The Spur Questionnaire: Brett House

Brett House
Brett House

Brett House is Senior Fellow at the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation and Visiting Scholar at Massey College in the University of Toronto. He will be part of our panel Canada’s New Social Contract, Part II—At What Cost?, happening April 12 at The Isabel Bader Theatre. Brett discusses his panel on the Canadian economy in his answers to the Spur Questionnaire.

Tell us about your participation in the 2015 Spur Festival.
I’m part of a diptych about the state of Canada’s social contract on the Festival’s last day. The first panel, with Imre Szeman and Chris Macdonald, looks at the intersection between morality and the economy; Mike Moffatt, Anne Johnson, and I follow up with an analysis of Canada’s addiction to natural resource extraction and we consider the prospects for different economic futures. The panel dovetails nicely with my interest as a macroeconomist in making economic systems work better for people. The challenges Canada faces require insights from financial markets, academia, and policymaking. I look forward to a discussion that synthesizes perspectives from all three areas into solutions: a discussions that goes beyond “shoulds” to “hows.”

What do you hope Spur Festival attendees will take away from your session?
I hope the conversation produces an expanded sense of the possible. Geography is not destiny: Canada’s economic future is neither figuratively nor literally set in stone. Hewing wood and drawing water for a living is a choice, not a fate. We can choose to do other things, but change requires long-term commitment and disciplined policymaking. Consider South Korea as it emerged from war with the North in 1953: it had few natural resources, little industry, and its infrastructure was in shambles. South Korea’s economy is now 40 times larger than that of the initially better-endowed North. This is an extreme example, but policy and institutions obviously had a big hand in producing these results.

Which program at the 2015 Spur Festival are you most looking forward to?
Everyone should get up early for Taylor Owen’s breakfast talk on his book Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age. Taylor always manages to marry a clear diagnosis of what’s going on in the world with practical suggestions for how to act on his analysis. He never provides just a gratuitous listing of vague recommendations: Taylor also outlines a road map to making them happen.

What is the one item you never leave home without?
I recently received a FitBit and I truly never leave home without it. The FitBit has massively changed my perception of how much I move (or don’t) in a day. And its app shows me how much my friends and family are walking, so I don’t want to miss recording a single step and fall behind. Writing and research are even more sedentary activities than I’d previously realized; the FitBit gives me license to get up and clear my head a little more frequently.

Which book is currently on your nightstand?
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, a gift from my pal Elizabeth Littlefield, who supplies most of my nightstand reading. It’s a tale of a family that raises a chimpanzee as a human child, told through the quirky, psychoanalytic internal voice of the daughter who grew up as the chimp’s sister. Fiction is the only reading material that gets near my bed. I loathe admitting that a day has come to an end, but it’s a little easier to herd myself to sleep if I have a good story waiting for me. I feel like I remember my dreams more richly and that I think more creatively the next day when I end the previous night with something once-removed from reality.

In the last year, what is the longest you have gone ‘unplugged’? No internet, no cell phone, etc.
I don’t aim for long stretches of being unplugged, but I do try to be offline for consistent stretches every day. My iPhone has shown me for the first time how infinite distractabillity and addiction feel, so I leave the phone in another room for hours so that I can focus on work. I’m just too weak to have a smartphone beside me and not check it constantly. The internet provides me with way too much dopamine to handle in anything but measured doses. Of course, I still fall off the web-wagon periodically and find myself watching Martha Stewart’s roast of Justin Bieber on repeat like everyone else, but I’ve built habits that help me recover quickly.

Who was the last person you texted?
I just texted my friends Ilona Dougherty, the co-founder of Apathy is Boring, and Anita Nowak, who teaches the social enterprise course at McGill. We check in with each other daily as part of an accountability pact to keep us focused on our research plans.

The animated show The Jetsons was set in 2062. Is there anything from their futuristic world that you wish were a current reality?
I’m glad that many features of the Jetsons’ world haven’t come to pass. Flying cars, for instance, would be a nightmare: it would be horrible to have more things buzzing over us. Drones will single-handedly kill the appeal of levitating Chevys. I would like to take a holiday on the moon, but I don’t think this is going to become anything close to commonplace in my lifetime. Still, I’d love to eat these words one day by cashing in a million frequent-flier miles for a trip to the Sea of Tranquility. I’ll give the Sea of Crises a miss, though.

How do you prefer to communicate with colleagues: by phone, email, text or in person? How do you prefer to communicate with friends?
By phone! Nearly everyone under 50 hates it, but the phone is an amazingly efficient communication medium. By contrast, it’s too easy to send an ill-considered email that generates more heat than light. SMSes are often too brief and cryptic to be useful with colleagues for much more than an update on someone’s late arrival to a meeting. And though I love seeing co-workers, an obsession with meetings can be a time sink: it usually means we take an hour for an issue that should be resolved in 15 minutes. With friends, I’d always rather see them in person, but I use every medium available to stay in touch between times together.

What are you looking forward to in Toronto?
I grew up in small-town Niagara, so Toronto has always been the actual and metaphorical metropole to my periphery, the big smoke to my single stoplight village (it now has a couple more). Toronto’s always felt like a place full of possibility. I’ve been living outside of Ontario for 22 years and I’m in currently in the process of moving to Toronto for the first time, so I’m looking forward to experiencing all its possibilities as a local. And I can’t wait to ride the Union Pearson Express—finally.

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