Welcome to Max Fawcett's newsletter
First, a column. Then, a podcast. And now, a newsletter. Have we reached peak Max Fawcett yet? I regret to inform you that, for better or worse (probably worse!), I fully intend to find out.
For those who don’t know me, I’m the lead columnist for Canada’s National Observer and the host of Maxed Out, a podcast that just hit the double-digit mark in episodes. I write about climate change, energy and politics, with a particular focus on Alberta, which is where I make my home and my living.
So why exactly am I doing this? In part, because I want (and need) a hedge against the possibility Twitter collapses under the weight of Elon Musk’s incompetence. Right now, that’s where many people find me — and it’s entirely possible it could disappear one day.
I’m also doing this because it gives me a new format to play with, one that’s similar to the Substack I started during the pandemic. It’s an opportunity to be a bit more conversational than I can be in a column, and it lets me explore a few different subjects in a way that’s fun and engaging for the reader. It’s also a way to keep you, said reader, caught up on all of the columns I’m writing, the podcasts I’m recording and any other public interventions that I think are worth your attention.
If you like it, let me know. If you don’t, tell me why. And if you can, share it with your friends and colleagues.
On the meaning (and measurement) of happiness
Partisanship, as I’ve said repeatedly (and, yes, probably demonstrated on more than one occasion), is a hell of a drug. That was on full display in a recent attempt by Canada Proud to dunk on the Trudeau government for Canada’s position on a ranking of the world’s happiest countries. After peaking at fifth in 2015, the latest World Happiness Report ranked us 13th. “Not good!” the right-wing meme factory tweeted.
That ranking still puts Canada ahead of places like the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany and France. More importantly, the countries ahead of us on the list aren’t exactly the sort of libertarian small-government paradises you’d think the folks at Canada Proud would gravitate towards. Number 1? Finland. Number 2? Denmark. Also in the top 10: Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and New Zealand.
A severe case of Partisan Blindness Syndrome prevented the meme makers at Canada Proud from appreciating the implications of their dunk or realizing that the ball would come back flying at their face. Blaming the Trudeau government for a slight decrease in the reported happiness of Canadians is an exercise in spurious correlation, given the fact that their time in power coincides with the Donald Trump era and a global pandemic, never mind the negative existential gravity the United States continues to exert. And if we’re trading in spurious correlation, we could just as easily blame it on the existence of Canada Proud and its constant rage-farming, which began right as Canada’s happiness levels started heading south.
But their dumb dunk actually raises some interesting questions about what actually informs our happiness — and what doesn’t. It’s clearly not low taxes, since Finland, Norway, Iceland and Sweden are among the most highly taxed countries in the world. It’s not about regulations or “red tape,” since they’re also some of the most effectively regulated economies and countries on Earth. Small government and low taxes might make conservative lobbyists and pundits happy, but that doesn’t appear to hold for the population at large.
So what is driving happiness? In a deliberately cheeky tweet, John Cleese — yes, that John Cleese — suggested it was correlated with one’s proximity to more socialist forms of government. Perhaps. But according to John Helliwell, one of the authors of the World Happiness Report and a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics, it’s really about being connected with other people. Not surprisingly, the countries where the social safety net is most robust — and where governments are most involved in helping people build and maintain their communities — are the ones where people are happiest.
That extends to our own lives and the choices we make in them. “It’s about co-operating with other people in a useful way,” he told CNN. “You do end up feeling better about yourself if you’re actually looking after other people rather than Number 1.”
We’d do well to remember that — and to ask our elected officials to do the same. The relentless pursuit of our own self-interest, and a government that encourages us to do the same, might seem like a path to fulfilment and happiness. But the research and the rankings it produces clearly suggest otherwise. An economy of caring, and a government that helps us build it, might be more important than all the tax cuts in the world — especially when those cuts will make it even harder for the government to support people who need a little help.
I get letters
I’ve gotten lots of feedback on the podcast ever since it launched, with most of it being supportive (along with the usual smattering of abuse from my trolls and Twitter reply guys). When it comes to the more constructive contributions, a consistent theme has emerged: you’re being too agreeable.
This has never, I promise, been a problem for me before. But the job of playing host is a new one for me, and I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be. This letter, from a regular listener, captures where I’m coming up short (I’ve edited some parts out for the sake of brevity):
“You mentioned your dad’s advice: to listen more, to try to really understand your adversary's argument. Sounds like excellent advice (and I try to follow it, mostly unsuccessfully). But surely the goal is not only to sharpen your own thinking but to help others, including your adversary, recognize and challenge their own biases and illogic, too.
I have a few farmers (mostly retired) in my extended family, and our conversations are often unsatisfying. I feel like I extend good faith, and ask a lot of questions, and hear a fair amount of unexamined ignorance, and gently try to push back. And then we’re out of time…! Which is maybe why I was likewise a bit frustrated by your conversation with the Saskatchewan farmer.
Here’s a guy who should have disagreed with you, and the substance of your disagreement could have been illuminating. But I felt like you mostly just let him say his piece. You listened. You conceded points. You acknowledged your own shortcomings. Did he do any of this? And then the episode was done.
I was hoping you’d push back a bit. Why shouldn’t farmers pay the carbon tax? They pollute, too. They're harmed by the effects of climate change, too. And if they need an incentive to tell Ford to hurry up already and mass-produce the F-150 Lightning, great. If the problem is the rebates aren’t sufficient, well, fix the rebates.
Meanwhile, I’m not sure that people who produce food should be exempt from paying a carbon tax. By that logic, maybe we should exempt nurses and brain surgeons and paramedics and whoever oversees municipal drinking water systems, too. Their work is likewise critical to keeping me alive.
My sense is your farmer just doesn’t like to pay a tax. Well, none of us do. But some of us appreciate the greater good, too.”
The good news about a podcast like mine is that it’s iterative and open to change. And so, that’s what I’ve started to do. I’ll still give my guests the space to make their argument and the opportunity to have the last word in our conversation. But I’m now going to close the podcast with a summary of my own — one that takes stock of their argument and points out any flaws or weaknesses I didn’t address in the moment.
We’ll probably need a name for that segment, and I’m open to suggestions (and sponsors).
Over the last week, I’ve written about the federal government’s latest carbon tax communications fail — one it brought on itself by trying to weaponize the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s previous analysis on the subject. I also dug into the growing role a group called “Take Back Alberta” is playing in running the United Conservative Party, and what it might mean if the UCP wins the provincial election in May.
My most recent podcast guest was Stewart Muir, an occasional Twitter combatant of mine who came on to talk about LNG — and fielded my criticisms of the most common arguments in favour of exporting more of it.
Next up: former Alberta premier Rachel Notley, who joined me to talk about her party’s path to victory in Calgary and why they don’t talk about the economy as much as I think they should. That episode will drop next Tuesday.
That’s it for now, folks. If you’ve gotten this far, thank you for reading — and please send me your suggestions about how I can make this more useful for you.