Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Case Against Masks: Or, Legal Challenges Against Covid Restrictions

A number of different groups are launching Charter challenges to Covid-19 restrictions. The challenges are a sign of the politics of our times. According to CBC, a group of current and retired police officers in Ontario are suing for the elimination of mask requirements, curfews, and restrictions on public gatherings on the following grounds (qtd: CBC): 

  • Canada's pandemic laws "are not rational" and have "no force or effect." 
  • Lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and curfews are "forms of martial law." 
  • Wearing masks, social distancing and lockdowns are "ineffective" and "not scientifically or medically based" because they're based on coronavirus cases the legal documents claim "are 96.5 per cent false."

In another instance, seven churches in Manitoba are arguing that public health restrictions circumvent their freedom of conscience and assembly. Again, according to CBC

Seven rural Manitoba churches hope to convince a judge that the province's lockdown measures are unjustified violations of Charter-protected freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and peaceful assembly — and that the chief medical officer of health failed to consider the "collateral social and health costs" of locking down society. 

Do these suits have any merit? No and the courts will not find for them. Why? Because these cases are being launched on grounds that fundamentally misunderstand the application of the law and the nature of judicial review in Canada. Let's look at several key points. 

First, in each case the challenges seek to make their case on the basis of philosophy. For instance, they argue that we should take social and health costs into effect when enacting public policy and, because of this, eliminate public health measures. The problem with this contention is that it is actually a bad argument because the second point (the elimination of public health measures) does not follow from the first point (which, loosely paraphrased, is that people's mental health is important). In fact, it may contract it. Said differently, there is a disjuncture between the contention and the legal remedy it seeks to address it. 

How so? Well ...  it is rightly difficult to argue that mental health and the social considerations in which it is based should not be considered in public policy. I think they should be. It is one of the reasons I support public education, increased funding for higher education, and a single-user pay health care system. The problem this argument runs into is that it ignores the social and medical context in which public health measures were enacted. While you may not think this is the case, context is vitally important to the operation of the law. For example, if I aim a gun at someone and shoot them, I have committed murder. If a gun accidentally goes off, I may have committed some other crime but I have not committed murder. If I walk across your lawn for the fun of it, I trespass. If I walk across your law to save a life, I have engaged in a necessary action. Said differently, to argue about mental health and social costs without consideration of the context in which laws have been enacted, the intent of those laws, and their efficacy, is to make an argument in opposition of the operation of Canadian law. It is to appeal to the courts to rule against a foundational element -- the context in which an action takes place is important -- of the law and I find it difficult to believe that they will do that.

Second, this is important because the issue is not that there have been been social costs to the pandemic. To the best of my knowledge, no one debates that there have been costs. The problem for these challenges is this: that is not the issue. The issue is that the government of Manitoba was not dealing with a point of abstract principle. In fact, I'd bet if you were to ask the government of Manitoba if it preferred a different course of action, you'd get a resounding "yes" in response. I'd guess they would say that they have taken public health actions reluctantly and only after considering their full implications as a matter intended to protect the lives of Manitobans. Pandemics, by definition, have social, mental, and physical health costs. These costs are independent of government policies and the problem with the challenge is that mis-ascribes the root of the mental and social costs it seeks to address. In other words, it suggests that policies protecting the health of Manitobans are at fault and not Covid-19. The government of Manitoba made the decisions to accomplish specific aims: it was dealing with people's lives and making a sincere effort to protect those lives. They determined, as did btw every other responsible government in the world, that some measure of temporary restrictions were necessary to do the best to protect lives, particularly of those who were most vulnerable. The legal issue is not "do restrictions create issues for people's mental wellbeing?" The issue is: "was this course of action justified in the circumstances as a temporary measure designed to protect lives?" I may, personally, continue to not like those restrictions but that does not make the unconstitutional. 

I want to draw specific attention to the temporary character of public health restrictions. In most provinces, restrictions are implemented for a fixed period of time and must be renewed. If they are not renewed, the cease to have force and effect. I initially found this continual renewing of restrictions annoying (yes, we know the border is closed and we know it is going to be closed for a certain length of time ... why do you keep renewing this agreement?) until I realized that this was the point: this measures are not permanent restrictions that will have permanent force and effect. They are temporary measures designed to deal with an emergency situation in which that, by definition, requires unusual actions. And, as a result, they need to be continually re-assessed in order to ensure that they are temporary. 

If we think of public health measures in this way, the argument being made by the Manitoba churches seems rather odd on a philosophical level as well. What we are talking about is not a defence of freedom of conscience (religion) but an argument that says my religion is so important to me that I am unwilling to accept temporary limitations that could save others lives. I don't believe this is the statement these churches intend to make. Indeed, I think they believe that their actions will have no social or health effect (which is also odd for an argument that is premised on recognizing the importance of social issues). What I am saying is that when the courts assess this issue, this is a consideration that will weigh on their assessment: to what extent can the government take limited and temporary actions that are designed to prevent potentially broad case deaths in society?  Is it ethical, I think the courts will ask themselves, for us to open the door to actions that endanger lives and in a way that will necessarily fall unevenly across the population. The most vulnerable members of society will, as we have seen, pay the highest price for a lack of public health measures. Removing public health measures, in this way, creates an uneven danger to others. I find this difficult to believe the courts will accept. 

The final important matter to consider is the empirical basis upon which these challenges rest. The fact that every respectable medical professional and scholarly assessment of the pandemic supports public health measures is important. The courts decide matters on the basis of law and particularly as it pertains to the constitution, there is an element of philosophy embedded in the decision making process. The constitution, after all, is not simply a division of powers or a set of higher laws but a statement of ideals and aspirations. This said, courts also connect decisions to evidence. Evidence is, in fact, particularly important to the operation of the law in Canada. Said differently, I cannot simply make an argument to the court and say "in my view this is the right argument. It accords with my ethics, so you should find it legal, or illegal, as the case may be." Arguments must be based on evidence (and, in some cases, reasonable probability, which is way of projecting evidence into the future).  

This may be why the Ontario police officers and retired officers use an elevated rhetoric to try to make their point, alleging that public health measures are ineffective and amount to martial law. Both contentions, however, are not matters of opinion but empirical points subject to analysis and research. If you believe public health measures are ineffective, I actually think that there is little that I can say to change your mind. But, the issue is not your mind, nor for that matter mine. The issue is what can be empirically demonstrated in a court of law where personal opinions are not what is taken into account. Here, the issue will not be one of finding a single "authority" who disputes public measures, but finding a qualified individual who can interpret a mountain of evidence that all points one way. As anyone who watches TV can tell you, most medical officials believe that public health measures in Canada did not go far enough or fast enough. To the best of my knowledge, there is no credible recognized authority or scholarly study that contends anything different. 

I might make a similar point about freedom of conscience. To what degree have religious freedoms been limited by public health measures? My church went "online" early on and my church's local governing body has urged us to not simply follow restrictions but to be one step behind the government. They believe that this fulfills the Christian requirement to love your neighbour and that this is more important than an individual's ability to go to a building. In fact, if you think the building you go to is your church ... you and I have very different understandings of the word "church." We found that our "attendance" increased with the move to online services. Far from limiting our ability to communicate, the response to the pandemic naturalized the use of technologies that we were otherwise slow in adopting and drew in a different audience. My point is not that this is for everyone, my point is that if you look at freedom of conscience as an empirical question, it is difficult to content that public health restrictions limited it. 

Likewise, if you believe that being asked to wear a mask is the same as martial law ... I'd recommend you ask someone who has lived in a country that has been under martial law. Habeas corpus, I will note, has not been suspended, military courts have not been created, and legislative assemblies have not been suspended. As I write this, in fact, I have just returned from voting in a municipal election. The hallmarks of martial law are simply not evident. In place of them, what we have is a confusion. Some people seem to feel temporary health measures which they dislike are the same as the subversion of democracy. And, they just aren't. 

A final note: my point is not that all has gone well in the Canadian response to Covid-19. It hasn't and this is well documented as well. A court challenge, however, is not about things that have not gone well. It is not about trial and error in public policy in response to a rapidly changing situation. Instead, it is about whether or not specific laws are unconstitutional and unconstitutionality is something other than disliking a law. What these challenges do is try to make that equation. Whether intentional or not they are built on confusion, a failure to understand basic features of the law, and empirical errors. For a constitutional challenge, this is not a good mix. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Bromance? Canada-US Relations in the Post-Trump Age

I suspect Don Martin is right: Canada-US relations will be plagued with problems for years go come. Canadians should have no illusions about Biden and his commitment to addressing American domestic concerns. I also suspect he is right a second time. Better Biden than Trump. You can find his argument here. There is a great deal about which to be skeptical following the first Biden/Trudeau summit but also a great deal about which to be happy. While there are voices (see previous posts) that have tried to cast Biden as somehow anti-Canadian because of his opposition to Keystone XL, we need to recognize that those voices are intensely politicized and don't really reflect a solid and serious basis upon which Canadian/American relations can go forward.  I think this first meeting was a good start and, if I were Trudeau, I'd be reticent to start arguing about Keystone XL not because I was abandoning Alberta, but for a host of other reasons that I've already tried to explain. 

What are the positive signs? What are the potential bumps in the road and how are they to be addressed? And, what are the implications of this meeting for Alberta? 

The may be a long list of positive signs but some of the key ones I noticed from news coverage are as follows: 

  • Canada and the US seem to have agreed upon a loose framework to work together on a range of matters.
  • The US government is clearly signalling the importance with which it views Can/Am relations and its desire to be a good "friend" of Canada.
  • There are issues on which Canada and the US need to work together, if for no other reasons than our shared geography.
  • The US is flagging places where it believes Canada can be helpful. For instance, the Biden administration's desire to return to some sort of positive international role for the US guided, at least in part, by a re-engagement with multilateral institutions.  Here, the Biden administration is looking for Canada's support to help it re-establish itself on the international stage. 
  • Twitter diplomacy seems to be at an end. Twitter diplomacy is not just about social media. It is actually a calculated political strategy that works on a number of fronts. In some measure, it worked through threat and uncertainty and looked to inculcate a measure of anxiety over potential consequences in order to push its agenda forward. In my view, Twitter diplomacy took the Canadian state aback because it was unexpected. 
  • Keystone XL to one side, reading between the lines, the current Biden administration is not going to "give away the farm" but it appears willing to make compromises and it sees compromises as a natural part of a positive international relationship. 

What are the bumps in the road? From what I can see, there are a number but I also think we (as Canadians) need to have a good perspective on them.  I'll highlight a few key issues and then qualify them. 

First, this summit will not solve all problems. The loose framework upon which the leaders agreed is simply that: a framework. This needs to be remembered. Canada and the US are in the process of re-establishing a higher level of civility to their relations at the executive level. This in itself is a positive accomplishment but it does not mean that problems, conflicts, disagreements, and policy differences go away. In fact, it would be naive to believe that that could be the case. (Mark my words, someone -- an opposition politician, a journalist, a public commentator, etc. -- will in the near future note some sort of problem with Can/Am relations and declare that this means that the framework is a failure as if international relations were that simple.) Canada and the US have always have disagreements and always will. That is the character and nature of being different countries with different identities and different (albeit often shared) problems and different populations and histories. The issue is not that there are problems. The issue is how they are addressed. Recognizing that a single summit will not solve all problems -- including ones that we don't know about because they have not yet occurred -- will be, on the part of Canadians, their own good first step. 

What do we do about the problems, then? Here, Canadians might take a page from history or at least be familiar with some of the key works on the history of Canadian/American relations. I'd recommend the late Greg Donaghy's fascinating book Tolerant Allies: Canada and the United States, 1963-1968. History is not an inherent guide to the future, but Tolerant Allies reminds us that this is not the first tumultuous period through which Canadian/American relations have passed.  The period of Donaghy's study involves a particularly potentially disruptive time as both Canada and the US were moving through a significant number of deeply divisive internal conflicts. Moreover, the countries were moving in different directions.  There were conflicts over matters of trade (particularly in durable consumer goods), investment and "financial relations," military matters, and foreign policy, among other things. Finding ways through these differences required on-going and intense diplomacy.  Said differently, the issue is not does this one summit solve problems. The issue is this: does it establish the basis for a more regularized civil diplomacy that can address problems in the future? Donaghy's work shows how effective that regularized diplomacy can be in addressing issues and establishing a new and better framework for relations. 

Second, the problems in front of us are significant. I'll address Keystone and energy policy separately, but we should have no illusions that Canada and the US (along with other countries) have a series of serious issues that need to be addressed. These include Covid-19 economic recovery, re-opening the international border in as safe a way as possible, and addressing climate change and its implications. In my view, the scope and character of these problems likely will need to be addressed on an international level. What is more, there are serious and important humanitarian and equality considerations that need to be born in mind. The US, Canada, and other western nations need to consider exactly how they can effectively work with poorer countries to promote Covid safety, economic recovery and mitigate climate change in ways that don't offload this problem onto those people least able to afford it. Said differently, the price of Covid safety in Canada cannot be health uncertainty in poorer countries, a matter that is already the subject of controversy in Canada. Put in other words, the key problems that emerge out of our current context are difficult to address not necessarily because Canada and the US will disagree on them but because of their size, scope, and international ethical and democratic implications. My own view is that Canada and the US have a better chance of effectively addressing these problems working together than they did under the previous administration because any solution must necessarily involve the US. This is not to exonerate Canada or say Canada is not important. It is simply to recognize that inequalities (in power, capacity, economics, etc.) between Canada and the US. 

It might even be possible to add in some other nagging issues. Could Canada and the US use optimism generated by this first summit (the "bromance" as Martin called it) to address other issues. I'd put Arctic drilling and the Northwest Passage on my list of problems that could be effectively addressed through good will and good, creative diplomacy. Human trafficking is another. 

The third potential problem is that the regeneration of Canadian/American relations will take place in a particular and politicized context. What is that context? It involves a number of considerations: Canada's minority government, Canada's deep federal/provincial divisions, Biden's tenuous support in the American Senate and fragile support in the House of Representatives, and deep political divisions in the US. Each of these issues can be subject for discussion but I'll conclude by consider the ways in which Canada/US relations effect regionalism in Canada as a potential issue and more specifically, the importance of Keystone XL to the current government of Alberta. 

It is easy to say that the Prime Minister has to address "the national good" in the conduct of international relations. Indeed, there is a whole school of thought that argues precisely that. In this regard, one could, then, say, "look, we know that there can be negative implications for Alberta in the refashioning of Canada/US relations but that is the way it is because it is the fed's job to look after the national interest and not specific regional interests. The US is not interested in Keystone XL so we are not going to bring it up." 

I think this approach would be wrong but I also don't think that making Keystone XL the test of Canada/US relations serves any good either. I'd urge Canada to avoid public diplomacy and I'd urge Canada and Canadians to respect decisions made by the US government. For a range of reasons, Keystone XL is not a hill on which Canada should want Canadian/American relations to die. I am sure, behind the scenes, significant diplomacy is going on. I am sure the government of Canada is trying to find out what could be done not to resuscitate the Keystone (because that is likely not possible) but what are the alternatives to it. After all Keystone is only one way in which energy could be moved from Canada to the US. 

But, I don't think the Canadian government should leave the matter there. I think removing Keystone as a problem in Canadian/American relations is complex but one way to do it might be to develop economic alternatives for Alberta. To be sure, I believe Alberta will benefit from addressing Canadian/American common agenda issues (say, border transit and Covid). And, I am not convinced Albertans (any more than other Canadians) are opposed to addressing the problems of climate change. What I think is that we have a particularly committed provincial government that has (for one reason or another) linked its own fate and sense of the province to the oil industry.  What we need to do is provide alternatives to that sense of identity and link. We need a go-forward strategy that must begin from the assumption that a resumption of Keystone is unlikely but that should not be reason to do nothing. I am not sold on the idea that the current Premier of Alberta would accept this. In fact, I expect the exact opposite and I expect that to come out in opposition to Biden and demands that the federal government alter its approach to Canada/US relations. I'm also not sold, however, on the idea that this is what the people of Alberta want. I think provided with alternatives, they would take them and that, in itself, would be good for Canada/American relations. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Is American Conservatism Possible, or can there be a post Trump Republican Party

I suspect not. American conservatism has long been problematic. Trumpism represents its most extreme form and it is a form that millions of American find alluring, if for no other reason that in its utter simplicity. Perhaps in recognition of this, a range of former (and some current) Republicans from previous administrations (and some from Trump's own government) are meeting to see if a new party is a viable alternative. I suspect it isn't, but you can find some information on this here. There are several points to consider.

First, we should not have any nostalgia for the old pre-Trump Republican party. That party was more than willing to make veiled allusions and play off the racist fears of white suburbanites and cosy up to homophobic Evangelical Christians in order to win elections. The coalition that Buchanan and Nixon began to forge in the 1960s (the "southern strategy") constitutes a significant part of the Republican Party today and they show no signs of going anywhere. Biden's tactics, as Mike Davis has noted, were predicated on imperfectly winning back sections of the Democratic vote that had abandoned Clinton.  The Democrats did take steps to broaden their own coalition and draw in new voters, but it did little to shake the Republican base of support, which one could argue is stronger than ever before. 

In this regard, the nostalgia that we hear about American conservatism (particularly on MSNBC) really is looking at the past through rose coloured glasses. Before anyone embraces the idea that there is a real, genuine American conservatism to which the Republicans can return they should pause and think about the corruption of the Nixon administration, the race-baiting assaults on "welfare moms" and women's rights of the Reagan years, the foreign policy adventurism of Bush, Jr., that shrugged off multilaterialist alternatives and engineered wars that led of the rise of ISIS. One should recall that tax cuts to large corporations have long been part of the Republican play book as has opposition to Roe V Wade and rejection of policies designed to promote equity, and opposition to equality for the LGBTQ community.  This is not to explain where Trumpism came from but it is to ask a question: if you reject Trump and you can't go back to a conservative innocent age, what will American conservatism look like and who will actually support it? 

This is a problem for conservatism which, by definition, looks to the past. There can be good reasons for that and I'll try to spell some of those out in another post. But, the problem is that that past -- as it is constituted as part of a Republican political history -- carries with it a heavy burden in the sense that it leads to Trumpism. At the least it is marred by its willingness to encourage intolerance and play on racist fears as part of its political strategies. 

Second, even if a new conservatism were possible, it would be seriously held back by their inability to get their message to voters. One of the things that has changed in the US with regard to politics is the politicization of the media.  This is not new but it is odd. The new media environment in which we live was supposed to encourage debate and discussion through diversity. It has not done that. Instead, what has happened is that a modest number of platforms dominant public discussion. Some are better than others, to be sure. No one watches FOX News thinking that they will get an unbiased perspective. The problem for a new conservatism is that it is (1) shut out of this media market, (2) that the platforms and networks that would give them air time (say MSNBC) are not connected to their potential voters, and (3) they will be subjected to on-going regular attacks from both media outlets like FOX and from evangelical churches. 

Third, a new conservative party will need to find a way to finance itself and while it might, initially, attract some media attention with some big donors, it would need to build a party infrastructure from scratch and that is both expensive and not easy to do. One of the advantages Trumpism has is that it can count on a dedicated body of workers who will volunteer their time. The people who encourage their neighbours to vote Republican, go door to door, donate to local campaigns, etc., will be lacking for this new party. What the new party has, right now, is a series of top level activists. This attracts news coverage (seasoned important Republicans leaving party!), but that has been going on since Trump took over the Republican Party.  It makes news but it does not make a new political party.  Canada is an example: Reform and the BQ initially succeeded not because they had high profile figures (although the BQ did, and Reform, too, but perhaps less so) but because they tapped into grassroots discontent (whether one agrees or disagrees with the discontent) and mobilize volunteers and enthusiastic supporters who joined those parties for their own reasons. 

Is there an enthusiastic body of supporters for a new conservative political party in the US? There might be but, to be honest, I don't see it. In fact, I see a lot of people who are (for a range of reason that have been aptly and seriously discussed by others) who are happy with the Republican Party the way it is. I was watching a group of Republicans condemn Liz Cheney. They seemed fully and deeply committed to the Trumpist direction and had little interest in Cheney, a name brand conservative figure who might, for instance, be a poster person for a new conservative party.  I doubt she would win her seat running for a new conservative party. 

I don't know what the future holds for the Republican Party. But, I don't really see it being successfully challenged by a moderate conservatism for control of the right-wing of the American political spectrum. At the very least, I don't think Democrats should hold their breathe on vote splitting as an electoral strategy. If Trumpism is to be driven back, it will have to be driven back by the Democratic Party. In fact, there might actually be a danger for the Democrats in a moderate conservative party.  Its most likely voters are moderate centrist independents and Democrats. If enough of those people deserted the Democratic party (and it would not take many in a small number of states), Trumpism is back in power.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Keystone Redux: Biden, Environmentalism, and Energy Policy

Why did Biden cancel US commitments to Keystone XL? In Canada, Jason Kenney tried to brand this as an attack on Canada that deserved the a swift and extreme response. It wasn't an attack on Canada and, as I will explain, even if there were a swift and extreme response, the chances that the decision can be overturned are slim. Why? There are a large number of reasons and these reasons are worth considering as we think about the character and nature of the Canadian response. Here are what I see as some of the key factors that weighed on Biden's mind before he took office. 

  • Biden is committed to establishing better American environmental policies. There is a scientific consensus on the problems of carbon-based energy for the environment, particularly but not exclusively with regard to climate change. 
  • I don't think we should see this as a shallow commitment, but if we did -- even if you argued that Biden's commitment to the environment is cynical politics -- you'd still have to ask why his made this decision. The answer is that his voters at best lukewarm to Keystone XL and at most in opposition to it. Said differently, a different government if it were behaving cynically, might talk the talk but ignore Keystone. Biden can't because his supporters won't. They want him to take action and so he will take it. 
  • Taking action is made easier because the US is awash in energy. Back in the 1980s, when Canada and the US were negotiating free trade, a key goal of the American negotiators was to secure access to Canadian energy. There could be all sorts of reasons for this but the key reason is that the American government was concerned about the state of American energy reserves and with the "oil shock" and the Iranian revolution still fresh on American minds, making sure that the US had easy access to Canadian energy was particularly important. Hence, the proportionality clause which, in effect, forces Canada to sell oil to the US. How different things now are. A series of changes means that the US has less need of Canadian energy than at any time since, say, the 1980s. The factors include:  
    • Green energy will continue to develop as a viable alternative to carbon energy.
    • The US reversed policy under Trump and brought back older forms of carbon-based energy production (coal) that are in competition with oil.
    • Other countries have pushed production of oil to new levels. Increased political stability in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Libya will likely see continued advances in production. Despite cut production cut backs by some countries in order to try to maintain higher energy prices, there will likely continue to be increases in energy supply.
    • The US has increased its own supply thanks to widespread fracking in Montana, the Dakotas, and Oklahoma. 
  • There are some short term measure that can be included as well. Covid-19 has depressed all sorts of travel lessening the demand for oil and thus lowering prices and need. 
  • A wild card is the American commitment to cleaner energy. I don't know how significant this factor is, although I suspect it much more significant among Democrats who voted for Biden than Republicans. If American are taking steps to use less energy as part of their personal commitment to the environment, that will have an effect as well. 
  • I suspect American oil companies are not sad to have less competition from Canadian oil. While the oil (bitumen) moved through Keystone may never have been for American domestic consumption (which raises another issue), why would American energy producers elect to negatively effect their own bottom lines by encouraging the US government to facilitate the shipment of Canadian oil to the US? Does it not make more sense that they would, at the least, say nothing and at most actually encourage Keystone's cancelation? 
  • There are shockingly limited spinoff effects in the US for Keystone. The jobs that were to be created by it were largely in construction. Once the pipeline is up and running, the number of permanent jobs it creates in the US is limited. There is, thus, no groundswell of "Keystone will get us jobs" in the US because ... people know it is not true. 
  • There are other issues that the Biden administration also wants to address that are tied up with Keystone, not the least of which is relate to the Standing Rock protests and the opposition of American Indigenous peoples to the pipeline. Going forward with Keystone would have forced the Biden government into on-going confrontations with Indigenous peoples and their allies and likely ended costing millions of dollars in legal fees as battles waged in the courts. 
When one puts this all together and what is evident is that Keystone was dead anyway.  It was only the Trump administration's ideological commitment that kept it alive. Canadian oil is also expensive, compared to its alternatives. The Canadian oil patch had begun to experience series problems several years ago that date back to the time of the previous NDP government in Alberta and stand at the root of Alberta's pipeline conflicts with BC and Canadian First Nations. What is interesting, of course, is that Kenney's response to the concerns in BC were basically similar to what he is suggesting now.  BC, the UPC and even members of the NDP argued, should be forced to let Alberta transport oil over its territory. Now what we have is the Premier of Alberta saying that Canada should find a way to force the US to accept Canadian oil that it does not want, does not need, creates internal conflicts in the US, and stands in the way of other domestic policy initiatives. What would we, as Canadians, think if the US adopted this approach to Canada? 

This is the point where I say "I get it" and ... I do. I understand and sympathize with people wanting jobs and good jobs. The problem with the approach taken by Kenney is that it can't provide precisely the thing he is promising. The carbon economy is past its best before date. That does not mean that there will not be energy production and that Canadians won't drill for oil. What it means is that we need to think about what the next stage for the Alberta economy is and begin to work on that. Biden's rejection of Keystone XL was not an attack on Canada. It was a policy decision overdetermined by a broad range of factors and it is unlikely that that broad range of factors will change in even the medium term. Rather than trying to find a way to revive a dead project and a flagging economic sector, we need to find ways to promote alternative economies. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Pluralism, Caution and Canadian-American Relations

Have you noticed that those leaders who are the least cautious (say, Jason Kenney) are the ones who actually never have to deal with international relations? It is easy, in other words, be extremist when you never have to live with the implications of your own suggestions. Kenney's demand for trade sanctions against the US is a case in point. By any stretch, suggesting trade sanctions -- in effect, suggesting that Canada begin a trade war with the US -- on the first day of a new administration is an extreme suggestion. Kenney can suggest an extreme response because he does not have to implement that response or live with it. He doesn't have to worry about fallout or the effects of, say, supply chain disruption during a pandemic. He can hand that ball off the federal government while urging them to do his bidding. 

There is something about extreme responses that grab public attention. The media love them. "The Premier of Alberta is urging ...X" what do you say Mr. Prime Minister? It the kind of controversial sound bite on which modern journalism thrives because they believe it somehow attracts viewers or listeners. It also fits well with a certain type of conservatism that sees "tough" responses as the way to get what one wants in international relations.   The difference between success and failure in IR, the point seems to be, is the PM's toughness and determination. 

Is it? Is, in this case, starting a trade war with the US on the first day of a new administration a good approach to Canadian American relations? Does it allow help Canada advance its agenda? I will argue "no." Canada's position in international affairs is determined by a range of criteria (its geography, economics, alliances, etc.) but the toughness or determination of the PM or the willingness to resort to extreme measures as a first step, "go to" move is not one of them. In fact, I'll argue that the discourse which presents extreme options as a first step is more for domestic political consumption than a reasoned assessment of an effective foreign policy. 

Canadian Foreign Policy

There are a number of considerations to bear in mind and an assumption I am making as part of this discussion. The assumption is this: the aim of foreign policy is to accomplish things. This can, should, and does include a range of things. Economic issues often grab the headlines but there are other objectives that range from education to scientific to environmental policy to the arts and athletics, the military, and much more. It includes things like border transport, cross-border production and media. The assumption I am making is that a key aim of Canadian foreign policy is to advance Canada's agenda.  (To be clear about my own perspective: I hope this is not the only goal. I hope that considerations of international fairness, equity in health and welfare, shared global concerns like ecological change, among others also weigh into the development of Canadian foreign policy.)

What are these goals? We can get back to them later, but one of them, at least, will be economic. Let's use this as an example because it is the issue Kenney is, in large measure, raising and the way he has chosen to frame the controversy over Keystone XL. In terms of economics, Canada's objectives are to maintain access to the American market for its (Canada's) products, expand that market, maintain border transit and cross-border production, share productivity improvements, protect Canadian intellectual property, ensure that a market for Canadian cultural products exists, maintain border security, and likely a range of other things. Said differently, our aim is to improve the Canadian economy. Taking actions that negatively affect the Canadian economy would be something to avoid. 

The other key thing to note about Canadian foreign policy -- a thing that affects it -- is that Canada is what used to be called a "middle power." People still use this term. To be honest, I'd need to look up the precise definition so let's just use it as a general place holder right now. What I mean is that Canada is a fully sovereign state (it has internationally recognized legal autonomy over its own affairs and relations with other countries) but it is not a great power. It is not one of the leading international powers in the globe. Nor, however, is Canada insignificant. Canada has -- or, can have -- characteristics that make its voice important on the international stage. A full list would take too long but Canada has advanced scientific capacity, a well trained and effective military, a high standard of living, a basically sound economy, a willingness to play a positive role in refugee re-settlement, few international enemies, a reputation for playing a positive and thoughtful role on the world stage, among other things. All of these things have, in my view, suffered in recent years and this suffering has occurred under a range of different PMs. I also don't want to look at Canada with rose coloured glasses and so I am not saying Canada (domestically and internationally) is not without serious problems. 

Because Canada is a middle power, a certain amount of caution is always in order in international relations. That is what it means to be a middle power and this is something that the key diplomats of Canadian history understood. Canadian foreign policy works most effectively when it involves discussion, the international rule of law, diplomacy, pluralism, and multilateralism precisely because Canada does not have the international scope and power to stomp its feet and get its way. Very few countries, in fact, do. China, for instance, spends its time using economic leverage as opposed to raw power and it would be considered a "great power." Likewise, for all that the previous US administration talked the talk of power, that talk did not accomplish a great deal. In fact, one could argue that US international authority has not been this weak since the interwar era. Before we jump to the conclusion that extreme measure are the way to go, we need to look at their success rate. Is there any reason to believe that they will be successful? If there is not, then implementing them is something that really does need a second thought. 

Extreme Measures and Foreign Policy

The point I am trying to make is not that extreme (or, more extreme) measures might not be needed. It is that it should not be the "go to" move and that its success rate might be far less than one imagines. It gambles a lot and it makes that gamble on an unequal playing field. In terms of Canadian/American relations, Canada plays on an unequal field. US power -- economically, culturally, scientifically, etc. -- is simply greater than Canada's and by a wide margin. Again, I am not saying that Canada is insignificant. But I am saying that the US is a great power with a broad and deep economic capacity that Canada lacks.  Economically, the US is Canada's most important market by far. It is not even close. Canada's trade with the US is greater than Canada's trade with the rest of the world combined, twice over.  Canada is an important US trading partner but no longer the most important and the importance of the Canadian market to the US economy is in the low single digits. What this means is that if Canada tries to go toe-to-toe with the US, we have a serious uphill battle. To use a military metaphor, we will run out of bullets before the US does and long before. The US might like to have the Canadian market. I am sure it does. It doesn't need it. Canada's need of the US market and US trade is ... well ... a need. 

I mention this to ask a different question: does Jason Kenney think the US is in the business of letting other countries take either (a) free shots at it without retaliation or (b) in the business of indicating to the world that it will quickly back down if confronted with middle power trade sanctions. If you were running the US (regardless of which party you might represent), would you be interested in establishing either precedent? Even if we leave aside the problematic contention that Canada's trade sanctions against the US would be powerful enough to force a reversal of policy, would the US be interested in letting the world know that it will ditch its policies and principles that easily? And, if not, what will be the response? 

We might get -- and have, in the past, gotten -- to the place where trade sanctions are needed but, to the best of my knowledge, Canada has imposed sanctions in the US only in a set number of circumstances:

  • Canadian sanctions have been proportional. That is, they have not tried to escalate trade disputes but indicate to the US government that we will not be pushed around. That is, they were not intended to "win" the dispute but to establish the idea that discussion is the way to resolve the dispute. 
  • They have been in response to US sanctions on Canada. The sanctions Canada imposed on the US under the Trump administration were not a first strike. They were a response to what Canada contended were illegal American sanctions. 
  • They were not intended to affect American domestic policy but to address Canada/US trade issues. 
  • They were part of an overall strategy designed to advance Canada's trade agenda with the US.
To be clear, what Kenney is suggesting is the exact opposite. He is suggesting that Canada undertake trade sanctions against the US without any idea of proportionality. How can you calculated supposedly lost future revenue from Keystone XL? Who would even make this calculation? How would it be assessed by independent dispute settlement mechanisms? I don't think any of these points were considered. Moreover, the sanctions Kenney suggests applying would be a first strike. There is no comparable sanction against Canada. They would be aimed at influencing American domestic policy. And, they would be taken without regard to the other foreign policy tools Canada will use to try to address Keystone XL. Before anyone too easily says "I still think we need to try to do something" (a point I will address below) imagine that the situation were reversed? Imagine, for instance, that the US used sanctions to try to get Canadians to change a matter of Canadian domestic policy. How would Canadians feel about that? 

Canada will try to reverse the US decision on Keystone XL. I will leave it up to others to determine what they think about that. We will use a range of policy tools that include direct communications with the US leadership, lobbying, finding allies in the US to carry the argument forward. Canadian interaction with the US is not limited to trade sanctions.  These are all strategies Canada has used before. They don't tend to bring instant results but over time they have, I would argue, succeeded in creating generally win-win situations. Before jumping to an extreme measure, I'd argue that we should at least try strategies that have been proven successful in the past. If we wanted, then, to introduce sanctions as some part of that strategy, I'd suggest that we find out whether or not those sanctions would be legal under Canada's current trade agreement with the US and I'd urge people to consider the precedent we are establishing. After all, what is good for the goose .... And, while I don't expect the Biden administration to try to use sanctions to coerce changes in Canadian domestic policy, are we really so confident that a less friendly government might not jump on the opening we would have given them in the future? After all, that is what we would be saying: sanctions are a legitimate way for other. countries to force Canada to change its domestic policy. 

What About Alberta

There is, I am arguing, good reason to be cautious in Canada's response to the Biden administration's decision with regard to Keystone XL. I am trying to argue that those views hold regardless of one's political perspective if one is interested in having a foreign policy that advances Canada's interests. Kenney's argument is that regional equity in Canada demands that Canada act because it would have if US decisions affected Ontario or Quebec or Atlantic Canada.  I don't know the issue to which Kenney was referring with regard to Atlantic Canada and so I'll leave off consideration of that. The issues to which he referred with regard to Ontario and Quebec were completely different. There, the federal government acted proportionally as part of an overall strategy against US (and others) decisions with regard to trade, the legality of which (on the US side) was questionable.  To repeat: the federal government did not use sanctions as a first strike weapon to alter a decision made by a US administration on a matter that falls within the sphere of American domestic policy. 

However, the fact that the situation is different does not mean that the federal government should ignore Alberta. It should not. Not ignoring Alberta, however, does not mean transforming trade policy into a shill for big oil. It means finding ways to help Alberta transition away from the carbon economy. We will continue drill for oil. That is going to happen, but the idea that the economy of Alberta should be based on oil to the detriment of other options is far from clear to me. Oil is affected by a broad range of other factors. The US took the decision with regard to Keystone XL not just for environmental reasons. Environmental considerations are, in my view, a legitimate consideration for state policy. But, in this case, a range of other factors (including alternative energy supplies) weighed into the consideration. What this means is that even if the Keystone decision were reversed, the days of massive carbon energy exports to the US are ending. The federal government cannot and morally should not abandon Alberta. The best way to do this however -- to *not* abandon Alberta -- does not lie in sanctions in what will be a losing effort to force the US to buy Canadian oil against its wishes. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

The Blue Jays and Player Development

I have been trying to argue that player and team development in MLB is more complicated than most people make it seem. If that is the case, how should one develop a team? A lot depends on your resources and goals, which are linked to where you are in a multi-year process of team development (building a sustainable contending team, that is a team that is in the hunt year after year). If you are, say, the New York Yankees, these questions are not as significant as if you are the Tampa Bay Rays or the Cleveland baseball team.  To be clear, the Yankees do and have developed some impressive baseball players (Judge, Torres, Andujar).  Other have been brought in through savvy trades (Voit) and still others almost by fluke (Urshela). What Yankee resources allow them to do is to buy key pieces of the puzzle and prevent the normal cycle of ups and downs through which teams go by infusing, when needed, more talent into the team via free agency (Cole, Stanton, Britton). To be clear, these are not complementary pieces of the Yankee puzzle but fundamental elements of their team. Spending money is no guarantee of winning. In 2019, the Red Sox spent a lot of money on their starting rotation and didn't make the playoffs.  Today, we are seeing the Padres spending a lot of money.  They are increasingly turning to free agency as their primary method of player and team development.  Should the Jays be involved in something like this? 

The question is rhetorical but I ask the question because we often get a bit of a knock on effect among sports commentators.  We saw this a couple of years ago with regard to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper: other teams are spending. Why not the Jays? The Phillies might better fit the kind of organizational position in which the Jays find themselves. They spent a tonne of money on Bryce Harper and it has not produced the results for which they were obviously hoping.  The signing might not be the cause of the persistent financial woe rumours we hear about the Phillies (you can find information here and here, including a denial of said rumours) but you can see the issue: if a high priced free agent did not create a winning team, what is the next step? For San Diego (in the same situation as Phillie), it is to double down and spend more and more money. And, that is the commitment you need to make or you start to look bad as a front office. You start to look, in fact, like you don't know what you are doing. You make commitments and then the costs of those commitments weigh down your organization and impede further steps toward your goal. 

One of the other problems that the Jays have had over the years -- particularly but not exclusively with pitchers -- is sending players up and down to AAA or changing their positions. I could be wrong about this and I know modern baseball teams make a great deal more in-season changes than in the past.  The changing ways in which bullpens are used means that there seems to be a never ending need for "fresh arms." But, I am not at all convinced that this is good for player development. The fact that it supposedly "worked" in one instance (say, Encarnacion ... and I would debate that) does not mean that it will work in others.  The Jays have, over the years, hired managers who had a difficult time working with younger players (Gibbons appears to have been well liked but he was not a player development kind of guy, nor was Cito Gatson, their longest running manager). I want to be fair, managers like Gaston and Gibbons were not asked to develop players. They were asked to manage teams put together for them. Gaston succeeded in the early 1990s. Gibbons did not. Both had two kicks at the can. Gibbons overall record was .501; Gaston's .516. I am not slagging these managers, but neither of them liked to work with young players who needed development and this has been a Jays tendency over the years.  They preferred players who know what they were doing already. Montoyo is the first player development manager the Jays have had since, oh, maybe Bobby Cox. 

The result is that young players languished and were not given a chance to develop their abilities.  I don't know if Gio Urshella or Adam Lind or Eric Thames would have ever developed, for the Jays, into really good players (I really don't) but I would have liked to find out. Likewise, I don't know if any of the spate of pitching prospect that the Jays have are any good but I'd like to know. The standard answer that we hear when teams don't focus on player development runs something like this "our goal is to put the best team on the field that we can." But, what happens if that best team still sucks?  What if that best team lost? What was the cost to that team of not engaging in player development (as opposed to finding veterans who can be the "best" team that the organization can put on the field)?

The key point I am trying to make is that player development needs to be assessed against what economists call "opportunity cost." Opportunity cost is a concept that attempts to measure the actual cost of choices we make in terms of their alternatives. For instance, the opportunity cost of buying, say, a pizza for supper is that I have spent the money I had on pizza and now cannot spend that same money on a hamburger.  The opportunity cost of playing a veteran in order to "win now" (or, "put the best team on the field we can") is that you cannot play younger player and help them develop at the same time. Only one player is playing second base at a time if it is an aging vet who is not part of your future, it is not the prospect you have who is still playing in the minors and who needs major league experience. Costs, in other words, can and need to be, measured in things other than money.  

This is important because a smart team will be looking for ways of lowering opportunity costs.  Flip the question around and look at it in reverse: what is the opportunity cost of playing the prospect verse the veteran? The cost is actually fairly low, if you were the Jays, because playing the veteran was not meeting your goals to begin with if your goal is to actually win (as opposed to having a slightly better term on the field than you otherwise would have). I look at it like this: if your team is not going to win this year, then not winning is already a foregone conclusion. If you are going to lose, say 88 games (just as an example), what differences does it make if you lose 91? You are still no where near winning. Imagine a better scenario. Say you won 81 games. Hey .500 close to Gibby's career mark as manager. How many .500 teams make the playoffs? The cost in terms of victories, then, is small but it is large in terms of player development. In effect, by playing veterans instead of prospects one can stall out player development: think of how fast, for instance, the Jays gave up on John Olerud (how much distrust of his D for instance they had), how many times they trotted Brian Tallet to the mound or sent Kevin Miller into a game or how many role changes they have for Kelvim Escobar. Whether or not prospects pan out might even be beside the point: you discover whether or not they can play.

The other advantage of playing prospects is stability.  Players -- particularly younger players -- get a chance to develop their skills. We live in a day and age of "flexibility" where players who can play more than one position are highly prized. I would prize them if I were a manager. Flexibility is a supposed sign of the Tampa Bay model and it is. But, to a point. Look at TB's stats for last year (mine come from Baseball-Reference). There was flexibility in the sense of players playing a lot of different positions, but Willie Adames played only shortstop. Ji-Man Choi played only 1B. Kevin Kiermaier played only CF. The difference is that the Rays flexibility is not flexibility for the sake of flexibility. 

If I were the Jays (and I am not, I know that), I'd ask some basic questions: 

  • Is Caven Biggio my 2B of the future. If he is, let's play him at second. 
  • Is Biggio a top of the order kind of player. If he is, let's keep him there (perhaps batting second)
  • Is Bichette my SS of the future? If so, let's play him there.
  • And ... on down the line. 
Guerrero might be a tougher decision because he really does seem to have some defensive problems at 3B, but if that is the case, the Jays need to decide where he plays. 

By sticking with players, letting them learn their roles on the team, letting them learn how to play good defence at a particular position. If I were the Jays, I'd be tempted to *not* try to jump the cue and sign a big name free agent (with a possible exception) or make a big-splash trade. I'd tempted to go into this year looking to further develop the talent I had and see how -- particularly among pitchers -- will be able to take the next step. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Rumours of Infielders (or, the Blue Jays off season Part II)

How can a baseball team know that they have made the right decisions? How do they know that signing a certain free agent or making a trade or promoting a new player from the minors will work out? That was the question on which I left my last post, which involved thinking about the pros and cons of two the big names in baseball that the Jays were supposedly pursuing: Francisco Lindor and George Springer. I tried to indicate that there were down sides to securing either of those players (along with others in whom the Jays supposedly had interest such as Justin Turner and D.J. LeMahieu). None of these players are bad. In fact, they are all really good. But, they also all come with drawbacks for the Jays. Said differently, there are risks involved in acquiring players. It is not simply a matter of adding to one's team as if there were no down side.  In fact, let me suggest that just about any player acquisition runs risks. So, how do you know if you made the right decision or not? 

A lot of it depends on three things: 

  • What you are trying to do
  • How you build your team
  • The degree of risk you are willing to take
Let's look at each of these in turn because of each of them has an effect on the decisions teams make with regard to trades, minor league player development, changing the position players play, signing a player to a longer-term contract, or free agent signings. 


On the one hand, this seems like a silly issue to address. Every team's goal is the same: to win. That is true, but only in the broader, long-term sense. Everyone would like to win *this year* but realistically that is not going to happen for at least some teams and, in my view, realistic teams tend to be well managed teams. There is a lot of "win now" rhetoric and it seems almost like treason to say "we are not going to win" but I have never understood the problem with an honest evaluation of one's talent. The longer-term goal remains in place but it is redefined. For most teams (excepting those with realistic chances of winning), the goal is actually this: we want to build a team that will have a realistic chance of winning. For instance, only the most pie-eyed dreamer could have argued that the Jays had a realistic chance at the World Series in 2019. Their record that year 67-95, not the worst in baseball but among the worst.  So, realistically, their goal could not be to win because that was not possible. A team that bad will not even be close to making the playoffs. 

So, what was their goal? Their goals were good: they had a slew of talented young players and their aim was to get them major league playing experience, moving them from the minors to majors. And, they did: Jansen, Bichette, Biggio, Thornton, Waguespack, Guerrero, Tellez, and Gouriel (who had already been playing in the majors) got extensive playing experience that year. They also needed to "audition" other potential players who were not slated to be regulars but who might be bench players (Drury, McKinney). And, overall, they did not do poorly. Bichette, Biggio, Guerrero and Guriel all demonstrated that they were major league calibre players and were capable of already playing the game at a high level. Biggio showed he was am amazing baserunner, good in the field, and had great bat control. I won't go through the rest because you get my drift. Even in instances where player struggled or had ups and downs, team management learnt things (for instance, that McKinney and Drury were likely not key bench players in the future).  Despite, at times playing horrible ball, the Jays season was a success because their player development was a success. They could enter the next season (Covid's 2020) knowing that they had the basis of a good -- and potentially really good -- team. 

This causes a shift in goals. Player development remains a key objective (more major league playing experience, for instance), but knowing that you have the basis of a good team allows you to set the next reasonable goal: making the playoffs. Hence, goals are unstable. They can shift from year to year. In 2018, the Jays key goal was trying to find ways to rebuild their farm system, gain some prospects, and let their minor league system bring new talent along while not embarrassing themselves on the field. They had a different goal in 2019 and different again in 2020. 

Player and Team Development:

Knowing what your team's specific goals are for the year is important because it affects the way in which you make decisions about player development. Player development is fancy term used to describe the way in which teams go about developing talent and getting better. The person finally responsible for this might be the Team president, but it also involves scouts, minor league coaches, major league coaching staff, consults, analysts, and host of others. Major league baseball teams will have an entire coaching bureaucracy devoted to player development. Player development is the way you team gets better, competes, and ultimately wins (allowing that they win). 

Different teams have different player development strategies.  This is important because it affects the kinds of players you think will be good and who can play together to become a winning team. In recent years, Tampa Bay is one of the more interesting teams with regard to player development. They look for specific types of players who will fit in their system, which has fairly successful track record. The Tampa Bay system looks to compensate for its relative lack of resources (aka money) -- which means they cannot afford to sign high priced free agents or even offer their own players large contracts to stay with the team -- (compared to other major league teams) by very effective on-field management, defensive flexibility (but not across the lineup), analytics, unusual use of pitching staff, and making the most effective use of the talent that they have -- as opposed to looking for supposedly better baseball players.  Tampa Bay makes a lot of in-game line up changes, moves players around in the order, uses a lot of pitchers and so needs bench players who can play a number of different positions (in fact, there might be little difference between the bench and the starting lineup in Tampa). They also need players who are not very expensive: younger players or players on whom other teams have given up. 

This is a very different team development strategy than most other teams use (Maddon brought some but not all of this approach with him to the Cubs, Oakland makes use of some but not all of these strategies). And, it is part of a conscious and intentional approach to development that effects their entire system. Their players, for instance, are taught to be very at the selective at the plate from day one. Rays teams don't, as a rule, swing at bad pitches.  Instead, they drive up pitch counts, forcing opposing managers deeper into their bullpens (that is, forcing other managers to use up their pitching staff). 

Why recite these well known facts? Because it shows that building a team is something more than paying a lot of money for the best free agents on the market. Indeed, it is counter intuitive but if you sign players that don't fit with your team, you may be doing more harm than good no matter how good the player is. For instance, Francisco Lindor is a really good shortstop, but the Jays already have a really good young shortstop and they drafted a shortstop with their number one pick last year. The Jays may trade for Lindor but doing so, as I tried to point out in my previous post, might end up forcing players into new positions in a sort of domino effect that could defensively de-stabilize the team. Player and team development are about more than spending money and before you spend that money, you need to know how that player fits in your development scheme and will fit with the rest of your team and its approach to the game. 

My concern with the Jays off season so far is that the names to which they are linked seem to suggest a change in the managerial and developmental direction of the team. For the last several years, the Jays have been focused -- rightly, in my view -- on finding good young players and developing them within their system while they look to bring in more potential prospects by trading away older players. The effect has been to make the Jays a younger team. The Jays seemed to have a long-term plan and good reason to believe that the long-term plan was working.  That plan was organized around a specific goal that was not putting the best team on the field that was possible *this* year. It was organized, for right or wrong but I think right, around the idea of building a consistent contender. In my view, they are almost there but the names to which they are linked suggest a different approach seems to be emerging and, in my view, if implemented that could set the Jays back, rather than making them better. 


A lot of people talk about baseball teams spending money on higher priced players as a test of team owner's seriousness and willingness to spend money to win. This applies to some teams, particularly those teams with really deep pockets.  This is important because teams with deep pockets (in short rich teams) can spend more money than poorer teams simply because they have more money. The more money you have, the less your risk in spending some of that money.  For instance, imagine that you have 10$ and you need to buy (sign a free agent) new shortstop for the upcoming seasons. There is a really good shortstop but his salary demand is 10$. That is your entire budget and you might shy away from that not because you are cheap but because you might want to save some of that money in case a new pitcher comes on the market at the trade deadline or something like that. On the other hand, if you have 100$, then the 10$ layout for a shortstop is far less risky. You can buy that shortstop and still have money in the bank to get a new pitcher or trade for an outfielder or offer a longer-term contract to one of your star players.  

You can see that reducing this issue to seriousness and willingness is simplifying the matter. This is important because this is actually the way in which Major League Baseball functions. Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers (and a few others) fall into the 100$ situation. Teams like the As and Rays fall into the 10$ situation. Now the As and Rays are still good, well managed teams who play exciting baseball and who are usually in playoff race year after year. What it means is that their resource have an effect on the risk they are willing to take and so affect how they build their team. The Yankees and Red Sox, as examples, can sign players to large contracts (say, a free agent or say one of their own players who has improved) and not worry too much about it. If they make a mistake, they will be out a lot of money but they have a lot more money to begin with. The result is actually rather odd: the Yankees don't have to be good judges of talent. They can sign players who have good reputations or who look good without worrying too too much about longer term cost issues. The Rays don't have this luxury. The Jays fall somewhere in between. 

What are the risks that Jays are willing to take? Well, right now, we don't know since all we have is rumours. For the past several years, however, the Jays have been trying to limit risk by cutting payroll, freeing up roster spots for younger players (who by definition don't cost very much but who have a much bigger upside than veterans), signing low priced free agents, and trading them for younger prospects where possible. They then use the back end of the season, and the season thereafter, to try to sort through those prospects to figure out who might be useful and who might not be. 

I would argue that this approach has worked.  Knowing that they have good young talent in the tubes, the Jays have shed payroll, ditched older players, gotten rid of players who were -- it appears -- problems in clubhouse, and accumulated a bunch of new mid-range prospects while renewing their farm system through drafts. They have hoarded their prospects and, with one exception, not really put a lot on table in terms of free agents or trades. 

Making Decisions: 

How do you know these are the right decisions? Well, you don't for sure but you know that they weren't wrong and that is important. In 2017, the Jays were an old, expensive team, with a farm system that had been sent packing in trades to accumulate players to get them over the hump, as it were. Team management had, previously, talked about a five year window but it was evident that that window was closing.  Their starting catcher was 34; their starting right fielder was 36; a 31 year old played 2B for them and they had a 34 year old in LF. Three of their top four starters were 33 or older. They finished 4th, with a record below .500 and had team payroll north of 100$ million. 

I have heard sportscasters argue that that team was a success because it brought excitement back to Toronto with regard to baseball. That could be true.  Toronto is a pretty good market, however, with fans that have long been devoted to their teams and can take advantage of a national market, but it could be true. Still ... was that the goal? If the goal was simply to play a more exciting brand of baseball that attracted fans, that is not at all a bad goal, but what I remember is that the goal was to win and, on that level the Jays did not succeed. They got close and I liked watching the games but ultimately, they were defeated. 

So, the decision the Jays have to make with regard to the off season is not just about bringing in more talent. It is about the development of their team, their specific goals, and how those different aspirations and processes come together. 

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