’t come from tweaking the policy to fix the flaws noted above and subsequent others. To me, that would be akin to attempting to bail out a boat that’s sitting at the bottom of a lake.

Some say bring in foreign competition. I’m pretty cold on that. First, outside trade negotiations, unilaterally surrendering a great market to foreign operators is unwise. It’s also naive to think foreign operators would be any different than Canadian companies. The big difference for policymakers and consumers would be access to ultimate decisionmakers and leverage over same. In the auto sector, for example, big decisions get made outside of Canada. I don’t think we would be well served by adding telecom, cell, cable, and internet services to that mix.

Ultimately a policy based on the flawed assumptions made two decades ago—layered onto decades-older public interest tests that drove the development towards today’s telecom/cable/ broadcast and internet conglomerates—will give you a policy that boldly goes where we’ve always been. On the cutting-edge of tradition. Inevitably dealing with legacy issues first while relegating new opportunities to a later date.

The better path forward is to part ways with legacy policies through a two-pronged approach.

First, we should embrace the lessons from a far more successful 2007 launch: the Apple iPhone, the App Store, and the sea change it and related technologies have brought to markets, business, jobs, lifestyles, and broad societal use of information technology.

Second, we need (here and across a range of institutions and policies) to renew the public interest tests at hand. In this case, we’re dealing with different tests that were once separate but now, by way of technology convergence and corporate mergers, have concentrated market power in a handful of dominant operators, resistant to competition and hostile to lower prices. Given these well-established facts, the onus is now on government to rebalance the public interest test to reflect today’s public interest.

From my perspective, today’s public interest would boil down to one outcome and one deliverable.

The outcome would be the strongest information technology infrastructure in the world, universally accessible, anywhere in Canada.

The deliverable would recognize that the state and supported work best when the state steers towards clear, publicly understood outcomes and lets a singularly-focused organization get on with the work.

This two-pronged approach would narrow our policy focus to delivering accessible, affordable, ubiquitous, high-quality networks to all Canadians in all corners of Canada without compromise by mixing in other goals. The “pipes” matter. But it would also enable the information flow—where the value and future are being built. And where governments are ill-equipped—in comparison to users, consumers, and markets—to develop, deploy, pick, select, screen, or shape let alone envisage what that future will be.

The starting point for the new policy would be divestment of network infrastructure from the current owners and the creation of a set of national and regional networks as regulated utilities delivering open access to consumers at regulated rates of return. A publicly established, independently adjudicated price of access would be common to all consumers. Service providers would compete for consumer and other buyers’ business to add their service, and the costs, to the basic cost of network access.

Governments would retain ownership restrictions for the networks. Providers of additional services would face fewer if any such restrictions. And rather than impose antiquated Canadian content rules designed for a few hundred radio and television stations but poorly suited for thousands if not ten of millions of “stations” in the form of content creators, there would be a narrowing of effort to ensure prioritizing of support for indigenous Canadians (particularly in language retention, community development), official language groups, news (with an emphasis on local and regional news) and support for new Canadians in their integration into Canadian society.

The government(s) would also undertake a renewal of tax and income support policies to ensure they too, along with the infrastructure, have the appropriate incentives to ensure Canada is competitively positioned in attracting and retaining the economic and societal benefits of first-rate, affordable network access.

I’ll close with a quicker walk down memory lane. Charlie MacMillan was on The Hub recently. In the course of his conversation with host Sean Speer, he reminded me of the monumental work undertaken between 1984 and 1993. The Neilson Task Force, responses to the MacDonald Commission, reforming financial services, repealing odious restrictions in the energy and foreign investment space—they covered a lot of ground. Most of this good work is lost in history. Much of it is buried under an unhealthy instinct to simply condemn anything to do with the era.

But then as now, there was a list of policies and moribund organizations in Canada who enjoy privileged access to a public asset (airports, ports) or public markets (telecom, banks, airlines) or public money (crown corporations and agencies various) who were estranged from the public interest test that enabled their privilege.

More troubling, so were the keepers of the public interest inside government. Sean Speer wrote about this in his commentary on the CBC. In my words, the public interest test that led to the creation of the CBC and countless others have been lost in time. It’s unhealthy when the public is left to wonder why things are the way things are.

 The public has had enough of ‘it is that way just because’. Canadians deserve a serious, detailed response to their demands for change. Banks that are inaccessible to too many marginalized Canadians. Government services that don’t service. Airlines and regional transportation systems servicing fewer and fewer communities. Police forces who don’t police. Unarmed Armed Forces. Environmental review processes that don’t process anything.

 So, there’s another pile of work ahead for anyone interested in doing it. Finally developing an up-to-date national information technology policy would be a good place to start.