This week, headlines across the country told Canadians that they now paid more in taxes than they did for food, shelter and clothing combined. Many newscasts and newspapers as diverse as the Toronto Star, the Calgary Herald and the PEI Guardian told the sorry tale calculated by the Fraser Institute. It went somewhat viral, as they say, and offers an excellent example of how think tanks and policy institutes can take their place in the nation’s conversation, doing research on complex issues to help busy people solve the inevitable information problems that go along with the ever-growing complexity of modern life.
Trouble is, the story is not quite as simple as the headlines and 30-second news hits portrayed. Neither the report itself nor the data supporting it paint such an easy picture. For example, readers quickly got the idea that Canadians face something like an increasingly crushing tax burden, while the study itself clearly indicates that taxes, as percentage of our income, have fluctuated and today are lower than they were 30 years ago.
Similarly, the data underpinning the report isn’t as clear and uncontroversial as it first seems. A critique by another think tank, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, points out that the core figure used as the amount of tax paid by the average Canadian family is not calculated from what the average family actually pays but by taking the total tax revenue collected in the country and dividing it by the number of Canadian households. That means the figure includes all corporate taxes, export duties, resources taxes and so on which are not self-evidently what people think of as family taxes.
Other points can be made – the cost of necessities has decreased substantially as a percentage of income which factors into the comparison. Or, as Global News’ story the day after all the headlines pointed out, the anchor date for data of the report begins before the introduction of medicare, CPP, and other treasured social programs which impacts the arc of numbers substantially. So, it doesn’t take long for that simple, headline-making story to get complex once again. For me, that raised questions about what role thinks tanks and other such private institutes play in the policy process in this country: Does this kind of work help or does it add another layer of complexity to the public conversation that itself needs decoding?
Think tanks and policy institutes generally call themselves “non-partisan,” and present their research as a civic offering. They put on conferences. They appear on programs like the Agenda. Their researchers are qualified, accredited and professional. Yet, either the research or the institute often gets tagged as left- or right-leaning or industry/issued predisposed (think energy or environment or labour, for instance). So, non-partisan in the sense of not being affiliated with a particular political party? Yes. But without a perspective or political pre-disposition? That varies.
As such, do the findings of such institutions deserve the high profile of being news on their own merits? If the data gets put through an ideological lens of sorts, how helpful are such reports in educating or informing the average citizen? And if political leanings motivate the work and the impulse to publicize it, does that make it more suited to the political rather than policy world? Does the busy average citizen need a crib sheet of the possible leanings and does that make it more or less likely to engage? Even with such a crib sheet, does that do enough to equip people with the means to decide if they should accept or reject a given report? Detailed, expert analysis and argument often needs another specialist to scrutinize and unpack possible problems. Does that mean we need another layer of data experts to help decode what complex issue decoders decoded?
Still, who wants to live in a policy world where no political pre-dispositions or perspectives exist? Aren’t those sorts of animating impulses sometimes exactly what we want from people looking for innovation, better government and the best policy we can dream up?
Think tanks and policy institutes arose in the last few decades in Canada and judging by how their research gets picked up and passed around the country, Canadians see a role for them. I’d like to spend some time this coming season on the public policy ecosystem, and this week's headlines offers a good entry point to start getting you into the conversation. What do you think? Do you read stories about research done by these institutions? Do you read just the news about them or do you follow up reports directly? Do you think they’re playing a constructive role overall? Please tell us on Facebook, on Twitter or in the comments below.
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