Jonathan Brun

False Positive PCR COVID-19 Test in Montreal, Quebec, Canada

I just wanted to share a small story of a false positive PCR Covid-19 test in the hopes it helps others understand what is possible. To be clear, I have no medical background and am not trying to make any comment on the accuracy of COVID-19 tests, which I believe to be highly accurate.

On December 9th, we were advised that there had been an outbreak of COVID-19 at our son’s daycare. Our son is 16 months old and his daycare has 10 children per group, with two instructors per group. At least one of the instructors was diagnosed with COVID-19 at that initial date. The groups were isolated (in theory) from the other children. There are a total of about 80 children at the daycare spread out over 6 groups or so. In general, the daycare seems very well run and attempts to meet all health recommendations with limitations on parents inside the daycare, hand washing and social distancing at all times.

On December 15th, the daycare was informed of other cases of COVID-19 in our son’s group and they closed our group and kept the rest of the daycare opened. The Quebec health authorities requested that my wife, son and I get tested. We kept our son at home and did not see anyone with the exception of some visits to grocery stores and essential services. We got tested for COVID-19th on December 18th at 16h. We received three negative results on December 21st at 8:30 AM. In Quebec, they administer the PCR test which is recognized as highly accurate.

On December 22nd at 5:30 PM we were advised by the daycare that there had been 7 adults related to the daycare and 1 child in our son’s group had tested positive for COVID-19. As such, we were asked by the health authorities to get another COVID-19 test and to stay isolated until we received test results. I was working on December 23rd, so my wife and son got tested the morning of December 23rd. We had planned to spend Christmas with my mother-in-law, who lives by herself. We kept with that plan as we had all tested negative and had no symptoms related to COVID-19.

On December 25th at 4PM we received a call from the health authorities that my wife had tested positive for COVID-19, but my son had tested negative. This greatly surprised us as we had no symptoms and my wife had obviously been in contact with my son. After a bit of discussion, I suspected a false positive and the article in the Lancet (PDF and another article) indicated false positives could be around 5% of PCR Tests. We decided to get retested. My mother-in-law (67 years old), my wife (32 years old) and I (37 years old) got retested on December 25th at 5:45 PM. A nice Christmas present!

On December 27th at 5PM we all received negative test results.

One interesting side note to this roller coaster was that we all found we had corona-virus related symptoms after the positive results. I had a mild headache and was tired, my mother-in-law had a headache and a runny nose, and my wife felt out of breath and a tight chest. Of course, this was just a case of projecting symptoms and imagining things. The human brain is a powerful organ. As soon as we got the negative results, we all suddenly felt fine!

As indicated above, I have faith and trust in the medical system and believe our healthcare workers are doing their best possible job. Mistakes happen in testing large samples and this is likely an outlying case. Throughout the process we endeavoured to respect the health guideline sand minimize our contacts and risks. As of December 28th, we all feel fine and are enjoying the remainder of our holidays!

Published on December 28, 2020

Modern Monetary Theory and China

There is no greater example of the progress human society can make than China. Most of us are familiar with the ascent of China and their accomplishments. The short version is that China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and increased GDP per capita from about $250 to nearly $10,000.

There is a vast literature on how this was accomplished, but I wanted to highlight three key elements that reinforce the power of large scale government spending that targets productivity. The role of government is ultimately two-fold : provide security to citizens and increase productivity and wealth of the country. In this regard, China has done a amazing job.

To increase productivity in a sustainable and self reinforcing way is extremely challenging. You must do this in the face of political, economic and historical challenges. China did many things, but let me highlight three.

Iron Rice Bowl

At its inception, the Chinese Communist Party created numerous state owned enterprises that offered guaranteed jobs to hundreds of millions. Though low paid and often unproductive, these jobs created economic activity and circulated money through the economy while producing goods and services. In short everyone could have a job if they wanted one. This initiative helped China achieve 6% annual GDP growth under Mao Zedong. Though Mao is known for the disasters of the Cultural Revolution and The Great Leap forward, he did lead China out of the depths of abject poverty with a Federal Jobs Guarantee.

After Mao, Deng Xiaoping reformed many of these state owned enterprises and reduced the guarantees around jobs. Yet, even in 2006 when I worked in China we sill saw the reality of state owned enterprise job creation. A steel mill that I visited in 2006 employed over 7,000 workers while producing 6 million tonnes of steel a year. A similar plant in France where I also worked employed about 2,000 people to produce the same amount of steel at higher grades. This job creation program was critical to China’s growth and it still exists to varying degrees today.

Issuance of Capital

Thomas Picketty argues that the main problem with inequality is not so much inequality of income, but rather inequality of capital. Owning capital is the critical element to success in society. Without it you are subject to the labour market and economic growth. In his latest book, “Capital and Ideology” he advocates for the issuance of substantial capital to all adults. He proposes something along the lines of 150,000 Euros per person.

China never went quite that far, but they did issue capital in massive amounts. One of the first industries China tried to reform and make profit driven was the textile industry. To do this, Deng Xiaoping issued large amounts of capital to a variety of state, semi-state and private enterprises that allowed them to buy looms and machinery from overseas. He also pushed for these companies to make synthetic textiles as cotton was not produced in China at the time and they did not have the capital to import sufficient foreign cotton. The issuance of large amounts of capital or the printing of money allowed for the build up of productive capacity and the generation of profits that could be invested in further industrialization.

The second massive capital allocation to private individuals was the transfer of residential property from the state to the individual. This is well outlined by China Skinny (a weekly newsletter on economic trends in China)

China’s 2019 GDP per capita of $10,098 pales in comparison to the $65,111 in the US. Similarly, its average 2018 urban wages of around $12,000 are just a fraction of the $63,093 earned a year in the States. So why are so many brands banking on China’s structurally low GDP per capita and poorly-paid consumers to lead the global recovery? If we look under the hood, the economic metrics and drivers in China are unlike those in the West, and only paint part of the picture.

For the average consumer in China, the wages one earns influences spending less than it that it does in most other countries, simply because they have more wealth behind them. In fact, China’s median urban household net worth stood at $198,330 at the end of 2019, versus an estimated $104,000 in the US.

Many readers are likely to be scratching their heads wondering how they can be wealthier based on the GDP and income fundamentals above. Chinese may be known as strong savers (although the youth have been taking on consumer debt like no tomorrow over the past few years), but how could saving that relatively low income create a level of wealth double that of half of American households?

The main reason is property wealth. When China’s housing stock was privatised in the late 1990s, most Chinese families were able to buy their homes and apartments at rates that are a fraction of what they are today. As a result, 96% of urban Chinese own property versus just 64% in the US. Having bought their property for such a low price, their indebtedness is also much lower. 57% of Chinese households ‘officially’ have debt, versus 77% of American households. And Chinese ‘official’ debts account for just 16% of their assets, versus 36% in the US.

A whopping 31% of Chinese households own two apartments and 11% have three or more. When the average apartment costs over $1 million in many districts in Shanghai, for example, it means that there are a large number of very wealthy people in China who are fuelling everything from the global luxury market, to cosmetics, to cars, to milk.

Although consumers are not yet skipping through the shopping isles filling their carts with glee, the overall return to normalcy continues to track well based on spending trajectories. Chinese remain fundamentally wealthy. Parents continue to support their millennial offspring’s consumption habits in and many categories are seeing solid growth. With China’s $205 billion post-COVID fiscal spending focused on economy-building new industries such as technology, mass transport and power infrastructure, the wealth of the country as a whole is likely to continue to grow strongly over the long run, and with it, its importance as a consumer market.

Your perspective on the future is very different when you own capital or own your home (a form of capital). Though the Chinese government sold these state assets to citizens, they did so at a reduced rate with no attempt to profit or even make it financially sustainable for the government. However, the consequences of creating a capital owning class vastly outweighed the costs. No economy can be solely based on physical property and this is why China is putting all of its efforts behind the creation of growth engines based on technology. Put in another way, their efforts are focused entirely on creating higher levels of productivity on the back of a capital foundation with a certain amount of guaranteed jobs. This is modern monetary theory at work.

Published on October 25, 2020

Modern Monetary Theory – or why infinite (government) debt can move society forward

The new book by Stephanie Kelton, The Deficit Myth is shaking up the establishment. In the book, the author argues that governments who issue debt in their own currency can create infinite debt under two conditions. First, the debt needs to be put to productive use – add value to the economy and to people’s lives. If we create debt to spend on gigantic statues of our leaders then we are in trouble (for a few reasons). The second condition is that the debt cannot lead to high inflation. If inflation starts to creep up then government needs to pull back on money printing. The actual amount of debt itself does not matter. This idea is not new, but the book does offer a compelling narrative to deploy with policy makers.

A number of years ago I read the magistral essay by the late David Graeber, The long history of Debt , which led to his book, Debt. In his anthropological work Graeber outlines a key difference in our perception of money. Most of us think (and are taught) that money is a medium of exchange and must be linked to some hard value (i.e. Gold). We think that money was invented to allow people to trade. He argues that this is not the case and there is no evidence for it. In fact, money is just debt and credit. Anthropologically money was created by Sumerian temples to count what farmers had produced and what taxes were owed. Money is a ledger of credit and debt.

Kelton builds on this key difference and as the London School of Economics professor outlines in his book review,

“First, the shortcoming. Kelton’s argument is based on modern monetary theory (MMT), which hinges on a critique of the orthodox view of money.  The orthodox view of money asserts that the value of money is based historically on its link to precious metals and especially on its function as a medium of exchange. MMT contends the value of (modern) money derives from its link to credit (and debt) and underscores the important role the state plays regarding the ontology of money. George Knapp (1924) called this ‘the state theory of money’, J.M. Keynes further developed it in The Treatise on Money (1930), and it has been most recently promoted by L. Randall Wray (1998) and Warren Mosler (1993).”

The concept that government debt is not that important and what is important is the productive capacity of society is not new. The Social Credit Theory and the corresponding political movement of the 19th and 20th century argued that money should be printed to compensate for the depreciation of assets on balance sheets and for the difference between return on capital and wages paid for labour. The argument is that the government has a duty to print and distribute money to people to compensate for errors in our accounting system. Basically, capital holders have a number of accounting benefits that non-capital holders do not have. Therefore, government should print money to correct those errors.

Why have we not done this in the past you might ask? I would argue that the main reason we pull back on government spending is three fold.

First, government spending can be poorly managed. It can easily be spent on non-productive things that do not deliver value to people. Like a company that builds products that no one wants, a government that spends money on stupid projects that do not deliver value will lose the favour of the electors people (arms and force can keep the people down for quite a while).

The second element is inflation. Governments that issue too much debt and spend too much can create out of control inflation. The list of countries who have done this is long and often cited as examples of what could happen if we let our politicians spend too much. However, many of these out of control inflationary items were due to factors that were context specific and linked to how the money was spent in the first place.

The third and perhaps most critical element is resistance from capital holders. It is said that human history can be summarized as, “The capitalists (capital holders/rich) want as much labour as they can for as little as they can, the workers want to work for as much money as they can for as little time as possible”. This is the basis of class conflict, which is very real. If the government were to print money and distribute it in the form of a basic income to everyone, the weight of capital would decrease in society and capital holders would lose power and wealth. The overall society will be much happier and healthier and as long as the money is spent of productive things – education, factories, innovation,… – then things should work out in the long term.

When we take a step back and seriously question what money is, we realize that money is a creation by man and does not need to obey any cosmic law. We can and should print money to move society forward. As with any use of our collective power we must doe this wisely and judiciously. However, we must educate and explain to everyone that the only thing holding us back from success is ourselves. If we want to prioritize the health of the elderly or put a person on Mars – we can. If we want to shift all vehicles to electric and all power production to renewable – we can.

As long as we do not break the laws of physics we can do whatever we want. Money is an accounting tool to help us move forward, do not let people tell you it is some immutable force. Money has been co-opted by capital holders and it should be taken back by our democracy.

P.S. In many ways, this is what China has done (but that is for another blog post).

Published on September 23, 2020

On Principles

No one enjoys chaos. Over the past couple years I have come to appreciate the tremendous value of principles. Living life by a set of rules that are general, powerful and not overly prescriptive allows for a structured approach to all the vicissitudes that we face. I believe that many of us unconsciously develop principles over time. Our principles are typically derived from our family, culture and experience, but too often our principles are not consciously created – they are created by osmosis. This path can lead to a number of problems as the principles we adopt from our culture may be in contradiction with principles our heart actually wants to follow. This contradiction can then lead to a myriad of issues and conflicts with others. The intentional development of personal principles seems to be an essential ingredient to a happy and healthy life.

The concept of principles is anything but novel. The Ten Commandments are principles, Seneca set out moral principles in his letters to Lucilius, government constitutions are principles and we can find principles in documents created over the ages. If we define principles as, “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning.” then the world is full of systems of belief that are both overlapping, compatible and often highly incompatible. The challenge in life is to find the principles that allow you to succeed, feel fulfilled and lead a good and moral life. This is perhaps the greatest challenge any of us face.

Principles can be morally good, bad or indifferent. Principles can be dogmatic or flexible. Principles can be immutable or evolve over time. Principles can be related to our morality, to our societies, to science, to our businesses or to our operations. They can be strategic and they can be tactical. In short, we can create principles for nearly anything. So far, I have begun to ween away some principles that I may have absorbed through my environment and I have begun to intentionally select the principles I wish to live by. At 37 years old, this seems late in the game and it would have been nice to realize all of this at a younger age!

The one set of principles that I can confidently say I believe in are the principles of Lean Manufacturing. The five key principles of Lean are:

  1. Value – Specify the value desired by the customer. “Form a team for each product to stick with that product during its entire production cycle”, “Enter into a dialogue with the customer” (e.g. Voice of the customer)
  2. The Value Stream – Identify the value stream for each product providing that value and challenge all of the wasted steps (generally nine out of ten) currently necessary to provide it
  3. Flow – Make the product flow continuously through the remaining value-added steps
  4. Pull – Introduce pull between all steps where continuous flow is possible
  5. Perfection – Manage toward perfection so that the number of steps and the amount of time and information needed to serve the customer continually falls

As simple as these may sound, they are exceedingly difficult to follow and implement. These principles can be applied to many aspects of our day to day lives, but they are restricted to the operational realm. These principles help ensure operational excellence within an organization or a process. They do not touch many other parts of our lives. On top of these principles, Toyota (and other companies) have built complex and rigorous systems that allows them to deliver goods and services at remarkable costs. The complexity of a modern gasoline car is truly astounding its low cost could never have been predicted 50 years go. Following Lean principles can also help individuals reduce their wasted money and improve everything from home renovation projects to emptying the dishwasher.

As with other sets of principles the danger is that these principles can lock you into a system that has limitations. Within a system, you can embrace these principles fully but when there is a paradigm shift you will be left behind. Toyota is still the best car company in the world, but the future likely belongs to Tesla. Blockbuster may have embraced lean, but Netflix crushed them. The Catholic Church ruled the world until Copernicus determined the earth was not the centre of the universe. When the underlying rules change or when a new technology emerges, the principles you held need dearly to be seriously re-evaluated. Changing your principles may be the only thing harder than setting them in the first place.

I am still toying with a variety of principles for life and happiness, it’s complicated, but I will keep you posted as we progress.

Published on July 19, 2020

The Return of the Road Trip

Parc du bic, near Rimouski, QC, Canada

I have travelled around the world – Ethiopia, China, Italy, Mexico and many other places. In all of these countries, I visited amazing cultural and geological sites and had fantastic experiences. Coming from Canada where there is limited cultural sites compared to ancient civilizations, it is very common to travel overseas. With COVID heavily restricting travel we decided to do a road trip near home.

Even though we decided to stay near home, we initially thought of visiting the maritime provinces of Canada – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the borders to these provinces were closed or restricted, leading us to stay within our home province of Quebec. With our ten month old son, we charted a two week road-trip that would mix hotels, camping and rustic camps in 4 provincial parks.

Leaving from Montreal, we headed to the Eastern Townships and continued along the way to Mont-Megantic national park, camping two nights on the mountain. It was a beautiful park with lush forests, fresh rivers and clear skies. The mountain has an observatory at the top and the entire region dims their lights at night so people can clearly observe the cosmic universe. We had to hike three kilometres up the mountain to get to our shelter, with baby, gear and water in tow. Through the sweat and effort we started to loosen the mental shackles of our urban living. After two nights on the mountain we descended and went to visit a friend who had a hunting lodge nearby.

A key part of our trip was not only to visit amazing sites, but also to visit people along the way. Friends, Friends of Friends and professional contacts were spread out along our trip, allowing us to learn more about the local communities and change up the limited conversations we could have with our ten month old! People are as fascinating as any national park and the diversity of people and sites helped make this trip amazing.

We then headed through the region of Beauce and stayed one night in Kamouraska, on the banks of the St. Laurent river. A cute village with delicious fish and lovely cafés, it was a perfect spot to recover after our brief stint of mountain camping.

From Kamouraska, we headed down the St. Laurent to Rimouski where we visited the Parc du Bic and the Jardin de Métis. Both sites were amazing. The Parc du Bic is a peninsula and island in the St. Laurent with stunning views and shorelines, it is truly worth a visit. The Jard de Métis is a large English Garden that was started by the President of CP Rail, but is now run by the government. In Rimouski, we had some delicious microbrews and food and visited the parents of a good friend of ours. After two nights, we continued our journey along the river to the Parc de la Gaspésie.

Parc de la Gaspésie, Québec

The Parc de la Gaspésie is near the end of the Appalachian trail that starts in Virginia and contains thousands of kilometres of hiking. I had been to this park twice during the winter to do back-country skiing, but it was my first summer visit. Despite modest peaks of 1000-1200 m, a good portion of the hiking is done above the tree line and you have amazing vistas of dozens of untouched mountains that continue into the sunset. If there is one thing you can say about Québec, it’s that we have a lot of space! This park is famous for its moose, of which we saw one and for its wild side. With a ten month old we had limited hiking times, but we still got to see some amazing views. After three days in the park, we headed down and back to the seaside town of Matane.

From Matane took a ferry (that went way over budget) to the North Shore of the river. Landing at Baie-Comeau, we drove half an hour to Pointe-aux-Outardes Nature Park, a beautiful peninsula that has long sandy beaches and rich wetlands full of birds. The Park is managed as a non-profit organization and has great paths and explanations as well as a variety of camping options. We camped out on the beach for two nights where made fires and swam in the St. Laurent. It was a truly magical place and I highly recommend a visit if you are in that neighbourhood. From there, we drove back up the river to Tadoussac, famous for its whale watching.

Dunes at Tadoussac, Québec

In Tadoussac, we hiked down the sandy dunes to swim in the rather frigid, but crystal clear water of the St. Laurent and the mouth of the Saguenay river. Tadoussac is a cute village with another amazing microbrewery. There seems to be a great brewery in each town we visit – what a coincidence! From there we took the short ferry to St. Siméon.

Near St. Siméon we visited a friend who had a lovely farmhouse and ate lots of her cookies while observing an amazing view of the Charlevoix region. We continued though Malbaie, to the national parc at the Hautes Gorges de la Malbaie and then into Baie St. Paul. We were fortunate to follow a porcupine through a garden and then bumped into old friends of ours. We had drinks together and I discovered that you can make eaude-vie from leftover milk! Who knew? Charlevoix is already known as beautiful place, so I do not think I need to further promote it!

From Baie St. Paul, we went through Quebec city to see the exhibit on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and then drove home.

If there is one thing that came from this road trip, it is the realization that you do not travel the world to see amazing things and eat delicious food. With Google and online reservation systems it has never been easier to travel. We booked things as we went and changed our plans based on the weather. At least in Québec and I would say Canada, there are truly stupendous things to see. All you need to do is get in your car and drive!

Published on July 12, 2020