Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In Better Shape: Canada

In Better Shape: Canada

Having just spent two weeks navigating the switchbacks of four national parks in the Canadian Rockies, it dawned on me that our northern neighbors are in better shape than we are.  As a big fan of day hiking, I’ve spent a great deal of time in America’s great park system.   Even before sequester, the U.S. National Park System was struggling to maintain its infrastructure.  Many of our parks’ roads are strewn with potholes.  By contrast, the Canadian roads are well maintained, including the narrow secondary roads that are buried in snow in the winter and subject to rockslides. 

Over two weeks, I had the opportunity to survey several dozen outhouses.  As I’ve aged, these facilities have become increasingly important.  Canadian facilities, known as washrooms, were clean and fairly odor-free with one exception.  Spirals Railroad Overlook in Yoho National Park did not meet the standard.  However, the clean up crew was just arriving as we were leaving.  If you’ve spent any time in Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce Canyon, or another US park, you know that the bathroom facilities vary widely in cleanliness and may not even be open.

In Banff and Jasper, the major Canadian banks all have branches and ATMs scattered about. Interestingly, it’s the exact same set of banks that competed for business before the financial crisis.  While American and European banks received bailouts, were forced to merge, or in some cases left to fail, the Canadian banks just went on making loans and taking deposits.  It turns out that Canada has pretty strict banking regulations, which forced the Canadian banks to maintain adequate capital reserves and refrain from most of the excesses that hit other western institutions.

While we were trekking beneath the glaciers, Republicans were plotting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the Administration was preparing to delay the new requirements for employers.  Despite the occasional negative anecdotes, the Canadian health care system seems to be chugging along.  For one thing, no one in Canada seems to see the need for a major overhaul of their system, whether they’re on the left or the right of their political spectrum.  Moreover, the Canadians are spending $4,445 per person (11.4% of GDP) on health care, while we’re spending $8,233 per capita (17.6% of GDP).  Canadians live to an average age of 82 versus 79 in the US, and their infant mortality rate is 4.8 per 1,000 births versus 5.9 in the US.

Canada is far from perfect.  As my wife and I ate breakfast in a local coffee shop in Banff, we overheard a group of guys complaining about the provincial government of Alberta.  According to one gentleman, a civil engineer, the government spends far too much and over-engineers the bridges that traverse streams and rivers in the Canadian parks.  Moreover, the clean up from the flooding in southern Alberta has not been perfect.  There have been plenty of complaints, especially from the citizens of High River, which was nearly wiped out.  And their politicians are not paragons of virtue.  During our visit the Mayor of Montreal was arrested for fraud, while the Mayor of Toronto tried to fend of allegations that he’d smoked cocaine.

What Canada has is a mature relationship with its government.  People seem to understand that they need to pay taxes in order to make sure parks are maintained, and washrooms are cleaned.  They also recognize that banks have to be well capitalized and regulated, even if that means that they’re not as “cutting edge” as their American counterparts.  In health care, the Canadians recognize that the free markets do not appropriately allocate or price health care services.  By the way, Canadians aren’t always serious and gentle.  We had the privilege of watching a one-hour special on TSN of hockey fights by goalies.  Canada’s leading sports analysts provided expert commentary.

I am not suggesting that we should adopt everything Canadian.  However, we would be well served to study our neighbors, because things are working a whole lot better on the other side of the border.

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