Sunday, February 27, 2011

As We Sleep

Canadians keep saying they don't want an election. And the Prime Minister says he doesn't want one either, because things are going so well. We are a pretty lethargic and smug nation. Jeffrey Simpson writes in Saturday's Globe and Mail that

Another poll released this week showed that Canadians are right up there with the Swedes and Saudis as the world’s leading back-patters on how well their countries have done. That national self-congratulation is exactly what the Conservatives hope will put Canadians in a grateful mood come voting day.

But do the facts merit such self satisfaction? We are running the largest deficits in our history. We are about to spend billions on an airplane which experts say doesn't meet Canada's defence needs. We just chartered a plane to Libya and it came back empty. And the Prime Minister has told us that, even though one of his ministers misled Parliament,  it's alright because she made the right decision.

Then there is the case of the Prime Minister's recently retired Integrity Commissioner, Christiane Ouimete. During her tenure, she was asked to investigate 228 cases. She looked into seven.

The log shows that 42 of the cases involved alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars or government assets. Another 50 or so cases involved charges of what is listed as “gross mismanagement.” About 60 other allegations involved contraventions of Acts of Parliament.

After consulting with the Prime Minister's Office, she found that none of the 228 cases had merit. The Government's handling of arms length organizations -- whose job it is to act as a countervailing force on the government -- is instructive. From the Nuclear Safety Commission, to the Veterans Ombudsman, to Statistics Canada, it's clear that if the Prime Minister's line is questioned, the heads of those organizations will be replaced. The Integrity Commissioner retired after Sheila Fraser reported Ouimete wasn't doing her job. The government, however, was quite happy with her performance. She did not act as a countervailing force.

And, then there is the biggest countervailing force of all -- the Liberal Party of Canada. Gerry Nicholls, who claims to know how the Prime Minister thinks, writes that Mr. Harper wants to destroy the Liberals. Given the ads the Conservatives have been running, that does not appear to be a stretch.

It should be obvious by now that the Harper government has no respect for democratic institutions or rules. Like the governor of Wisconsin, Stephen Harper is committed to clearing a path for oligarchy. Unless we stop feeling so self satisfied, we may wake up after the next election to find that's exactly what we have.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fighting for Oligarchy

In the United States, the battles over state budgets continue. Governor Scott Walker claims that his state is at the edge of a financial abyss. And -- even though the state's public employees have offered large financial concessions in an effort to reduce the state's deficit -- the real fight is about removing their right to bargain. Some basic arithmetic provides a little perspective. As Robert Reich points out:

Before Wisconsin’s budget went bust, Governor Walker signed $117 million in corporate tax breaks. Wisconsin’s immediate budget shortfall is $137 million. That’s his pretext for socking it to Wisconsin’s public unions.

This fight isn't about the budget. It's about power. While it is true that the Wagner Act of 1935 did not allow the formation of public unions, it did give unions legitimate legal status. Before 1935, unionization met the legal definition of a "conspiracy." Franklin Roosevelt supported private sector unions as a legitimate countervailing force against the concentration of wealth and power which had led to the Great Depression. Unions were a way to force money down the social ladder instead of allowing the wealthy to simply suck it to the top of the pyramid. For this, and several other reasons, Roosevelt was branded a traitor to his class.

Kevin Drum, in Mother Jones, provides an interesting analysis of what has happened since 1935. In the 1940's and 50's, unions were responsible for the prosperity of the middle class. But, beginning in the 1960's, politicians of both parties -- Democrats as well as Republicans -- began to abandon the working class. Democrats, whose traditional power base was Labour, fought for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War. But economic justice slipped from their radar screens.

Many people forget that, when Marin Luther King was assassinated, he was leading a strike of garbage workers in Memphis. While it was true that the overwhelming majority of those workers were African Americans, King was not fighting segregation. The Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts had been passed. What King wanted was economic justice. "Many white Americans of good will," King said, "have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice." When King died, his fight for economic justice died with him.

Since then, Drum writes, working class wages have stagnated to the point where now:

The entire bottom 80 percent now loses a collective $743 billion each year, thanks to the cumulative effect of slow wage growth. Conversely, the top 1 percent gains $673 billion. That's a pretty close match. Basically, the money gained by the top 1 percent seems to have come almost entirely from the bottom 80 percent.

The fight in Wisconsin has been thirty years in the making. Governor Walker says his state can no longer afford the outrageous demands of public sector workers. But, given the fact that his newly minted tax cuts would just about cover the budget deficit, it would appear that the governor's rhetoric is a smoke screen.

This fight is about undoing the countervailing measures Roosevelt set up in the Wagner Act. Paul Krugman is right. It is about entrenching an oligarchy.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Future Is The Past

The evolution of the modern Republican Party is a tragic tale.The Party of Lincoln has become The Party of Ayn Rand. The party which once held that government should do what the people cannot do for themselves has become the party which holds that government is the enemy of the people.

Today's Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act; and -- as is becoming abundantly clear in places like Wisconsin -- they want to repeal the Wagner Act. If they could, they would repeal the entire New Deal.

During the last election, the party faithful railed at President Obama for not creating enough jobs. Last week, after the Republican controlled house passed legislation to strip $60 billion from Obama's current budget, John Boehner declared that, if jobs were lost as a result of the cuts, then "So be it." The hypocrisy is stunning.

Republicans have been in charge for twenty of the last thirty years. During that time, President Reagan and the second President Bush left the nation with record budget deficits. When the second president Bush raised taxes to restore fiscal sanity, he was pilloried by his own party. When Bill Clinton passed his first budget -- without any Republican votes -- the Grand Old Party predicted Financial Armageddon. Four years later, Clinton ran the first of four surpluses -- the only time in the last thirty years when the government's finances were in the black.

Now, under the guise of financial responsibility, Republicans have adopted the slogan, "The Future is the Past!' George Orwell understood these folks. So did Franklin Roosevelt. "A conservative," he said, "is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward."

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Kingdom of Dada

Andrew Coyne has never tried to hide his political convictions. As a columnist for The National Post, his opinions were grounded in classical economic theory. He had no patience for social engineering. And he was skeptical of big government. But he always insisted that any government -- regardless of party -- should be fundamentally competent. And he has suggested, on more than one occasion, that the Harper government -- despite what some see as its brilliant targeting of voters -- is incompetent.

In the latest edition of Macleans, he writes of the Harper government:

Far from convincing the public that it has no ideology, it simply confirms [Canadians] in the impression that it is both ideological and devious. And since its stratagems and deceptions are invariably found out, we should perhaps add to the list: ideological, devious, and incompetent.

It's more than a question of competence, of course. It is a question of moral legitimacy. It is a matter not just of the Harper government's legitimacy but any government's legitimacy. As Coyne writes:

BUT NOW we are beyond the minister, and beyond even this government. Because if this sort of conduct is allowed to stand — the minister’s first, and then the government’s in its backing of her — then it is not only this government that becomes a moral farce, but also Parliament, since it is Parliament’s job to police such things. And if the Parliament we elect can be so effortlessly mocked and defiled, then it is really us who have been as well.

This is now about us. If Ms Oda does not resign, or if Mr. Harper does not ask for her resignation, then there are grounds for a non-confidence motion. There are some issues which are more important than the management of the economy. Mr. Coyne, economist though he may be, recognizes this fact. He rightly asserts that those who do not recognize the fundamental principles at stake are living "in the kingdom of dada."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Down The Memory Hole

We appear headed for another election. When evaluating the present government, it is enlightening to judge it -- not by what others have said about it -- but by what Mr. Harper has said about his predecessors.

On the subject of concentrating power in the Prime Minister's Office, consider this bit of fulmination from 2005:

Will this be a country in which Parliament will rule on behalf of the people or where a self-selected group of lawyers or experts will define the parameters of right and wrong?

Then there was Mr. Harper's unshakable commitment to government accountability. When he was elected, the Prime Minister -- who has padlocked Parliament twice -- said:

Restoring accountability will be one of the major priorities of our new government. Accountability is what ordinary Canadians, working Canadians, those people who pay their bills, pay their taxes, expect from their political leaders.

When it comes to "separatist coalitions," it is important to remember that in 2004 -- when the future of the Paul Martin government hung in the balance -- Mr. Harper wrote to the Governor General. A coalition with the Bloc Quebecois was not a problem:

We respectfully point out that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise,this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all your options before exercising your constitutional authority.

Measured by his own standards, Mr. Harper has been an abject failure and an absolute hypocrite. Apparently, he believes that Canadians live in an Orwellian world, where all his past pronouncements have gone down the memory hole. And, like O'Brien -- Winston Smith's torturer in 1984 -- his message to Canadians is:

We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.

Consider, for a moment, the consequences of Canadians -- "those people who pay their bills, pay their taxes" being filled with the likes of Stockwell Day, Lisa Raitt, Vic Toews, Bev Oda and -- of course -- Stephen Harper.

Perish the thought.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The New Mediocracy

An article in the current edition of The Walrus defines Canada's "New Solitudes." Erna Paris writes that the new chasm in Canada is not about language or religion. It is about two very different views of the world. "For a very long time," she writes,

Canadians have spoken of shared social values as a way of bridging our traditional French-English solitudes. Now I ask myself whether we might be morphing into two Canadas, each with a distinct world view. The more familiar Canada has promoted secular, humanist values, expressing them in a welfare society it took decades to build. The newer Canada is brasher, harder, and angrier. You may have guessed that the kinder Canada is the country I cleave to: it has been my heart’s home wherever I have travelled in the world. But I recognize change. And I am beginning to question how, and if, we can find common ground.

She traces this change to September 11th and the rise of the Harper Conservatives. And she worries that Canadians are not aware of the changes which the Harperites are hell bent on achieving. There is "another" Canada being born:

Its organizing principles are a powerful commitment to individualism, and to maximum freedom in every sector. Governments should be small, their powers limited, their taxing capacity curtailed. The market must be free and unfettered. Individuals are uniquely responsible for their failures, as well as their successes, and they cannot expect assistance from the “nanny state.” The critical distinguishing trait of this alternate lens on the world is a lessening attachment to the welfare state, which historically aimed at enhancing the common good — a sine qua non of the Canadian social contract for more than half a century.

But, while it's entirely appropriate for countries to change course, the Harper Revolution -- unlike what happened in Egypt over the last three weeks -- is entirely top down. Paris refers to the preamble of a document released by an ad hoc group which has christened itself Voices:

Since 2006 the Government of Canada has systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights. It has deliberately set out to silence the voices of organizations or individuals who raise concerns about government policies or disagree with government positions. It has weakened Canada’s international standing as a leader in human rights. The impact and consequences for the health of democracy, freedom of expression, and the state of human rights protection in Canada are unparalleled…

An unprecedented level of secrecy now shrouds a long list of government activities and decisions, making it increasingly difficult for the public to hold the government accountable across a range of fundamentally important issues…

In this context, Canadian democratic institutions, civil society organizations, and human rights defenders have been weakened, marginalized and silenced. Their capacity to monitor and safeguard the respect for democracy, free speech, and other rights is in jeopardy. The quality and health of democratic life in Canada is under serious threat.

The Harper government only modifies its course when it is faced with defeat -- and the course correction is only temporary. Geoffrey Stevens, who retired from The Globe and Mail to teach at Wilfred Laurier University, writes in today's Straightgoods that Canada needs an election to answer important questions:

Is a Stephen Harper government the best Canadians can aspire to?
Specifically, are we satisfied with a government that preaches accountability and padlocks Parliament rather than face opposition questions? A government in which all power is concentrated in the Prime Minister's Office?

A government that has no foreign policy beyond what it borrows from Washington? A government that can't win a United Nations Security Council seat that would have been a slam-dunk in years past?

A government that secretly negotiates a border-security agreement that will involve some sacrifice of Canadian sovereignty without allowing Parliament to examine its provisions? A government that accepts Washington's dictate to purchase F-35 strike fighter aircraft that Canada doesn't need and, at $20 billion or more, can't afford?

A government that intends to spend billions to build new prisons for which there is no evident demand? A government that believes attack ads are the answer to all criticism?

Are Canadians content for their country to be as mediocre as their government?

For, in the end, the Harperites are devoted to self serving mediocrity. Canada -- and its citizens -- are capable of much more than the Conservatives give them credit for.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Smugly Complacent

As Stephen Harper celebrated his fifth anniversary as Prime Minister, some commentators -- such as James Travers and Lawrence Martin -- wrote that the prime minister has slowly but surely moved the country to the right. Last week, in an effort to demolish their arguments, Jeffrey Simpson cited a report by Focus Canada -- which claims that Canadians haven't changed much in thirty years:

On crime – the Harper government’s big thrust – Canadians are way offside with the government’s approach. Eighty-two per cent of Canadians don’t fear crime in their neighbourhood, and 77 per cent aren’t afraid to walk there at night.

By a whopping 58 per cent to 36 per cent, Canadians prefer prevention programs and education over tougher punishments as a way to combat crime. This sort of approach, of course, is diametrically opposite the one chosen by the Conservatives, who keep announcing headline-grabbing but functionally useless “tough on crime” measures. Seventy-seven per cent of respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” support federal gun regulations.

And, when it comes to spending priorities, Canadians are not Mr. Harper's people:

Focus Canada’s survey finds Canadians’ top spending priorities to be education, health care, elderly programs, the environment and reducing child poverty. At the bottom are foreign aid, justice, defence, domestic security and arts and culture. The ordering of these priorities hasn’t changed much in two decades, except that support for defence spending – which soared with the Afghan engagement – has returned to the low levels of the 1990s.

But amid all the counter intuitive data, there is one very disturbing number. "The Harper government can take heart," wrote Simpson, "that 52 per cent of Canadians are satisfied with the country's direction, compared to 40 per cent who aren't."

How does one square that circle? It would appear that Canadians have adopted the mantra of Harper and Company. We are smugly complacent. In the face of impending disaster, we chill out. Remember Jim Flaherty's line in the last election, just before the Great Recession? "Canada," he said," will run a small surplus." His message hasn't changed much.

Nowhere is the complacency more evident than in the Ministry of the Environment. Jim Prentice got tired of having nothing to do and left the government. The newly minted Environment Minister -- former broadcaster Peter Kent -- appears quite happy to dance to the sound of nothing.

But one of the factors behind the turmoil in Middle East these days is the sky rocketing cost of food. Some people, Paul Krugman wrote this week, claim there is a conspiracy in the financial markets. But

While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate — which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.

Last fall, when Canada lost its bid for a Security Council seat, the world looked at Mr. Harper and the other public faces of his government -- recycled ministers from the old Mike Harris regime -- men like Flaherty, John Baird and Tony Clement, and saw a cadre of the wilfully ignorant. If we truly believe these men have put us on the "right track," we should be deeply ashamed.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Voodoo Economics

During the week just passed, Republicans in the Senate tried and failed to sink the Affordable Healthcare Act. Over in the House, Paul Ryan -- the Chairman of the House Budget Committee -- proposed cutting $58 billion from President Obama's 2011 budget. "Washington's spending spree is over," he announced. "We must chart a new course."

Ryan's plan drew the following comment from The Economist -- a magazine not noted for its leftish flights of fancy:

there is no plausible argument that current unemployment or slow growth stem from the federal budget deficit. The mechanism through which budget deficits can lead to unemployment and slow growth is the bond market: government borrowing raises interest rates, which makes credit more expensive for businesses. But the 5-year treasury bond is under 2%, and the most recent auction had a bid cover of almost 3 times. Unsurprisingly, with interest rates low, the cost of credit ranks low on the list of businesses' chief concerns. Those who acknowledge that deficits don't seem to be driving up the cost of credit, but still want to blame deficits for the poor economy, have pointed to business uncertainty over potential future tax increases to cover government debt. But how does enacting an $800 billion two-year tax cut and then cutting $50 billion or even $100 billion in spending assuage business uncertainty about future debt? In any case, the main reason businesses are not expanding is that they are worried about lack of demand from consumers and other businesses, who are still deleveraging from the debts they built up during the 2000s and the collapse in their asset values during the financial crisis.

Some were relieved that Ryan recommended making only half the cuts which Republicans campaigned on during the last election. But, even so, Ryan's proposal sounded eerily like Andrew Mellon's advice to Herbert Hoover: "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate."

Despite Republican claims that business is uncertain about their future tax burden, the real reason they are sitting on all that cash is lack of demand. Why start up production if you fear there will be no customers?

Mark Twain wrote, "History doesn't repeat itself -- at best it sometimes rhymes." Huck Finn said it even better: "I been there before."

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Stephen and Ayn

Stephen Harper returned to Parliament this week, intent on changing the country. He is a true believer. But what -- or, more precisely, who -- is the source of his faith? Modern conservatives like to trace their philosophy back to Edmund Burke, whose lucid defence of social institutions rings true to this day. Without them, wrote Burke, we would all be victims of a Reign of Terror -- and he pointed to the French Revolution as a case in point.

But modern conservatives -- as Thomas Frank aptly documented in his book, The Wrecking Crew -- have little respect for government and its institutions. They came to Washington to tear them down. They have worked tirelessly during the last thirty years to do just that. And we are living amid the debris they have left behind.

Mr. Harper has taken his inspiration -- as his latest attack ads against Micheal Ignatieff remind us -- from American Republicans. But both they and he bear no allegiance to Burke. Their real Godfather -- or rather Godmother -- is Ayn Rand.

Rand was a Russian refugee who, having experienced one form of governmental tyranny, jumped to the illogical conclusion that all governments were tyrannical. She preached a "moral" philosophy which she called "objectivism" -- a faith in rampant individualism -- and railed against the welfare state which "morally and economically creates an ever accelerating downward pull." In her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, she claimed that accepting government assistance was tantamount to "delivering oneself into gradual enslavement."

Individualism Unbound was her credo. And a true believer, like Howard Roark -- the architect in Rand's turgid novel, The Fountainhead -- would blow the building up if he could not get his way. Mr. Harper feels he can function quite well without Parliament. He has done so twice. And he has proven quite adept at blowing others up. Ask the former heads of supposedly arms length government agencies, like Linda Keen, Pat Strogan or Munir Sheikh, about Mr. Harper's respect for them and their work.

But there is a delicious irony to the story of Ayn Rand. A life long smoker, she succumbed to lung cancer and required surgery. So she applied for Social Security:

An interview recently surfaced that was conducted in 1998 by the Ayn Rand Institute with a social worker who says she helped Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor, sign up for Social Security and Medicare in 1974.

Federal records obtained through a Freedom of Information act request confirm the Social Security benefits. A similar FOI request was unable to either prove or disprove the Medicare claim.

Between December 1974 and her death in March 1982, Rand collected a total of $11,002 in monthly Social Security payments. O’Connor received $2,943 between December 1974 and his death in November 1979.

The woman who railed against "moochers" was one herself. However, she applied for the benefits under her husband's name. Such reversals require an alias. Mr. Harper has already reversed himself several times -- on income trusts, on government accountability, on running a deficit. But one wonders what name he will adopt after he blows up the building.