Monday, January 20, 2020

Horatio Alger Myths

The Horatio Alger myth is still central to North American politics. Alan Freeman writes that, in the United States, candidates are falling all over themselves to present themselves as 21st century Horatio Algers:

Americans have always loved Horatio Alger stories. But as the country has grown more affluent, it’s harder for politicians to point to their own personal stories of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. So they borrow a bit from their parents or in the case of Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator who’s hoping the four frontrunners tank and give her a chance, she goes back two generations.
Klobuchar never mentions that she attended Yale and University of Chicago Law School and worked as a corporate lawyer before going into politics. But she has plenty to say about her grandfather, a Slovenian immigrant to Minnesota.
Joe Biden, not wanting to be left out of the emotional sweepstakes, chimed in that he too had once been a single parent, after his first wife and daughter were killed in a tragic car accident. Then he went on to say that he couldn’t afford child care so he commuted every day from Washington to his home in Wilmington, Del. His job at the time was U.S. Senator and he earned US $42,000 a year. The median income of Americans in 1972 was $11,120.

And, in Canada, we were recently presented with Andrew Scheer's up by his bootstraps story:

In Canada, Andrew Scheer laid it on thick about how his family didn’t own a car when he grew up, how he was just a sports-loving Dad to five kids and a stay-at-home wife etc., conveniently ignoring his generous earnings as a politician and subsidized housing, not to mention the secret party payments for his kids’ schooling. That didn’t get him far.

Donald Trump is the exception:

The most successful politician of our day, Donald Trump, loves to talk about how rich he is. He likes to say how he became a billionaire on his own but doesn’t deny he got a hand from his Dad. And he makes no excuses for being rich. He revels in it and his working class supporters love it.

So let's get real. People who are in politics these days have been given a hand up. Either they come from affluent families, or they went to very good schools -- or both. They may be very hard working  -- which is, or should be, a feather in their caps.

But they've also been lucky. Good things have happened to them. Let's acknowledge that fact -- and forget the myth.

Image: Goodreads

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Why The Liberals Are On Top In Ontario

All of Ontario's teacher's unions are now prepared to strike. The teachers claim there are several issues in the mix -- class sizes, e-learning, all day kindergarten. The government claims there's only really one issue -- compensation. It has declared that all public servants will receive a 1% raise. The teachers want 2%.

And, in the midst of this confrontation, comes news of the Ford government's plans for higher education in the province. They want to tie funding for colleges and universities to what the graduates of these institutions earn. Martin Regg Cohn writes:

Over the next two months, the Tories are putting the finishing touches on plans to measure not merely how many students graduate, but how fast they land jobs — and how much money they make. The less these graduates earn, the less in turn will be the cash flow from the government to their alma mater.
Once the metrics are phased in over the next few years, fully 60 per cent of $4.5 billion in provincial funding will be subject to review and punitive clawbacks on every campus. That compares to as little as 1.2 per cent today.

Where is the wisdom behind this policy? Cohn writes:

Are the Tories trying to turn the academy into an algorithm? Will the humanities and social sciences — which teach critical thinking and reward intellectual curiosity — pay the price if graduates don’t find lucrative work compared to, say, more nimble and practical commerce students?
Will we teach students for the jobs of today, not the work of tomorrow? What happens to popular STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) faculties if the booming economy goes bust and graduates can’t command the same salaries they once did? Will schools be squeezed for reasons beyond their control?

And the policy raises other questions:

What if universities start “gaming” the system by choosing only those applicants, and investing only in those faculties, with the best odds of economic success — sacrificing the pursuit of knowledge and academic inquiry? And why deliver such a rapid-fire jolt to the system, ramping up the metrics from a mere 1.2 per cent to 60 per cent of the $4.5 billion funding envelope in a mere four years?
Yes, the ivory tower can seem ossified at times, overdue for shock treatment. But a truly wise government knows what it does not know, and strives to do no harm when rolling out an untried remedy.

And that's precisely the problem. This government does not know what it does not know. And that's also why, according to the latest poll, the Liberals -- a party without official party status -- leads all of Ontario's parties.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

What Would Pierre Do?

We live in a chaotic world -- not unlike the beginning of the 1980's. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was prime minister then. And Tony Burman wonders what Trudeau the Elder would do in the present circumstances:

Last October marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pierre Trudeau. To mark this milestone, Massey College at the University of Toronto last Friday organized a conference exploring Trudeau’s approach to foreign policy while he was prime minister. It examined what enduring relevance Trudeau’s world view has for today’s chaotic world.
This is a question that comes at a critical time in the history of this century.
For his part, Pierre Trudeau was a historic figure in Canada, loved by many and loathed by others, but a towering intellect. As the third-longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history, Trudeau won elections on four occasions and retired in 1984.

Trudeau met the world he encountered by launching a "peace initiative:"

In 1983-84, during his final term as prime minister, Trudeau launched a personal “peace initiative” that saw him visit as many as 15 countries in an effort to ease East-West tensions.
Robert Fowler, Trudeau’s foreign policy adviser at the time, who spoke at last week’s Massey conference, remembers it as a period of very high tension in the world: “It was impossible to follow the news without a pervading sense of dread and helplessness. Trudeau felt he had to do whatever it took to lift that spectre of gloom.”
At a G7 summit in 1983, Trudeau lashed out at his fellow leaders, admonishing them that “we should be busting our asses for peace.”

Canadians were impressed. But Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan weren't:

Thatcher was reported as saying: “Oh Pierre, you’re such a comfort to the Kremlin.”

The faces have changed. And now Donald Trump is a comfort to the Kremlin. But peace still hangs in the balance.

Image: The Toronto Star

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Old Divisions

John Crosbie was laid to rest yesterday. And, Susan Delacourt writes, the old and ugly divisions in the Conservative Party were on full display at the funeral:

While one former prime minister, Brian Mulroney, was eulogizing Crosbie this week with a funny, touching speech, another former PM, Stephen Harper, was suddenly popping up everywhere too — except at the funeral in St. John’s.
Harper has appeared multiple times in the news this week: lecturing about Iran at a conservative conference in India; quitting his role on a Conservative financing board. Macleans’ columnist Paul Wells even reported that Harper was planning to get more active in the leadership contest, to ensure that Charest doesn’t take over the party.

History makes clear that -- whether the leader's is named Trudeau, Mulroney or Layton -- there are distinct advantages to choosing one of Quebec's native sons as leader. But Harper is strange piece of work. Certainly John Crosbie didn't like him: "“He is cold. He doesn’t have human warmth. He’s not able to even work a room. He doesn’t want to meet people.” Crosbie knew his man.

And Harper was no friend of Crosbie's son, Ches:

Ches Crosbie . . .was blocked by Harper from running as a Conservative in the 2015 election.
[He] was reportedly turned away because he’d committed the sin of making fun of Harper on stage in a satirical play. John Crosbie was not at all amused by the summary justice from the then-PM, telling a reporter that his son should run as an independent. “I feel like running myself and beating the piss out of them,” the elder Crosbie said.

The Conservative Party is in bad shape these days. And, as long as Stephen Harper haunts its back rooms, it will remain in bad shape.

Image: The Toronto Star

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Cornerstone

Sean Illing writes that we live in an age of "manufactured nihilism:"

The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.
I call this “manufactured” because it’s the consequence of a deliberate strategy. It was distilled almost perfectly by Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for Donald Trump. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon reportedly said in 2018. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

Bannon and others have been extraordinarily successful in achieving that goal:

As he explained in a 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference talk, he sees Trump as a stick of dynamite with which to blow up the status quo. So “flooding the zone” is a means to that end. But more generally, creating widespread cynicism about the truth and the institutions charged with unearthing it erodes the very foundation of liberal democracy. And the strategy is working.

Bannon's strategy turns traditional propaganda on its head:

For most of recent history, the goal of propaganda was to reinforce a consistent narrative. But zone-flooding takes a different approach: It seeks to disorient audiences with an avalanche of competing stories.
And it produces a certain nihilism in which people are so skeptical about the possibility of finding the truth that they give up the search. The fact that 60 percent of Americans say they encounter conflicting reports about the same event is an example of what I mean. In the face of such confusion, it’s not surprising that less than half the country trusts what they read in the press.

He didn't invent the strategy. That honour falls to Vladimir Putin:

Bannon articulated the zone-flooding philosophy well, but he did not invent it. In our time, it was pioneered by Vladimir Putin in post-Soviet Russia. Putin uses the media to engineer a fog of disinformation, producing just enough distrust to ensure that the public can never mobilize around a coherent narrative.
Back in October, I spoke to Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born reality TV producer turned academic who wrote a book about Putin’s propaganda strategy. The goal, he told me, wasn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; instead, it was to convince people that “the truth is unknowable” and that the only sensible choice is “to follow a strong leader.”
One major reason for the strategy’s success, both in the US and Russia, is that it coincided with a moment when the technological and political conditions were in place for it to thrive. Media fragmentation, the explosion of the internet, political polarization, curated timelines, and echo chambers — all of this allows a “flood the zone with shit” strategy to work.
The role of “gatekeeping” institutions has also changed significantly. Before the internet and social media, most people got their news from a handful of newspapers and TV networks. These institutions functioned like referees, calling out lies, fact-checking claims, and so on. And they had the ability to control the flow of information and set the terms of the conversation.
Today, gatekeepers still matter in terms of setting a baseline for political knowledge, but there’s much more competition for clicks and audiences, and that alters the incentives for what’s declared newsworthy in the first place. At the same time, traditional media outlets remain committed to a set of norms that are ill adapted to the modern environment. The preference for objectivity in political coverage, in particular, is a problem.
As Joshua Green, who wrote a biography of Bannon, explained, Bannon’s lesson from the Clinton impeachment in the 1990s was that to shape the narrative, a story had to move beyond the right-wing echo chamber and into the mainstream media. That’s exactly what happened with the now-debunked Uranium One story that dogged Clinton from the beginning of her campaign — a story that Bannon fed to the Times, knowing that the supposedly liberal paper would run with it because that’s what mainstream media news organizations do.
In this case, Bannon flooded the zone with a ridiculous story not necessarily to persuade the public that it was true (although surely plenty of people bought into it) but to create a cloud of corruption around Clinton. And the mainstream press, merely by reporting a story the way it always has, helped create that cloud.

The mainstream press covered the story to present both sides -- which used to be the cornerstone of objectivity. But objectivity is no longer the cornerstone of good journalism. It's truth -- plain and simple.

Image: CAS

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Populism Breaks Things Up

Susan Delacourt writes that Harry and Meghan's breaking away from the royal family is part and parcel of the populism that is sweeping the United Kingdom and the United States:

Here’s where we are, then, in Britain’s several, concurrently running independence sagas over these past few years: referendums (Brexit, Scottish independence) last forever; centuries-old royal obligations, not so much.
The logic linking these contradictory decisions revolves around populism, which is proving to be a stronger force than rules, duties or obligations — in Britain, yes, but also in the United States, where Donald Trump’s impeachment drama is a daily tug-of-war between populism and the law.
As anyone who has watched all three Netflix seasons so far of The Crown can tell you, the story of the royals over the 20th century was the tension between popular will and age-old tradition. The Queen, who has presided over this rich history, knows better than most how tradition has crumbled and adapted in the face of what the public wants or expects.
Harry and Meghan’s decision to live part of their lives in Canada, as part-time royalty, follows that evolution in the monarchy. Refusing them independence would have cost the monarchy dearly in popular currency.

The next people to break away, Delacourt predicts, will be the Scots. Boris Johnson has told them that there will be no second referendum on Scottish independence. But Johnson -- and Britain -- could well be victims of the forces they have unleashed:

We’ll see about that. I grew up with a Glasgow-born dad, and learned early that it’s not a great idea to tell a Scot what they cannot do. There’s a whole wing in Scotland’s national museum devoted to what the Scots invented when thwarted by the odds against them. (Basically, Western civilization.) While it’s been a few years since I covered the last Scots referendum in 2014, I predict that Johnson telling them they can’t have another vote may galvanize the desire to have one.

Populism breaks things up. And it's hard to predict what will happen to the pieces that it leaves behind.

Image: Travel Daily Media

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Man Behind The Curtain

Some people believe that Stephen Harper has left the building. Michael Harris writes that they're wrong:

The Conservative Party continues to be haunted by the spectre of Harper, who led them to three national victories on the improbable basis of his northern Republican policies. Even though Harper was trounced by Justin Trudeau in 2015, he has never really released his grip on the party he built.

The Conservative Party of Canada is still Harper's Party. Need proof? Consider the way people deemed troublesome are sent to the dustbin:

In the wake of his defeat, Scheer had vowed to fight to keep his job — until leaks from Conservative party sources revealed the party was subsidizing his children’s private school fees. Never mind that the party’s executive director, Dustin Van Vugt, had approved the expenditures. It was off with his head, too. The party ordered a forensic audit on the guy it was pushing for prime minister just a few short months earlier — honest, affable, trustworthy Andy.
It’s not clear who leaked the damaging information, known only to relatively few in the party.
But reports — again based on anonymous sources — quickly emerged that Harper was “furious” about the expenses.

And, of course. there are the sagas of Mike Duffy, Helena Guergis and Rahim Jaffer:

Leaks from unnamed senior Conservative party sources portrayed Senator Mike Duffy as a scoundrel living off a fat public expense account, who then took a $90,000 cheque from Harper’s chief-of-staff to put things right that were never wrong. Duffy was tossed out of caucus and faced 31 criminal charges. The Crown failed to win a single conviction.
And Duffy wasn’t the only one to feel the wrath of Steve. Information sent directly to the RCMP from Harper’s PMO in 2010 triggered a major criminal investigation into former Conservative cabinet minister Helena Guergis and her husband Rahim Jaffer. Harper kicked Guergis out of caucus, effectively ending her political career. And, lastly, look at the people lining up to replace Scheer -- Pierre Polievre, Rona Ambrose and Peter Mackay:
The trouble with Skippy, and former colleagues like Rona Ambrose and Peter MacKay, is that they are zombie relics of the Harper past. They are all former ministers who served a government that hated the press, suffocated the flow of government information, walked away from the Kyoto Accord, stifled scientists, sucked up to the energy industry and ran up the national debt over 10 years while professing to be fiscal conservatives. They all sat around the Harper cabinet table like bobbleheads.

Harper is still the man behind the curtain.