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Malcolm Jolley: To drink or not to drink: Arguments against alcohol forget that pleasure is an essential part of life

Commentary

Emily Oster is a professor of economics at Brown University and a best-selling author. Her website describes her work as focused on health economics and statistical methods. She investigates how and why people do or don’t make rational decisions about their health, and she is known for her commentary on public health matters.

The Atlantic recently published a piece by Oster with the headline, “Is a Glass of Wine Harmless? Wrong Question.” Oster’s piece looks at the arguments against drinking alcohol, which appear increasingly in lifestyle media, citing the 2018 study in The Lancet, Britain’s pre-imminent medical journal, which concluded no amount of alcohol is good for you, and this year’s recommendation from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction that stated: “No amount of alcohol is safe and that consuming any more than two drinks a week is risky.”

Oster applies the razor of the statistician to the evidence, such as there is, for these claims. She does not dismiss them wholesale, but neither does she find them convincing. She writes, “it… seems extremely unlikely that moderate alcohol consumption is fully ‘bad’ for your health.”

The words moderate and fully do much of the work in the preceding quote, but the tone of the article suggests that having a few drinks is neither particularly good for you nor particularly bad for you. When other factors, like the general state of your health, are weighed in, prohibitionist or abstinence arguments based on medicine and physical health are likely, at best, overblown.

The argument Oster forms after her review of the evidence is that the decision to drink is better made by the amount of pleasure the drink provides. She writes:

If you do not enjoy, or actively dislike, alcohol, then the abstinence standard might be the right one for you. But many people do enjoy a drink from time to time: a beer with friends, a cold glass of rosé in the summer, a hot toddy in front of the fire, even just a glass of white wine while cooking at the end of a long day. If we accept that pleasure has value, and that the data are muddy, then the moderation standard makes more sense.

Edward Slingerland is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of British Columbia. I think he would agree with Oster. In his 2021 book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, he looks at the question of why people drink from another angle. He writes about our age-old relationship with alcohol:

Given the potentially enormous costs, and apparent lack of benefits, to impairing our cognitive control, why do humans still like to get intoxicated? Why is the labour intensive practice of converting wholesome grains and delicious fruit into bitter, low-dose neurotoxins… so ubiquitous across cultures and geographic regions?

One of the reasons Slingerland posits for our boozy ways is conviviality. Slingerland points out that it’s not just fun to have a glass of wine with our friends, it’s a particular kind of bonding. When we agree to have a low-dose neurotoxin together, we’re letting our guard down and sharing an intimacy of vulnerability.

Of course, there are many ways to find pleasure and intimacy without alcohol and the impairment of the prefrontal cortex. But it’s nice to know we’re neither in grave danger, nor completely mad for enjoying a glass of wine at the end of the day, or with a meal, or whenever.

I was thinking of Oster’s article and Slingerland’s book this week when an old friend, who lives in the States, was in town and came over for dinner. He showed up with a fancy bottle of Burgundy, and he apologized that he didn’t buy a bottle of Canadian wine since he didn’t know much about it.

In fact, I replied, he sort of did. The 2020 Marchand-Tawse Nuits-Saint-Georges he’d brought is the product of the partnership of ex-pat Quebecois winemaker Pascal Marchand and Ontario financier turned vigneron Moray Tawse. Though young, it drank beautifully after an hour of air, with complex blackberry notes.

The effect of very fine wines is often counterintuitive. They slow down the pace of drinking because every nuance and note wants to be processed and savoured, from the attack to the long finish. The effect of slowing things down extended the pleasure of the company in a kind of virtuous cycle.

Oster uses the example of a cold glass of rosé in the summer when she enumerates the way that people might enjoy a drink. I hope all wines are built for pleasure, but rosé is certainly built for fun. There are some rosé that are more serious, or gastronomic, than others, but, generally, most rosé is meant to be uncomplicated and slaking. 

Another source of vinous pleasure I have been enjoying this summer is white wines made from the indigenous grapes of the South of France, which tend to add a bit of weight on the palate. Like the Southern French, the South Africans know a thing or two about making wines for hot weather, and the 2022 Essay White, a blend of Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, and Viognier, is in heavy rotation currently in my fridge.

Grapefruit citrus from the Chenin, honeysuckle from the Roussane, and white flower aromatics from the Viognier combine to make a pleasurable glass. The Essay White is new to Canada, and so far only in Ontario. The first bottle I tasted was sent to me as a sample without any market information. I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that it is priced well under $20.

Essay is a project of the MAN Family group of South African wines. MAN Family was established by a group of high-end producers to make affordable everyday wines at the standard of quality of their luxury brands. What greater pleasure than enjoying a wine for a great price?

Andrea Mrozek: Staffing shortages are a bad look for the government’s expensive daycare program

Commentary

“The whole world is short-staffed—be kind to those that showed up,” reads a sign outside an Ottawa doctor’s office. It’s a sign of the times.

Labour shortages are common today, but none have received as much attention as child care.

The success of the Trudeau government’s Canada-wide early learning and child care plan (sometimes described as its “national daycare plan”) hinges on parents actually gaining access to subsidized spaces. Nationally, there are licensed spaces for only roughly 30 percent of Canadian children, and licensed care is the only kind included in the $10 per day plan.

That means spending billions and finding that existing spaces can’t be filled due to staffing shortages isn’t a good look.

And forget about expansion—the YMCA Canada reports a staffing shortage so severe even children currently enrolled cannot attend. In a March 2023 briefing to the federal committee studying child care legislationthe YMCA wrote that it’s missing “419 staff to meet current registrations, 1,427 staff to return to pre-COVID operating capacity, 2,869 staff to move to licensed capacity and 3,442 to expand beyond licensed capacity by 20 percent.”

Yet not every daycare is reporting shortages, and where they are, increasing wages and benefits is not viewed as a panacea. Parent groups, child care associations, daycare owners, and early childhood educators are talking about solutions beyond money.

If you understand “child care as the care of a child no matter who does it,” then there is no labour shortage at all, said Helen Ward, who leads Kids First Parent Association.

“There is a huge early learning and child care labour supply. All kids, with a minority of exceptions, are currently actually in child care,” said Ward. “There are more healthy grandparents/elders and fewer young kids proportionally than ever before… Grandparents and aunties are key in Indigenous cultures as in other ethnic groups, and all are ignored and sidelined by an official definition of child care as including only licensed daycare.”

Ward’s definition may better reflect family practice across Canada. It is not, however, remotely acceptable amongst some child care activists, and by extension, politicians and policymakers. For them, child care is done by credentialed professionals.

Carolyn Ferns of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care advocates this dominant narrative. Her group’s solution to staffing shortages lies primarily in improving wages and benefits.

“Our position is there should be a provincial child care workforce strategy that includes a provincial salary scale for ECEs and child care workers,” said Ferns. “I believe recruitment strategies that focus on training and hiring more ECEs will not work until we deal with the retention crisis. The two things should ideally happen in tandem, but wages are a key piece of both recruitment and retention.”

They’re asking that salaries start at $30/hour for registered ECEs and $25/hour for non-registered ECE staff.

Wages may be key but they’re not the only thing bringing people to work. Another important factor is flexibility, something Robert Southam, who runs two daycares in B.C.’s Okanagan, has discovered.

He solved his staffing issues by not seeking credentialed ECEs. Instead, he hires for fit and aptitude and offers paid on-the-job training.

“The wage argument is an old school mentality, a legacy demand that has lost some of its relevance with the current workforce that really wants flexibility,” he said.

When he runs his ads, he gets “a barrage of applicants.” These include young women between jobs, highly educated foreign applicants looking to establish a career in Canada, or a 29-year-old mom, who is currently working minimum wage, evenings and weekends.

“Our offer is, for them, a lot better than what they are currently doing,” said Southam.

For him, a mandated wage grid would kill jobs. He has budgeted four educators whereas B.C. legislation only requires three. “If my ten-year educator is getting $27/hour and if the wage grid comes in and says you have to pay her $32, I can no longer afford to have four educators,” he said.

Children play on a play structure as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to parents at the YMWCA daycare in Winnipeg. John Woods/The Canadian Press.

Data collected by the College of Early Childhood Educators, Ontario’s ECE regulator, also points to attrition for reasons beyond wages. For ECEs who’ve resigned, almost half (49 percent) cite “no longer working in the ECE field” as a reason. Retirement comes next at 17 percent. But a significant 12 percent have moved to another province or country. This speaks to a need for immigration reform.

Anny Nasser, an Ontario daycare owner, has lost staff to other provinces.

“There’s a lot of staff who come in and move to other provinces because it’s favourable immigration-wise. I’ve had two staff leave because of that. One moved to Nova Scotia and one moved to B.C.,” she says. “I will say I’ve never had staffing issues until post-COVID.”

Andrea Hannen, executive director of the Association of Day Care Operators of Ontario, hopes for a “whole government” approach to labour shortages. This means the involvement of several ministries. 

Although the ministry of education already provides tuition assistance, she encouraged the ministry of labour to help international students work across the province and the ministry of colleges and universities to help existing daycare workers get ECE qualifications.

For Hannen, wages and benefits are not the sole answer, either.

“Benefits are definitely an issue and there is wage disparity,” she said. “Often people go to the public sector because it pays better. But whether public or private, working conditions can be challenging. Often there isn’t a lot of flexibility in the workplace. There are other factors, like having sufficient autonomy as an educator.”

Southam and Hannen both believe the labour shortage could be quickly resolved with a concerted effort. Southam mused about whether those advocating for higher wages and benefits actually want to solve the problem.

“The labour shortage seems to serve their purpose. If the labour shortage is solved, the government’s institutionalization of child care becomes less of a thing to mandate,” he said.

While ECE recruitment and retention are not new subjects, the core focus until recently was a shortage of spaces, not workers. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who recently concluded a consultation about the child care labour situation, said he heard the feedback “loud and clear” about wage increases. Ontario’s ministry of education did not reply to requests about who was consulted or what those consultations entailed.

Meanwhile, many child care workers and owners likely agree with Nasser.

“Child care as a whole is experiencing either a growth spurt or a transition,” she said. “Something is in the air. And I kind of need it to settle. It’s a lot on everyone’s plate.”