The state of the world – is the glass half empty or half full?

August 27, 2014

“NOW is the best time in history to be alive. Our world has experienced a sustained period of positive change. The average person is about eight times richer than a century ago. Nearly one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty over the past two decades, living standards have soared, life expectancy has risen, the threat of war between great powers has declined, and our genetic code and universe have been unlocked in previously inconceivable ways. Many of today’s goods are unimaginable without collective contributions from different parts of the world, through which more of us can move freely with a passport or visa, provided we have the means to do so. Our world is functionally smaller, and its possibilities are bigger and brighter than ever before. Never before have so many people been optimistic about their future.”


This is the opening paragraph of the Oxford Martin Commission For Future Generation’s Report (2013, available online). It continues by listing the challenges facing future generations. These are read about and viewed daily. The details sell newspapers by attracting audiences for advertisers. But is Armageddon approaching, or is there a more hopeful story to be told? It depends on how the issue is framed. On population/overpopulation, is it where people live, what they have to eat, what illnesses they have, the environment they live in, the conflicts they face? Pick an issue and depending on geography (one of the frames), the future seems ultra bleak or extremely hopeful.


The statement about the threat of “war between the great powers” was written about 365 days before a Malaysian airliner was shot down over the Ukraine, increasing the probability of serious conflict between powerful countries either directly or through their sidekicks. Unexpected, if not unknown, events can change the landscape overnight. The 1914 assassination in Sarajevo was followed by a world war. What are the known unknowns which will occur in the next twelve let alone sixty months? Nobody knows but we can make more and less informed guesses.


One difference today from 50 years ago, that’s 1964, is globalization, an omnibus term which, through overuse, has become almost meaningless. But if the focus is on the shrinkage effect of technology and how it has connected all parts of the world, then the implications of how things have changed become clearer. Examples abound. At the firm level, production and distribution involve supply chains so that many final goods involve activities in several countries with intermediate goods and services being traded internationally and domestically. It applies to services as well, such as newspaper publishing where content is collected from around the world with much greater ease than in the past. Haircuts and burials may still remain unaffected by globalization, except that the fashions and practices of one country are imported into another.


A second example of increasing interdependence is social media undertaken via a myriad of means, many of which confuse me, from email to text messaging, SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Facetime, Skype and many others. People interact with each other much more so than in the past. Is this beneficial or harmful? A bit of both. It can be used to further corruption and criminal activities like child abuse, but it can be used to catch child-abusers who were there long before the internet. (The New York Times August 24, 2014, has an article about the Vatican’s representative in the Dominican Republic who has been engaged in child abuse for a number of years. It was detected by a Dominican reporter without the use of the internet, but the internet quickly spread it.)


Today is different from the past as might be expected but many things are the same, not necessarily worse, such as the “bads” like corruption, conflict, abuse of human rights, treatment of children, women and disadvantaged groups in society. Today, there are means and a greater willingness to address and alleviate if not eradicate these issues. There is a good news side of the story to be told about the “bads” which are the main focus of the media and of public discourse. Most of the Oxford Martin report is given over to discussing the “bads” and what the commissioners feel needs to be done. Fair enough, but context is required in order to understand and evaluate the state of the world. Many things have got better over time.


The environment

I have deliberately avoided mentioning the environment because the debate has become toxic, and whatever is said will result in being branded as a supporter of one side or the other. I will back into this by presenting some facts on the basis that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” (Attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a four time elected US senator who died in 2003).

In 1972, a group of distinguished writers drafted a report entitled The Limits To Growth (LTG). It became a catalyst for the environmental movement, and had dire warnings about the exhaustion of various natural resources which would limit future growth. Forty-one years later in 2013, LTG was found to be wrong in many respects both about pollution and resource use – see, posting by Professor Lomborg in June 2013.

In 1980, Professor Julian Simon, an economist bet Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb that the inflation adjusted price of any five commodities Ehrlich chose would have declined in ten years time. Ehrlich chose chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. The world population grew by 800 million in the decade and the price of all five fell – three in nominal terms and all five in inflation-adjusted terms. Ehrlich lost the bet. (More details on other resource bets are discussed in “Simon-Ehrlich wager” in Wikipedia.)

The environment and global warming is a topic with many facets so that selective use of facts and data can lead to a wide range of conclusions which are then used selectively to support a viewpoint. My non-expert view of this topic notes the following:

  1. The earth has experienced periods of cooling and warming with the onset and decline of ice ages. I vacation in a part of Ontario covered by lakes which were gouged out as the ice retreated northwards. Whatever the temperature data records today it has been subject to change in earlier times.
  2. The extent to which warming is taking place is measurable. The extent to which it is due to human activity is open to debate, as is the extent to which this is a disaster for mankind.
  3. Matt Ridley, a columnist for the Times (London) and a member of the British House of Lords has reported on this issue for 25 years. His summary of the 2014 Report of the International Panel on Climate Change is published in The Financial Post, June 19, 2014, p.FP9

“The IPCC commissioned four different models of what might happen to the world economy, society and

technology in the 21stcentury and what each would mean for the climate, given a certain assumption about the atmosphere’s “sensitivity” to carbon dioxide. Three of the models show a moderate, slow and mild warming, the hottest of which leaves the planet just 2 degrees Centigrade warmer than today in 2081-2100. The coolest comes out just 0.8 degrees warmer.

Now two degrees is the threshold at which warming starts to turn dangerous……That is to say, in three of the four scenarios considered by the IPCC, by the time my children’s children are elderly, the Earth will still not have experienced any harmful warming, let alone catastrophe.”

The fourth scenario produces 3.5 degrees of warming by 2081-2100. It is based on the following assumptions:

The global population will increase to 12 billion – this is at least one billion more than the UN expects, and the rate of population growth is presently declining.

The world will burn ten times as much coal as today, producing 50% of primary energy in contrast with 30% today. Assumptions made in the report about nuclear and renewable energy sources mean that fossil fuels will dominate energy production – Ridley considers these assumptions “very, very implausible.”

“That is to say, even if you pile crazy assumption upon crazy assumption till you have an edifice of vanishingly small probability, you cannot even manage to make climate change cause minor damage in the time of our grandchildren, let alone catastrophe. That’s not me (Ridley) saying this – it’s the IPCC itself.”

  1. The rate at which icebergs and ice sheets melt is one measure of global warming. For Greenland, ice sheet data are reported at I urge anyone concerned with this topic to interpret the results so as to give an unqualified yes or no re global warming. One comment on what summer 2014 data mean so far is that sea levels might rise 2 mm.



My partial list of issues of concern for future generations includes the rate of global population growth, urbanization of populations, age structure of populations, old and new forms of criminal activity facilitated by communications technology – cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism, terrorism combined with the use of nuclear and chemical weapons, and the breakdown of the working of democratic institutions including a growing sense of entitlements which the democratic process generates to plant the seeds of its own destruction. If forced to provide an answer, I see the glass as being half full. More appropriate perhaps would be to apply to the future William Goldman’s conclusion about Hollywood, that despite there being smart people involved “nobody knows anything” that is about the future success of a film.


Some afterthoughts

A related topic for future generations is a recent Pew study of the impact of robotics on future jobs – see

AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs

By Aaron Smith and Janna Anderson

“Key Findings

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

Key themes: reasons to be hopeful:

1) Advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs.

2) We will adapt to these changes by inventing entirely new types of work, and by taking advantage of uniquely human capabilities.

3) Technology will free us from day-to-day drudgery, and allow us to define our relationship with “work” in a more positive and socially beneficial way.

4) Ultimately, we as a society control our own destiny through the choices we make.

Key themes: reasons to be concerned:

1) Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.

2) Certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment—but far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst.

3) Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices.

Some 1,896 experts responded to the following question:

The economic impact of robotic advances and AI—Self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?

Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

These two groups also share certain hopes and concerns about the impact of technology on employment. For instance, many are concerned that our existing social structures—and especially our educational institutions—are not adequately preparing people for the skills that will be needed in the job market of the future. Conversely, others have hope that the coming changes will be an opportunity to reassess our society’s relationship to employment itself—by returning to a focus on small-scale or artisanal modes of production, or by giving people more time to spend on leisure, self-improvement, or time with loved ones.

A number of themes ran through the responses to this question: those that are unique to either group, and those that were mentioned by members of both groups.”

In sum, the experts agree that technology will make a difference to employment opportunities in the near future, but are divided on what that impact will be. There is however a broader consensus on the failure of the educational infrastructure to adapt to the swift changes which are taking place.



The Minerva Project

August 19, 2014

The Minerva Project described in the Atlantic Monthly (August 13th, 2014) signals ways in which higher education is evolving, resulting mainly from developments in communications technology. Institutional structures will change with implications for students, teachers, administrative staff and governments. Minerva is an accredited university in San Francisco and will shortly open six campuses outside the US.

1. The Atlantic article argues that the model of higher education and probably education in general is being hit with a wrecking ball, as the magazine cover depicts.  How the parts will be reassembled and how students of all ages (I include myself but am more interested in those born after 2000) will be affected is a subject for study. Similar changes have occurred in numerous areas including book, newspaper and magazine publishing, film, television, music and video production and distribution, banking and finance and shopping. How often do you now go to your bank, write a cheque or use a broker to make stock transactions? Post secondary education is the next institutional arrangement to be reformed with implications for students, teachers, administrators and governments.

2. Online learning as provided by MOOCs is one model in contrast with in class learning. All current teaching combines some combination of in class and online learning. The latter has a long heritage with correspondence courses and the Open University in the UK (I am sure there were models in other jurisdictions with which I am unfamiliar). These suppliers solved the problems of invigilating, marking exams and creating credentials which employers recognized. A large number of people often register for MOOCs, but a small percentage take the tests which result in some kind of credential. I am one of those who register. I do so out of interest in a subject and it’s free. Others register in order to search the available options before deciding which ones to take. Persons over 30 are more likely to seek a credential, suggesting that online learning is being used as a method of continuing education.

3. What Minerva does is to combine online and in class education in a novel way which creates for-pay education, students selected entirely on the basis of academic ability from around the world – no entitlements for certain groups, awarding of credentials (which will have to prove their worth as is the case with any new brand), and a requirement that faculty teach and conduct seminars and discussion groups in a particular way, not just how they choose. None of us who were in this game before had much if any experience in lecturing and conducting seminars, other than what we had been subject to. We mostly winged it with student evaluations providing some feedback. Today, social media provides often ruthless comments on instructors.

4. Minerva charges a fee of 28k dollars annually with some financial aid provisions. This is about half an Ivy League fee. If fees are considered an annual consumption expenditure then they are high, but if treated as an investment and a capital expenditure then they are similar to taking a mortgage to invest in home ownership or a loan to buy a car. The value of the educational investment will only be known in the future as will the ownership of a house and car. The latter depreciates with time and will become worth less unless it becomes valued as an antique. None of the cars I ever owned fell into the antique category. An education will also depreciate with time and is why the process of continuing education exists either within a firm or by taking external courses. Firms offer training seminars for their employees, while academics are expected to keep abreast of their discipline by reading and undertaking published research and presentations.

5. Would a Minerva type operation grant tenure, a form of long term contract which the institution but not the instructor find it difficult to annul? Not as long as it can hire and retain suitable lecturers. If this is not possible, then it will offer long term contracts and other benefits to retain high quality staff. Note that without a contract a staff member can be fired at any time. And if lecturers with long term contracts wants to leave early, it is probably a good idea to let them go as they may not be delivering the best teaching services thereby reflecting adversely on the institution.

6. My guess is that the Minerva format will be followed by for profit competitors who will try different formats for the delivery of higher education. Change is already evident and only those administrations which experiment and adapt will survive. I am willing to bet $100 that change will be clearly visible within three years – we can negotiate on who should be the judge of the outcome.
Sent from my iPad

Does Prohibition Linger in Canada

August 17, 2014

With the aid of social media (tweets), Nina Caplan in the New Statesman (August 14, 2014) finally gets it right. Her original story states:

“Prohibition was rescinded in Quebec in 1919, about five minutes after it became law, but the hangover lingers. To this day, you can only buy wine in French Canada from the government-run outlets of the SAQ: Société des alcohols du Quebec.”

Today tweeters explain, that’s not the case. Wine of all kinds is sold in Quebec retail grocery stores but it has to have been bottled in the province. The hangover is as much one of protectionism for Quebec bottlers.

Some signs of prohibition remain in Canada and Daniel Okrent’s Last Call is one place to find them. A photograph of Sam Bronfman purchasing a distillery in the US which was about to be destroyed is an example. Bronfman built the Seagram liquor empire which in turn funded foundations. These still do good works in Canada and beyond. Profits were also made from prohibition in the US.

Liquor sales today

In Ontario, the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) remains the sole source for retail spirit sales. It also stocks some wines and beer. The latter is available in a near monopoly, the Beer Store run by the breweries. Ontario politicians of all stripes have suggested that they will dismantle the LCBO, but then pull back. They often calculate the total revenue of the stores as benefits to Ontario rather than the net revenues. As a major buyer, the LCBO undoubtedly gets good prices from suppliers, but whether these are passed on to consumers is questionable in the absence of competing retail outlets. In recent years, wine stores associated with wineries have been allowed to operate in Ontario. They are even allowed to mix foreign with Canadian grapes in the wine sold, a dilution of Canadian content (found elsewhere in Canadian cultural content).

Prices for spirits sold in the US are often much lower than in Canada, but taxes have a role in explaining these differences. Smuggling is also encouraged. Residents of Kingston Ontario (and other communities bordering Lake Ontario) have found ways to benefit from lower liquor prices in the state of New York. There is no shortage of entrepreneurs. Taxi services have always been available to deliver liquor for a price to consumers creating another level of retail distribution. And today available in Ontario and Alberta is one example of how this type of service is now respectable.


Other fading signs of US prohibition are large lakeside properties in the Rideau Lakes just north of the Canada-US border. Through this area liquor was smuggled south from Canada and the folks who made money doing this often built recreational properties there mainly for fishing. On Devil Lake, Ontario there is a Vanderbilt Island reputedly still owned by family members. I have no idea if family members were involved in the liquor business. If they were, it would have been a minuscule part of the Commodore’s commercial empires.

When my father, who had been in the gin distillery business, came to Canada in 1959, he was interested in seeing St Pierre and Miquelon (still part of France) when he sailed past these islands. During prohibition, large amounts of liquor were shipped there for trans-shipment either directly or via Canada into the US. The supply chain at the time contained storage ships anchored outside the territorial limits of the US, with speed boats used to ship liquor to the mainland.

Signs of prohibition remain in Canada but a researcher has to know where to look in different parts of the country. Each province dealt with the issue in its own way. Some have written about the Temperance Movement in the early 20th century, but I have read no Canadian equivalent to Daniel Okrent’s work on prohibition in the US.

Diane Coyle,

August 16, 2014

Diane Coyle, GDP, A Brief But Affectionate History (Princeton 2014)


The following should not be taken as a review of Diane Coyle’s recent book. It already has many by respected reviewers. Instead it is more a comment on how the profession can improve both its presentation as well as the content of the discipline.

Since I began studying economics, at first mainly agricultural economics in an agricultural program, the discipline has made big strides, some forward, some sideways and some into the wilderness. Complexity, sophistication for some, has been associated with the increased use of statistics and mathematical modeling. There has been and always will be a use for both. Graduate programs in particular have tended to emphasise these two. MA graduates from respectable programs in Canada, and elsewhere I imagine, will tell you that they learn the tools of applied mathematics, but with instructors who may be unable to explain the economic significance of the model being studied. It’s like a surgeon knowing how to make an incision but not why it should be made.

If you treat economics as a discipline with similarities to medicine, which I often do, then a combined knowledge of theory and the results of empirical studies are necessary to advance knowledge. When methodology displaces theory, the value of the policy advice given is limited, even hazardous.


Macroeconomics took a severe hit in the 1930s with a failure to understand the reasons for the depression years and the appropriate remedies. It took another hit after 2007. The depression ended due to a world war which ramped up defense production and drew women into the workforce, rather than by the subtle use of fiscal and monetary policies. The loss of manpower due to death and injury plus the physical destruction of assets caused by war, especially in Europe, Russia (USSR) and Japan created fertile conditions for restoring economic health.

The US and Canada, which suffered human casualties but where almost no physical destruction took place, benefited from postwar demand for their capital, goods and services. Marshal Aid by the US – “an estimated $148 billion – in 2004 dollars from 1946 to 1952.” (Coyle p.18) – provided a means to finance the economic restoration. Marshal saw what Keynes had warned about at the end of WW1, that if the reparations imposed on Germany were too severe, it would not only prevent restoring the economic and political health of Germany, but create conditions for future wars, which unfortunately it did.

Diane Coyle explains the postwar (WW2) periods of growth and recession in clear prose using the tools of economic analysis and making it understandable to the interested lay person. Like medicine, where there is still much to be discovered about the causes and cures for certain conditions but much has already been learned, so with the present state of a nation’s economic health especially at the macro level.

Failure to prescribe appropriate remedies for economic problems where there exists a good understanding of likely cures is often due, in my view, to the strength of groups to lobby politically for their interests and for the growing sense of entitlements which the public now has. These arise in part due to the sense that individuals want more from their governments, especially more for themselves as opposed to others in society. But they also occur because politicians in a democracy offer voters more in order to attract support. Consider a typical income tax return, if such a thing exists. There are provisions according to the level of income earned (a progressive rate structure), deductions for childcare, health services, education, single parents, living in rural areas, flood prevention and so on. Each deduction does two things. It creates a sense of entitlement for those who benefit from the tax treatment, and it encourages others to seek them by lobbying politicians and officials. Up to a point, a democracy thrives on a diet which satisfies entitlements, but at some point obesity sets in with harmful results.


GDP, A Brief But Affectionate History, is mainly about what GDP measures, how reliable and useful it is and what might be used in its place. Despite serious shortcomings, Coyle thinks it should be retained for now, and that contending measures don’t provide the necessary information for economic policy making. In making this case, the author’s explanations of economic circumstances are so clear and understandable that the book should be read by economists for form as well as content.

If a case is to be made for replacing the present system of national accounting, it would be in my view, because of the growth of services relative to goods. In its original development, economies were more involved in the production of goods where measurement is easier. Many services are not only difficult to measure but are obtained either free or at low cost but still are part of GDP. For the price of a laptop or pad and internet service, I can receive communications, music, video, newspapers, magazines, books, access to websites, financial and many types of services for free. The benefits exist but they are not measured in GDP. All of this is recognized and discussed by Coyle.

One final thought. The recent financial disaster has forced economists to reexamine their discipline with interesting debate and discussion taking place other than in academic journals. These include numerous blogs where a problem for readers is to decide which ones to follow. One thing which remains unchanged is 24 hours in the day and the need to decide how to use the waking hours. The economic blogs which I find useful are The Conversable Economist, Thought du Jour, Brad de Long and now Enlightenment Economics Managed by Diane Coyle.

Grade Inflation – Some people are smarter than others

August 12, 2014


Greek tragedy often involves arrogance leading to foolishness and destruction. This can occur with the assignment of academic grades, where number and letter grades are experiencing a process of grade inflation. It is not unlike price inflation which can give misleading information about the growth of an economy, as in the case of measuring Gross Domestic Product in current dollars. Grade inflation provides misleading information to students, teachers, admissions officers assessing students for entrance to post secondary institutions, to employers and to the public. While neither the educational system nor the economy will be destroyed, both can be weakened. And there are alternatives to consider.

Academic grade inflation

One example of grade inflation is the number of Ontario scholars, those with an average of 80% or more in their graduating school year. It has risen from less than 20% in the 1970s to over 60% today. I found the actual figures hard to come by as the provincial authorities did not answer my requests for what I thought would be easy to access information.

Province wide exams in Ontario were abolished in the 1960s following the Hall Dennis report which recommended that each school mark its own students. Teachers warned that this would lead to grade inflation. Foolishness prevailed, inflation took place and now when standardized testing is proposed teachers (and others) oppose it, recognizing that it could be used as a measure of their teaching as well as the performance of a school. The problem is then passed on to post-secondary institutions, which themselves have issues regarding the assignment and meaning of grades.

University grades are discussed on the freely available website The Conversable Economist for August 6, 2014. A quote from it:

“Here’s a link to a November 2011 post…on “Grade Inflation and Choice of Major.” Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy write: Even if grades were to instantly and uniformly stop  rising, colleges and universities are, as a result of five decades of mostly rising grades, already grading in a way that is divorced from actual student performance, and not just in an average nationwide sense. A is the most common grade at 125 of the 135 schools for which we have data on recent (2006–2009) grades. At those schools, A’s are more common than B’s by an average of 10 percentage points. Colleges and universities are currently grading, on average, about the same way that Cornell, Duke, and Princeton graded in 1985. Essentially, the grades being given today assume that the academic performance of the average college student in America is the same as the performance of an Ivy League graduate of the 1980s.”


There has been debate over grades assigned at Carleton and Ottawa Universities in the past, and at other Canadian universities, so that this is not only a US issue.

In 1989, the Ottawa Citizen published the list of Ontario Scholars by school in the Ottawa area, those with an 80% plus average. The top scholar amongst all schools (Lisgar) had a 99.1% average. Of the 41 schools listed, all but 3 had a top scholar with 90% plus average. One of the three was Elmwood, a private school where the top student had an 89.3% average. I had been a member of the Board of Governors of Elmwood where the school was frequently pressured by parents to give higher grades, in order that graduates would be able to compete for university places and for awards with those graduating from the public school system, where higher grades were given.

This was a fair concern, but Elmwood graduates seemed to do all right as university authorities knew that private schools tended to give lower grades and made allowance for it in their admission decisions. I am not sure whether this happened with the award of scholarships.

Grades signal to students, their parents and to outsiders (potential employers and post secondary educational institutions) information about the students. These now have to be evaluated carefully because of inflation. While universities state that they treat a given grade from one school the same as from another, experience suggests that this may not be the case, and they use judgment when making decisions about admissions and awards. In the same way that price inflation undermines the value of a currency, so grade inflation affects the value of or the information provided by a grade.

But the effects do not end there because, as noted, grade inflation takes place at universities as well. Undergraduates want high marks for their first degree so that they gain admission and scholarships for graduate study. Acceptance at graduate school depends on a combination of grades, reference letters from faculty and statement of interest by the candidate.

Are there alternatives?

When a figure or grade loses its information value, other measures are used. At the school level, an obvious one is the use of common exams for different institutions where the grading takes place by independent or common examiners. There are a number of examples:

  • Province wide exams as occurred in Ontario up to the 1970s
  • Some province wide exams in Alberta
  • A-level exams as used in the UK and other countries for university admission
  • The International Baccalaureate (IB) program
  • The Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

In each case there is the criticism that instruction will be focused on passing the exam rather than providing a more general education. While this can be the case, the alternative of a system which results in grade inflation and requires other, often unclear, means of evaluation by those comparing students for admission and awards is in my view preferable.

UK universities have traditionally used the A-level exam process which involves a narrowing of subjects studied, and forces students to decide on a particular discipline before they are knowledgeable about the available choices. The IB which requires a broader set of subjects is being recognized for university admission in the UK and elsewhere. Exactly how IB results and A-level results are compared is unclear to me, but some process must be used by admission officers. Use of the IB moves the British system towards the liberal arts approach of North American universities, where specialization takes place in later years of an undergraduate program or with a postgraduate degree. I prefer the liberal arts approach, but more importantly English speaking students with the right qualifications now have a choice of which program approach to pursue.

The IB program is not without its critics, but these seem to stem mostly from the fact that the Geneva based Director General of the program was caught plagiarizing in a speech he gave, a sin which the program warns about in the case of IB students – See Times Educational Supplement Sept. 17, 2010 and subsequent issues.


There appears some hope that arrogance and foolishness may not be followed by destruction. The present era of entitlements pressures politicians to create educational systems which grant equal treatment to all students, even though there is clear evidence that the distribution of academic abilities is bell shaped. Some people are smarter than others. Not all will benefit from an academic post secondary education. Some will benefit from the subjects taught in community and trade based colleges. Some will benefit from on-the-job experience, either with or without further education. Some people will earn more than others because they have different skills. There are means to reduce income inequalities other than by weakening, perhaps destroying, the educational system.

Some further sources:
Professor James Cote of Western University is an authority in this field.
The UCAS website deals with conversion standards for universities
The IB website at
The truthaboutIB website is generally critical of the IB

 Report of The Oxford Martin Commission For Future Generations, Oct. 2013

August 4, 2014

This posting is part of my continuing interest in what conditions will face my grandchildren’s generation, and how can they, and their parents, think about and prepare for it. The recent Oxford Martin Report for Future Generations provides fodder for this discussion. Authored by a pretty impressive group of experts in various fields, this Report provides information for those planning educational pathways for students presently in schools, universities and colleges, and those of future generations who shortly will be in this position.


The Report’s Summary at p.65 is as follows:

“In Part A of this report – Possible Futures – the Commission identified some of the key megatrends and challenges that are likely to shape our future and introduced possible responses to them. In Part B – Responsible Futures – we sought to draw lessons from examples of where global action was successful, and where it had failed, identifying the shaping factors that undermine our collective ability to act today. In Part C– Practical Futures – we have outlined a number of broad principles and more practical recommendations, aimed at providing impetus to overcome obstacles and inspire action.”

The three sections of the Report address Possible Futures, Responsible Futures, and Practical Futures, with the following topics covered in each section. The full Report can be read at

Executive Summary


Governing for the future

One world; many cultures, perspectives and identities

About this report


Part A: Possible Futures
















Part B: Responsible Futures

Looking Back to Look Forward

Lessons from Previous Successes

Lessons from Failure

Shaping Factors: What Makes Change so Hard?

1: Institutions

2: Time

3: Political Engagement and Public Trust

4: Growing Complexity

5: Cultural Biases


Part C: Practical Futures:

Principles and Recommendations

1: Creative Coalitions



Fit Cities

2: Innovative, Open and Reinvigorated Institutions

Decades, not Days

Fit for Purpose

Open up Politics

Make the Numbers Count

Transparent Taxation

3: Revalue the Future

Focus Business on the Long Term


Invest in People

Measure Long-term Impact

4: Invest in Younger Generations

Attack Poverty at its Source

A Future for Youth

5: Establish a Common Platform of Understanding

Build Shared Global Values

What Next?

While the Report requires several readings to digest fully from the menu of offerings discussed (I have only read it once), I have extracted issues which I think would be useful for those thinking about the educational and training path for those under 20 and those as yet unborn. The Report summarises some of the main issues facing individuals, societies and nations today and tomorrow – see Table of Contents above. You can agree or disagree with them, but it would be a mistake to ignore the issues raised. My comments, spurred by the Report’s findings, are in italics.

What then are issues which younger generations and their parents might note?


Part A, Possible Futures

This part outlines the issue areas which require expertise now and in the future. By becoming familiar with them, a student can prepare for a career whose skills will require this expertise.

The megatrends and challenges listed are ones studied, written about and discussed in public discourse. Depending on the topic, each requires a certain type of expertise for which different educational disciplines provide the tools for understanding and analysis, perhaps history, chemistry, physics, economics, politics and statistics, or some combination of disciplines related to a particular challenge.

Students at an early age can become interested in a public policy issue, along with an interest in perhaps a sport and musical instrument, and thereby prepare themselves for a future career, which may require a disciplinary or career focus at university or college, or may lead to an apprenticeship which is a form of on-the-job training. All occupations require some degree of apprenticeship whether it is articling for law, assistant to a plumber, electrician or carpenter, or learning how to be a barrista. The sooner a student can decide on a likely future, the sooner they can become involved in ways which will enhance their future career opportunities. Alternatively, if you are like me and could not decide what route to follow, expect to take a longer time to get established in a career and perhaps experience some financial disadvantage in later life.

Part B Responsible Futures

This section looks back at lessons from past experiences as a way of learning about what has failed and succeeded in the past and what may be needed in the future. It examines the context for public policy decision making and how this has and will affect future decision-making and careers in particular areas. It is more about the how of policy development than its content, although the two cannot be separated.

This discussion may have less direct input for selecting a particular career path and disciplinary focus, but it alerts the reader to what may be expected in future careers and employment. Those interested in becoming part of a public or private sector bureaucracy (and most jobs are there) will find the discussion especially useful.


Part C Practical Futures

This section addresses various means to overcome obstacles found to successful policy-making. It outlines what policy-makers need to understand about the future based on the issues which will likely arise and the experience of dealing with past issues. However it contains sections dealing with the need to consider the effects of current and future policies on younger generations. Here one finds implications for both educational and career choices for youth today and in the near future.

The content of Part A has most relevance to educational choices and approaches today. Critics will say that the Report covers social policy issues and pays no heed to the arts. They are right. The arts would require a separate discussion which might then be integrated with the findings of the Oxford Martin Report. For most people a career in the arts would attract smaller financial rewards than in some areas of the sciences and social sciences, but within each of these, some will receive a much higher remuneration than others. A few will become stars in the arts, but the majority will have to be satisfied with non-pecuniary rewards in addition to a lower income. It is a case of caveat emptor re career choice, as this situation is unlikely to change in my or my grandchildren’s lifetime.

The tone of the Report is optimistic. It starts with “Now is the best time in history to be alive.” To find out why read the Report. It then examines how to think about the present and future, and this I found to be useful in providing guidelines for future generations.

Medical Malpractice by Canadian Governments

July 28, 2014

The Canadian medical system is much admired outside of the country. Patients receiving its services have mixed views, some strongly critical. To me, the problems appear systemic. While there are excellent facilities and well trained doctors, nurses and administrators, the parts are not integrated in a way which delivers treatment satisfactorily. The problem rests with government financing and its interaction with those providing medical services.

Emergency problems are dealt with promptly and efficiently. Non-emergencies can result in unacceptable delays. Two examples: I thought the delay I experienced to see an orthopedic surgeon for an ankle injury was excessive – it was projected at nine to twelve months from referral by a GP. I am sitting by my phone at the eight month mark. A friend with a spinal disc problem requiring surgery was told the wait would be four years. Even if the first is marginally acceptable, the latter is not. It does not represent the satisfactory working of a medical system. Rather than fulminate further, I will try to outline what seems to be the problem. (Yes I am old and it may not matter, but young people experience similar delays.)

Operating rooms in hospitals are available. In many, they are used less than 24 hours a day (Jeffrey Simpson documented this in his book, Chronic Condition, reviewed at April 22, 2013). Surgeons are available. What seems to be missing is the support staff to allow the available surgeons to work in the available theatres. Why? Hospitals do not have the funds to pay the non-medical staff to allow a team to provide the services. I hope this is the reason. If not, it means crushing incompetence on the part of those administering hospitals.

The solution lies primarily in the hands of the government in making its budgeting decisions. Maybe there are other factors of which I am unaware, but to an economist when you have unused high cost facilities and unused high cost specialists, then there must be some further factors causing friction in the system, which prevents delivery of the services accounting for a major share of the provincial government’s budget. The parts are not working smoothly together and the engine is not producing full power. A racing car manufacturer would never allow the system to wreck the car’s performance.

What Ontario experiences may be different to that in other provincial jurisdictions. I have read that Vancouver operating theatres are more intensively used with surgeons operating on private patients during nighttime hours. This signals a combination of public and private medical services in BC. The same is true elsewhere in Canada where only certain medical services are covered by the government, and individuals either pay cash for non-covered services or buy private medical coverage, as one does when travelling abroad. It is estimated that in Canada the government pays for 70% of medical services and the remainder is privately financed.

The medical system, like the educational and defense systems which are publicly funded, take time to change, sometimes too long. Technology may expedite change. In other sectors information technology has caused seismic eruptions. Think of communications, music, films, television, radio, newspapers, books, and now education with online courses, and defense with missiles and drones. Similar changes are coming to medicine with real time monitoring devices, for example, which do not require as many visits of patients with doctors. The inefficiencies associated with travel time for patients and office time for doctors can be reduced. A doctor’s productivity may be increased by being able to monitor and treat more patients in a given time period. One example is provided by


In sum, the Canadian medical system has excellent elements but is seriously malfunctioning. Unless there is public criticism which makes politicians take notice and act, Ontarians are doomed to receiving poor health services for their tax dollar, or go elsewhere in Canada or abroad and pay for necessary treatment. Note that this already happens with education, whereby about five percent of the school age population is educated privately, while their parents get no relief from the taxes used to provide public education.


The Last Knight – A Review

July 27, 2014

The Last Knight – A tribute to Desmond Fitzgerald, 29thKnight of Glin by Robert O’Byrne (Lilliput Press, 2013).


Robert O’Byrne has written a notable account of Desmond Fitzgerald and his role in nourishing, and in some cases resurrecting, the arts in Ireland. Desmond turned a spotlight on Irish architecture, paintings, and furniture from the 18th century onward. He was an unusual and in many ways an impressive character combining academic, entrepreneurial and promotional skills.

The genre for the book combines biographical details of Desmond with a taste of certain aspects of Irish culture, enough to encourage this reader to learn more. O’Byrne is a vice-president of the Irish Georgian Society and a much published author in this subject area. He writes well in a style which would have pleased Orwell.

I knew Desmond when he was at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the 1950s. We shared with Graham Moseley a rather dingy, bordering on squalid, basement apartment in Vancouver while we attended university. I last saw Desmond in the early 1960s when he was working at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I delivered a wedding present to him and we had lunch at his flat in Dupont St. This would have been his first marriage. On the way to the meeting there was a chase of someone running down the sidewalk who had apparently shop-lifted an article and was being pursued. I stuck out a foot and tripped the man. He was caught. The glass gift, a decanter, fell but survived. I have no idea why I remember this, which took place over 50 years ago, when I have difficulty in recalling what I did yesterday.

I knew that Desmond studied fine arts at Harvard followed by a position at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but I had no idea that he had gone on to have such a distinguished career as a writer, researcher, and collector of certain aspects of Irish history. Desmond became a shrewd buyer and seller of Irish art and published widely in academic and non-academic publications. An active social life was part of what he enjoyed and how he promoted his cultural interests. There are many wealthy Irish, some still living there, with more in the USA and other parts of the world. If reached, they may put their hands in their pockets and support their cultural heritage. Some have done so.

When Desmond inherited his ancestral home, Glin Castle, it was in terrible shape structurally and in terms of the interior decoration or lack of it. The Fitzgerald family did not have the resources to restore  Glin. These came from Desmond’s stepfather, Ray Milner, a wealthy Canadian lawyer who married Desmond’s mother Veronica after his father died. Much of what Desmond achieved, especially in restoring Glin, was the result of Ray Milner’s financial support. Irish heritage should mount a plaque to Ray Milner, perhaps it has.

Desmond’s more academic pursuits would have likely flourished anyway, as well as a career based on his fine arts training. He would also have earned a living as a shrewd art dealer, which is what he was when he was employed by Christie’s in Ireland. The one part of The Last Knight which I had difficulty with is the explanation of how Desmond squared a love of collecting and retaining Irish artifacts in Ireland with his job at Christie’s. There, he assisted in selling Irish items which would often leave the country. Desmond would have had no difficulty with this contradiction. O’Byrne confronts the issue and makes a plausible case to explain it.


Veronica, his mother, was a formidable character whom I met. She is accurately described in In Veronica’s Garden (Madrona books, 2002) which has a foreword by Desmond so that he was comfortable with the depiction of his mother. I was surprised to learn that he wrote to her frequently as the impression I had was that they were not that close. In fact, I suspect they both enjoyed and promoted the often vicious verbal sparring. His mother once arrived at our apartment to visit Desmond. She came on the ferry from Vancouver Island and had expected Desmond to meet her, which he failed to do. He was also not at the door to greet her when she arrived by taxi. Outraged by this thoughtless treatment, she proceeded to scold Desmond saying that she might have been molested on the way from the harbour. Veronica was a large lady and perhaps overestimated her attraction as a target. We gave her a drink and she settled down.

Many of the traits and interests Desmond pursued in later life can be found in his character and behavior in his early years in Canada. Robert O’Byrne has produced an impressive and well written book. It is a tribute to Desmond, describing all sides of his character. It is also a tribute to his wife and three daughters who nurtured the environment which made his contributions possible.

Planning For Future Employment and Careers

July 21, 2014


Those born since 2000, and probably earlier, ask whether there will be a job for them, will it be the type they want and will it support the lifestyle they will aspire to. Concern about the loss of future good paying and interesting jobs is uppermost in the minds of young people. It should be, as it has been for young people previously. What it should encourage is starting to plan for the future at a young age, or for parents and friends to do it, which many already do. The good news is that while it has always been a concern for young people, it has usually worked out far better than initially expected. Living standards, with the associated jobs, are higher today in almost all parts of a world in a much larger population than existed 50 and 100 years ago. Things have got better for many people, not only in Canada, but throughout the world.

Employment, and the associated income, results from what takes place in the economy, which depends largely on the technology used to perform different functions. Over the past three centuries, especially since around 1765, much of the global economy has moved from an emphasis on agriculture to manufacturing and now services. Each change has required people having a new or revised set of skills, which are acquired through early life schooling as well as lifelong education. The latter is more necessary today.

The first industrial revolution saw a movement from agriculture to factory production and the use of the steam power to replace man, animal (horse) and water power. In the second, factories became further established, the internal combustion engine introduced using petroleum energy, and the development of mechanized means of transportation on land, sea and in the air. A third industrial revolution is now underway, starting around the 1960s, with the introduction of computers and digital advances leading to new means of production, transportation and communication. At each stage new or revised skills are required by the labour force, as is the case today.

What matters for our purposes is not what the current revolution is called – the internet age, the nuclear age – but what skills are required and what aspects of education best develop these skills. Those properly trained have the best chance to prosper during their lifetime. While the current third revolution seems to be more disruptive, albeit with positive effects, than the second, it may be that the second beats the third on the disruption score. Today is too soon to make such an evaluation. What is happening is that the rate of change is faster than previously, meaning that people will have to adapt (retrain) during their working lifetime, which is longer now because people are living longer.

I had one job as an academic and two main employers, both universities. These were combined with two years of required national service in the army and various summer jobs as deckhand, tour bus driver, bank clerk, construction worker, liquor store and postal employee. My grandchildren can expect to have more main employers and/or to retrain for the careers they initially pursue.


Understanding the revolutionary process


Economists and historians have studied these revolutions and made certain generalizations. Joseph Schumpeter explains progress as follows:

“The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation – if I may use that biological term – that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.”
– Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942)

Schumpeter describes capitalist change as a “perennial gale of creative destruction.” This leads to a paradox of progress involving the demise of old industries and the rise of new ones as described by W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm

Schumpeter and the economists who adopt his succinct summary of the free market’s ceaseless churning echo capitalism’s critics in acknowledging that lost jobs, ruined companies, and vanishing industries are inherent parts of the growth system. The saving grace comes from recognizing the good that comes from the turmoil. Over time, societies that allow creative destruction to operate grow more productive and richer; their citizens see the benefits of new and better products, shorter work weeks, better jobs, and higher living standards.

Herein lies the paradox of progress. A society cannot reap the rewards of creative destruction without accepting that some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever. At the same time, attempts to soften the harsher aspects of creative destruction by trying to preserve jobs or protect industries will lead to stagnation and decline, short-circuiting the march of progress. Schumpeter’s enduring term reminds us that capitalism’s pain and gain are inextricably linked. The process of creating new industries does not go forward without sweeping away the preexisting order.

The sad news for some is that certain jobs will be lost forever. The good news is that new jobs are created all the time. Public policy measures are needed to minimize the harm done by the losers. The job of individuals is to prepare, or like an athlete, train for the next event.

Some of the facts for Canada, but also for most parts of the world are as follows:

  1. The Canadian population and labour force has expanded enormously over the past century while the unemployment rate has remained in single digits, at times as low as 5%. There are more Canadians employed today than in the past as new technologies have been introduced. There has been no shortage of employment opportunities. They may not be the same jobs and some may not consider them as “good” jobs, but there has been no shortage of jobs leading to high unemployment.
  2. Women now constitute a far higher share of the Canadian labour force than previously, and this has not caused the unemployment rate to rise. And with the ageing of this population there will be more opportunities for employment by young people.
  3. An examination of the labour force by occupations reveals the changes. One glaring example is the proportion in agriculture in 1900 and now. It has declined from over 20% to less than 2% while the output of this sector has expanded enormously. This is due to the substitution of capital (machinery, fertilizer and seed improvement) for labour. In 2010, the average cow in Canada produced 22,000 lbs of milk per year versus 5,300 lbs in 1950, a 5% increase a year for each of the past 60 years. (I am unclear whether there has been rising unemployment in the cow population.)
  4. Allister Heath (Daily Telegraph, June 11, 2014, B2) observes the following:

 “Most of the jobs that allowed our ancestors to earn a living no longer exist, replaced for the most part by machines of various kinds, but more people in the UK work than ever before….In fact, many of the trades listed across the UK in the 1891 census no longer exist at all….In one hundred years’ time, many of the jobs we fill today will have gone the same way….The speed of the transformation has been phenomenal. Imagine someone from 1980 reading a jobs website today – not only would they have no idea what the internet was, they would barely recognize the jobs on offer.”


 For some, the adjustment will be easier than for others. Typically, those younger and more recently educated and trained will find it easier to find a new job than older workers brought up using earlier technologies. For example, in the publishing industry metal print machines require different skills to electronic typesetting. The stoker on a coal-fired steam railway engine requires muscle-power, different from the skills needed by the driver at the controls of a diesel engine.

These examples illustrate the “lump of labour fallacy,” often alluded to concerning the employment opportunities available in the Canadian (and other) economies. There are no fixed number of jobs available in a dynamic economy where millions of new jobs are created each year to replace the millions lost due to various types of change.

Are there good and bad jobs?

Jobs can be described as boring or interesting, legal or illegal, well or poorly paid, but good and bad are not useful descriptive terms. Manufacturing jobs are sometimes labelled as good jobs in contrast to service sector jobs, but this is misleading. Some jobs in the manufacturing sector are poorly paid and others highly paid, depending on the skills required to perform them. Some in the service sector are paid low wages – fast food workers and retail sales staff for example, but doctors, software engineers and computer programmers may be highly paid as is the case for a wide variety of health related services.

Confusion is created by reports showing that industrialized economies have moved to 75% service sector jobs. Some of these are the hamburger flipping, barrista-type jobs, but many are service jobs which were formerly part of the manufacturing sector and are now conducted in separate facilities. When an accountant or lawyer moves from providing in-house services in the automotive sector to a standalone accounting or law firm, they become workers in the service sector as opposed to the manufacturing sector.

Much of the stated change in employment in these two sectors are a result of such corporate reorganizations. Some of the reorganization may involve outsourcing work to foreign firms. When higher paying service sector jobs are outsourced (foreign or domestically), they may not be replaced by equally high paying jobs. This is part of the process of “creative destruction.” A dynamic economy wins some and loses some and it will never be an equal balancing process.


How to prepare for the future?

Assuming that a person completes a typical junior and high school education, what comes next? University and/or community college are two possible institutional progressions. Alternatively a high school student may enter the workforce directly and receive some degree of training on the job. Combining education with work is another option as it links an apprentice-type process and provides the training which any employee will have to receive, whether preparing espresso coffees or articling to be a lawyer.

Apprenticeship is often thought of in terms of skilled trades, but it happens in all occupations in some manner particular to the occupation. A trainee lawyer, accountant, doctor, dentist and engineer goes through an apprentice process peculiar to the skills required for the job. All occupations have levels and types of skills and may be paid differently, but each one requires a screening process on entry, even if it just means being able to understand a language. An immigrant hired to stock warehouse shelves will need to understand and read the language used by the firm. Similar understanding in a different context is required by an immigrant surgeon where failure could be lethal.


What subjects, where and when to study?

(This section is a revised version of an earlier posting which included input from a number of former graduate students. Many of the ideas originated with them. I don’t expect them necessarily to agree with my treatment of them.)


The stages of life and education progress from kindergarten to primary and secondary school, university and/or community college to the workforce. Some go direct from high school to the work force. Lifelong learning takes place in a formal sense when adults engage in programs of continuing education of various kinds. Online courses make it easier and cheaper to undertake learning both in earlier and later years. How this will affect existing institutions is unclear.

There is an extensive literature on this general topic, and I am no expert, but we have all had the personal experience of the various stages of education, and may have children, grandchildren, relatives and friends who are going through the process.

While details of the present are fairly clear, looking ahead ten years is like looking into a fog, and may be as reliable as a weather forecast three months hence. As technological, political and economic events are moving very fast, continual updating of the present and near future is necessary. Just this week, a Malaysian airliner has been downed by what is likely a Russian supplied missile to Ukrainians. Earlier this year, Muslims formed a new country out of parts of Syria and Iraq. These are known unknowns.

The stages of the education progress from kindergarten to primary and secondary school, university and/or community college to the workforce. Some may go direct from school to the work force where they engage in some form of apprenticeship, the term used traditionally in the trades, but similar to articling procedures in the professions. Lifelong learning takes place in a formal sense when adults engage in programs of continuing education of various kinds. Online courses make it easier and cheaper to undertake learning at all stages of life. How this will affect existing institutions is unclear, but the best universities are becoming involved in some use of online education, and it will be seen as a means of cost savings for all institutions. Firms already use online education when they administer in-house training courses delivered online. What the future will hold for the educational process in general is only faintly understood….at least by me.


       Passion and employment

  1. A recurring comment on the subject of what and where to study is that a person may decide to pursue their passion or employment opportunities. Pursuit of passion can lead to employment but often in a highly competitive environment where the financial rewards may be slim. Greater certainty is associated with taking a path towards an occupation or profession where the initial steps are clearly marked out. But the general advice given by some is to pursue what interests you – your passion.
  2. By passion, I mean someone who may want to become a musician, singer, composer, actor, athlete, writer, academic or artist. Many of these activities can be pursued as a hobby throughout life, but rewarding employment is more difficult. Some arts and sports may be subsidized by government, but the reliability of a steady income is not great. This is not an argument against following one’s passion, but to realize the likely impact on one’s future livelihood
  3. Less risk is associated with a university degree route which leads to some type of recognized certification – for example, lawyer, doctor, dentist, nurse, accountant, engineer, architect, economist, programmer, and business executive.  An MBA degree is one popular option. If pursued, it should be taken at a first rate university, and on a full-time basis. It can provide entry into the first job, and the employee’s program may be subsidised by an employer. After any initial job, personal performance will determine advancement.
  4. Each person will have to discover and decide what their skill-set is. Don’t be surprised if you end up pursuing some discipline or activity about which you knew very little when entering university. While still in high school, you have limited knowledge about the different job opportunities and disciplines. I went from agriculture to commerce to economics in university. Perhaps a slow learner, but I did not appreciate what each possible occupation involved until I became more familiar with it. The UK system forces students to narrow their disciplinary focus by the time they enter university. The North American liberal arts approach starts with a wider exposure to disciplines and a narrowing of focus often at the graduate level. The latter suited me better, but both can provide satisfactory outcomes. The fact that there is choice is a good thing for those considering how to navigate the future.
  5. A BA program which does not lead to some professional certification has little employment value in today’s labour market. Only the truly exceptional are likely to have the same job chances as those following a more professional program.  Many service sector jobs, such as in fast food and retail outlets now require a university degree. This is not because the job requires a degree but because labour market conditions allow employers to require this qualification.
  6. A valuable comment about universities is:

Go to the best school you can:  This matters for three reasons.  First, you will be judged by the university that you go to.  The better the school, the better the first impression. Second, many opportunities arise later in life through the network of friends that you met at university, and higher-ranked universities tend to produce more valuable networks. Third, at better universities you are often (though not necessarily) exposed to and competing with a higher calibre of student.  You will learn early what standards need to be met in order to compete. 

7. High school marks should be evaluated and understood with care. There has been grade inflation, at least in the Ontario school system, and some of this carries over to early university years. Some argue that first year university has become a continuation of high school, or what should have been learned in high school. Graduation grades often fall one or two letter grades (A to B or A to C), between high school and university.

8. In school and university, it is useful to become involved in extracurricular activities, sports, clubs, newspaper, radio. These will widen your knowledge of what awaits you after university, and creates a network of contacts which can be valuable for the first job and throughout your life. Today, it is much easier to stay connected with former friends and colleagues. Increasingly, younger (and many older) people have electronic devices for communication and study by accessing internet sites.

9. A pertinent comment made about university study is:

 As to implications for university studies, it is not so much what you study that matters, but that you study.  What matters are the following skills that normally you will find in a proper university study: problem solving and analytical skills, ability to think strategically about given topics, ability to communicate well in English and at least one other language  (the better you can express yourself, the better you can convey your message), moderation/negotiation skills, numerical/financial awareness (always good, even if in a non-financial area), exposure (to different disciplines, cultures, etc), ability to manage projects. The latter is really important – irrespective of the level at which one is in a job as it requires very good planning, target orientation, analytical skills, communication skills and a lot of direct/indirect leadership plus team work. Universities can also stimulate the latter through group work on given topics (versus only individual work).  


What subjects to study?

  1. Here there is a wide variety of views, often made by those who have pursued a particular career path, and now look back on what they would have liked to have studied. I studied economics and now wish I had studied more history, demography and geography. I realize that this is not the stage that teenagers are at. They have to decide how to allocate their scarce time at university before they enter the labour force, so they need to know what line of work they might like to pursue.
  2. Before giving my list of subjects, note the emergence of online learning by way of MOOCs supplied by firms such as Coursera, Udacity, the Khan Academy, and Singularity University. While lifetime learning has always existed through correspondence courses, the Open University in the UK and courses provided free by MIT, it is now more readily available together with sites like TED talks. There is now even less reason why formal education cannot be an ongoing process rather than being compressed in the early years of life. MOOCs are changing the operation of universities. At present a large number of people enroll in MOOCs – why not, they are free – but less than ten percent complete the course and most of these are over thirty.
  3. At high school, the study of English, Maths, Science, History, Geography, the Arts (dance, drama, music, the visual arts), health/sports would be on my priority list. A second language (French, Spanish or Chinese), statistics and computer studies would come next.
  4. Mathematics is important both in itself but also for undertaking research, writing reports, and for interpreting and understanding other people’s research findings.  An ability to write well in English includes writing clearly, grammatically and with correct spelling. Nothing undermines the value of a piece of written work more than if it is poorly written and presented. Even if it is submitted as a draft, it should be carefully edited before presentation, as a first submission of any kind leaves an impression which tends to stick.
  5. In my view, there are certain subjects which can be left to study at university. These include amongst others, psychology, sociology and economics. If taught in high school they are often taught poorly. In economics my lecturing experience was that first year university students performed better if they had not previously studied it in high school, where it may be taught by those with little economic training. I am now ambivalent about when economics should first be taught. Watching teenagers and preteens navigate the various payment plans for mobile devices, working at part-time jobs and often being mislead by those who employ them, I see a need and an opportunity to teach basic economic concepts at a junior school level. A group of economists at Rutgers University studies this topic and shows how children’s literature can be used to illustrate economic concepts.

Curiosity and creativity

  1. These are two words which frequently arise in the discussion of education, especially the need to encourage both of them. Kenneth Robinson (in a TED Talk) makes the case that the traditional educational path destroys the innate curiosity with which children are born.  He uses the metaphor of Death Valley in California where there is typically no rainfall and nothing grows. One year there were seven inches of rain and the desert blossomed with flowers, suggesting that life is dormant until stimulated. The same he argues is the case with the educational system, which frequently destroys the creative instincts of children.
  2. Referred to as cognitive development, some suggest that curiousity and creativity can be addressed in part by exposing children to a wide range of experiences, including travel, learning a second language, developing a hobby, having a mentor, and providing an environment in which the child is encouraged to raise questions.
  3. Research on and answers to many questions can be undertaken now with the push of a button by accessing Wikipedia or using a search engine. The published volumes of encyclopedias and the World Book have been replaced by easily accessible online sources. TED talks are another way to expose students to researchers working at the frontiers of their specialty, and often have intriguing displays such as Hans Rosling on statistics. Programs like GIS for geography, Sketchup for land use planning, Tableau for maths and economics are available and necessary for those entering certain occupations.
  4. One implication of the foregoing is that parents and friends, as well as teachers, are needed to stimulate these forms of curiosity and questioning. Parents often say that teachers appear to be downloading teaching responsibilities to the home. This may be the case but education requires the input of both home and school. By being part of the educational process, parents may end up educating themselves. As a grandparent, I learn from finding out about the educational process in schools.
  5. Community colleges now play an important role in preparing people for rewarding occupations. Sometimes people can attend colleges after university, sometimes instead of university and sometimes the two are combined (as occurs now at Carleton and other universities). Earnings in the trades taught at colleges like electrician, plumbing, carpentry, heavy equipment operator, and cooking can be substantial.


Communications media and hiring

  1. In hiring, employers use the internet in two ways. First they hire firms to look for talented people online, in the same way that athletic teams use scouts to search for future stars. They may find a person who has started a business, written a program or authored articles which have been published. Some firms specialize in identifying people with certain skills.
  2. The downside occurs when information is found on the internet which compromises the candidate because of items appearing on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Nothing can be deleted from the cloud where most of these postings are stored. My rule of thumb is never to post anything on the internet that you would not want your parents or grandparents to see. This is true for emails too. You cannot assume that any posting is deleted forever.
  3. The big software employers like Google, Amazon and Microsoft run their interviewees through day- or days-long processes to determine how well they can express themselves, solve problems, brainstorm and organize information and research results.  This means the loner tech geek still has to be able to work in groups and engage in confrontational creativity.
  4. The hiring approach used by Google ties in with the concept of emotional intelligence or political astuteness, meaning learning to understand what motivates people and organizations, and learning to judge how people are going to react and interact with each other. One example is a colleague who gives talks to government officials about their economic policy making and performance. He starts by telling what they are doing right and then proceeds to what needs to be changed. If he reversed the order or told them that many of their policies and procedures were self-defeating and possibly disasters, he would lose his audience… and not be rehired as a consultant.

Miscellaneous thoughts

  1. Seize any opportunity to engage in public speaking, this includes acting and improv. Making posters as notes for giving a talk is a way to start becoming comfortable talking to groups. Evaluating the talks of others teaches you the things that impress or annoy you. Ask your friends for comments, and do the same for them. Don’t be afraid of being critical in a positive manner.
  2. Paid and unpaid work at a young age is an indicator of a person’s willingness to become involved and active in a community. This has a positive payoff in later job interviews. Travel is a way of rounding out your education at any time.
  3. Careers to avoid include any activity which is likely to become automated or outsourced abroad.  Assembly line work has and will continue to be automated; 3D printers will make possible parts production in small batches; online courses will displace teachers especially at all levels. Opportunities will exist for those giving the courses and making the machines which substitute for labour.
  4. Governmental bureaucratic organizations have a different work environment than the private sector. The military, schools, universities, non-profit organizations, NGOs, charities, religious organizations all have particular work environments. One way to learn about these is to read about them, and talk with people in these organizations and those who have retired from them. The best way to find out about a particular school, university or program is to talk to people who are in the program now and to those who have recently graduated from the program. A university’s or college’s general reputation will often be based on the past rather than the current situation, and it is the current information which a prospective student requires.
  5. Graduates in law, economics and other disciplines are found to be strong in theory but with little understanding of the application of their disciplines to the real world. Thus emphasis is needed on simulations, negotiations, mock trials, report writing, and use of technology to aid application of the theory.
  6. The last is not just the use of existing programs such as Power Point and spreadsheets, but some ability to write programs – in Estonia all children are taught to “code” starting in primary school. Unless involved in a computer program, students in Canada tend to learn how to use existing programs but not how to write programs to solve particular problems.
  7. Universities enroll too many students in arts programs which have a dead end as far as possible employment is concerned. Universities cannot tell students what to take any more than they can tell them not to smoke or take drugs, but they can and should advise them of the consequences of alternative choices.   High school counselors can play a role here by being familiar with the job market. Note, if “dead end” results from following your passion, do so but understand the consequences.
  8.  Select people whom you see as mentors or role models. Practice observation and asking questions about things you see. Drawing, painting and photography are activities which train people to be observant.
  9. Start a business at a young age, child-care, paper deliveries, cooking, in order to understand how to interact with the public. If this sounds too materialistic, parallel advice for arts students would be to learn a musical instrument, volunteer to act in plays or provide stagehand services.


For Future Generations – What Now?

June 24, 2014



 This posting is an attempt to examine the type of world which our grandchildren, or those born since 2000 will inherit and grow up in. How should they think about the future and their lives in it? What can they do, if anything, to prepare for it?  I ended up with a smorgasbord of topics which I think have some relevance to these questions, but the choice resulted mainly from issues which interested me. What I am looking for is a framework combining these issues with others which are relevant to understanding how to cope with the future. Suggestions would be appreciated.


Following are the eleven issue areas noted:




Employment opportunities

Grade Inflation

Universities and colleges

Online learning


Immigration and multiculturalism

Working of democracy

Conflict situations




A year ago in 2013, I started a project. The aim was to think about, predict would be too strong a word, what the world will be like for those born since 2000. For example, what type of educational experience might be beneficial, what kind of work will they do, and how will it differ from my lifetime over the past 80 years. Those who had tried to forecast the events since the thirties were largely unsuccessful, and today few are able to anticipate major events which break out daily in the news headlines  – the Arab Spring, the Syrian uprising, the absorption of the Crimea into Russia, Sunni uprisings against Shia in Iraq, China’s  claims to mineral rights in the South China Sea. This is today’s list. A year hence it will have changed.


These political events are only a small part of past and current changes. Technological and economic factors since the 1930s have shattered and transformed firms and industries. Computers and communications are only one aspect. Energy, medicine, physics, chemistry and astronomy have all experienced new developments. No one in 1930, looking forward, imagined what would take place over the next 80 years. The same true today, although many try. One can either despair, and not make any forecasts, or one can try, by sifting through the massive literature on change, and still expect to be woefully wrong.


In pursuing this exercise, I had the benefit of tapping into the knowledge and experience of a number of former graduate students all of whom have interesting jobs, and were kind enough to give me ideas about issues to examine, which might be important for the next generation, often their own children. I also listened to my grandchildren and their friends who provide a sounding board for finding out what today’s world is like for them. That is my current educational experience. It requires asking questions, listening and not passing judgment on the answers.


Over the past year, I have read widely, mainly on economic and political topics but also a fair amount of history. I have enrolled in online courses which stimulated an interest in the future of online education in general, as well as the subject matter covered in the courses. On some of these topics I have posted pieces on a blog at which provides a way of organizing my thoughts in the form of working papers on which I could receive comments. In fact there were few comments sent to the blog, but I would circulate pieces to people whom I knew were interested in a particular topic and received comments back from them directly. This is a useful aspect of blogging. Some topics which initially I thought I would cover are left out. Others are added. This will be a work in progress, probably for the rest of my life, or for as long as I can stay awake.


One general note: retirement for me, and I suspect for others, has been transformed for the better by communications technology which allows research to take place at home, with access to more material than there is time to read it. Contact can also be made with authors who are often willing to talk or correspond by email, so that home study and research is not only rewarding but practical. The main constraint is 24 hours in the day. The supply of productive time remains limited, while the demands made on it increase daily. Economists are trained to deal with problems of scarcity, so perhaps I have some advantage here in understanding the mechanisms at work. For example, the number of hits a website gets is used to establish advertising rates.

What then have I learned about understanding the near future? Each of the following topics is worth lengthy treatment. Here I point to selected aspects.


  1. Geography

 A general knowledge of geography frames an understanding of the past, present and future. The world (planet earth) is a finite place of land and water plus the air above. It has not increased in overall size but has experienced some changes to the division between land and water. Knowledge about the universe in which planet earth is situated has expanded considerably, especially over the past decade. While research of future economic and political factors surveyed here is confined to the earth, the planet itself is a minute part of the universe. In universal terms, the earth hardly matters, and if it is demolished by a meteorite or comet, no one outside of earth, will notice. In universal terms, traditional macroeconomics is actually very micro, and what we fuss about is in one sense inconsequential, although it may be less so if space travel finds another habitable planet.


The geography of planet earth has a political and an economic dimension. In 1945, the Charter of the United Nations was signed by 50 countries. Today there are nearly 200 with places like Scotland, Quebec and the Basque region of Spain agitating for separation from existing states. Their aim is greater independence, ironically at a time when sovereign countries are becoming more dependent and giving up powers to multilateral organizations like the GATT, regional trade agreements such as NAFTA, the EU, NATO and a myriad of international agreements.


While there exists no world government, the UN tries to enforce commitments from member countries. In turn these countries try to use the UN when it suits their purposes, and otherwise ignore it. Although ineffectual in providing world government, the UN does act as a mail box and meeting place to deal with issues of international concern. It does little to address obvious cases of violence such as in Rwanda, Syria and Iraq, and refugee issues through the so-called Responsibility to Protect agreement, but aid to alleviate famine and the landmines agreement are where the UN does some good.


One dimension of the present and near future to note is an increase in the number of sovereign states covering a finite land area, and no world government to manage the interdependencies which arise. The term globalization refers to growing interdependence of countries and peoples in a number of dimensions. Knowledge of geography is one essential to understanding present and future events. When I was Director of a School of International Affairs, there was no world geography requirement. There should have been. (It is sometimes wryly remarked that Americans go to war in order to improve their knowledge of geography.)


   2. Demography

 How many people are there now and likely to be in the future? Until about 1800, the world’s population was stuck at around one billion. It reached 1.7bn in 1900, 6bn in 2000 and 7.1bn today. Forecasts for the end of the century are for just under 10bn and then a decline. Many issues which are the topic of public discourse are the result of population growth. Yet few point to this as a factor if it implies possible measures to curb growth, which only a few countries like China have seriously undertaken.


Population is linked to issues like ageing, the adequacy of working age people, the cost of caring for seniors, people living longer, employment opportunities, immigration procedures for regular immigrants and temporary foreign workers, the cost of providing educational, health and welfare services and so on. Together with the need for physical infrastructure such as roads, railways, airports and sea ports, these place a tremendous demand on global resources and the means to finance them either privately or by governments. The private-public distinction is never clear cut, as governments create the framework for firms, and firms supply governments with the goods and services they need.


A knowledge and understanding of demographic factors is essential for living and working in current and future conditions. Combined with geography, these are part of the foundations of living and working in today’s world. Both are fundamental to understanding both domestic and international affairs, and the world that future generations will inherit.


  1. Technology

 Labour and capital are foundational inputs used in an economy. Combined with technology they create different industrial opportunities through a process which Joseph Schumpeter described as “creative destruction.”

Over time, horse and animal power displaced human power. Then water power and the steam engine, followed by hydrocarbon generated power and then nuclear power. These represent part of the forces of “creative destruction,” which cause economic change, and the rise and decline of industries and occupations. Understanding where a national economy sits in the process of change is vital to being informed about the employment opportunities today and tomorrow.


John Mauldlin is a consultant whose writings examine future developments and are useful to those contemplating near and long term employment opportunities. A recent (June 2014) piece discusses the increasing rate of economic change based on a measure of the turnover of companies in the Standard & Poors index:


“And while your job may be one of those that will ride easily into our brave new future, the same may not be true of your stock investments. Companies show the same pattern of destruction and rebirth. Only five of today’s hundred largest public companies were among the top hundred in 1917. Half of the top hundred of 1970 had been replaced in the rankings by 2000…..the average lifespan of companies in the S&P 500 Index was about 60 years in 1960. Today they last about 15-20 years. That means we are currently replacing a stock in the index about every two weeks.


I can see many of my readers rolling their eyes and saying it won’t happen in 20 years. Or 30 or 40. Things just don’t happen that fast, you say. But that is just your old Homo sapiens brain extending the past in a linear fashion into the future. Moore’s law tells us that the number of transistors on a chip roughly doubles every two years (and the chip drops in price). But other industries, like solar tech and genome sequencing, are on exponential paths that make Moore’s law look positively snail-like. If the power of exponential change keeps working – and it will – we will see more change in the next 20 years than we saw in the last 100!”


  1. Employment opportunities

 Two of the most frequently heard concerns of younger people are that in the future there will be no jobs for them, and that the available jobs will be poorly paid. The first refers to the “lump of labour fallacy,” that there is only so much labour that an economy requires, and if the supply of labour exceeds this amount the excess will be unemployed. Joseph Schumpeter, writing in the 1940s, explains how economics approaches these concerns


“The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation – if I may use that biological term – that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.”
– Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942)


Schumpeter describes capitalism as the “perennial gale of creative destruction.” This leads to a paradox involving the demise of old industries and the rise of new ones as explained by W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm

Schumpeter and the economists who adopt his succinct summary of the free market’s ceaseless churning echo capitalism’s critics in acknowledging that lost jobs, ruined companies, and vanishing industries are inherent parts of the growth system. The saving grace comes from recognizing the good that comes from the turmoil. Over time, societies that allow creative destruction to operate grow more productive and richer; their citizens see the benefits of new and better products, shorter work weeks, better jobs, and higher living standards.

Herein lies the paradox of progress. A society cannot reap the rewards of creative destruction without accepting that some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever. At the same time, attempts to soften the harsher aspects of creative destruction by trying to preserve jobs or protect industries will lead to stagnation and decline, short-circuiting the march of progress. Schumpeter’s enduring term reminds us that capitalism’s pain and gain are inextricably linked. The process of creating new industries does not go forward without sweeping away the preexisting order.

The sad news is that some jobs will be lost forever. The good news is that new jobs are created all the time. The job of public policy is to minimize the harm done by the losses.

An examination of the labour force by occupations reveals the changes which have taken place. One of the most glaring examples is the proportion of the labour force in agriculture in 1900 and now. It has declined from over 20% to less than 2% while the output of this sector has expanded enormously. The change is due to the substitution of capital (machinery, fertilizer and seed improvement) for labour.  In 2010, the average cow in Canada produced 22,000 lbs of milk per year versus 5,300 lbs in 1950, a 5% increase a year for each of the past 60 years….if only humans could increase their productivity to the same degree.

Allister Heath (Daily Telegraph, June 11, 2014, B2) notes similar forces:

 “Most of the jobs that allowed our ancestors to earn a living no longer exist, replaced for the most part by machines of various kinds, but more people in the UK work than ever before….In fact, many of the trades listed across the UK in the 1891 census no longer exist at all….In one hundred years’ time, many of the jobs we fill today will have gone the same way….The speed of the transformation has been phenomenal. Imagine someone from 1980 reading a jobs website today – not only would they have no idea what the internet was, they would barely recognize the jobs on offer.”

 Heath goes on to argue that “…it will be vital to help individuals displaced by the new technologies to find work in new areas…..The lump of labour fallacy is the oldest myth in economics. There is no fixed stock of jobs; in a dynamic economy, millions of new ones are created every year to replace the equally large numbers that are lost. The luddites are as wrong today as they were two centuries ago.”


This may seem cold comfort to the recent university or community college graduate looking for a job and unable to find one today, but it alerts people to the need to marry their interests to the actual job opportunities which exist now and are likely to exist in the future.


    5. Grade inflation

 This is a topic which should concern students because the marks they receive in school, at least in Ontario, may not be a good reflection of their abilities and a measure of their expected performance.

Contrast the UK with Canada. In the UK there are state wide exams at the high school level used by those applying to university. Students are prepared for these exams and there is no discussion of the grades assigned. It is as universal and about as fair a process as can be designed. One consequence is that teachers teach to the exam and at the end each student takes only three subjects, and is required to apply for the degree she or he wishes to study for, in contrast to the North American liberal arts degree approach at the BA level.

In Ontario, each school grades its graduating students.  Except in limited cases, for example those enrolled in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program there is no province or nation wide exam. The consequence is that grade inflation occurs. Up until the late 1960s, there was a province wide exam and when it was abolished teachers warned that there would be grade inflation. They were right. Now when there is discussion of returning to province wide exams teachers oppose it, knowing that schools and their teachers will be judged according to the success of their students.

Universities are faced with the problem of knowing whether two students with the same grade, one from school A has the same qualifications as one from school B. They respond by putting all students in a first year class and finding out which ones do better. From this the universities can begin to evaluate schools so that first year classes become a sort of university entrance exam, but note this too is not perfect. It is university specific and not a common course evaluation.

Universities are meant to treat all students equally, which is fine when there is a common examination process. In fact, they make judgments based on accumulated experience about how students from different schools perform. Students in turn have adapted to this process by engaging in sports, music and other activities which receive a grade, but also shows the versatility of the student.

A different aspect of university admission flows from the fact that a higher proportion of the 18 to 24 age cohort now goes to university. While the distribution of student IQs in the population is bell shaped, university admissions have increased the share of the total population being admitted. This means that more students with lower IQs are admitted than previously. Partly this resulted from too few university places, and partly because of the vote getting attraction of offering families more opportunities for post-secondary education. At some point the vote getting pressures can lower the caliber of those accepted to universities, which either have to fail the students or lower the quality of those who graduate. This can push the evaluation problem to being dealt with by employers. Part of the requirement for BAs for those working in fast food outlets is due to the declining caliber of university graduates at the BA level; part due to the lack of jobs for which they are qualified.


  1. Community colleges and universities


There has been steady enrollment growth experienced by community colleges as a result of the changing nature of the economy and the availability of jobs. Students are now attracted by the salaries and work conditions being offered to those who have certain skills training.


The adjustment has seen more students enrolling directly in these colleges, or going first to university and then to a college, or enrolling in a combined university and college program. Each alternative may involve some form of work experience while studying, thereby easing fulltime entry into the workforce.


Students (and their parents) will have to evaluate where the job opportunities exist and what is the best route to qualify for these positions. They will also need to realize that potential employees will have to be prepared to travel to the workplace. Canada’s recent restrictions on the use of temporary foreign workers suggests that Canadian workers are unwilling to take the jobs which the foreigners will accept. In the past Canadian workers in areas of high unemployment were more willing to travel to available jobs. This no longer seems to be the case, or at least to the same extent as previously.


  1. Online learning

 (Please see posts for 2014, March 2, 11, 12, 14, April 27 for further discussion of this topic).


Where and how students receive their post secondary education in the future will depend on where and how courses are offered. Students will be able to choose what they study and where they study it. The traditional on site educational experience is now displaced or combined with some form of online learning. There will be a range of offerings from 100% on site to 100% online offerings at different prices, and at different costs to the student.


Those taking online courses can study at home thereby reducing transportation and living costs, in contrast to travelling to classes and paying for room and board to some third party. While the online experience is not a direct substitute for the on campus experience, the rising cost of post secondary education is partly alleviated by new means of communication, as was the case with its forerunners, correspondence courses and the Open University in the UK.

 There are many other aspects to consider. For those interested, a number of these are discussed in the posts noted above and will not be repeated here.


  1. Environment


If today’s discourse over the environment had taken place in 1900, it is difficult to imagine the landscape of the Canadian economy. Would the following have been built, the James Bay project, the aluminum smelters at Arvida and Kitimat, the St Lawrence Seaway, the network of pipelines which cross Canada and so on? It’s interesting note that while there are strong forces arguing in 2014 against the Keystone Pipeline and the Northern Gateway Pipeline, there will be additional oil shipped through the Kinder Morgan Pipeline which ends in Port Moody BC, requiring tankers to enter the Gulf of Georgia, Burrard Inlet, go under the Lions Gate Bridge and proceed up river to the storage tanks at Port Moody.


No one working today can ignore the environmental debate. I hesitate to enter this minefield, but will do so by referencing Matt Ridley’s summary of the 2014 Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as reported in the Financial Post, June 19, 2014, p.FP9. Ridley is a columnist for the Times (London) and a member of the House of Lords. He has reported on this topic for 25 years.


“The IPCC commissioned four different models of what might happen to the world economy, society and technology in the 21st century and what each would mean for the climate, given a certain assumption about the atmosphere’s “sensitivity” to carbon dioxide. Three of the models show a moderate, slow and mild warming, the hottest of which leaves the planet just 2 degrees Centigrade warmer than today in 2081-2100. The coolest comes out just 0.8 degrees warmer.


Now two degrees is the threshold at which warming starts to turn dangerous……That is to say, in three of the four scenarios considered by the IPCC, by the time my children’s children are elderly, the Earth will still not have experienced any harmful warming, let alone catastrophe.”

The fourth scenario produces 3.5 degrees of warming by 2081-2100. It is based on the following assumptions:

The global population will increase to 12 billion – this is at least one billion more than the UN expects, and the rate of population growth is presently declining.

The world will burn ten times as much coal as today, producing 50% of primary energy in contrast with 30% today. Assumptions made in the report about nuclear and renewable energy sources mean that fossil fuels will dominate energy production – Ridley considers these assumptions “very, very implausible.”

“That is to say, even if you pile crazy assumption upon crazy assumption till you have an edifice of vanishingly small probability, you cannot even manage to make climate change cause minor damage in the time of our grandchildren, let alone catastrophe. That’s not me (Ridley) saying this – it’s the IPCC itself.”

I am interested in the world inhabited by my children’s children. From what I understand from experts, environmental disaster should be of lesser concern relative to issues such as nuclear destruction, the use of chemical weapons and their delivery provided by rockets and drones. Nevertheless, the environmental debate is one these children should study in order to be familiar with the findings of those with expertise in the field.


  1. Immigration and multiculturalism


While these two topics can be discussed separately, they are closely related. Immigration concerns the inflow of foreigners, and multiculturalism deals with how those who stay permanently are integrated into Canadian society. For newcomers as well as those who are first, second and third generation immigrants, as well as their children, this is a circumstance they need to recognize. There is not much they can do about it.


My views on immigration policy and multiculturalism are posted at  for 2012, Feb 13, Nov 9,25,27;  2013,  Mar 21.and will not be repeated here. I would add, however, that the circumstances of recent immigrants differ from those who came before in one important way. Today’s newcomers are more connected to their country of origin through cheap means of communications, such as social media, as well as cheap air travel. They are much less cut off from their roots than I was when I came from England in the 1950s, and the trip from London to Vancouver by train, boat and train took just under ten days. Trans-Atlantic phone calls were over $3 per minute versus virtually free now by Skype and Facetime.


Today, the link with the country of origin is stretched but not broken. And when countries compete in a world sports competition, Canadian citizens of different origins may support their birth country and not Canada. This is not an unexpected situation, but it does mean that Canadians are increasingly working among people who may be less committed to Canada and associate more with their country of origin. Young people may find themselves working among contemporaries who consider Canada a convenient platform for their lives, making some newcomers a permanent form of temporary foreign worker. There is not much an individual can do about this except to realize the context.


      10.  The workings of democracy

Future generations will need to assess how their system of government is working, and whether predictions about the demise of democracy which they are likely to face is real or manufactured. A starting point is Churchill’s quote that, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”


Accepting Churchill’s conclusion still requires being wary about the health of a democracy in any particular situation. For example contrast the British and Canadian systems. In Britain, Question Period in the House of Commons results in questions being answered directly, often with humour, and with the use of debating skills. On other occasions cabinet ministers may oppose each other, not just in cabinet meetings but in the House of Commons, often to the dismay of the Prime Minister.


In the Canadian House of Commons, Question Period leads to questions being unanswered, and to juvenile remarks being exchanged. A cabinet minister who disagrees with the Prime Minister is likely to be fired. The nuances and the workings of a system labeled responsible government need to be understood. However, both systems are preferable to Russian or Chinese style of so-called democracy which gives the word a bad name.


Under the umbrella of governance the issues of national security, human rights, income inequality, education, healthcare, taxation and the treatment of aboriginal societies are topics for discussion. Each deserves focused analysis (perhaps at some future time).


The same is true for anticipating future micro and macro-economic conditions. The depression of the 1930s was followed by postwar business cycles with reasonable booms and busts, until the financial crisis of 2008-09. Writing in 2014, this last crisis is too close to know exactly why it happened, and whether it will happen again leading to unemployment levels of the thirties. But in time we should learn how to analyse these conditions and reduce the likelihood of a repeat performance of 2008-09.


 11. Conflict Situations

 Perhaps the most difficult set of issues to consider is understanding where future conflicts, domestic and international, will arise and how to prepare for them. In 1934, I entered a world that had recently experienced a devastating world war and had witnessed the loss of even more lives due to a flu pandemic from 1918-20. Flu affected an estimated 500 million people and killed 50 to 100 million or 3-5% of the world’s population. Perhaps then we should be more concerned about diseases than violence and terrorism.


Few expected the outbreak of WW2 in 1939. The same could be said about the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Algerian war, the rise and fall of Communism starting from 1989, conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and in Central and South America which continue today, especially in Africa and the Middle East. Some of today’s wars result from the demise of the Ottoman and Austro Hungarian Empires and agreements such as Sykes-Picot at the end of WW1 which set middle-eastern boundaries. Also, the British Empire reached its peak around 1900-14 and rapidly declined over the next 60 years to its present day status leaving the Commonwealth and a few pieces of real estate tied to the mother country.


Be prepared for the unknown seems the best advice for younger generations. Almost all the experts who monitor international political and economic affairs are wrong in forecasting future situations of terror, violence and economic crises.  They may appear wise but usually after the event has occurred. The means for terrorist incidents are increasing and can now be conducted by small groups against critical targets without warning. States have responded with more sophisticated surveillance techniques which George Orwell could never have imagined possible. We worry about violence but also about the loss of civil liberties. In sum, perhaps the best advice to future generations is to be aware of what Donald Rumsfeld describes the “known unknowns,” things we now will happen but not when and where.


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