Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Mike Moffatt: Canada’s housing crisis demands a war-time effort

Commentary

A war-time-like effort is needed for Canada to build the 5.8 million homes the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) estimates need to be built by the end of 2030 to restore affordability. This goal can only be achieved through a robust industrial strategy, as a “more of the same” strategy is doomed to fail in at least three different ways.

The first failure point is speed. The CMHC target requires Canada to triple homebuilding in a short period, and we cannot scale that construction sector that quickly without innovation. The second is labour shortages. Canada needs a robust housing workforce strategy to increase the talent pool from electricians to urban planners, but that will not be sufficient. Housing construction must experience rapid productivity increases. The third is climate change. Simply tripling what we are doing now will not be compatible with Canada’s climate targets due to emissions from construction and land-use changes. Furthermore, we must ensure that what gets built is resilient to a changing climate.

A federal industrial strategy can address all of these by changing what we build and how we build to make the process faster, less labour-intensive, and more climate-friendly. The government can begin by curating a list of climate-friendly, less-labour-intensive building methods that exist today in Canada but need support and expansion financing to grow, such as mass timber, modular homes, panelization, and 3D printed homes. 

Next, a strategy is needed to create a market for these technologies. The CMHC can facilitate this by creating a free catalogue of designs as they did in the 1940s. This catalogue would include designs for various housing types incorporating these technologies, from midrise apartment buildings to student residences, with diverse designs appropriate for different climate conditions. Builders using these designs could be fast-tracked for regulatory approvals, such as ones from the CMHC, since the building design had already been approved.

Government can act as the first customer for these projects, further accelerating uptake. It can build homes to address the estimated 4,500-unit shortage for Canadian Armed Forces families. Social housing can be built with the use of an acquisition fund. Colleges and universities should be given funding and instructed to build on-campus student housing to support a rapidly growing population of international students or risk losing their status as designated learning institutions, which would eliminate their ability to bring in those international students.

Tweaks to the tax system will be needed to help make these projects viable, from removing the HST on purpose-built rental construction to reintroducing accelerated capital cost provisions. The approvals process at all orders of government must be streamlined, and agencies must be staffed up to address backlogs, such as in the CMHC’s MLI Select program. Building codes will need to be amended to be compatible with these technologies, and zoning codes will need to be amended to allow for more as-of-right construction, such as in New Zealand, where six-story apartment buildings are permissible as-of-right within 800 metres of any transit station.

The federal government cannot alter municipal zoning codes, but it can offer incentives to do so. It could set up a set of minimum standards (call it a National Zoning Code), and any municipality that altered its zoning code to be compliant could be given one-time per-capita funding to spend on infrastructure construction and maintenance, no other strings attached. For example, a $200 per-capita fund would give the City of Toronto an additional $600 million to upgrade infrastructure and cost the federal government a maximum of $8 billion should every municipality in Canada sign-up. It could also follow Australia’s lead, which is giving states an extra $15,000 for every home built over a target. These incentives would not only cause provinces and municipalities to approve more homes, but they would also give them the infrastructure funding holding up current homebuilding. 

We should view this strategy as an investment, not a cost, as the economic opportunities are enormous. New housing will allow workers to live closer to opportunities, and scaling up these technologies creates manufacturing jobs across Canada and new products to export worldwide.

The key to this industrial strategy working is speed. The federal government must avoid setting up new approvals processes and micromanaging the system. Instead, it should set straightforward standards, and as long as those standards are met, approvals should be granted and payments made. New infrastructure funding to municipalities should not be on a project application basis, as it slows the process, and cities know best what they need.

We are in a crisis, and a war-time-like effort is needed. The federal government must prioritize speed and act now.

Sean Speer: The rise of Barstool conservatism

Commentary

Next week caps an eventful three weeks for Barstool Sports, the highly-popular sports and entertainment multi-media site known for its locker-room humour, eccentric personalities like Big Cat, Frank the Tank, and Mintzy, and hugely-loyal audience.

It started on Wednesday, August 9 with the surprise announcement that Penn National, the gambling company that acquired Barstool for $500 million in a two-staged transaction between 2020 and early 2023, was selling it back to its founder, Dave Portnoy, for $1.

It culminates on Wednesday, August 23 with Barstool’s twentieth-anniversary party in Boston where Portnoy started the company as a low-budget gambling newsletter that he distributed himself at subway stops across the city’s metropolitan area.

The frenetic period reflects Barstool’s inherent energy and intrepidity that remains core to its appeal two decades after its genesis. It’s spontaneous and purposeful, scrappy and endearing, successful and ordinary. Its massive popularity relies in large part on these seemingly dichotomous characteristics. Barstool has successfully figured out how to deliver content and a broader image that appears simple and straightforward but that actually conveys deeper ideas and impulses about culture, society, and politics.

This Straussian dimension has to led growing commentary about the rise of so-called “Barstool conservatism” and its consequences for public policy and current affairs in the United States. Yet even though its content is highly popular in Canada—including owning three of the country’s top 50 podcasts—there hasn’t been similar discussion about what Barstool’s popularity might tell us about the state of Canadian politics in general and Canadian conservatism in particular.

My own anecdotal experience tells me that Barstool’s “folk libertarianism” resonates with a lot of Canadians—particularly young men. It’s important therefore to better understand its appeal, reach, and possible influence over a key part of the country’s body politic.

Barstool’s origins: The rise of the ‘Stoolies’

Barstool Sports will be familiar to younger readers. It’s difficult to explain to older ones. It describes itself as a “sports and pop culture blog covering the latest news and viral highlights of each and everyday with blogs, videos and podcasts.” But that doesn’t begin to fully capture what it is or the size of its influence and reach.

Barstool Sports was started in 2003 by Portnoy as a free print publication on sports gambling. He began with about $25,000 from his parents and personally oversaw the production and distribution of the low-budget newspaper mostly at subway stops in the Boston area. My brother, a so-called “Stoolie”, characterizes Barstool’s early business model as a “glorified paper route.” Portnoy’s bet was that he uniquely understood what “guys want to do.”

The subsequent two decades have proven that he was right. Barstool has since evolved into a digital media company with a massive online audience and annual revenues of more than US$100 million per year. As its current CEO, Erika Ayers Badan, put it an interview last year:

Barstool is the most influential digital media brand in the country. Our audience are true fans of Barstool and the franchises we build. The deep engagement and connection we have to our audience base moves products for our brand partners that no other media company can match.

Its sagacious mix of sports, culture, and lifestyle is a potent content offering for its target demographic of university-aged men. Its content and traffic numbers are staggering. According to a recent Vanity Fair profile, Barstool has “more than 100 podcasts, YouTube shows, and social media series; 95 personalities; 65 advertisers; 17 content verticals; countless merchandise sold; and more than 230 million followers across social media.” Ayers Badan has described it as “an IP company.”

I asked one of my closest friends—another “Stoolie”—to define Barstool and its success in simple terms. He described it as “sports entertainment by the common man, for the common man.”

He’s not wrong. Barstool users are generally under the age of 30 and one-third engage its content multiple times each day. That level of sustained loyalty is basically unmatched on the internet. Barstool’s most avid audience—its “Stoolies”—is doubtless a key source of its success.

Another is Portnoy himself who is known to his fans as “El Presidente” or “El Pres.” Although he’s no longer the company’s CEO, he has full control over its content and remains the face of the organization. He’s 46 years old but he seems much more youthful than his age. A big part of that is his own lifestyle. He lives, acts, and even dresses like someone in his twenties or thirties.

One profile described him as “Mark Zuckerberg after five years of hard drinking and even harder tanning.” He certainly drinks, gambles, parties, watches sports, and generally seems to have a lot of fun. Portnoy is someone that his audience would naturally hang out with to watch a game or drink a beer.

Perhaps as a result, he seems to have an instinctive understanding of the Stoolie’s habits and tastes. His decisions on content and personalities (many of whom he discovered before they had a public profile) reflect his powerful intuition about who and what will resonate with the audience. There are plenty of examples including for instance the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast with former NHL players Paul Bissonette and Ryan Whitney and their co-host, Brian “Rear Admiral” McGonagle, which is the most popular sports podcasts and among the top twenty of any genre in Canada.  

Portnoy’s own personality is shot through the company. He has something of a populist appeal. He once described his audience as “a bunch of average Joes, who like most guys love sports, gambling, golfing and chasing short skirts.” It’s a classic Portnoyian line that reflects the two-sided coin of his personality. He’s funny, irreverent, and a great communicator. He’s also crass, confrontational, and a bit raw. The same Vanity Fair article referred to him as “God to cancel-culture-bemoaning, pizza-loving, red-blooded Robinhood traders.” He has even been characterized as “Donald Trump without the politics.”  

Although the comparison is mostly unfair, it must be said that Portnoy and Barstool have crossed the line at various times. Criticism that they can be “chauvinistic,” “misogynistic,” and “toxic” isn’t without merit. You probably wouldn’t want your mom or daughter to spend too much time on the site.

It’s definitely a place for guys who still make up more than two-thirds of the audience. One of its most popular tag lines is “Saturdays are for the boys” for a reason. In an era in which gender norms and roles are being redefined, Barstool’s masculinity still resonates with a large and motivated audience.

Barstool’s month of milestones: ‘It’s a big victory’

As mentioned, Portnoy and Barstool have been in the media in recent weeks because of his acquisition of the company after fully selling it mere months ago. The transaction reverses the previous deal with Penn National which had been based on ambitions about leveraging Barstool’s audience for its new sports gambling business, including theScore mobile gaming app in Canada.  

The marriage never quite produced the outcomes that were hoped for in part because Barstool’s edginess was poorly received by gambling regulators and in turn caused some hassle for Penn National. When the company recently signed a major gambling partnership with ESPN, whose parent company is Disney, one of the conditions was apparently that Penn spin off its ownership of Barstool. That’s how Portnoy was able to purchase his old company at such an extraordinary discount.

The deal between Penn and Portnoy reportedly comes with some additional conditions including restrictions on Barstool competing in the sports gambling business and a claim on future sales profits—though Portnoy has said that he never intends to sell it again.

The upshot is that the company is back in Portnoy’s hands and returning to its original mission as a source of irreverent news and information about sports and entertainment free from the reach of bureaucrats and regulators. As Penn’s president and CEO Jay Snowden put it in a statement:

The divestiture allows Barstool to return to its roots of providing unique and authentic content to its loyal audience without the restrictions associated with a publicly traded, licensed gaming company.

The timing is rather fitting because of the forthcoming anniversary. It’s like the company is rediscovering its original start-up identity after a brief yet somewhat disappointing experiment as a mainstream media player. There’s good reason to think that Barstool will be as edgy and irreverent as ever as a result. As Portnoy recently explained: “It’s a big victory when you get your company back. Not being part of a publicly traded company is probably a relief for everyone.”

The basic business model is unlikely to change. Portnoy’s instincts have generally led him in the right direction up until now. The Penn deal is bound to cause him to essentially double down. Barstool’s ongoing success or failure will depend on his ability to continue betting right on content, personalities, and his audience.

Next week’s anniversary party is bound to be a spectacle. Portnoy is a modern P.T. Barnum who has come to leverage the Barstool platform to sell alcohol, t-shirts, watches, and more. That hustler instinct will undoubtedly be on display at the much-touted party and in the coming years as the company’s once-again unrestrained commanding head.

The politics of Barstool: ‘folk libertarianism’

One of the sources of Barstool’s success is that Portnoy has intentionally avoided politics. As a 2017 New York Times profile explained:

There exists a swarm of angry sports fans who maintain that they do not want to talk about Colin Kaepernick or the national anthem, and Barstool has cleared a space for them to gather and talk, mostly, about just how much they don’t want to talk about politics. 

There have nevertheless been growing efforts to analyse the cultural and political influence of Barstool Sports. One of the most prominent was a 2021 article for This Week about the rise of so-called “Barstool conservatives.” As the author explained, this distinct political constituency combines a mix of socially liberal views on pornography, homosexuality, drug use, and gambling, with an instinctive libertarianism on taxes and regulations and a pseudo-populism in terms of its self-image and place in the broader society.

The Hub’s Stuart Thomson has described this political tendency as “middlebrow populist libertarianism that has roots in the American frontier more than the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat summed it up as “folk libertarianism.”

It’s a good description of Portnoy’s own inchoate politics which don’t neatly graft onto the conventional Left-Right paradigm. He certainly supports more business-friendly policies with respect to taxes and regulations and was strongly opposed to COVID lockdowns of businesses and sports. He also clearly stands in tension with the Left’s tendency towards political correctness. If there’s one overarching ethos at Barstool, it’s anti-political correctness. Yet he’s pro-choice and doesn’t particularly live a conservative lifestyle or project ideas of morality and virtue.

Conservative writer Ben Domenech sought to define Barstool conservatism on a recent New York Times podcast:

We want to be able to gamble. Porn is good; it’s not bad…We want people to have fun, drink High Noon, gamble more. We want them to be entertained by the people who we have on our programs, who are both big winners and big losers, buy cheap T-shirts, and just keep the ethos rolling… it overlaps with the Gadsden flag just leave us alone coalition, whether that be going after menthol cigarettes or vaping or any of these things that are kind of nanny state government stuff that they rebel against. 

Although these various definitions are broadly correct, they probably underestimate the role of gender in Barstool’s appeal and the experiences and worldviews of its audience. As we discussed on a recent episode of The Hub Roundtable podcast, young men are facing a series of new pressures in school, the economy, and the broader society including increasingly being outperformed by female students, new norms about gender roles and male-female relationships, and growing hostility to certain forms of masculinity. It can be a destabilizing context for young men who themselves are struggling to find meaning and purpose, build adult relationships, and define their own manhood.

Barstool offers an imperfect (though far better than some alternatives) source of community and even identity. As I wrote in a 2021 column about the company’s appeal:

Barstool Sports’ significant popularity is a sign that young people—particularly young men—are in search of a source of community and kinship in our secular age. It will necessarily take different forms than in the past. And there are no doubt limits to virtual communities compared to the traditional, face-to-face ones that they’re replacing. But our natural desire to belong to a little platoon hasn’t gone away.

The political implications of Barstool conservatism can probably be overstated. My sense is that many of its audience members would be counted among the ranks of eligible non-voters. If however a politician or political party could speak to their “leave-us-alone” mentality and legitimate anxieties about the place of masculinity and manhood in modern society, they could be a sizeable constituency.

Pierre Poilievre seems to be tapping into it. His early success with younger voters is at least in part a reflection of his own youthfulness and vitality. Although he may not be someone young men would necessarily watch the game or have a beer with, he has found issues and messages that resonate with them. His overarching message of personal freedom clearly has an audience among parts of the Barstool crowd.

The key will be to respond to their concerns with policy substance rather than online memes and pop culture references. They already have Barstool for the latter. And no politician is going to compete with Portnoy for the Stoolies’ attention or affection. He is El Presidente after all.