We Are The Walking Dead

Lately, I’ve been devouring Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead”, a comic set in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland with a narrative focused on the daily lives of the non-zombie survivors. It sounds bleak, but it’s a good drama piece on how things fall apart in a crisis whose scale is beyond any individual’s comprehension.

I’ve started to see it as a bit of a parable for the current global situation and the probable future scenarios that await us: the constant hunt for food and shelter, and the vigorous and brutal means used to secure those same essentials. While most of the population of our world hasn’t turned into actual zombies, there’s a lot of parallels between our world and that of the comic.

Consider survival. Regardless of your current financial situation, you will be affected by the crisis and your ability to maintain your quality of life will face increasing strain. Are you prepared? I remain dumbfounded at the shabby state of Canadian and Americans’ finances, and individuals’ overall lack of restraint or planning. A quick run through the numbers courtesy of GreaterFool.ca shows that there are a lot of people out there who:

  • Lack of significant savings: According to Garth, seven in ten Canadians have no corporate pensions, sixty per cent have no money saved, and only five in ten have RRSPs. Of the fifty percent of Canadians that do have an active RRSP, the average amount saved is a little over $40K.
  • Have significant debt: Canadian families owe $1.45 for every dollar they earn, and carry an average debt of more than $25K.
  • Are overexposed to risk: Canadians are funneling a more and more money into real estate. Average cost of a house in Vancouver is upwards of 8x on average household income.
  • Are at or nearing retirement: There are nine million boomers comprising 32% of the population of Canada. The country is aging, and it’s only going to get worse. Oh, and we’re not alone.

No sweat, I hear you saying, I’ve sorted my own finances out. Which is just fantastic – at least someone’s been thinking ahead. In preparation for the Financial Zombieland that awaits us, you’ve at least been stockpiling cans, guns and ammunition. You’ll at least make it past the first wave of the outbreak.

Unfortunately, the fallout of the crisis will last slightly longer than a winter storm that knocks out the power. It will also dramatically reshape our society – permanently. While your larder may be full now, I believe the breadth and depth of the crisis will conspire to drain your reserves slowly but steadily in a number of ways:

  • The safety net will slowly disappear: Governments, being borderline insolvent, will look to dramatically trim expenditures while expanding taxation. One only has to look at the four-year “plan” in Ireland, and the economic restructuring in England to get an idea of what’s on the horizon for previously government-provided social services.
  • Things will cost more: Anyone who’s been paying attention has noticed that resources are becoming more hotly contested. China is playing chicken with the IMF by gobbling up resource rights in Africa in exchange for infrastructure, a flagrant violation of IMF’s rules that require those rights to be used to pay each African nation’s outstanding debts. Not only will resources cost more, but demographics and entitlements will force governments to find new sources of revenue. Read that: raise taxes.
  • Growth will be constrained: The natural response on the part of consumers and companies will be to find ways to conserve cash. In the wake of the economic crisis, US savings rates have increased dramatically. Canadians, believing they’ve avoided the worst, have decreased their personal savings rates; however, this will change as it becomes clear that no one can escape the grasp of the global economic decline.

The upside of this reshaping of our society is that it might be just what we needed. Just as in “The Walking Dead”, this crisis may have an upside. If nothing else, it may force us to shuffle our personal priorities. Perhaps we’ll reduce our consumption, redefine how we work, and reverse some of the global destruction we’ve wrought.

Response to the Georgia Straight

The Georgia StraightI find it intriguing that the Straight found it appropriate to print two responses disagreeing with my comment on the “Vancouver’s Homeless Demand Solutions” story, yet didn’t see fit to print my original comment itself. As I recall, quoting responses without context is poor journalistic form. Nevertheless, despite that oversight, I think it worthwhile to respond to these comments.

For the record, my original comment:

I think a bit of perspective is required here: Let’s assume that the number of homeless is 15K, as suggested above. BC’s population is an estimate 4.4M according to BC Stats, which means that the homeless comprise 1/3 of a percent of the population. Even if the number is doubled, it’s still only 2/3 of a percent.

Am I happy there’s people who are homeless? Of course not. But by the same token, I think it’s unrealistic to expect nobody to be homeless, much in the same way it’s unrealistic to expect 100% employment.

I don’t have a solution to this problem and, in all honesty, I’m not sure one exists. However, I don’t think giving people cheap housing is going to solve the problem – it’s a hand-out that doesn’t solve the fundamental underlying issues, and it insults the rest of the hard-working population in the interim.

First, let me be clear: I’m in favour of programs to reduce homelessness. However, I have a problem with programs that choose to throw money at symptoms rather than causes. If history is any guide, these programs will not provide the desired results (one only needs to look at the $1.4B invested in the Downtown Eastside with few results), which does a disservice to those working hard to pay their taxes to pay for these ill-conceived projects.

According to the original Straight article, there are between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless people (note that we’re talking about genuinely homeless people here, not those who are struggling with housing affordability – I’ll come to them in a moment). Contrary to popular belief, the problem for these individuals is not a lack of housing – that’s a symptom. For the majority, the root cause is untreated mental health issues and substance abuse. These factors limit employment options and create the conditions that lead to homelessness.

The real solution is not to throw money at cheap housing, the solution is to provide proper, comprehensive mental healthcare in BC. Proper mental heath treatment can reduce or eliminate the factors that limit these individuals’ ability to be fully functioning members of society. That is the real solution.

Unfortunately, even comprehensive mental heath services are not sufficient to cure homelessness. Although one commenter called it “disgusting” for me to state that it’s unrealistic to expect nobody to be homeless, I stand by this statement. Even when adequate mental heath services are available, there are some individuals that simply will not adhere to treatment regimens required to enable them remain functioning members of society. For example, some schizophrenics complain that they don’t feel themselves when they’re on their medications, and choose to stop taking their treatment. My mother, a psychiatric nurse for twenty years, can attest to this phenomenon.

Unless we discover a way to cure mental health issues instantaneously or choose to, as one commenter suggested, put individuals who aren’t capable of functioning in society under the care of the state, the root cause of homelessness will remain. And as long as there is one person without a home, there will be homelessness. It’s an unfortunate, horrible thing to say. But it’s also reality.

Of course, housing affordability is also a major problem. Proponents of social housing projects, such as Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project, are quick to point out that money spent on the new convention center could have bought 4,250 deluxe inner-city homes. So let’s pretend that happened –what would be the result? Without the convention center project, we would have missed out on the benefits of the project:

  • 4500 direct and indirect jobs
  • $1.6B economic activity during the convention construction
  • 61 events between now and 2012 (which could not have been accommodated without the new facility)
  • $2 billion additional economic activity in the province between now and 2012

Not constructing the convention center would have eliminated a recurring source of jobs and economic stability. In other words, the very things that enable people to afford housing in the first place and that decrease the likelihood of people slipping into homelessness. The very result organizations such as the Carnegie Community Action Project would like to see.

The solution here is not simply to build some subsidized housing and pat ourselves on the back. It’s addressing the real problems, namely lack of proper mental healthcare. And the money required to provide that solution has to come from somewhere – namely income generated from new economic activity.

Given the dire economic straits we find ourselves in, I would argue that it’s more prudent for the government to focus on addressing the 7.6% unemployed British Columbians, rather than 1/3 of a percent homeless. After all, the money for all of these social programs has to come from somewhere, and lack of employment only increases the possibility of people becoming homeless in the first place.

These are not nice choices for a society to have to make. But in a world of constrained resources, you can’t have it all. You need to focus on the root problems, not symptoms, and try to generate the best result for the most people. To do otherwise is impractical.