Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mr. Gore's Movie

An Inconvenient Truth won the Oscar for best documentary feature last Sunday night. The film deserved the award. We watched it a couple of weeks ago with our youngest son, who had seen it in school and wanted to see it again at home.

As a presidential candidate, Al Gore just seemed to lack spark. But he was clearly more qualified for the job than the man who won. And historians will be debating for a long time how the world could have been different if he had been elected by the popular vote instead of the Electoral College.

In the end, however, Gore and his travelling road show may accomplish much more than he ever could have accomplished as a Democratic President confronted with a Republican Congress. Unlike Stephen Harper, Gore has not come to the environmental cause lately. And, until recently, he gained no political points when he advanced his cause. The film features a clip from the 1992 presidential campaign with George Bush Sr. -- in high dudgeon -- claiming that Gore "is so far out in the environmental extreme, we'll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American. He is way out, far out, man."

That is a sentiment with which Bush the Younger -- despite a 2000 campaign pledge to curb carbon dioxide omissions -- would appear to agree. But that was also seven years ago. Much has changed -- including the weather. The hurricanes -- particularly Katrina -- of the last two summers and the winter storms which have turned roads in Texas into skating rinks have begun to garner public attention.

And, as Gore makes clear in the film, even though the data has been around for almost two generations, we now have the before and after pictures. Most striking, perhaps, is the now almost non-existent snow on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. And the huge chunks of ice which are slipping into the Arctic Ocean. And the drowned polar bears, which have been unable to find their ice floe refuges, which they and we have taken for granted for thousands of years.

If Victor Hugo was right, and there really is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come, then perhaps Al Gore's time has come, too. After working for over thirty years to solve the problem of global warming, perhaps his efforts are beginning to bear fruit. There are those who say that he could accomplish so much more if he were president. And those people are calling on him to enter the 2008 campaign. But he would be wise not to follow that siren song.

In her book, The March of Folly, historian Barbara W. Tuchman defined folly as, "the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved." A chief cause of folly, Tuchman wrote, was "woodenheadedness," which she explained, "consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs."

In North America, we have been ignoring the contrary signs for a long time. Gore says that it is not too late. But, having recognized the contrary signs, we have to act now; and several small but carefully planned policy changes can make the difference, if we have the political will -- particularly the international political will -- to make them. I suspect that he understands that, ironically, he can accomplish more outside the tent than in.

It would be one of history's even greater ironies if the man who was accused of being "wooden" when he ran for president, managed to break through the woodenheadness of his own time. Al Gore may have lost the presidency. But he may yet win the battle for the planet.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Banker at the Schoolhouse Door -- Part 2

Readers of this blog will note that I received my first comment last week. And operating on the principle of full disclosure, I must announce that "Anonymous" is really my son, who was posting his comment from Seoul, South Korea. He raises three very good points: 1) the dollar value of the fees mentioned in the piece are not equivalent; 2) the more university degrees granted the less value each has; and 3) not everyone needs to or should go to university.

Let me address each of these points. Consider the first, that tuition of $585 in 1965 is not equivalent to $5555 in 2006. Absolutely true. But, if one considers the growth of inflation during those years, the rising cost of a university education becomes clear. According to the Bank of Canada Inflation Calculator (www.bankofcanada.ca/en/rates/inflation calc.html) the average annual inflation rate from 1965 until 2006 was 4.65%. That means that, if tuition increased with inflation, a freshman entering Trent University in 2006 would have paid $3733.68. If that is our new base, it means that tuition has increased by an additional 48% beyond inflation. Remember this increase has occurred as the number of students has increased. According to Trent, its student population has gone from 4977 in 1999 to 8207 in 2005. (Incidentally, I am indebted -- pun intended -- to our other son, the U of T graduate, for directing me to the Bank of Canada's Inflation Calculator. This is turning into a conversation between the generations.)

Just as Trent's student population has increased, the general student population at all Ontario Universities is expected to grow. The Ontario Council of Universities claims that "The 18 to 21 year old population will grow by 53,000 from 2006 to 2014 according to the Ministry of Finance." The Council also claims that the demand for post graduate professional education will be even greater: "Ontario's 22-29 year old cohort -- the pool the community professional and graduate programs draw on -- is projected to increase in size by 200,000 by 2021."

And, when one compares inflation and the cost of professional education over the last thirty years, the cost of a graduate education between now and then is placed in stark contrast. The $780 which Dalton McGuinty paid to go to law school in 1976 would be equal to $2,828.86 today. At $8,500, the cost of a ticket to law school at the U of O has tripled, even when one takes into account the inflation of the ensuing years.

Why? Well, again referring to figures compiled by the Council of Ontario Universities, "On a provincial government funding per capita basis, Ontario has been 10th of 10 provinces for over 10 years. While the gap narrowed as a result of the Reaching Higher plan [the $6.2 million the McGuinty government injected into higher education two years ago] it is estimated that it would require a further $950 million to reach the 2004-05 funding level of the other nine provinces." The simple fact is that the provincial government has not been investing in higher education in a manner which matches its rhetoric. As the university population has gone up, grant based government funding has gone down; and students have been caught in the squeeze. Thus, tuitions have risen to meet the shortfall.

And, assuming that students have about twelve weeks to work between the spring and fall semesters, they will never make enough to handle tuition costs. If they manage to squeeze in sixteen weeks of work at, say, nine dollars an hour, they'll earn $5760 before taxes. That's not enough to cover tuition and books, let alone the cost of room and board, if they are living away from home. Is it any wonder that they own a mortgage when they graduate?

As for my son's second point, the consequences of flooding the market with degrees, there are two sides to that coin. Yes, a Bachelor's degree in some fields has become the equivalent of a high school diploma two generations ago. On the other hand, just as a high school diploma was the ticket of admission into the new industrial economy, the bachelor's degree has become that same ticket into the knowledge based economy. And, just as some high school diplomas were awarded in the face of little effort, sadly some Baccalaureates have been granted for surprisingly little work. C's and D's still pass.

Moreover, if the Bachelor's degree is now the new high school diploma, then one could argue that, just as full public funding was eventually extended to all high school students, the same should be true for university students. And, once upon a time, it was. Back in the 1960's, students in California's state university system paid no tuition. That policy changed when Ronald Reagan became governor.The likelihood of that policy's resurrection is, however -- well, I think you can intuit the answer.

Which brings us to my son's third and last point, whether or not everyone should go to university. The obvious answer is no. However, there are all kinds of knowledge. By the time a millwright or an electrician completes the class time and the training time to get his or her ticket, the time and money spent are equivalent to an undergraduate degree. But once again, the burden has shifted to the student. Gone are the days when organizations supported training programs where they would take in a predetermined number of apprentices every year to meet their present and future needs. These days, students have to shop around their skills to various organizations -- a policy that is pretty much hit or miss.

There was a time when education was seen as an investment -- an investment which benefited not only the student but society in general. If an economy was to grow, it needed trained people to support increased productivity. And productivity growth, in John F Kennedy's words, "raises all boats." In the last thirty-five years there has been a change in perspective. Education is now a cost; and, for a generation, governments of all stripes have been downloading costs to the people down the next rung on the ladder. Students are at the bottom of the ladder. These days the rising tide of productivity, in one wag's words, "raises all yachts." The small craft have been beached.

I now return to the task of insuring there will be enough money in the bank to pay for our third -- and last -- son's education.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Banker at the Schoolhouse Door

Last week, Ontario Premier Dalton McGunity found himself the target of student protests. The issue was university tuition. Perhaps he was surprised. After all, he is the father of three sons who are attending university and he faces the same tuition bills as the rest of us, times three. Moreover, his government injected 6.2 million dollars into higher education two years ago. And the Liberals also froze university tuitions for two years, only lifting the freeze this September, when tuitions increased 4.6%

But, as Carol Goar pointed out in the Toronto Star this week, student enrollment in Ontario universities is running twenty-three percent ahead of government projections. Students were listening when they were told that seventy percent of Canadian jobs now require some form of post secondary education.

The real problem is that the cost of going to university has increased astronomically in the last forty years. When I entered university forty years ago, my tuition and fees amounted to $585 a year. At Trent University, from which one of our sons graduated last year, incoming freshmen paid $5,557.55 this past September. It's a little cheaper at the University of Toronto, from which our oldest son graduated almost four years ago. There, incoming freshmen paid $5,176.30 this past September. If you live in a small rural community, as we do, the cost is considerably more, given what it costs to live away from home.

But, if your children plan on attending a post graduate professional school, the costs are absolutely stratospheric. Goar points out that when McGunity attended law school at the University of Ottawa back in the late seventies, he paid $780 a year in tuition. The same program now costs $8,500 a year. And that's a bargain. This year at Osgoode Hall, the law school at York University, tuition will set you back $13,966. Next year it will cost you $15,116. At the U of T this year, tuition in the Faculty of Law is $17,280. And if you want to get an MBA at Toronto's Rotman School of Management, tuition is $27,000 a year. At Queens, it costs $2000 to apply for an MBA, then an additional $28,000 a year.

One assumes that these tuition fees are predicated on the certainty that the graduates of these programs will be earning top salaries as CEO's or their equivalents. After all, as Senator Jim Webb of Virginia recently pointed out, the average CEO now makes in a day what it takes his or her average employee over a year to make.

What has happened? Well, as Bob Rae noted in his report to the Ontario government, the expansion of higher education in Ontario occurred before Medicare. Since then, the health system has been draining off money which used to go to colleges and universities. Rae suggested that more student aid be made available in the form of loans. The government would underwrite the loans; but, essentially, the private sector would be given an opportunity to expand its loan base.

This is a departure from the policy of direct investment which Ontario governments used to make in higher education -- when Mr. McGunity went to school in Ottawa and I went to school in Montreal. And it has not been just universities which have seen a decrease in direct investment from the government. One of the major "reforms" which the Mike Harris government brought to Ontario's education system was the elimination of grade thirteen in high schools. Up until then, students could attend grade thirteen and get a general degree after attending university for three years. It is more than just a little ironic that these reforms were made during the stewardship of an education minister who dropped out of high school in grade eleven to first work for and then run his father's waste management company.

All of this is of a piece. And it is a policy which has been aided and abetted by governments of all stripes. The mantra for some time now has been, in Ronald Reagan's words, " Government is not part of the problem, it is the problem." Thus, government has left it to the private sector to fund what it used to fund. And the trade off has been lower taxes. But twenty-five years of such "enlightened" policies have led to the wealth gap, which I have written about in previous posts. What that means for university students of modest means is that they will graduate with a large mortgage over their heads.

When I went to graduate school, my father cosigned for a loan which represented 13% of my annual income before taxes. When our son graduated from graduate school, his accumulated debt amounted to 107% of his annual income before taxes -- this despite roughly $65,000 in scholarships and over $50,000 from us.

I do not begrudge the costs. Luckily, we were able to pay them; and scholarship money was available. Still, he had to borrow alot of money, for which he is now on the hook. And someone is very happily adding to his or her company's bottom line because my son wanted an education. What about those other hard working folks who want their children to succeed -- or the children themselves -- who don't have the financial resources to get them in the schoolhouse door and then stay there?

Higher Education has always been a privilege. The problem is that it is increasingly only available to the privileged.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Everything New is Old

It has been interesting to watch the Harper government's two pronged strategy as it tries desperately to clothe itself in green. But, like the St. Patrick's Day Parade, where everybody claims to be Irish, it's a momentary extravaganza. Wearing green doesn't make you Irish; and claiming to be the Green Party doesn't make it so.

Cynicism abounds in the nation's chattering class. On the right, perhaps the most interesting take on the Conservative make-over comes from columnist Andrew Coyne. He's buying none of it. Says Mr Coyne, "Having allowed the issue to fester for eight months while it tried to decide what if anything to put in place of the Liberal programs it had scrapped, the government has now put itself in the position where nothing it does will be seen to be sufficient, or even sincere."

On the left, James Travers writes that, while the Harper government knows something about politics, it knows very little about policy -- something that troubles the mandarins in the civil service. "The effectiveness of public policy is proportional to the depth of analysis," he writes. It is becoming more obvious with each passing day that what Jeffrey Simpson calls "the Harper Party" is long on conviction and short on analysis.

The evidence to support this conclusion rests on the fact that Harper's green platform is essentially the old Liberal platform. And, while the Conservatives trot out different elements of that platform each week, they run television ads showing clips from the Liberal leadership debates claiming the Liberal record on the environment amounted to nothing -- a charge that contains a lot of truth -- and that "Stephane Dion is not a leader." That's the strategy: Recycle old policies and attack the new leader.

The strategy isn't about the environment at all. Harper revealed that the other day when he said that you can't expect Canadians to radically change their lifestyles. Technology, he said, will save us from ourselves. The truth is that technology offers us hope, but only we will be able to save ourselves. And Mr. Harper cannot conceive of a government which shapes public policy to encourage people to act in favour of the planet. The guiding star in his firmament is the principle that, first and foremost, people act in favour of themselves.

What he can conceive of, with laser-like precision, is a majority government. That -- not the long term future of the planet -- is what he is focused on. Everything he has done in the last year has been in support of that objective. Policy for Harper is a path to power; the long term efficacy of that policy is irrelevant. Whether it be placing Michael Fortier in the cabinet as the unelected Minister for Montreal, or the Quebec is a nation within a nation resolution, or his green light on the road to Damascus environmental policy, it's all about power -- gaining it and maintaining it. If anyone doubts this, note that it is Harper who makes every substantive policy announcement, while his ministers stand in the background, nodding approvingly.

In that Mr. Harper is like most other Prime Ministers -- Conservative or Liberal. There is nothing new in any of this. Actually, he has a lot in common with Mordecai Richler's Duddy Karvitz. Duddy knew exactly what he wanted -- and he got it. But he only got it because his victims allowed him to manipulate them. All except his grandfather. One can only hope that Canadians, like Duddy's zeyda, can spot a con man when they see him.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The First and the Last

Two interviews with two of the key players in the Iraq War debate offer some insight into why the American decision to go to war has turned out so disastrously. The first interview, with Vice President Dick Cheney, underscores the old adage that the first casualty of war is truth. The second interview, with Senator Chuck Hagel, reminds us that Dr. Johnson might have been wrong in his definition of patriotism; but he understood precisely how it could be abused.

The first interview, with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, illustrated how invested the Vice President is in this war. When asked if his credibility had been damaged by the blunders in Iraq, Cheney's response was, ". . .I simply don't accept the premise of your question. I just think it's hogwash." This from the man who claimed that Americans would be greeted by Iraqis as "liberators," and who claimed a year ago that the insurgency was "in its last throes."

When pressed to explain the many successes Cheney claimed were America's unappreciated bleesings to Iraqis, he said, "There have been three national elections in Iraq. There's a democracy established there, a constitution, a new democratically elected government. Saddam has been brought to justice and executed, his sons are dead, his government is gone. And the world is better off for it." All of this, of course, conveniently ignores the original rationale for the war, which was self defense. Remember those weapons of mass destruction? The rationale for the war shifted when the facts on the ground proved inconvenient. Throughout the war, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld have ignored facts on the ground when they proved inconvenient -- as they continue to do, now that Iraq is embroiled in a civil war. "Stuff happens," Rumsfeld said. All of this "stuff" is merely the work of "deadenders." The troika at the top have been loathe to admit the failure of their enterprise -- perhaps because to do so would be the equivalent of declaring moral bankruptcy.

Chuck Hagel has a completely different take on what is happening on the ground. In an interview in this month's GQ, Hagel says, "The administration likes to point to these bench marks -- the Iraqis wrote a constitution, they had an election, they elected a unity government. The administration takes great pride in saying, 'It's now a sovereign nation. They're in charge of their own affairs.' It's completely untrue but they say it anyway."

How does one account for such differing perspectives? The personal history of each man tells the story. Hagel is used to looking at war from the ground up -- from a place where it is hard to ignore facts. Hagel says, "When I got to Vietnam I was a rifleman. I was a private, about as low as you can get. So my frame of reference is very much geared to the guy at the bottom who's doing the fighting and dying. Jim Webb and I are the only ones in the Senate who had that experience." He does not disparage the experience of others, like John McCain or John Kerry. And he has "never doubted the motives of those who wanted to go to war so badly." The problem is that none of them had the experience of war, certainly not from the perspective of a rifleman: " . . . President Bush served a little time in the National Guard. Secretary Rice never served. Wolfowitz never served. Feith never served. Cheney had five deferments."

When asked about those five deferments at an earlier confirmation hearing, Cheney claimed that he had "other priorities at the time." When asked about a congressional resolution expressing opposition to the administration's plan to "surge" another 21,500 troops to Iraq, Cheney declared, "It won't stop us. And it would be, I think, detrimental from the standpoint of the troops." Hagell's take on the surge is straightforward: "I am not willing to sacrifice more young men and women for a policy that isn't working."

Cheney claims that people like Hagel and Webb don't have the "stomach" to finish the job. Given the bottom up experience of both senators -- both of whom were wounded in Vietnam -- it's not hard to understand the thinly veiled contempt they have for the vice president and his boss. And, when the President and Vice President question the patriotism of those who do not support their vision, it's easy to see why Dr. Johnson believed that patriotism is "the last refuge of a scoundrel."

Webster's by the way, defines scoundrel as "a mean worthless fellow."