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. 

Objectives: 

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. 


Risk:

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. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Rumours of Outfielders: The Blue Jays Off Season (Part I)

The Blue Jays have been linked to just about every possible significant deal in the major leagues. Last night, I saw another story, suggesting that George Springer would sign with either the Jays or the Mets. It is, of course, difficult to know what to make of off season trade rumours. Some of them might be exploratory meetings ... just seeing if we are on the same page? No, OK, no harm, no foul. Some of them might be pure media speculation. Some of them might be wish fulfillment. And, still others, appear to be planted with the aim of driving up market values. Generally, I try to not pay too much attention to specific trade rumours or potential free agent signings for precisely these reasons. It is better to wait and see what shakes down than waste a lot of time speculating on something that never really was in the first place.  This said, I find some of the players to whom the Jays have been linked odd, even if they eventually do pan out. Let me take a couple of examples.

First, Francisco Lindor who would supposedly be traded for a package of players that could include Loudres Gouriel. Lindor is an amazing player. He's a gold glove shortstop, has an .854 OPS, which translates into 100 rums (give or take) per year. He is not the best base runner but he is good and he has far better than mid-range power. At 27, you basically know what you are going to get with him -- although he could take one further step forward -- and what you get is good. And, while one can never say for sure, it is likely that he will maintain this level of production for another 4-5 years.  He has only one year left on his contact that will pay him 21$ million and I read somewhere (although I can't find the reference) that the Jays wanted a sign and trade deal before they traded. Said differently, if they would trade for Lindor, it would not be for a one-year rental.

By contrast, Gouriel has never quite lived up to expectations. He is good. His OPS is, in fact, higher than Lindor's (I get my. data from Baseball Reference) and he is a year younger. In addition, he's handled the move to left field well. His defensive WAR (dWAR, a measure of defensive value)  is not gold glove quality and I doubt it ever will be, but he's breaking even and if he can maintain that OPS or take a step forward offensively (which is not a pipe dream), that is more than good enough to keep him in the lineup even with a slight negative dWAR.  

So, what are his problems? Gouriel's key problems strike me as twofold (1) he has had a hard time staying in the lineup (I'll come back to this when we look at George Springer). That is an issue for the Jays particularly since the team is not loaded with capable outfielders. And (2) his is a really streaky hitter. On the surface of it, then, a trade seem to make sense for the Jays. 

Except: 

  • Getting rid of Gouriel does not solve the Jays' outfield problems. If anything it magnifies them. Hernandez really can't play the outfield and the range of things Grichuk does well is limited (and, apparently, the Jays are considering trading him).
  • Lindor is not going to play the outfield so trading Gouriel means that the Jays will need to make another deal for an outfielder or consider relocating someone from the infield there. The truth is that the only candidate is really Biggio, but he may be the best defensive infielder the Jays have (Bichette's are actually a bit better but the sample is small).  To my eye, he has not shown the same capacity in the outfield and so why one would trade your left fielder to move your second baseman to the outfield is not clear to me, particularly when there is no evidence he would play that position well. Moreover, left field is an offensive position. Biggio's numbers -- and skill range -- is very good if his position is second base. Exactly how they stack up in the outfield (one's abilities relative the rest of the players at your position is measured by a stat called OPS+) at a position with which he is far less familiar, which he has not played well in the past, and which is far more offensively oriented than his current position, is not at all clear. You see what I am saying, starting to move him around to accommodate Lindor and address a speculative Gouriel departure could wind up creating a real mess. 
  • Trading for Lindor would, of necessity, involve moving current shortstop (Bichette) to another position, a reality he acknowledges, presumably to second base to cover the space left by Biggio's hypothetical move to LF.  The same situation recurs except that now it is not just Biggio learning a new position, but Biggio and Bichette. 
Other rumours to which the Jays are linked involve the same kind of convoluted moves, including the Jays supposed interest in Justin Turner and DJ LeMahieu (see MLB Trade Rumours). Both are established stars but they also bring with them the same need to move players around. LeMahieu might be easiest to accommodation because he could play first base if Vladi is moved back to third. This likely leaves Tellez without a job as one is going to guess that Hernandez will become the every day DM in the relatively near future.  But, the other issue is age. Turner is 35 with a history of injuries and plays 3B, supposedly the position to which Guerrero wants to return next year. LeMahieu is 31, which is getting old for an infielder. He can play a number of positions but he has also spent his life playing in some of the most hitter friendly parks in the game. It is difficult to see him replicating his Yankees numbers wherever Toronto ends up playing and it is difficult to see him replicating those numbers over several years.  To get him, the Jays would supposedly have put about 125$ million on the line in a multiyear contract. 

George Springer is the other player in whom the Jays are supposedly seriously interested. I won't repeat comments I've made earlier about free agent signings not being "sweepstakes" but calculation and contract except to say that this kind of discourse (sweepstakes) really gives a false impression of what baseball teams should be trying to with free agent signings. Springer is 30 years old and, I gather, is looking for a five-year contract that would take him to 35. If you wonder why I keep noting age, it is that age is an important consideration in assessing talent. Springer's numbers are good -- really, really good -- but they come with two significant qualifications.  The Jays are short on outfielders and they are short on good outfielders and so this kind of addition makes more sense. It is simpler, cleaner, does not require moving players around and does not require trading younger talent. What are the qualifications:
  1. He has an injury history and it is significant.  Last year was last year. He played regularly and that is a good thing but we can't really use it because of the condensed schedule. Throwing out last year, Springer has not played a full season since 2016, when he was 26. IOW, in 2017, 2018, and 2019 Springer missed significant playing time. 
  2. His talent base is difficult to assess because of the Astros cheating scandal. We still don't know how far and how deep this scandal went and Springer is not usually associated with those players who were knee deep in it. It does not disqualify him as a free agent signing (although, if it were me, it would raise questions). What it does is add an unknown to the picture, making it a bit murkier.
I want to be clear on this. I am not saying that the Jays should not sign Springer. What I am saying is that as a longer-term investment designed to win baseball games, there are some negatives. All players have these and this is what management needs to assess when it signs players. Longer-term contracts to players over 30 tend to mean, for instance, that one will overpay on the back end. While you might, for instance, get good 2020 and 2021 seasons, all other things being equal, the value of that player will begin to decline after that despite the fact that his salary will remain really high or might even get higher. There are a few players that buck the trend, of course, and that is another consideration. 

In the same way, injuries are an issue because you are paying a player not to play. The key example here, for the Jays, was Tulo. According to Baseball Reference the Jays paid (or, will pay) Tulo 118$ million. He was their regular shortstop for one season (2016) after joining the team for its 2015 playoff run. He was a serious upgrade at short both offensively and defensively but he was not stellar.  In 2016 he had an OPS+ rating of 102. What this means is that he was 2% better (a 100 score is even) than other players at his position. He has a 0.6 dWAR that year which means he also made a defensive contribution. What the Jays need to ask, however, is this: was he worth 118$ million?  The Jays still owe about 4$ million of that this year coming as a buy out. Thus from 2018 to 2021 (which has not yet happened), the Jays have been paying a player who has not only not been on the field for them but who is no longer on their team. I like to let this sink in, from 2018 forward, the Jays have paid 58$ million to a player who has not played a single inning for them. In total, the Jays paid 118$ million for what amounts to a season of average baseball. 

I mention this because it is important context before one goes out and signs free agents or makes trades for high priced players. There are a range of considerations. The Tulo deal really hampered the Jays ability to field a team in 2018 and 2019 because they hand spent so much money on player a player who was not on the field. Tulo is not the only cause of this, of course, and he really was an amazing player in his prime. I don't want to sell him short.  What I am talking about here is the calculus of baseball. If you make the right decision, you are in great shape. If you make the wrong decision, it can haunt you for years. 

How do you know if you have made the right or wrong decision? That might not be as easy to assess as we think and I will pick that up in my next blog. 


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Thinking After Trump: Canada and US Foreign Policy

 On August 15th, the UN Security Council voted against a US motion to extend the international arms embargo against Iran. The US government then accounts it would use provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (2015) as a way to “snapback” those sanctions for, what it views, as Iranian non-compliance with the original agreement. The problem, of course, as JCPOA members quickly told the US, it had already withdrawn form the agreement in 2018 and was now a non-member since it had, in effect, already rejected the provisions of the agreement two years ago. There are a series of serious issues that go along with this current situation that relate to the extension of US power, the shape of the world environment, and exactly how this situation should be assessed as part of US foreign policy. Virtually no members of the UN Security Council, for instance, supported the US move to re-impose sanctions and European powers were quick to tell the US it had not standing with the JCPOA. 


The question I want to address in this blog is different: what does this tell us about the issues facing Canada on the world stage and Canada’s relationship with the US. After the most recent US aluminum tariffs, I listed to a number of commentators say something like “what Canada needs to do now is simply wait until the coming US election which see the replacement of the current administration with a more reasonable one.” I know the issue is more complicated than that but, at first, I tended to agree.  What I am thinking about now is that there might be a way to Canada to build a new foreign policy relationship with the US in a post-Trump era. I don’t necessarily think this will be easy but I also think that there may be a range of Americans who are interested in the subject even if will undoubtedly be controversial in the US. 


At the heard of the Trump election strategy was the slogan “Make America Great Again.” These words carry with them an at least implicit foreign policy because they assert an international pre-eminence. The Trump administration’s foreign policy has sought this greatness even if its approach been far from consistent. Despite the fact that Trump has drawn on Republicans to direct it, his administration has disavowed many of the key aspects of his own party’s approach to world affairs. One should not have a lot of nostalgia here. The War on Terror, neo-liberalism, rejection of international environmental standards, among other things, were all hallmarks of Republican foreign policy. 


Historically, pre-Trump Republican foreign policy has not been popular either internationally or within Canada. But, key foreign policy thinkers associated largely, if not completely, with conservative politics have tended to argue that Canada needed to follow the lines laid down by the US. These people tended to self-style themselves as “realists.”  They tended to advocated hard power, close military and diplomatic connections to the US, and support for US foreign policy goals. They tended to reject what they saw as “moralism” in foreign policy, arguing that the only standard against which foreign policy should be measured was interests of state. This close connection to the US, they tended to argue, was good for Canada for three reasons. (#1) The US was the pre-eminent power in the world. By having a good relationship with the US, Canada gained power on the world stage, as it were, by riding on US coattails. (#2) Canada needed the US on its side because of the degree to which the Canadian economy was dependent on the US. The US could, should it have wanted, cripple our economy. (#3) The US was right most of the time anyway. Its opponents were terrorists and military dictators or authoritarian communist countries. 


Against this way of thinking about the world – Canada as a subservient ally of the US – was a different way of thinking about the world that is associated, in some measure, with the peacekeeping ideal. This way of thinking is most closely associated with liberal intellectuals and, to a significant extent, with the Liberal party, but that requires some nuance. The basics of this way of looking at the world were that Canada should have its own international identity and that there was nothing wrong with being on the side of the angels; that is: there was nothing wrong with morality. Indeed, it was good for Canada’s international reputation and good for Canadians who were well liked (at least compared to Americans) on the world stage. Canada found its foreign policy identity through constructive international engagement and multilateralism that allowed it to work together with other countries to accomplish positive ends and hedge in the power game. In other words, Canada’s aims were a stable, peaceful, and constructive international environment that limited the ability of “might makes right” politics by setting up international institutions that operated according to the rule of international law and some measure of global democracy (with votes vested in the nation-state).


I have no special clarity with regard to the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It seems to me that when its history is written, studies will see it as based in a series of factors that include:


  • An effort to further free the US from multilateral and international commitments to extend its ability to use its own might makes right policy approach. That is: to have more of a free hand with regard to international affairs and not be bound by alliances, agreements, and the like. 
  • A belief in the power of personal relations with world leaders to address issues (say, by establishing a direct personal relationship with the Putin and Kim-Il Jong) as a way to address problems
  • A focus on economic deal-making, employing retaliatory threats, particularly with allies, in an effort to gain an edge. Allies and partners (say, Canada) were, in particular, viewed with suspicion.  The goal of US economic relations with Canada was not to further common goals. Instead, it looked more like neo-liberal mercantilism. The goal is to get something from, as an example, Canada. 


We don’t need to go over these points and I recognize that there are other considerations that need to be included to have a fuller discussion. What it does, however, is highlight the degree to which even Canadian conservatives will have a hard time buying into their formerly near unconditional support for the US international agenda. There are two key reasons for this. 


#1) Conservatives used to argue that bad relations with the US were a problem and they tended to fault Liberal-minded PMs (PET, Jean Chretien) for it. Their overt anti-Americanism, for instance, conservative thinkers and politicians argued, poisoned the relationship with the US and endangered both the Canadian economy and Canada’s international standing with it. It is now impossible to make this argument. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a government that has been more sensitive (the odd mistake to one side) and more concerned with not offending the US government than Justin Trudeau’s. Even at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Trudeau refrained from any public criticism of the United States and its government. During intense trade negotiations when US figures publicly hammered Canada, Canadian political leaders and trade negotiators were, more or less, silent. Yet, this silence has bought noting and cannot by anything because the current US government is not looking to get any support from Canada for anything. Canada’s support is, in fact, irrelevant to it.  What it wants from Canada is not agreement but, as it were, increased regulation of the Canadian economy. IOW, the result of being nice to the US is not economic gain but economic decline via production limitations. 


#2) It is impossible to pretend that the US has the global power and influence it had a number of years ago. Indeed, even a number of years ago that power was waning. US power and influence are not things of the past. I’ve read studies that talk about historical shifts in international affairs as if they were some sort of cycle. They are not. But, the US no longer commands the world stage the way it did during the Cold War or the New World Order eras. Economically, US domination is challenged not by a single country (although China gets a lot of press) but by an expanded international regionalization of power. Countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China, Indian, Russia don’t wait for US permission for anything. They might be world leaders or they might aspire to this but they are in the process of carving out their own regionalized and international spheres of influence. The US finds itself as one of a series of global regional powers and that is the reality with which it has to grapple. 


I don’t expect that grappling to be easy. I don’t expect a lot of Americans will want to embrace it. And, I suspect that lot of Americans are looking simply to see themselves as “great again,” regardless of what that happens to mean. For Canada, however, it means that one end of a long-standing debate in Canadian foreign policy is over. There are good reasons to have a good relationship with the US and I will spell these out later, and the US economic connection is still important for Canada. But, whatever happens next for conservative approach to the US and Canadian foreign policy, it cannot be a return to the subservient ally approach of past days. What is equally important, I will indicate in my next blog, that the liberal alternative might also be inoperative. If history has moved past Canadian realism and its design to be close to the US, it might also have moved past its liberal alternative as well. 


Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Travel Bans and Constitutional Challenges

This first of what will undoubtedly be a number of constitutional challenges to inter-provincial travel restrictions is set to take place in Newfoundland today. Here is a report on this challenge. There are other organizations and other citizens who are also challenging various restrictions in other provinces. In the case of Newfoundland, the restriction created a heartbreaking situation where an individual was not allowed in the province at the time of a parent's death. Travel restrictions are complicated issues and need to be assessed as such. I favour them and I am about to explain why, but I also want to explain that they are often poorly understood. I hope the courts uphold the restrictions and, if they do not, I would urge governments to revisit their legislation or use the notwithstanding clause (if applicable in this situation) to maintain restrictions while the emergency situation remains.  In making this argument, I am not trying to say that we should not feel sorry for individuals who need to travel for compassionate reasons. Indeed, I think we can make exceptions to the rules and this might be proper grounds for an exception.  But, my point is that we need to be very careful before we argue that an individual's constitutional right to mobility (which does exist; this is not made up) trumps might right to security of the person (aka, to live). 

There are several reasons I support these restrictions: 

The first point to note is that there is no such thing as a travel ban. Inter-provincial travel was restricted but it was not eliminated. That restriction fell onto most would-be travelers, including myself.  But, there was movement across borders where that movement was deemed necessary and there was always the possibility of applying for an exemption. I live in a small town close to the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Most traffic across this border was stopped (and some people turned back) but not all. Essential travel, transportation of goods, and some people who worked on the other side of the border went across.  This is important because it is not a technicality. It is important because we are dealing with a restriction. That restriction was serious and it did effect people who needed to travel for compassionate reasons. But, travel was not prevented. The technicality here is that we are dealing with an issue of degree not kind. The intent of these restrictions was to prevent the spread of Covid-19 (and I will address that below) and the target audience was non-essential travel, which is the vast majority of inter-provincial travel. In fact, I had not realized how often I traveled across the border to shop, go to dinner, see friends or family, go for a hike, etc. The intent, then, was not to stop all travel but to restrict travel that did not need to take place, like mine. 

Second, this is a temporary measure. The constitution -- and precedence -- allows the state to take temporary actions that it would, in other circumstances, not take. To the best of my knowledge, these kinds of restrictions are nearly unprecedented. That is: they are unique in Canadian history and were designed to respond to a unique challenge. The last global pandemic (Spanish Flu) may have killed 50 million people. By any account this is an emergency situation. The argument against border restrictions seems to be either (a) there is no emergency (which is empirically untrue) or (b) an individual's right to move across the border trumps the authority of the state to introduce temporary measures to respond to an emergency situation. This is an interesting argument -- and one I will address below -- but it should not detract from the fact that we are not talking about a permanent restriction. In effect, the argument against restrictions is suggesting that even temporary emergency measures cannot impede the exercise of individual rights. I find this ethically challenging but the key point to make here is that that is simply not consistent with Canadian history (where temporary emergency measures were introduce to respond to Nazism, terrorism, natural disasters, and other health emergencies) nor the constitution. In point of fact, and admittedly provincial governments may not have used the full scope of constitutional powers available to them, the Canadian constitution provides for precisely this kind of matter through the notwithstanding clause. This clause (the use of which should be restricted as I have argued before in this blog) was created precisely to recognize that there could be unforeseen emergency situations that required the temporary suspension of Charter rights. 

What does this mean? It means that the proponents in this case find themselves in an odd situation. They have to use part of the constitution (mobility rights) to argue against another another part (the recognition that there are emergency situations) should not have effect. Said differently, the proponents in this case need to argue that the constitution both has and does not have authority at the same time. It has authority for mobility rights but not for emergency situations. They must use constitutional authority to subvert constitutional authority. It is, I think, the contradictory nature of this argument -- at once arguing that the constitution should and should not have force and effect -- that leads, I suspect, most opponents of restrictions to argue against them on other grounds (for instance, that there is not really a health threat) because they inherently recognize that this argument is going to be difficult to carry off precisely because it is embroiled on the horns of a contradiction. 

Third, I full recognize that in this case of the individual bringing this case in Newfoundland that the exemption status through which she originally tried to gain access to the province did not have worked well in practice. In other words, an error may indeed have been made. There is appreciable evidence of this: the decision was reversed upon further consideration. IOW, a horrible mistake was made. That is not, I think, at issue. The issue, in my view, is the proposed remedy: to eliminate restrictions. In Canadian law, there is a principle -- by which the courts operate -- called least intrusive remedy. What this means is that the response to the problem should be proportionate to the problem causing the least possible disruption to the legal infrastructure of society. Thus, for instance, Canadian courts rarely "strike down" laws because that would be a serious and intrusive response to a problem. They usually suggest that government's fix the problem (as opposed to the courts) and when they do fix the problem, they usually try to do so in a way that preserves the rest of the law. 

Here is an example: the marriage act (or, whatever its precise name) was never "struck down" to allow same sex marriage. Instead, the courts, after multiple warnings to the federal government, removed the words "between and a man and a woman" (again, or whatever the precise wording was) and inserted "between two people." Why do this? Because, in this case, the rest of the law was not at issue. No one was asking the courts to get rid of marriage. Instead, a defined group of people were, in fact, asking for access to that institution. Moreover, striking down (getting rid of) the entire law would create a legal mess: no one would, any longer, be legally married because the law would no longer exist. You can see why this principle -- least intrusive remedy -- is, in fact, a good way to proceed with judicial review.

In the case of travel restrictions we need to ask if striking down temporary travel restrictions that respond to a national health emergency is, in fact, the best remedy to address what may have been an mistake. I recognize the pain of the individual involved, but I would still argue against the idea that a constitutional challenge is the best way to address a mistake. Even if the courts were to find in her favour, I'd suggest that there are better remedies (ordering the state to develop a better appeal process, for instance) and that striking down a law like this should be a last resort. I'd also argue that the process of interaction between the courts and legislatures should continue. Canadian courts have been notoriously reticent to assert authority over matters that they -- and most people -- view as falling within the competence of the legislatures (the elected representatives of the people). The courts have not rejected the idea that they exercise judicial review over laws (brought to them by citizens), but they have been unwilling to impose remedies without first allowing legislatures a chance to fix the problem. The recent ruling regarding safe third country legislation is a case in point. Here, the courts recognized that this legislation infringed Charter rights but did not get rid of the law. Instead, they imposed a  time limit (six months) and accorded the Parliament that length of time to address the matter. Said differently: the court said "here is a problem that needs to be fixed but we would rather the elected representatives of the people fix it. If you won't in a reasonable length of time, this is what we will do ...."  I could see something similar in this case. I'd disagree with it, I think, but I could see something similar whereby the courts said "you know, we have problems with this but we will let the legislatures fix it up and you have X length of time to do so."

Finally, if it were me and I were lawyers for Newfoundland, I would be arguing the ethics of lifting travel restrictions while a health threat exists. I have noticed a few people in Canada following the lead of American protesters saying something like they don't need to wear masks (I suspect this law will be challenged in Canada, too). And this is similar. I commented before on the way in which travel restrictions impeded access to summer cottages. The people making the case against travel restrictions have a tough job because they don't need to argue just for an unusual remedy (striking down a law because of a mistake in its administration) or against the idea of emergency responses (which are by nature temporary). They also need to argue that one's right to move across a border to, for whatever reason, supersedes my right to safety. 

This is basic political theory. There are here two operative principles. The first is that the state has a basic obligation to ensure the security of its citizens. That is one of its priority and paramount objectives and the reason it provides, say, police and fire protection and a coast guard. The state can be about many things but one of the key things it must be about to security of its citizens. This is, in fact, so important that we have a name for states that cannot do this: failed states. The second consideration is the scope of individual rights. I've noted this before but the old principle is still a good beginning point in discussions on this matter: my right ends where it infringes the rights of another. I might like punching people, as a fictional example, but in that case I need to take up boxing. I can't just walk down the street and start hitting people. My exercise of my right cannot impede other people's exercise of their rights. My rights, to state this clearly, are not superior to their rights. Each person's rights are equal. 

In this case, the opponents of travel restrictions need to argue precisely the opposite of both of these points. They have to argue that the state should not be concerned with the security of its citizens and that their right to mobility is more important than my right to, say, not get a death-inducing disease. On a personal level, I find these arguments difficult to sustain. 

I will sum up: the people bringing this case are not doing anything wrong. They are doing what we all should do in a society that is supposedly governed by the rule of law. They are taking their case to court. That is their right and they are exercising it in a responsible way. No one should fault them for it and we can and should learn from the specific cause and re-assess how we exercise and show compassion to people in the midst of grieving and traumatic personal and familial events. No one should fault people for this case. I still don't think they should win and, if they do, I think there are other and better approaches to dealing with the problem. I'd argue that travel restrictions are working and they are allowing us to gain control over pandemic, at least in a few countries. I'd be worried if we took a step away from that. 


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Questions of Value: Tuition and Online Education

As I was driving home yesterday morning, a CBC news story addressed what might become a mounting problem for UNB and other universities: tuition increases.  Student leaders at UNB are upset that tuition will rise by approximately 2% this year. Mt A -- the place where I work -- and most universities, to the best of my knowledge, are all looking at tuition increases. To paraphrase the student concerns: they are being charged more for an inferior quality of education. Their argument runs like this: the type of online education UNB (and other institutions) are rapidly trying to develop for this fall is a substitute -- a second best option -- for an institution that normally provides education through other means. In the case of UNB, this other means is largely face-to-face in-class instruction. My best guess is that about half of Canadian universities have announced that their classes will be online this fall and the other half (with notable exceptions) are making provisions to dramatically change their modes of instruction, to dramatically expand online content delivery, and/or establish contingency plans that would allow for a rapid shift to online delivery should there be a Covid-19 "second wave" that occasions a second suspension of in-person teaching.

I mention this not because I actually want to weigh in on the issue of online teaching and how universities are preparing for the Fall 2020 semester. I've been involved in planning at Mount A and it is difficult (and, oddly and interestingly rewarding but that is another story). Instead, I mention this because I want to talk about the question of value. I don't inherently disagree with the UNB student leaders. I'd need to think through their position in considerably more detail before I had an opinion on it. Instead, what I'd like to do is talk about who we assess value and how that is translated into dollar terms because that is, after all, what the student leaders were discussing. I want to talk about this because this seems to me to be a good example of a disjuncture in our culture. In one important way UNB student leaders are wrong. Again, I might agree with them and I might not agree with them, but they are wrong in the sense that in a capitalist society (like we have), dollar value (or, price) is determined differently than they suggest. It is this different that I find interesting and culturally important. 

How do we determine value? How do we determine worth? How do we determine price?  These are not all the same thing. In a capitalist society, price is determined by a series of variables that we call, for shorthand, supply and demand. I buy things at the price that I am willing to pay for them.  Price is a market indication. A particular business offers to sell something -- say, a chair -- at a certain price. The consumer -- say, me -- now decides whether or not they want to pay that price. If I don't but I still want to the chair, I might make a counter offer, In effect I say "I want to buy the chair but I am only willing to pay X (X being less than the asking price) for it." The seller now has to make a decision: do they accept my offer or make their own counter, counter offer or do they let me walk away?  You could think of this kind of negotiation -- a market transaction -- as something akin to a Facebook "buy and sell" group. People put stuff up, ask a price, and potential buyers accept the price or make counter offers. 

Now,  I recognize that outside of Facebook and garage sales, and other like venues this does not seem to happen. Most of the time, I go into a store, see a price and decide whether or not I will, buy the product after some quick calculation about my own needs, desire, and disposable income. Yet, there are echoes of the market negotiation I described even in this. While I might not negotiate with the clerk (who would likely not have the authority to change a price anyway), I do see the price as an offer (I will sell you X for $Y) and I decide whether or not I will pay that price. I know people who will not pay that price. They spend ages shopping for bargains. If enough people don't buy something and there is, then, too much stock, the business will put their items on sale, lowering the price. In effect, there is a bit of a collective negotiation going on. By not buying the product, we are telling the business that the price is too high and they need to lower it if a bunch of us are going to buy their product. Is this good? Is this bad? Capitalism is silent on this question. It simply is the way prices are supposed to function. The value of a product is not fixed. It is determined by what someone is willing to pay. 

What the UNB student leaders showed us was another way of thinking about value. If you were to ask me, I'd suggest that their way of thinking is closer to the way most of us operate.  The students drew a connection between their assessment of a products value (how good is it) and suggested that the price should fall because the quality is not as good the past product (that is, last year's education).  That is, instead of asking "how much is this worth to me?" they are trying to make an assessment of the intrinsic value of the product and suggest that this should vary price. In the first, capitalist, example, price is determined by what a person is willing to pay. In the second, let's say non-capitalist, example, price is determined by the product's inherent value determined against a range of criteria.

Note, too, that that there are ethical overtones to this argument. It is wrong to charge someone more for something that is not as good as the product you delivered last year. Sometimes the language of "deserves" is featured as in "student deserve a break."  

Now, without wading into the debate about this year's tuition, this is, I recognize, a complex situation and I won't throw up smoke and mirrors by pretending to have an easy answer. I will say something about tuition and education in a future blog, but for now I am focusing on the issue of value and price because what we see in this discussion is not just a disagreement over the price of a product. In fact, that happens all the time. It happens every time someone buys a car or a house or waits for a sale or goes online to comparison shop. Capitalism is built around differences of perspective on price.  That is, in part, what we call "the market."  What we have here is two different theories of value. 

What the UNB students are saying is that tuition is not a product like others. Its value needs to be set in a different way (than what the market will bear) and that there are ethical, pedagogical, social justice, etc., consideration that should weigh in on the price of tuition. For reasons I will explain later, I agree with this perspective and I think most people who work in and/or administer universities do too. What it shows us, however, and this is the key point, is that a discussion of tuition is not just a discussion of tuition. It draws together not simply different perspectives but different ways of looking at prices and values. The result is that different stakeholders can end up talking past each other, not because they inherently disagree with each other (or, think alternative perspectives are misguided) but because they look at issues in dramatically different ways built on different preconditions. 

All that sounds very vague but it begs a question:  what are we to do about it? How do we stop talking past each other? How do we develop a meeting of minds on the subject? That is obviously easier said than done. I am sure that there are a fair number of people who actually want to be part of this discussion; I'd suggest that this is precisely what is needed. We need to do our jobs -- to be professors, for instance -- this year coming but we also need to initiate a discussion about the role and place of post-secondary education in our society.  This discussion will be long but a first step, I think, is to begin from a consideration of value. If we want to look at the value of post-secondary education, what is it? How do we calculate it? Is there a price point -- tuition -- on which we can agree? None of these discussions will be easy but starting to think about the value of education outside of its economic value might be a starting point. 

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

The Same Old? The Morass of Canadian Conservatism

In the wake of the 2015 election and Andrew Sheer's inability to gain any traction with the Canadian public, Canadian conservatism has been in a tail spin. That spin has continued through Covid-19 as the federal Conservatives attempt to find some principled opposition to federal policy that also does not make them look completely insensitive to the desperate needs of ordinary Canadians. This problem has been complicated by the fact that their provincial allies have been working closely with the federal government and supporting (more-or-less) the same policies. Provincial conservatives in Canada (PCs, Sask Party, CAQ, UCPs) have also recognized that they cannot politicize the pandemic in a manner similar to what has happened in the US.  This means that the normal federal/provincial bickering has been shelved and given the federal Tories little ammunition to suggest that there is serious disagreement with the course on which the federal Liberals have set the country.

So ... where are federal Conservatives in Canada?  What is the state of Canadian conservatism? How have conservatives responded to Covid-19? Will they try to draw on a soft alt.right basis of support, the politics of discontented exaggeration that I noted in my last blog? What are the Conservative's options? 

In this blog I want to argue that the Conservatives (and their intellectual allies) have done things wrong. To be sure, they had a tough road to hoe. I will address that. But, they are also missing an opportunity to redefine conservatism in Canada and a potentially vital political program that offers an alternative to liberalism. The NDP is actually working hard on this from the left-wing of the political spectrum. They may succeed, or they may fail, but they are, at least, working to redefine what a progressive left-wing politics means as a political program that can be implemented. So far the Conservatives seem to have done little more than squander their opportunities. Let me start by asking why this matters and then turn to some first steps conservatives need to take. 

Why Conservatism Matters

I often feel compelled to note somewhere in blogs I write that I am not a liberal nor a member of the Liberal Party. I do that because conservatively minded people I know periodically say I am one and that, in their minds, provides a way to dismiss my comments. I think it is fairly evident that I'm not a conservative and I have little interest in nor support for the trajectory of the Conservative Party of Canada. I have also been deeply troubled by the New Brunswick PCs and their adoption of a soft anti-bilingualism as well as their support for hydro-fracking and I find some of the comments made, over the years, by Jason Kenney and Doug Ford, among others, odious. The decision of Kenney and Scott Moe, for instance, to double down on fossil fuel is, in my view, not just bad policy but shockingly short sighted. In even the short term, this approach -- and effort to force the feds to support a dying industry and coerce other provinces to do the same -- even hurts their own provinces. It looks to squeeze that last few dollars it can out of an industry that is past its best before date, as opposed to providing sound leadership to take their provinces into the future. Let me make this clear: I don't like these people and I don't like them -- much less Stephen Harper -- for a bunch of reasons that relates to what I will argue are clear and manifest policy failures. 

I still want to argue that conservatism matters both as an ideology and a political force and that is, I fully recognize, a tough argument to make. It is a tough argument to make because conservatives have not made it easy to argue that they should matter. I don't want to engage in nostalgia, but there was a time when politically and ideologically conservatism meant something in Canada and, most particularly, it meant a different way of seeing the country.  There were a lot of problems with that way. Canadian conservatism and the Conservative Party (which went by a number of names) was deeply implicated in colonialism. Its members were often xenophobic and it dragged its heals on a host of measure from LGBTQi+ equality, to women's right to control their bodies, to bilingualism. We cannot neglect these considerations because they are part of the history of Canadian conservatism and they part of the shadow from which Canadian conservatism needs to emerge. 

And, this is my key point. Conservatism cannot be simply the defense of the way things used to be. Whether it was a success or a failure, the kind of thinking that historically people like George Grant or Joe Clark did about conservatism and what it entails has been lacking. One might end up disagreeing with, say, Clark's "community of communities" or Grant's "public good" and rural organic society, but the important point is that they signified something other than opposition to the liberal policies of their day and a desire to freeze time. What does, for instance, social conservatism mean? It has come to mean opposition to LGBTQi+ equality and women's control over their bodies. Quite frankly, this is not social conservatism in the sense that it does not offer a vision of what a socially conservative society looks like other than rejecting the rights of different Canadians to control their lives, be equal in employment, make decisions about their own bodies, and not have to hide who they are. This type of perspective makes conservatism a small tent: it begins its entry into public discourse by rejecting the rights of others and this is a point on which it will not win ground because it is (a) wrong and intensely problematic from an ethical perspective and (b) stakes out a political and social space that the vast majority of Canadians cannot accept.  What it means is that to win election, conservatives have to convince Canadians that they, in fact, are not who they are claiming to me be or that other issues (say, the economy) outweigh the negative aspects of their politics. 

This matters not because I want conservatives to win or even agree with what they say. It matters for two reasons. First, on a simple level, because it shrinks the Canadian political spectrum.  There may be good reason for this and that can be a discussion for another day, but the failure of alternative political perspectives ultimately means that what we have as Canadians is a more limited choice of political futures. In effect, what the CPC offers Canadians is not a different vision of the future, but a less equal, less generous, less humane version of what the Liberals are putting on the table.  Second, and following from that, the morass into which Canadian conservatism has fallen legitimizes perspectives that never should have been legitimized. For instance, it tells people who oppose equality that they are not opposing equality (that is, being, quite frankly, bigoted) but guardians of an important ideology: social conservatism.  With regard to, say, opposition to Indigenous rights, it tells people that there is *no* conservative way to build positive relations between First Peoples and Canadians and that Canadians are legitimate in rejecting reconciliation as a meaningful goal for their country. Are these really messages we want to send? 

The Tough Road

Canadian conservatism entered this year in a mess. It was in a mess before Covid-19 and the pandemic has not been kind to it.  CPC leadership contender Peter MacKay called the 2019 election loss the equivalent of taking a shot on an empty net and missing. That is not 100% accurate but the metaphor captures some of the situation. In 2019, the CPC seemed to have the cards set in its favour. It had experienced candidates, they were facing a weak PM who had back-tracked on key issues, broad provincial discontent with the federal Liberals, disaffection among a significant section of the Canadian population, and what appeared to be little competition for Canadian votes form the NDP and BQ. Said in other words, the CPC could have done what opposition parties want to do: gain power by providing an alternative to the government that speaks to Canadians. 

This perception disguised a deeper level of malaise. Canadians never warmed to Sheer, the first past the post political system worked in the Liberals favour (and there is some irony in this in that CPC fought so hard to maintain it), and the CPC's association with some provincial conservatives became a liability.  Canadian conservatism appeared internally divided, hypocritical, and reactionary.  Sheer and his supporters seemed to have little direction and seemed to be trapped in their own base of support. They offered Canadians not a different future but a recycled version of a past that most Canadians had already rejected. 

For Canadian conservatives, there were other warning signs that they should have read and these are some of the things that conservatives will need to jettison if they want to provide a real alternative to the governing Liberals. First, disaffection with Trudeau was odd and gendered. The anti-Trudeau cohort and symbolism (particularly but not exclusively the gun lobby, big oil, and the carbon copy "yellow vests"), were the kind of votes the CPC felt they needed but also the kind of voices that sound good only in an echo chamber. The idea that the solution to Canada's problems lay in a dying carbon-based energy industry was simply difficult for Canadians outside Alberta and Saskatchewan to believe and should have been difficult for conservatives in those provinces to believe as well. 

Second, conservative parties have been colonized by the very industries that they have to regulate if they are in government. In particular, the Saskatchewan Party and the United Conservative Party often appear as little more than fanboys for the oil and gas industry. What if you have legitimate environmental concerns? The conservative answer is that the economy is more important and so you need to hold your nose and vote for them. When pressed on this issue on the news one day, I listened to a conservative commentator trot out Brian Mulroney era policies to explain since the feds had once done something for Quebec, they needed now to support oil and gas in Alberta and Saskatchewan come what may. Hard feelings die hard. It is true, but as I listened to him I wondered how many people in the audience actually knew about something that happened 25 or 30 years ago? What is more, this commentator missed a chance to do something profound. Instead of fanning regional discontent (which was what he did), he could have offered alternatives to address the economic problems of those provinces. For whatever reason, he chose not to. 

Finally, the conservatives need to get recognize that they need more than an election issue to win. In the absence of doing the hard work of figuring out what conservatism means in 21st-century Canada, conservative commentators and political figures have moved through Covid-19 as if they were ready to form a government. They might be, but it won't be a good government. They have desperately searched for an issue and settled on the idea that their route to electoral victory rests in trying to portray Justin Trudeau as "unaccountable." I expect this line of attack will continue and perhaps even accelerate with some comments built in about the need to control budget deficits. Why do conservatives need to ditch this line of attack? Because it is sound bite politics that cannot provide the basis for reasoned public discourse. 

The Bad News

The bad news for conservatives is that their intense dislike of Justin Trudeau keeps them focused on slagging him. Trudeau symbolizes everything conservatives hate, much in the manner that Hillary Clinton symbolized everything the American alt.right despised. But they need to get their attention off him. Will they? I honestly don't know but if I were advising CPC leadership contenders, this is what I would be telling them. 

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, ...