Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A New Year's Wish (2007)

I have heard and read a lot of New Year's salutations over the last few days. All of them are full of words like "health," "happiness," and "prosperity" -- the usual suspects. And while I do not question the good intentions of the well wishers, it strikes me that in all my fifty-nine new years, no one has ever wished that I would receive more of something I obviously could use -- "wisdom."

So, as we enter 2007, what I wish for all of us -- from our small corner of the world, to the outer edges of the planet -- is more wisdom.

To begin with, I wish that my children's generation will possess and apply more wisdom to their environment than my own has. I wish that they will practise the wisdom of "we" as opposed to "me." I hope that they will reject an economic system which rewards the concentration of wealth and power, and that they will recognize that, in the long run, it is in their own self interest to share whatever wealth and power they acquire.

I hope that we all will recognize that we are connected to every living organism on the planet and that the choices we make for ourselves radiate outward, like the ripples in a pond, and touch everyone and everything. That knowledge should not cripple our ability to act -- even boldly --but it should lead us to do things for the general welfare, not our own.

I pray that all parents will teach their children wisely and well -- and when they fail in that task -- that there will be someone there to take it up. If there is hope, that hope always rests with the next generation.

And I pray that we stop demonizing those who don't look like us, who don't speak our own language and who don't believe as we do. Not because those differences have no significance -- they do -- but because, when we see evil incarnate in others, we cannot see what we share in common; and there can be no progress until we recognize our common needs.

Finally, I wish that we have the wisdom to learn from history. If nothing else, history explains how we got from there to here. And, because situations tend to repeat themselves, it is wise to know how the understanding of and reaction to those situations affected future generations.

Wisdom does not ensure a good outcome. Like King Solomon, we can begin well and end badly. And, as I have said elsewhere, possessing a string of academic accolades does not immunize one from folly. But the century we just left behind us provided more than enough folly to cover all of human history. One can always hope that this century will take a wiser, better course.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

To Banish Ignorance and Want

My wife and I attended a performance of A Christmas Carol at our son's school last Friday evening. It was a production which took itself seriously -- which is what all productions of Dickens' classic should do. Something else it did, which many such productions choose not to do, was to present on stage the two orphan children cowering under the Ghost of Christmas Present's robes -- Ignorance and Want.

While everyone takes joy in Scrooge's redemption, many of us miss the significance of those two orphans. They are always there; they follow the Present throughout his journey. And, in truth, they will always be there. They are there because they are the incarnation of what Marley tells Scrooge was the ghost's -- and what should be -- Scrooge's "business."

Christmas exists for many reasons -- the laughter of children, the gathering of family, the memory of He whose birth we recall. But the holiday should never pass without all of us recalling that "mankind is our business." It was so in Dickens' day, as it should likewise be in our own.

Strangely enough, Scrooge has a distinctly contemporary ring these days. In fact, when he asks, "Are there no prisons, no workhouses?" he seems to be advocating the kind of social policies many Western democracies have adopted over the past twenty-five years. History does have a way of repeating itself.

But history does not have to repeat itself. Dickens' message is all about renewal -- even at the last minute. We still have the opportunity to redeem ourselves and redirect our lives. Christmas reminds us the that it is everyone's business to help banish Ignorance and Want. If we dedicate ourselves to that task, we can share Tiny Tim's wish that God will bless us -- everyone.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"O, You Are Men of Stones"

There were echoes of King Lear last week when George Bush broke down during a speech at an event to honour his son Jeb, who is retiring as the governor of Florida. The Elder Bush was recalling Jeb's first run for the governorship -- which he lost -- when his father broke down, weeping, while his son came to his father's side.

No doubt there will be some who will conclude that the old man is entering his dotage, because his reaction was so out of proportion to the facts. After all, Jeb ran a second time and was then re-elected to a second term. On the surface, the story is about redemption, making a comeback and triumphing over adversity.

But, while the incident was all about loss, George H. W. has not lost it. At this stage in his life, there must be greater losses on his mind than that of Jeb's first electoral defeat. Perhaps he was weeping as he recalled his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton. It must have been a particularly bitter pill. After all, he had executed the first Gulf War successfully, calling on his United Nations and CIA experience to build an international coalition to achieve a limited objective -- which most of his allies paid for.

Then there was his establishment of the Resolution Trust Corporation, which cleaned up the Savings and Loan debacle, something Ronald Reagan left him as he walked out the Oval Office door. The Savings and Loan mess was a horrendous and complicated swamp which required a large injection of public money to drain and reclaim. But Mr. Bush persuaded his countrymen that, although it was costly, it was a worthy cause.

Then there was the problem of breaking his "no new taxes" pledge. Given the deficit he was facing, raising taxes was in the nation's long term interest. It was a policy that his successor followed -- and which cost him the House and the Senate -- but, as time would prove, led to the first budget surpluses in nearly forty years. And what did this foresight earn Mr. Bush? He was lambasted by the radical right wing of his own party. Mr. Bush had made mistakes -- to begin with, he never should have made the no new taxes pledge -- but if, like Lear, he felt "more sinned against than sinning," that sense of betrayal was understandable.

Or maybe the first President Bush was thinking of the second President Bush -- a man whose chief motive for seeking office seems to have been to right the wrongs done to his father. He appears to have gone into Iraq to finish the job his father started and to get the man who, in George W.'s words," tried to kill my dad." That kind of plot makes for a good novel, or an even better play. Unfortunately, as is now abundantly clear, it makes for disastrous foreign policy.

In the very week George the Elder was honouring Jeb, the Iraq Study Group delivered a report to George the Younger which came to the conclusion that the second President Bush's foreign policy was just that -- a disaster. Beneath the carefully worded consensus, the bottom line of the report was that "the way forward" lay in retreat. The basic premise behind the group's seventy-nine recommendations is that the United States has lost the second Iraq War. It is a conclusion which -- the polls tell us -- the American people have already reached.

It would appear that Mr. Bush and his advisers refuse to accept that conclusion. Retreat is not a word that this Bush administration is going to use. And, even if there is a retreat -- Mr. Bush is quite capable of changing his mind, as witness the departure of Mr. Rumsfeld. The suspicion of many is that the retreat will be long and slow.

Frank Rich, in The New York Times, (see The Sunshine Boys Cannot Save Iraq) recently reminded his readers that, when Lyndon Johnson refused to run, stopped the bombing of North Vietnam and began peace talks with the Viet Cong, some twenty thousand American soldiers had died in Vietnam. Five years later, when his successor -- Richard Nixon -- decided to leave Vietnam, the number of dead American soldiers had grown to over fifty-five thousand. Such was the price of what Nixon called "peace with honour." All of those fifty-five thousand names are etched in that black marble wall in Washington.

Perhaps George Sr. was weeping for George Jr.'s lack of experience. For, while it is true that both father and son flew military aircraft, the Elder Bush was shot down over the Pacific. Bush the Younger has never faced that kind of hostile environment; and his flying was within the boundaries of the United States. The experience of personally being a victim of an enemy attack, I suspect, encourages one to carefully weigh the consequences of military action.

When one looks at Bush's advisers and cheerleaders -- starting with his own vice president and moving on to Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Richard Pearle, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol -- one cannot but be impressed with the fact that none of them knew anything about combat. And, therefore, none of them knew anything about what could go wrong. They simply assumed that, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States possessed the military might to work its will wherever it chose. They forgot -- or failed to heed -- the bitter lesson which forced President Johnson from office -- that, given the right circumstances, what Johnson called a "raggedy-assed country" could defeat a colossus.

The first president Bush has learned a lot in his eighty odd years. And the son, who sits in the chair his father once occupied, has not benefited from -- nor asked for -- any of his father's wisdom. For that, the father has just cause to weep, both in public and in private. In fact, we all do.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Stephane and Stephen

Surely, when historians write about last weekend's Liberal leadership convention, they will note that both the Prime Minister and the man who would replace him share the same name. Linguistically, the difference between them is a matter of accent. A bilingual Canada wouldn't have it any other way. Of course, the differences between them run much deeper than that. But more about that in a minute, because there is something more important than what divides these men.

What was most notable about what happened this weekend was how many of us didn't see it coming. What we missed was a generational shift in Canadian politics. Mr. Harper, Mr. Dion and the man who catapulted Dion to the leadership of his party -- Gerard Kennedy -- are at the tail end of the baby boom generation. Unlike Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Rae and this writer -- who were born immediately after the Second World War -- Mr. Harper was all of eleven years old, and Mr. Kennedy was a year behind him, when the October Crisis occurred. And Dion, at fifteen, had not yet graduated from high school. They were all even younger during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The issues which seized our imaginations are not the issues which seize theirs.

For them, the crisis they face is, in Mr. Dion's words, " no less than the reconciliation of the people and the planet." The threat of nuclear annihilation is still out there; but, for this generation of Canadians, the threat of environmental meltdown looms much larger. I have argued in an earlier post (October 25th) that Stephen Harper doesn't see the threat. Perhaps this week's events will focus his attention. But, given what appears to be his libertarian core, I have my doubts.

So, as one generation cedes power to another, the issues change. And both men share more than a name. Both work from a foundation of non-negotiable principles. For Harper individual autonomy is paramount. Government is a threat in most areas of human activity; and most people should be left to fend for themselves. Dion believes in a united Canada -- or at least in the principle that if Canada is divisible, then Quebec is, too. And rather than leaving people to fend for themselves, Dion believes that government needs to invest in people, not simply deliver cheques to their mailboxes.

They also share significant weaknesses. It would appear that both lack people skills -- a surprising fault in a politician. And both apparently find it hard to compromise, another surprising weakness in men who seek to lead a country which has been built on compromise.

So where does that leave us? Well, to begin with, the next election may actually be a policy driven election -- an election about ideas rather than the cynical manipulation of images and sound bites. It could also be an election about the future rather than about the follies of the past -- although that, perhaps, is too much to hope for. Or it could be an election which solves nothing. It could replace one minority government with another; or it could simply reaffirm the present minority government for a second volatile term.

It's hard to predict the outcome. At the moment, Canadians are waiting to see what develops.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fools Parade

On November 27th, the House of Commons voted on a resolution proclaiming that "the Quebecois are a nation within a united Canada." The vote was overwhelming --266 in favour, 16 against. Both the resolution and the vote are deeply problematic.

From the moment he entered office, Stephen Harper has displayed a breathtaking ignorance of the province of Quebec, even though he intends to solidify his and his party's future by finding enough votes in la belle province to win a parliamentary majority. To those of us who grew up in Quebec, who were there during the October Crisis and who voted in the 1980 referendum, Harper's motion ignores that history and lets loose all the centrifugal forces that have threatened this country since its inception.

Harper and his supporters claim that the resolution is essentially meaningless because Quebecers are given "nation" status "within a united Canada." They claim that the latter phrase negates the former and that the resolution is essentially a sleight of hand (or, more precisely, word.)

However, the word "nation" -- in either French or English -- has profound connotations in both the context of Quebec history and in international law. One need only recall Quebec political parties of the past -- the Union National and the Bloc National -- and their platforms, to understand what the word means. And when Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois cheerfully support the resolution that, in itself, should raise red flags. Clearly, when Duceppe and his allies read the resolution, what they read is "the Quebecois are a nation within a united Canada for now."

And that is the point. The long term consequences of the resolution are catastrophic. For, not only will an increasing majority of Quebecers demand their sovereignty as a nation, the door will be open for others to make the same demand. Canada's First Nations have already complained about being left out of the resolution -- although no one should be surprised at this oversight -- given the fact that the Harper government scuttled the agreement which Paul Martin signed with them over a year ago.

And, in some ways, perhaps no one should be surprised at this turn of events. As Jim Flaherty's recent economic blueprint makes clear, the Conservatives have a radical vision for Canada. If they get their way, theirs will be a Canada which rewards individual initiative, not group accomplishment, which downsizes government, eschewing government investment in national infrastructure in favour of private investors and which leaves social policy to the provinces or -- as they would prefer -- to individuals. In short, they are bent on breaking the ties that have bound these disparate entities north of the 49th parallel together. In truth, they are not Conservatives at all. With the same linguistic sleight they displayed in Monday night's resolution, they have camouflaged the fact that have no wish to conserve Canada. They are really radical Libertarians. The late Milton Friedman would be gratified.

What is even more disturbing is that a majority of the Liberal members of the House and all of the New Democratic members apparently cannot see through this sleight of hand. Without careful analysis, and with eyes that only see as far as the next election -- probably in the spring -- they are afraid to rock the boat, oblivious to the storm which awaits them. Apparently only sixteen members -- one of whom is Michael Chong, Harper's Intergovernmental Affairs Minister -- have the courage of their convictions.

Harper, we are told, graduated at the top of his high school class. Like Jacques Pariseau before him, he has proved that the possession of several academic accolades does not immunize one from folly. Harper is a fool. Two hundred and sixty-six members of the House of Commons followed his lead this week. Democracy may be rule of the people and rule by the people. But there is no guarantee that it is rule for the people. Sometimes it is merely a fools parade.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Economics as Theology

Milton Friedman died last week. His was a remarkable story. Born in Brooklyn, of Hungarian immigrant parents, he earned a scholarship to Rutgers and a doctorate in economics from Columbia. Like his chief academic rival, John Kenneth Galbraith, he worked for the Roosevelt administration, helping draft and implement many of its New Deal policies. Both men became public intellectuals, with Galbraith taking up long term residence at Harvard, while Friedman found a home at the University of Chicago.

In later years, unlike Galbraith, Friedman rejected the theories of John Maynard Keynes, and found salvation in the theories of the founding father of the dismal science, Adam Smith. He moved from Liberalism to Libertarianism, convinced that the lot of man would be greatly improved if government kept its meddling fingers out of the lives of all folk, particularly the common folk.

His chief claim to fame was that he correctly predicted the period of stagflation of the early 1970's; and for his work he was -- deservedly -- awarded the Nobel Prize. His policies were, in large measure, adopted first by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and then by Ronald Reagan in the United States. And they worked. By following Friedman's dictum that the only economic lever a government should possess is control of the money supply, both leaders started long periods of economic growth; and they wrung -- after much pain -- inflation out of their economies.

In the process, Keynesianism -- and its chief proponent in North America, Galbraith -- were relegated to the Museum of Irrelevant Luminaries. Galbraith saw economics at the centre of history, power and human nature. And, when it came to human nature, he tended to agree with Mark Twain that "the closer you get to the human race the more you find layers and layers of nonsense." This nonsense he labeled "the conventional wisdom." Never far from his boyhood on a southwestern Ontario farm, he referred to classical economics as "trickle down," where the economy's principal assets were introduced at the front end of the cow and what remained for the common man was what came out the back end.

Galbraith believed that the function of government was to establish "counterveiling forces," so that what came out at the back end was at least of more value and more quantity than the classical economic model allowed. Government could mitigate the traditional boom and bust of economic cycles and thereby create some equity between citizens -- so that the cow's digestive system produced more value for the common man -- and put an end to "private wealth and public squalor."

These views were heretical in the 1920's; but the Great Depression forced western democaries to give heresy a try; and for forty years the prescription worked. But in the 1970's, in reaction to Israel's victory in the 1967 War in the Middle East, Arab oil producing states formed OPEC and established a monopoly on oil prices, which increased from a dollar and a half a barrel to thirty-four dollars a barrel. The result, in the West, was that ecomomic activity ground to a halt. Interest rates soared to a high of eighteen percent in 1980. Unemployment also hit new highs. Keynes policies no longer seemed to work.

Up until the oil shock of the 70's, Friedman was what Keynes had been a generation before -- a pariah. But, just as extreme conditions in the '30's forced a re -examination of the conventional wisdom, Friedman's prescriptions became the order of the day and -- like Keynes theories a generation before -- dogma. Essentially, the Friedman dogma held that, if an economy was to work well, Galbraith's counterveiling forces had to be dismantled in the name of freedom. If Galbraith viewed human nature skeptically, Friedman viewed the nature of that human institution -- government -- skeptically. His has been the prevailing economic paradigm for the last thirty years.

The problem in this new century is, however, that -- once again -- the policy is not working. Just as Keynes had never factored in a global oil cartel, Friedman's thought did not make room for globalization. In the Friedman paradigm, individual central banks exercise control over separate national economies. But now those central banks are, to some degree, hostages to international economic forces. They certainly are hard pressed to deal with a world where capital crosses international borders at the spead of light and the economic shifts which the flow of captial cause can be just as swift and brutal. Workers can lose their jobs as quickly as capital moves. Finding new and similarly remunerative employment takes a long time -- if such employment can be found at all. One simple lever is not enough to deal with a globalized economy. Once again, the cow is eating well; but not much of either quantity or quality is coming out the back end. Or as Jane Yellen, the president and chief executive of the Reserve Bank of San Francisco put it in a recent speech," much of the gain for macroeconomic performance has gone to just a small segment of the population -- those already in the upper part of the distribution."

In other words, while Friedman's policies encouraged economic growth and low inflation, they also encouraged tremendous economic inequality. According to Executive Paywatch, an AFL-CIO website, the pay differential between executives and their employees went from 80 to 1 in 1980 to 411 to 1 in 2005. And during this time, Yellan says, not only were many low wage jobs eliminated by technology, but "wages in the middle not only rose far more slowly than those at the top, they also rose more slowly than those at the bottom of the distribution." The folks who have felt the inequality most are the folks in the middle.

That record needs to be set alongside the thirty years from the beginning of World War II until the Great Downturn of the 1970's. According to Richard Parker, the author of a recent biography on Galbraith, from 1940 until 1970 median household income (adjusted for inflation) doubled, while from 1970 until 2000 the growth in the economy "made for a radical income and wealth distribution, as the fortunes of the rich increased, the poor stagnated, and the middle class suffered through the longest drought of real income gains since the Great Depression."

What all of this suggests is that it is dangerous to turn economists into high priests who speak eternal truths. Both Friedman and Galbraith are dead now. But, considering their humble origins, this development is more than a little ironic. Both men had far reaching influence in their time -- although Friedman's libertarianism returned us to a more brutal universe. However that may be, the point is that times change and dogma doesn't. Dogma is an appropriate subject for theology. But it has no place in economic theory. Once economics becomes theology, we are all in trouble. To find solutions for our times, we would be wise to begin looking to today's economic heretics.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

If Ye Break Faith

This past Saturday, I listened yet again to In Flanders Fields at eleven o'clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It is a poem which I have heard, read and taught for over fifty years. And still, after all that time, I choke up when I get to the last three lines:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

"We are the Dead", John McCrae wrote, unable to foresee his own fate, while admonishing us not to forget his and his contemporaries' sacrifice. But, it seems to me, if we are not to break faith with the dead, there are a few things which we need to remember about the nature of War and its consequences.

First, all wars are cloaked in soaring rhetoric. McCrae's war was the "war to end all wars." The American Civil War was fought to ensure that "government of the people, by the people and for the people [should] not perish." The French Revolution was all about, "liberty, equality and fraternity." However, as Wilfred Owen -- McCrae's poetic ally -- recognized, whatever the slogan, it is an "old lie."

Second, it is a lie because wars are not fought for ideals; they are fought for strategic resources. Land (living space, Hitler called it), opium, oil -- the list is almost endless. But, however long the list, these resources are presented to the public as the equivalent of oxygen. They are the things upon which the survival of the combatants depend. Take them away and we -- however "we" define ourselves -- will cease to exist.

Third, those who lead the charge on both sides suffer from terminal certitude. They are incapable of performing that "trick" which Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, calls "getting inside a man's skin and walking around in it." Once one looks at the world through the eyes of one's enemy, it is impoosible to demonize him. We can only kill those we truly don't understand.

And, finally, most wars have something to do with revenge. World War II had a lot to do with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, just as present conditions in Iraq have much to do with centuries old rivalries between Sunnis and Shias. On the other side of the ledger, much of the suceess of Western Europe can be traced to the path the Allies pursued after The Second World War and the implementation of the Marshall Plan.

There is a moral imperative every November 11th to remember those who, in Lincoln's words, gave "the last full measure of devotion." But we do the dead no honour if we forget the nature of war itself. It is, as William Tecumseh Sherman -- one of Lincoln's generals -- said, "hell." Anybody who tries to sell it as anything else is selling snake oil.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Voice of the People

If you are a Republican, there was little to celebrate last night. Unless, like certain classic conservatives, you understand that the folks who claim to wear Ronald Reagan's mantle are actually Richard Nixon's illegitimate children. And, if you are a Democrat, there is some reason to hope that the agenda will change -- if your party can ignore its own centrifugal forces and not listen to those voices who claim that the President -- like Saddam Hussein -- should be hanged.

As things stand this morning, the Democrats have firm control of the House; and they might just control the Senate. What does that mean? It means that Americans have rejected the neo-conservative vision of a benevolent Pax Americana, where America makes the world, in Woodrow Wilson's phrase, "safe for democracy". The concept was foolish when Wilson, with the best of intentions, articulated it in 1919. It was equally foolish when the folks at the Project for the New American Century rearticulated it in 1996. As the twentieth century proved repeatedly, democracy and safety do not necessarily go hand in hand.

What Ronald Reagan, like his hero Franklin Roosevelt, understood is that -- in the end -- fear leads a nation to a hole in the ground. A nation can accomplish great things if it "has nothing to fear but fear itself;" or if its citizens believe it is "morning again in America."

The present occupant of the White House, supported by his Vice President and his Secretary of Defense, like Mr. Nixon, functions in a constant state of paranoia, suspecting that his enemies are everywhere. But there is a big difference between suspecting who your enemy is and seeing who he is. The difference is the difference between Osama Ben Laden and Saddam Hussein. It is the difference between victory and resignation.

This administration's response to their situation has been, like Nixon's, to claim executive privilege and extra constitutional authority. What they have failed to understand is that the erosion of presidential authority after Watergate, a phenomenon they lament, was a direct response to abuse of that authority. They also have not understood what Roosevelt, Reagan and Bush the Elder understood: that political success is about building political coaltions, both domestic and international which, taken together, are greater than the sum of their parts.

Bush the Elder has what Bush the Younger lacks -- a sense of history, combat experience and experience at the United Nations. Until now he has resisted giving his son advice. Now would be a good time to change that policy.

The question is, has the present administration heard the voice of the people? Recent interviews have suggested that Mr. Cheney is deaf and is committed to more of the same. But, ultimately, the ball is in Bush's court. Now would be a good time to have a serious talk with his father.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

No Sale

Mercifully, this American election cycle is just about over. What that means for those of us who live on the northern shores of Lake Ontario is that the deluge of political calumny that thunders like Niagara from television stations in New York State will soon come to an end. With the help of professional consultants, modern political candidates have discovered that the way to win elections is to plaster the airwaves with wall to wall negative propaganda.

Joe Kennedy is said to have told his son John, before he won the presidency, "It's not who you are that's important. It's who people think you are." That advice seeems to have morphed into the corollary: "It's not who you are that's important. It's who people think the other guy is." And the other guy is always someone who, as Hugo Chavez said of George W. Bush, leaves the distinct whiff of sulphur whenever he exits the room.

I noted with sadness that the Ontario Liberal Party invited James Carville to its annual conference this past weekend to offer advice on how to win the next election, which is now about a year off.

I also saw the ad which the Republican National Committee is running against Harold Ford in Tennessee -- the one in which the blonde, shot from the shoulders up, appears to be in her natural state, and asks Harold to give her a call. Some naive commentators suggest that her invitation is a comment on Ford's religous hypocrisy. Those of us who have spent some time in the South know that the accusation goes much deeper than that.

Politics has never been a polite profession. And my own generation has not made it any politer. George Bush and Bill Clinton represent the schitzophrenic face of baby boomers. We split on the war, on the counterculture and on civil rights. And we tended to view our heroes and foes as characters from a comic book world. They were either virtue or evil incarnate. And, frankly, it was easy to think of them in such absolute terms when Geroge Wallace proclaimed, "Segregation then, segregation now, segregation forever!" and Richard Nixon informed us that, "when the president does it, it's not illegal."

But both men are dead now. And, to his credit -- before he died -- Wallace admitted the error of at least some of his ways.

It is time to admit the errors of our ways. Barak Obama is right. It is time to move beyond the catagories of the sixties. It is time to stop fighting old battles. There are enough new battles to occupy us.

The first sign that we have moved on will be when the deluge of negative ads dries up. The next sign will be when political hopefuls stop calling on folks like James Carville to offer them professional advice. The third sign will be when we actually have a debate between candidates, rather than television events where reporters pitch questions and the audience waits to see if the batters can hit them out of the park. And, finally, we'll know that we live in a functioning democracy when every candidate knocks on every door in his or her riding and talks to at least one person behind every door.

A pipe dream? Probably. But what we have at the moment is a nightmare. And if nightmare scenarios are all we can generate, how many citizens will continue to vote?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Canute Complex

There was a time when all Canadian school children studied British history. That was a long time ago; and I would hazard a guess that most students do not look back on the experience with a great deal of fondness. However, there was one incident which I am sure any student of British history remembers vividly. That is the story of King Canute's attempt to stop the ocean dead in its tracks.

According to legend, Canute had his throne bearers transport his throne -- with their master seated atop it -- to the seashore, for the purpose of providing his subjects with a demonstration of his divinely anointed status.

Sitting on the throne and raising his hand, he commanded the waves to cease and desist. Unfortunately, they had the audacity to ignore him. In the short term, Canute's failure didn't do his public image a lot of good. In the longer term, it did nothing to enhance his career prospects. In fact, the story is usually considered one of the first steps on the road to the Magna Carta.

I remembered Canute the other day when I read a small story in the Toronto Star. Stephen Harper had agreed to appear on the Mercer Report. But when the Harper team discovered that Mercer and Company had hired Dave Chan, a photographer who has worked for The National Post, The Globe and Mail and other newspapers for twenty years, they insisted that Chan be dropped from the project. It seems that during the recent evacuation of Lebanese Canadians from Beirut, Mr. Chan had offered the opinion that, if all media personnel were banned from the Prime Minister's plane, that ban should include the Prime Minister's personal photographer. After all, if the purpose of the ban was to clear as many seats as possible for the refugees, the PM's picture taker could fly back to Canada using other means.

Besides, said the Prime Minister's Office, they could provide the CBC with all the pictures they required. In fact, this strategy is part and parcel of the Prime Minister's press operation. Earlier in the year, Harper's office insisted that it had the right to choose, before any press conference, which reporters and which questions it would deal with. When the Parliamentary Press Gallery refused to operate by these rules, Harper simply stopped answering their questions.

The assumption that the Prime Minister's Office has the right to control the flow of information to the public is particularly arrogant. Behind the assumption is the conviction that if you keep feeding the public the same line, they will eventually believe it. But in this age of rapidly expanding communication technology, it is also a profoundly foolish assumption. If you shut down one method of communication, another will take its place.

Harper need look no further than his neighbour to the South. The Bush Administration has tried mightily to control the information coming out of Iraq and the government bureaucracy. And for awhile they succeeded. They refused the press's request to photograph the flag draped coffins of soldiers being shipped home for burial. And they leaked information to reporters from Time Magazine and The New York Times in attempts to silence critics of the war. But as Bob Woodward's new book, as well as recent books like Fiasco, by Tom Ricks and Cobra II, by Micheal Gordon and Bernard Trainor illustrate, trying to control and restrict information is like trying to control the oceans. The information always finds an outlet, even when it has been pent up for a long time. It either trickles out or bursts its levees in a flood of destructive proportions.

The new breed of conservative seems to operate in a fact-free universe. In such a universe, the act of articulation is tantamount to telling the truth. Saying so makes something true; and commanding that a policy be implemented gives it legitimacy. That seems to be the thinking underlying The Clean Air Act, a particularly Orwellian title, given the fact that, under its provisions, the government will not set standards for industrial pollution before 2050. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Monahan said, in response to a senatorial colleague who stood steadfastly on his right to hold to his opinion, "You have a right to your own opinion; you do not have a right to your own facts." Likewise, Mr. Harper has no right to ignore the facts. King Canute tried that 1300 years ago. Like Canute, Mr. Harper's career prospects get dimmer with each passing day.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Say What, Steve?

Stephen Harper's recent observation regarding the bias of Liberal leadership hopefuls against Israel is so patently absurd, as well as demonstrably untrue, that one wonders what the man is really up to.

While it is true that a liberal backbencher was recently censured by his colleagues for his strong criticism of Israel, and while it is also true that Micheal Ignatieff's unbalanced comments about Israel's actions in Lebanon suggest that the Liberal front runner is not ready for prime time, to paint all the Liberal leadership hopefuls as bigots is -- well -- stupid. Or maybe there is some cynical calculation behind it.

The last twenty-five years has seen the rise of wedge issue politics. The idea is to use issues and policies as wedges to split your opposition. The political strategists calculate that such an approach will destroy old voting blocks and peel off enough support to build functioning majorities. The Harris government used this approach in Ontario during the 90's and the present American administration continues to use it in the current election cycle. It does not take a lot of imagination to see Mr. Harper's musings as a transparent attempt to siphon off the votes of Canadian Jews, who in the past have overwhelmingly preferred the Liberal Party to the Conservative Party.

Such a strategy also has the advantage of making its proponents look like people of principle who are not willing to sell their souls for the sake of a few votes.

But when you read Mr. Harper's statement, and his refusal to rethink what he said, you have to wonder just what principle he is standing on. In fact, his statement is all of a piece with what appears to be his election strategy. Having calculated that he can garner no more support in Ontario and the nation's larger cities, Harper has decided to troll for votes outside the island of Montreal, thus gaining enough seats in Quebec to achieve a parliamentary majority.

What is wrong with that calculation is that even in Quebec's rural ridings many of Harper's policies won't fly. Rural Quebec is miles away, both geographically and politically, from rural Alberta. His refusal after the Dawson College shooting spree to dismantle the long gun registry -- despite Jean Charest's opposition to just such a move -- shows how out of touch Harper is with the political landscape of Quebec. And, if his much touted environmental policy matches what he sold the country in Vancouver last week, Quebecers will quickly conclude that he is not one of nous autres.

The truth is that if Harper wants to win a majority government, he will not only have to appear to move to the left, he will actually have to do so. The problem with Harper's recent remark is that it fuels suspicion that, when the rubber hits the road, these folks are what their forebears in the Reform Party were perceived to be -- hard right Conservatives. And, as I've suggested in a previous post, (see The Right Man) centre right -- even more so, hard right -- coalitions are just not viable in Canada.

The late Dalton Camp went to his grave railing at the fact that Canada's new Conservative Party had been purged of its Red Tories. I suspect that, come the next election, the majority of Canadians will side with Camp.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Regarding Henry

Bob Woodward's new book arrives at no new conclusions. What it does offer is an astonishing amount of evidence to support previous conclusions. Beyond that, however, it does contain one startling revelation and one candid quotation which Woodward attributes to Colin Powell.

Both the revelation and the quotation assume a tragic irony when considered within the context of Dwight Eisenhower's foreign policy. Eisenhower was both remarkable for the battles which he chose to fight and the battles which he chose not to fight.

When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Fu, they asked Ike for American support. Despite his distaste for propping up old colonial regimes, he sent General Matthew Ridgeway to scout out the situation. After all, it was Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who was then on an international crusade to stop the march of Communism; and, to that end, he had spearheaded the creation of SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.)

Ridgeway returned to the White House and told Eisenhower what American support would cost in terms of ordinance, money and human lives. Eisenhower told the French, "Non, merci." Likewise, when the French and the British sought American support during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Eisenhower refused to be drawn in. Instead, it fell to the United Nations to resolve the crisis; and Lester Pearson, the Canadian ambassador to the UN, eventually received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in that direction.

When it came to evaluating the use of military force, Ike's experience gave him a cold eyed cost-benefit sense of whether or not military intervention was a wise course of action.

Which brings me back to the Woodward book and the revelation that Henry Kissinger has been offering continuous counsel to the present administration on the conduct of the Iraq war.

Kissinger has always felt that the United States lost the war in Vietnam because it lost its nerve; and Woodward reports that he has repeatedly told Bush and company that it is critical that America not lose its nerve in Iraq. While it is true that Kissinger was not around for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, he was there as the Nixon administration widened the war into Cambodia and -- secretly -- into Laos.

And therein lies the problem. What Kissinger has always failed to understand is that the American people never lost their nerve. What they lost was faith in their government, something in which Kissinger played a pivotal role. Whether the information came from the White House in Washington or from the Five O'Clock Follies in Saigon, people began to cotton on to the fact that they had been lied to -- repeatedly and consistently. "Credibility Gap" was the diplomatic term of the day.

To counter that perception, Nixon sent his vice president, Spiro Agnew, out to attack the critics of the war. "Effete snobs," Agnew called them, misinformed "nattering nabobs of negativism." When that strategy began to fail and much more sober internal reports, like the Pentagon Papers, began to leak to the press, Nixon hired a group of "plumbers" who set up shop in the White House basement. Their job was to plug the leaks; and -- well -- we all know how that story ended.

The Bush administration does not use the phrase "loss of nerve." Instead, they use the term "cut and run." And, as the Woodward book makes clear, they bury internal reports which do not offer optimistic scenarios. And, like the vice president thirty-five years ago, Dick Cheney is leading the charge against the war's critics, while Bush stands, like Horatio at the bridge, as cheerleader-in-chief, defending the bulwarks against the "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Which brings us to Colin Powell. He told Woodward that the problem with the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate is that none of them, "have been in a bar fight." Bush and Cheney managed to artfully avoid Vietnam; and Rumsfeld flew Navy fighter jets during peace time. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, it does suggest that who you choose to advise you in a time of war is critical. It is interesting to note that Powell was informed of the decision to invade Iraq after the fact; and Bush never consulted his father about the decision, claiming instead that he sought the advice of "a higher father." The two men who were closest to the first Iraq war -- men who have been in combat and who tended to evaluate decisions with the hardheadedness of an Eisenhower -- were left out of the loop. Instead, they turned to Henry.

Why? I suspect that, at the heart of the matter, is Bush's, Cheney's and Rumsfeld's shared conviction that when it came to marching on Baghdad, Bush the Elder and Secretary Powell lost their nerve. Time, as it did for Eisenhower's decisions, has proven the wisdom of their decision. And, in the present, it has meant that an old story has been retold. It is a story about people who didn't know what they were doing insisting that things be done their way. And the theme of the story is George Santayana's old maxim: Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Right Man

The Liberal Party has chosen the delegates to its convention in Montreal and we are down to four possibilities. To no one's surprise, Micheal Ignatieff is in first place, followed by Bob Rae, Stephane Dion and Gerard Kennedy. The good news is that they will provide the foundation for a strong front bench and creative policy alternatives.

The conventional wisdom is that Ignatieff is the choice of the party's aristocracy. However, past history has shown that receiving their blessing is not necessarily the path of wisdom. John Turner or, of late, Paul Martin offer cautionary tales.

The prime directive of Canadian politics is that, while all political coalitions eventually implode, centre-right coalitions are counter intuitive to the Canadian experience. Over reliance on market solutions and socially consevative public policies do not fit a country whose geography is immense but whose population is the size of some southeast Asian cities. Centre right coalitions did not give us Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan. In fact,they didn't even give us a flag.

Canada's survival as a nation has depended on the kinds of public policies to which the Amerian economist Jered Bernstein has assigned the acronym WITT (We're in this together.)

So the question is, which of the four candidates can build the most geographically diverse and most stable centre-left coalition? The answer is that Bob Rae is the best choice for the Party. His time in the NDP provides him with a track record on social policy. And, while some claim that is his prime weakness, I would argue that it is that background, as well as his attempt to think outside the tradionally socialist box, which indicate his ability to build a viable, stable coalition. He will lose some support in Ontario. Strong unionists, who remember his Rae Days, will reject him for breaking contracts. Committed conservatives will lambast him for simply not downsizing a bloated provincial labour force. In fact, his policy was an attempt to cut expenses in the face of rising costs and shrinking revenues while keeping people at work. He left the NDP because he came to believe that its traditional economic and fiscal policies were increasingly out of joint with the times. And, for that, he carries alot of political baggage. On the other hand, his history indicates a rare kind of courage. While Ontario is admittedly problematic, he will draw support from the prairies, from British Columbia and the Maritimes. He has spent a lot of time on the constituional file, is fluent in French and understands what runs deep in Quebec politics -- qualities Mr. Harper simply doesn't possess.

Add to that wit and a refusal to take himself too seriously and you have an antidote to the "heroic" leader who takes Napolean, or perhaps, more accuately, George Armstong Custer, as his model. He is a man who is suited to the job. And, if the Liberals do not win a majority in the next election -- a distinct possibility -- Rae will be there for the long haul.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Wrong Man

Canadians laugh at that old MGM icon, Nelson Eddy, serenading Jeanette MacDonald in the frozen wastes of the Yukon. They know that, in the depths of a Canadian Winter, no one chooses the Barren Lands as a suitable place to pledge their eternal devotion. It strikes us as frigidly incongruent.

But we do take some pride in the old chestnut about the Mounties always getting their man. However, we note that there is nothing in the chestnut about getting the right man.

Many winters have taught us about human frailty and human vulnerability in the face of forces more powerful than ourselves. Recognizing those forces, however, does not mean surrendering to them. As the Inuit and Eskimos learned long ago,we have the natural resources at our disposal to survive the harshest of winters.

This is certainly the winter of American discontent. But it has not been made glorious by this son of Bush. Once again, he is stoking the fires of paranoia, while boldly admitting the existence of secret prisons, all in the name of safety. Safety for whom and from whom?

The Maher Arar case provides a window on how Kafkaesque the present administration has become, and how easy it has been for Americans -- and more disturbingly -- Canadians to be caught up in the tide of fear which these folks are clearly using for their own convenience.

As Justice O'Connor's report makes clear, there was no evidence -- only misplaced suspicion -- for deporting Arar to Syria, where he was imprisioned and tortured.

Now more than ever, it is time for Canadians to insist on the rule of law and on the primacy of incontrovertible evidence when acting on terrorist threats. We are morally culpable if we pass hearsay evidence on to incompetents. The evidence has to be solid and the people who receive it must also be committed to the rule of law. In the Arar case, neither of these thresholds was met. Fighting barbarism by surrendering to it is ultimately self defeating. What is worse, it makes a mockery of everything that Canada stands for -- and until recently -- what the United States has stood for.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

And so, to begin

I've contemplated doing this for some time. One reason I have hesitated is that I'm really not sure if there is an audience for what I want to say.

Just a few words of background: I immigrated with my family to Canada from California when I was twelve. Ironically, though, I had several relatives, including one of my grandmothers, who began life as Canadians; and it always seemed to me that we were coming home after a somewhat unpredictable but worthwhile voyage. I became a Canadian citizen; and, of course, I retained my American citizenship.

I have always been keenly interested in Canadian and American politics and social trends. I wonder if there are like-minded folks out there.

At the moment, I am deeply concerned that American foreign policy is based on foolish and unsustainable assumptions. To make matters worse, the present government in Ottawa seems to accept those assumptions unquestioningly. Wisdom is increasingly a rare commodity.