Tuesday 25 Oct 2016

A Bushel of Carrots
David Simmonds

The Ontario government is thinking and acting big. In announcing her government’s climate change action plan, Premier Kathleen Wynne said, “When my grandchildren ask me what we did to help our planet I want to be proud of what we accomplished.” 

I don’t envy the government its task.

No I don't. Even with the resources of the entire Ontario public service at my disposal, I’m not sure I could effectively organize a Pumpkinfest parade, let alone an action plan to tackle a complex issue like carbon reduction. I’ll go further, and say I admire its resolve. It must be extraordinarily difficult to tackle a problem that isn’t right in your face, shambling down Main Street terrorizing everyone in its path.

The government is not invoking two forces to assist in making its plan work. One is the force of the market system. Why not, say the editorialists, let the market figure out how to allocate resources once you have set a price on carbon? The other is the power of community. Whether you are a raging liberal deficit spender, a leaping social democrat or a green tory, you can hew to the view that a community can collectively and efficiently figure out how to meet a target, if given the chance to believe in it.

The Wynne government is instead relying on a number of incentive programmes, termed a “basket of carrots” by the minister in charge, Glen Murray. There will be a revenue stream generated from the ‘cap and trade’ scheme of carbon pricing; this will feed all manner of initiatives from the development of bicycle lanes to the retrofitting of homes to allow for enhanced electric vehicle charging.

Because foresight can never be one hundred per cent accurate, you invite two principles into play. The first principle states that there will always be unintended consequences of your actions. For example, you could decide to encourage cycling by setting aside dedicated lanes on Ontario highways.

Cyclists do get sweaty.

Tim Hortons sees that it can get in on the right side of the action and starts equipping its restaurants with showers. Long lineups ensue, so Tims starts to charge for the service, although it remains free with any donut order above $50.

This creates a run on donuts. People start reselling their extras outside Tim Hortons. Tims gets mad and demands the government do something. It doesn’t.

Tims, figuring its real estate is worth more than its baking, suddenly closes all its Ontario outlets, throwing 6.5 million people out of work. There is rioting in the streets, with particular venom directed at bicyclists, bureaucrats and restaurant executives.

Now, I’m not saying this will play out, as outlined. I’m just saying it could. The example illustrates a complication that not be factored into the initial design of the basket of carrots, but which cries out for some remedial action once the scope of the problem emerges.

The second principle states that there will always be unanticipated events that interfere with the success of your project. For example, you encourage everyone to buy an electric vehicle and install a home charging port. It turns out that a couple of years from now any mischief-inclined 16-year-old, with ten bucks burning a hole in his or pocket, can buy a de-magnetizing device to ‘uncharge’ a car.

Electric car owners are suddenly vulnerable.

Rural owners decide to institute a ‘be nice to teenagers programme,’ which is wildly successful and even results in the re-opening of a few Tim Hortons outlets. Urban owners react by installing electric fences around their properties, thereby consuming so much electricity that the grid is overloaded, meaning their electric vehicles can’t charge, reliably, anyway.

Again, I’m just making up an example. I’m certainly not suggesting that we need to be especially nice to teenagers. For one thing, older people would have a human rights complaint about the inequitable distribution of niceness.

How does Ms Wynne manage the risk that these two principles present? I think it requires a dose of something that politicians keep in short supply: humility. How often have you heard one say “Okay, this isn’t working out quite the way we expected; let’s take it into the shop for adjustment”?

Politicians fear voters seem them as imperfect. I find it odd that they don’t blame unanticipated consequences and unforeseen events more often. After all, isn’t shifting responsibility the essence of politics?   

Apart from that caution, good luck to Ms. Wynne and, her sidekick, Mr Murray, in selling that basket of carrots.


Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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