Are Canadians doing better or worse?

We are all vulnerable to what psychologist Ziva Kunda called “motivated reasoning.” We have views. Sometimes we are strongly committed to them. And it’s easier to make evidence conform to our views than the other way around.

In a 1988 survey from the US, people who identified as strong Democrats said inflation and unemployment — the two big economic concerns of the era — had worsened during the eight years of the Reagan administration. In fact, they had greatly improved. In 1996, strong Republicans said the federal deficit had grown in the previous four years, even though it had dramatically shrunk. Why were these partisans so wrong? Because it depended on who was occupying the White House. In 1988, Ronald Reagan was finishing his second term. For a committed Democrat who loathed Reagan, things just had to be worse. So they said they were worse. In 1996, the president was Bill Clinton, and it gave committed Republicans a migraine to think that the deficit had declined on his watch. So they didn’t think it. Problem solved.

I use these American examples because they are “neutral” for Canadians. But this is a human thing. It applies every bit as much in our fair dominion.

Consider the question “are Canadians doing better or worse?” It is big, multifaceted and politically fraught. Hence, it’s exactly the sort of question that invites motivated reasoning. And if you look at the narratives that have dominated the popular media in the past few years — simple stories of unmitigated decline and insecurity from some, or rising prosperity from others — it’s hard not to think that many people accepted the invitation.

In this issue David Rothwell and Jennifer Robson give serious consideration to that question and find there is no simple tale to tell. Viewed through one lens— income—the news is good, mostly. But look through another lens — wealth— and the news is much bleaker. These complexities cannot be lost if policy-makers are to respond effectively.

For me, the most heartening detail of Robson and Rothwell’s article is the decline in poverty among seniors. It was policy that did that — a policy that was implemented and sustained by successive governments over decades.

Parties aren’t everything, even if partisans sometimes think they are.

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