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Livio Di Matteo: Canadians are miserable and politicians better start preparing for the blowback

Commentary

Canadians appear to be a particularly miserable lot these days if one is to take media reports at face value. The recent bout of inflation and interest rate increases appear to have brought about a particular phase of economic hardship that has spilled over into personal lives, and that hardship appears to be across the board in terms of demographic and income groups. As a result of financial struggles, inflation, and high interest rates are affecting Canadians’ mental health, according to one report fueling anxiety over housing and food.  

Millennials—particularly those who own a home—are apparently poised to face the most economic pain as interest rate costs steepen on strained debt loads and economic damage lays waste to the economy and expectations. Burdened by debt and rising housing costs, three-in-ten Canadians are “struggling” to get by, with the number of mortgage holders voicing difficulty meeting housing costs up 11 percent compared to last June. If you have someplace to live, you are hard-pressed to pay the bills, and if you do not have a place to live, then you are miserable because you cannot find one.   

With so much misery, it is surprising that the misery index has not been resurrected by assorted pundits as a measure of how miserable we all are. The misery index is an economic indicator first created by economist Arthur Okun during the 1970s which was an era of high inflation and high unemployment known as stagflation in the wake of the oil price shock and its macroeconomic impact. The misery index was constructed by adding up the rate of inflation with the unemployment rate with higher totals being associated with greater economic misery experienced on the part of the public. The index has also on occasion been expanded by including variables such as the bank lending rate. While not a perfect measure of economic welfare, it might nevertheless be useful to see if the current mood of economic angst and misery is captured by such an index.

Using data obtained from the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) source of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, the accompanying figure plots a monthly triple misery index consisting of the sum of Canada’s CPI inflation rate, its monthly unemployment rate, and the central bank rate for the period 1962 to 2023. Such a lengthy time span allows us to examine Canadian misery over time and it is quite an eye-opener. The 1960s were truly a golden age for the economy and were accompanied by some of the lowest values of misery in sixty years. Misery began to rise during the 1970s and appears to have peaked in the early 1980s, during which there was an unemployment rate that peaked at 13 percent, inflation that peaked at over 12 percent, and a bank rate that believe it or not hit over 20 percent one month making the current 5 percent seem like a monetary tea party.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

After its early 1980s peak, misery declined with a major rebound in the early 1990s and then declined again, steadily bottoming out at values slightly lower than even the 1960s during 2017. Since 2017, they have risen, and based on the chart we are now at a point where we are at least as miserable as we were in the 1990s. Over the entire 1962 to 2023 period, this triple misery index has averaged a value of 16.8. As of June 2023, the Canadian misery value is 15—just a bit below the historical average.  

The most miserable month in Canada was August of 1981 when the value of the misery index hit 40.6. During that month, the unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, the bank rate was 20.9 percent, and inflation clocked in at 12.5 percent. The least miserable month in Canada was June of 2017 which came in at a value of 8. The unemployment rate was 6.2 percent, the bank rate was 1 percent, and the inflation rate was just over 1 percent.

The misery index charted here does show that misery has been growing since 2017 but it is currently below the historical average—and indeed it is still lower than the early to mid 1990s. It is definitely much lower than the period stretching from the mid-1970s to nearly 1990. And yet, if one talks to people and follows social or mainstream media, one seems to get the impression that things are much worse than the misery index would suggest. So, the question really is, why are Canadians feeling so miserable given that by historical standards, the misery index is nowhere near past historical peaks?  

This is indeed a perplexing and important question. One possibility is that the indicator is not fully capturing the misery of Canada today because there is more to misery than just the sum of the unemployment, interest, and inflation rates. Perhaps we should be including other economic variables, such as the growth rate of real per capita GDP, or perhaps a separate inflationary index for components such as rents and housing. This would suggest that the structure of misery is not as simple as it once was but, like the country as a whole, has become more complex and diverse and the misery index needs a major revamping.  

Another possibility is the old adage that in life and politics, timing is everything. While the recent surge in misery is modest by some previous historical episodes, it comes after a nearly 20-year period of low and declining misery. It also comes right after a global pandemic and several years of anxiety, change, and disruption that has left everyone more short-tempered and less tolerant than usual.  

It remains that the last twenty years have been marked by an era of low inflation, low interest rates and low unemployment, and numerous cohorts have come onto the labour market knowing only cheap money and never seeing recessions like that of 1981-82 or 1991. There may even be an issue of economic literacy at play here given that many are expecting relief from lower inflation rates and do not realize that a lower inflation rate means a slower growth in prices and not a return to price levels from a decade ago.

Or perhaps Canadians themselves have changed and have become less resilient in the face of adversity of any kind. After all, given the rhetoric, many came to feel that the pandemic was akin to a war and siege conditions. While the pandemic in Canada was indeed serious, it affected portions of the population differently. While some were on the front lines bearing the brunt of the pandemic—for example, health workers—others were not. Most wars involve widespread death and destruction of human life and physical and social infrastructure. They are generally not characterized by a situation where many can work from home, the government sends you enhanced transfer payments like the CERB, and you can order takeaway and watch Netflix.  

Whatever the reason, the reality is Canadians feel more anxious, miserable, and petulant than usual, and this will inevitably spill over into the political arena.  

Peter Menzies: The media is boycotting Meta and nobody cares

Commentary

Meta’s bluffing, they said.

Facebook will never survive without news, they insisted. Users will demand it.

The web giants will cave in just like they did in Australia, they said. Just wait.

These statements tell you everything you need to know about how badly so many within the world of journalism, overwhelmed by bluster, misunderstand the economics of the online world and their business’s 21st-century reality. So far, the most vociferous backers of the Online News Act (Bill C-18) haven’t just been wrong about predicting its consequences, they have misjudged public sentiment in extravagant style. One wonders what they teach in journalism schools that so many could be so spectacularly and predictably wrong.

Today, they will continue that tradition with a cringeworthy call for the nation to rise in solidarity with them and mark Sept.15 as a #DayWithoutMeta. The date was chosen because it correlates to International Democracy Day. And, as we all know from reading the public prints and watching TV news, the foundations of society crumble without well-paid journos. Or so they say.

If you have come late to this story, Bill C-18 was based on the unproven allegation that Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram, and Threads) and Google “steal” content produced by news organizations and refuse to share the allegedly large profits their mischief generates. The bill was designed to force those Big Tech companies to go beyond the tens of millions they were already spending to support journalism in Canada and cough up hundreds of millions more through contrived new “commercial” agreements. Most legacy news organizations—newspapers in particular —have struggled to compete with the web giants’ superior advertising models and, as a result, thousands of jobs have disappeared and the “free press” has embraced an apparently permanent role as a ward of the state.

The response from the big companies, notwithstanding agreements they made Down Under when faced with a Rupert Murdoch-led shakedown there, has been that this premise is nonsense. Bill C-18 leaves them no rational business choice, they insist, other than to no longer link to news in Canada and, it appears, elsewhere.

Google has yet to pull the plug and is still attempting to talk the government off the ledge upon which it has placed itself and an industry that depends upon the audiences Meta, Google, and others drive to its sites without charge.

Meta began its news shutdown in August and is now six weeks in. For it, everything seems to be going tickety-boo. It appears to have avoided the blunders involved in its five-day blockage of news links in Australia. Even more discouraging for journalists is that Meta’s testing showed its users and advertisers aren’t just likely to disregard the absence of news, they could well be happier without it on Facebook.

The government was convinced by those most likely to bathe in web giant gold that their product—news—was wildly popular. Team Trudeau felt it could score points by demonizing the monstrous U.S. firms who, let’s face it, pose huge concerns as quasi-monopolists. And the legacy segment of the news industry—over the more well-informed protests of newer, more innovative proprietors—saw a financial gravy train that might save it (for a few more years anyway) from its inability to adapt to change.

Over the past six weeks the news industry had a chance to prove how much the public values it. It has instead revealed the unsettling truth that most of it is nowhere near as fetching, nor as necessary, as the image it self-servingly sees when it looks in the mirror.

It and its allies’ responses to Big Tech’s harumph have been stunningly ineffective.

The federal and Quebec governments pulled their advertising spends, but those moves amount to less money than Meta will save by ending its $18 million in existing journalism funding. The Liberal party, however, maintained its buys.

A call by The Friends for boycotts went nowhere. The prime minister, while declaring his determination to bring Meta into line, abandoned that conviction and mindlessly selected Instagram as the vehicle through which to announce the change in his marital status.

But, according to the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ) and the Société québécoise des professionnel(le)s en relations publiques (SQPRP), today’s the day all that’s going to turn around. Today, the losing streak ends and the winning begins.

Today will be the big #DayWithoutMeta.

“This 15th of September, all members of the public are invited to avoid sharing anything on Facebook and Instagram, as well as subscribing to a local media or its newsletter,” the organizers stated in a Newswire release. “This small gesture would send a strong message that Canadians are not [to] be intimidated by Meta’s decision, and that they will support journalists and news’ organizations based in our country.”

No doubt a few will heed the call. But at time of writing, a search on X for the hashtag #DayWithoutMeta produced just two results. One was from a poster in Washington, D.C. The other was from UNIFOR. In its first 13 hours, the UNIFOR post solicited two re-posts, one like, and 73 impressions.

Someone needs to tell the news industry—friend to friend—that the public’s nowhere near as into it as it is into itself.

Because this is getting embarrassing.