For Ali Velshi, urban planning and proper infrastructure are the key to building efficient cities.
Velshi was the keynote speaker at the 2016 CanaData East conference held at the Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex in Toronto Sept. 22.
A broadcaster, author and former host of Al Jazeera America’s, Ali Velshi on Target and CNN’s Your Money, the native Canadian had a lot to say about the global economy and the impact of the upcoming U.S. election.
"The problem with infrastructure is that public infrastructure isn’t really sexy," Velshi told the Daily Commercial News following his presentation. "Everyone expects that when they turn on a switch the lights will come on and when they turn on the tap, clean water will come out. We’ve learned in the United States that clean water doesn’t always come out…the lights don’t always come on."
The same is true with buildings, bridges, Wi-Fi and airport infrastructure in Canada and the United States, he said.
"It’s been decades since America has had a program to improve our built environment," Velshi said.
"The rest of the world is going and doing it but in America it would take a trillion dollars just to get our built environment on track so we’re not worried about buildings and bridges falling and getting air traffic control and Wi-Fi on track."
North America needs to step up if it wants to compete with other countries globally, he added.
"We need that investment to compete with the Chinas and the Asias of the world and that’s something that requires public-private partnerships," said Velshi. "It’s weird that in North America we’re not as good at that as other countries are. Other countries have figured out the way to leverage the authority and taxing power of government with the know-how of the private industry to pay for improvements. This should be the kind of thing that Liberals and Conservatives can embrace, Democrats and Republicans can embrace, because it creates jobs and money for the infrastructure."
He noted that both countries are focused on boondoggles and projects that went awry.
"What we forget is sometimes the bridge to nowhere creates a city on the other side, sometimes the built environment attracts people," said Velshi. "We are urbanizing — Canada more than the United States by a long shot. The U.S. is weirdly not urbanized for a country of its size. But it is urbanizing and that requires a lot of building and smarts around energy efficiency and the kinds of things that cities can do better than non-cities can do."
During his presentation, Velshi spoke about the state of the world, focusing on global politics and the upcoming U.S. election. While he is Canadian, he now calls the U.S. home. He said many have likened the election in the U.S. to the Toronto mayoral race when Rob Ford was elected.
"The difference is the president of the United States can prevent or start wars, prevent or start recessions," Velshi stated. "This is one of the most powerful positions in the entire world and it’s actually very serious. Rob Ford was not unusual as a politician, he was unusual as a Canadian politician."
He anticipates Hillary Clinton will be the next president, but added it’s difficult to forecast who will take the election because Clinton is the only one with a "legitimate plan" and what Donald Trump has are "goals." "If you had to place a bet today, your safer bet would be that Hillary Clinton will win the election," said Velshi. "I don’t think there’s too many people in America who don’t know who they are voting for. I think the question is whether they will vote. I think that’s going to decide this election."
He recognizes this election is more about personalities than the issues. While Clinton seems to be popular with the urban, educated, slightly younger demographic, Trump represents the "unpolitician" and seems to resonate with middle-aged, high school-educated men who lived through the greatest recession since the Great Depression and are angry with "the centre," he commented.
"There’s no movement for ‘middle-aged, high school educated, white lives matter,’" explained Velshi. "Donald Trump represents them, I’m not sure why they think a New York billionaire is like them, but that’s what he represents and it may be their best chance to get heard."
According to Velshi, there is a sense among Americans that politicians can do more than they actually can. For example, he pointed to Donald Trump’s promise to grow the GDP by four per cent or more.
"GDP growth comes from things that have nothing to do with how you run a country, like the price of oil. These are not actually things that you can move the needle on," said Velshi, adding it doesn’t matter who the president or the prime minister is.
"Every president or prime minister wants to preside over the largest period of growth with the lowest unemployment rate and the highest GDP anyone’s ever seen."
One thing that will help GDP growth is trade. That’s another reason Velshi said Clinton becoming president would be of greater benefit to Canada.
"Hillary Clinton has an affinity for NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), she does not want to see it dismantled. I think she is likely not to mess with NAFTA and understands that in most cases, Canada is an ally," said Velshi. "Donald Trump has said that he will renegotiate NAFTA and if he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll kill it. I don’t think that’s practical but it’s less Canada-friendly."
The Canadian and U.S. economies are very much linked, Velshi noted.
"There is no way to deny that the U.S. and Canadian economies move together," said Velshi. "We’re both suffering from trying to figure out what the right price of oil is…if we don’t get there, both countries are going to struggle."
While the 2008 U.S. election focused on the economy and the best candidate to lead the U.S. out of the worst recession since the Great Depression, the upcoming election is about safety and security.
"The long-term safety of the U.S. depends on us focusing about diplomacy," said Velshi. "This election is about global security and the choices that have to be made are about who is going to keep America safe and the world safe."