Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Crossroads

 Dan Gardner, in  today's The Ottawa Citizen, writes that "what we saw last week was much more profound than politics:"

Jack Layton was energetic and engaged. He was fully alive. Even his opponents had to grant that. We saw him bounce back from surgery and cancer treatment to fight a historic election campaign. It was inspiring. His opponents had to grant that, too.

Then he died. It was as sudden as if he'd been shot - and just when he had become the leader of the official opposition, the reward for a very long struggle.

We were reminded that even for the gifted and the vital, life can be unjust and far too brief. We were reminded that our existence is unavoidably tragic. We were reminded we are mortal.

However, Gardner writes, last week will not change our politics. It is still a bloodsport. The proof is in the methods Stephen Harper employed to win the last three elections. They represent what Sean Connery, in The Untouchables, called "the Chicago way:"

Remember "Paul Martin Supports Child Pornography?" That's politics the Chicago way. Harper has been doing it ever since, insinuating that a Liberal MP's family member was involved with terrorists, calling the coalition a "coup," lying about the Constitution, stonewalling the House of Commons. It's not a coincidence that the first government in British parliamentary history to be found in contempt of Parliament was Stephen Harper's.

And don't forget the attack ads. Viciously personal, sustained, and launched in the relative civility between election campaigns, they marked a new low in Canadian politics. They were also devastatingly effective.

Stephen Harper has won three elections in a row, each with a larger share of the popular vote than the last, and each against politicians who wouldn't, or couldn't, do politics the Chicago way.

My sense is that we are at a watershed. We have gotten used to Stephen Harper's vision. It owes a lot to Thomas Hobbes. Jack Layton gave Canadians a view of the promised land. Like Martin Luther King, he said, "I  may not get their with you. But we as a people will get to the promised land."

A Utopian vision. Perhaps. But look at the alternative.We are at a crossroad. -- we can choose the Old World or a New World.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Canada's Rumsfeld

When Sheila Fraser uncovered the Sponsorship Scandal, Paul Martin appointed John Gomery to look into the matter. When Ms. Fraser uncovered the Muskoka Slush Fund, Stephen Harper promoted Tony Clement. Lawrence Martin writes in today's Globe that:

As the steward of public spending, Mr. Clement is the minister charged with cutting excessive expenditures in order to curb the deficit. His ministry is also responsible for enhancing ethics and accountability in government.

Logic might suggest someone who is above reproach is best suited for the role, but what we have learned from the A-G and from journalistic inquiry suggests Tony Clement is not that person.

But logic has never been Mr. Harper's strong suit. And, while Mr. Harper has had no scruples when it comes to questioning others' integrity -- on both the national and international stage -- he believes, or so it seems, that his own integrity is absolutely unassailable.

Perhaps that is the consequence of Mr. Harper's almost supernatural run of good luck -- something Mr. Martin documented in his last column. Whatever the reason, Mr. Harper appears to be incapable of blushing or admitting a mistake. In that regard he is a lot like Donald Rumsfeld.

The difference is that Mr. Rumsfeld eventually wore out his welcome and now sits -- as certain as ever -- in retirement. Stephen Harper, on the other hand, is the Prime Minister of Canada and -- for the next four years, at least -- far from retirement.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Alternative

No one delivers a speech the way Stephen Lewis does. His diction is crisp and clear and his passion is absolutely authentic. But a Lewis speech is more than just a performance. It always clarifies a situation. And, most of the time, it places alternatives in stark relief.

Such was the case on Saturday, during Lewis' eulogy for Jack Layton. If you required proof of Lewis' ability to bring clarity to the moment, all you needed to do was to see the distinct discomfort on the faces of the government ministers in the audience. Stephen Harper seemed less disturbed -- although Lewis' reference to "social democracy" must have stuck in his craw.

However, it was good to have Harper in the room. For his presence and Stephen Lewis' presence personified two visions of Canada -- one that is relatively new and borrowed, the other older than Confederation and at the heart of the country.

In his book, A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul calls Canada a "metis nation" whose founding principles are essentially aboriginal, not European. He says that the Canadian vision owes much to the native concept of the ever widening circle, which makes room for others, rather than a narrow nationalism of the blood, which defines others as outsiders.

Harper's vision of the country goes back to the Enlightenment  -- which is not to say that it is enlightened. It focuses on Jefferson's assertion that the best government is the government which governs least. It defines generosity in strictly economic terms; and, it holds, with Margaret Thatcher, that:

There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

Aboriginal society recognized obligations.  But it went further than simple obligations. Those obligations were based upon respect. Jack Layton believed, said Stephen Lewis, in  "the politics of respect for all, respect for the Earth and respect for principle and generosity." Jack Layton believed that, above all else, Canada should be a generous nation. As Lewis said,

if there was one word that might sum up Jack Layton’s unabashed social democratic message, it would be generosity. He wanted, in the simplest and most visceral terms, a more generous Canada.

Those are the essential differences between Stephen Harper and Jack Layton -- respect and generosity. Layton offered Canadians a distinctly alternative vision. Those who require proof should review the now formidable library of Conservative attack ads.

The choice has been defined. The future is about to unfold.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Pure Dumb Luck

Stephen Harper, party insiders tell us, likes to think that he is the smartest guy in the room. But Lawrence Martin makes a good case for believing that Harper's "triumph" owes less to genius than it does to pure, dumb luck. "Luck is fleeting," Martin writes,

unless you’re Stephen Harper. The prime minister’s case is becoming all the more extraordinary. His opponents fall with a regularity that borders on the surreal.

Martin then goes on to enumerate the extraordinary string of events which have fallen Harper's way since the election:

Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois have self-immolated. Polling suggested they would hold the bulk of seats in Quebec. Now they border on irrelevance, independent of anything Harper, who is not popular in Quebec, has done. The surge of the NDP saw to it.

Not only has the Bloc been removed as one of Harper’s main opponents, but since the campaign ended, the Parti Québécois has fallen into deeper disarray, as has the separatist movement. No prime minister in decades has had the Quebec sovereignist threat lightened to this extent.

As with the Bloc, hardly a soul foresaw the Liberals’ historic collapse to third place. It was primarily the NDP’s doing. Layton’s take-down of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff during the televised debates was a key factor. Since it’s Mr. Harper’s lifelong ambition to crush the Grits, he couldn’t have hoped for more.

 Now Jack Layton's death seems to clear all obstacles in the Prime Minister's way.

It is a pattern which has repeated itself since Harper entered politics. Those of us with a penchant for Greek tragedy might be forgiven for thinking that the gods are punishing us. Perhaps we can take some comfort from Martin Luther King. "Unearned suffering," he said, "is redemptive."

Unfortunately, he had nothing to say about pure, dumb luck.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Layton's Legacy

Much will be written in the days to come about Jack Layton's legacy. Lawrence Martin writes that Jack Layton was "the left's great hope. The great hope is gone and the timing for the country's social democrats could not be worse." He may be right. He has written that Stephen Harper's political success has had a lot to do with luck. Certainly not having to face Layton across the House makes life a little easier for him.

But I suspect that Chantal Hebert is closer to the mark. She writes that Layton's

more lasting legacy to the federal NDP may be to have given it a taste of power and a renewed appetite for the chance to get things done.

Over its decades as a second-tier opposition party, the NDP had grown complacently comfortable with moral victories. Too many of its members equated parliamentary irrelevance with ideological virtue. But over his tenure in Parliament — and, in particular, in the last campaign — Layton showed the New Democrats that ideals and pragmatism need not be flip sides of the political coin.

He taught his party that it was possible to win like Liberals and still act like New Democrats.He also taught Canada's jaded chattering class that retail politics and the attending appeals to the lowest common populist denominator need not be the only route to victory.

When all is said and done, his greatest gift to the country may have been to restore a measure of humanity to its national politics.

While it is true that his party's success in the last election had more to do with Layton than the other candidates the party fielded, it is also true that those who voted for the NDP agreed with Layton that, "Politics matter. Ideas matter. Democracy matters, because all of us need to be able to make a difference."

Layton would be the first to say that the message is more important than the messenger. But he would not deny that the party has to choose the right messenger. The recent history of the Liberal Party has proved that point. It is too early to make predictions about the future of the NDP. But that future certainly depends on the man or woman who the party chooses as Jack's successor.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jack Layton

There was something about Jack Layton's optimism which caused you to believe he would beat cancer. After all, he had done it once before. His passion for life and for social justice seemed like the perfect antidote. But, of course, cancer can only be held at bay. While it may retreat, it never really leaves the field.

What was shocking was how quickly Layton's cancer returned  -- and how quickly it ravaged his body. But it did not ravage his spirit. In the letter he wrote to Canadians two days before he died, he addressed his fellow citizens who also bore the burden of cancer:

To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and to live their lives, I say this: please don't be discouraged that my own journey hasn't gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined, and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.

He then turned his attention to the young, who form a large segment of the 40% of Canadians who chose not to go to the polls in the last election:

All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.

The last lines of the letter should serve as Layton's epitaph:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.

And we'll change the world. 

Jack Layton entered politics to find solutions, to find homes for the homeless, to fight for the underdogs. Only rarely do we get a chance to watch someone connect so easily -- in both English and French -- with ordinary citizens.

May he rest in peace.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Doomed To Fail

In today's Globe and Mail,  Eddie Greenspan and Anthony Doob take on the Harper government's new legislation, which proposes harsher rules for growing and selling marijuana. It enumerates things nicely.. Six plants can get you six months; and selling it to people under 18 gets you a minimum sentence of two years. Greenspan and Doob ask:

Six months for six plants! Why not seven, like the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? Unfortunately, sentencing isn’t a musical. Two years in jail for giving marijuana to a friend near a school? What does “near” mean? Anything less than far? If the marijuana is given or sold “near any other public place, usually frequented by persons under the age of 18,” it’s also a mandatory sentence of two years. What public place in urban areas isn’t “usually frequented by persons under the age of 18”? Does the government really think that an 18-year-old giving or selling marijuana to his friend near a school constitutes organized crime?

The point Greenspan and Doob make is that the legislation is poorly drawn. And the penalties are equally wrong-headed. There are two problems with the government's attempt to make society "safer:"

First, many studies demonstrate that increases in penalties will not affect crime. This has been known for years. Eighteen years ago, a Progressive Conservative Party of Canada election platform noted that the answer to offending “does not lie in simply building more prisons and getting more police. If that were true, then the United States would be the safest place on Earth.” Similarly, that same year (1993), the Reform Party urged “greater certainty in sentencing” rather than increased imprisonment.

Second, this isn’t the best way to deal with Canada’s illicit drug problem. Imprisonment is very costly and, if it’s being justified as a means to address drug problems or achieve public safety, the government needs to demonstrate that imprisonment is the most cost-effective way of achieving reduction in drug use, production and trafficking. It won’t be able to do this. Interestingly, it never tried.

The most telling sentence in the piece is, "Interestingly, it never tried." The Harper government doesn't work from evidence. It works from conviction. Stating a belief gives it legitimacy. It applies the same approach to economic and foreign policy.  If you don't like the word  "conviction," try "dogma."

Stephen Harper has confused the titles "Prime Minister" and  "Pope." Such confusion is a recipe for failure.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

It Can't Happen Here?

Richard Florida has written a great deal about what he calls the new "Creative Class." And his research has uncovered the fact that certain centres -- like Toronto and Vancouver -- are magnets which attract these new economic titans. Unfortunately, there is an underside to this phenomenon:

The world is not flat, but spiky, unequal and divided. Nowhere is that more apparent than within our cities. As I recently argued in the Financial Times, there is a real danger that riots like London's will become a feature, not a mere bug, of global cities.

The centres which attract top talent are also the places where the gulf between the rich and the poor is the greatest:

Canada's cities might not have the extreme class divides of London, New York or Los Angeles, but the gulf is getting wider. The streets of Yorkville and downtown Vancouver are filled with Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Mercedes and the occasional Ferrari and Lamborghini. The average price of a detached single-family home in Vancouver is more than $1-million. Toronto's housing prices continue to escalate too.

In such an environment, discontent is simmering -- and it won't take much to  liberate it.. Canada has just witnessed the Vancouver riot. And, of course, there was last year's G20 fiasco. .Anyone who smugly assumes that a repeat of the London riots could not happen here is a fool.

The Harper government, however -- dedicated to the principle that life is a Darwinian struggle -- sees nothing wrong with growing income inequality. And, in preparation for future unrest, it proposes to build more institutions -- "Are there no prisons, no workhouses?"

Florida is right: "Canadians prefer to believe that our cities are models of urban tranquillity and that riots of the sort that engulfed London last week could never happen here. Perhaps we should not be so sanguine."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

It's 1955 Again

Jane Taber writes in this morning's Globe and Mail that the Harper government "is working to recast the Canadian identity, undoing 40 years of a Liberal narrative and instead creating a new patriotism viewed through a conservative lens."

And what is the thrust of this "new" patriotism?  It sounds remarkably old. The Tories are channelling John Diefenbaker:

Now, the Harper Tories are pursuing symbols and areas ignored by the Grits – the Arctic, the military, national sports and especially the monarchy, according to senior Tories.

Like all fundamentalists -- the people who, Garrison Keillor likes to say, put the "fun" in fundamentalism -- the Harperites want to turn back the clock -- to 1955, when the word "royal" was everywhere -- from the Navy and the Air Force to the mail. Such a strategy, says Harper's former eminence gris, Tom Flanagan, could turn the country into "a Conservative utopia."

But we have lived in that utopia before. In today's Ottawa Citizen, Janice Kennedy takes a walk down memory lane, where a number of things we take for granted simply didn't exist. She starts with:

welfare - that inducement to laziness that has its roots in the Depression of the 1930s. Without it, people will be better motivated to find jobs, rediscovering in themselves the self-reliant moral fibre that once characterized the nation. Ditto (Un) Employment Insurance, tragically cast in legislative stone in 1971.

It goes without saying that medicare (1966) should also be dismantled. This country was built on strong Tory values, and socialized medicine is simply not one of them.

Nor is the absurd notion of women voting, which has been happening federally since 1919, the year Parliament repudiated Canada's proud male exclusivity at the polls and allowed gals into the club. Curiously, that happened under the mostly conservative rule of Sir Robert Borden.

Yes, those were the good old days. But even in the good old days -- of Robert Borden and R.B. Bennett -- women voted and Canadians had welfare.

What does that tell you about this crop of "conservatives?"

Friday, August 19, 2011

Doctor or Politician?

Dr. Kellie Leitch is not the first doctor to dabble in politics. The recently retired Keith Martin tried to blend the two professions. But the Harper government's refusal to acknowledge that asbestos is a hazardous substance puts Dr. Leitch between a rock and a hard place. And it requires that she make a decision which cannot split the difference.

The Huffington Post reports that the medical profession has sent her a letter, demanding that she uphold her commitment to the Hippocratic oath:

The letter also notes the federal government has spent millions of dollars to remove asbestos from Canadian buildings in order to protect lives — including around the House of Commons.

It notes that the Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Public Health Association and World Health Organization have all called for the use of asbestos to be stopped.

The Conservatives are notorious for making decisions which fly in the face of facts. But  Dr. Gilles Paradis, a professor of medicine at McGill and the editor of the Canadian Journal of Public Health, says:

As a physician, we're sure that she knows the incontrovertible evidence about the harm that chrysotile asbestos produces. We just want to remind her that she has a professional duty to live by the principles of the Hippocratic oath that as physicians we all are supposed to adhere to.

This is a true test of the good doctor's character.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

First Thing We Do Is Get Rid Of The Auditors

Life for Tony Clement would be so much easier if people didn't keep records. The problem is that, even though he went to extraordinary lengths to bury those records, they've now seen the light of day. Consequently, he and his deputies, who claimed the three monkeys defense -- see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil -- are now up to their butts in alligators.

It's true,  Lawrence Martin writes,  that the Chretien Liberals did the same thing -- and the Conservatives were in high dudgeon:

The Liberal attitude toward public money is that it is their own treasure trove,” then Calgary MP and now cabinet minister Diane Albonczy said at the time.

But the Liberals never tried to axe the auditors who reviewed the government records. With the present government, though, things are different:

Auditors have long been a thorn in the side of the Harper government. In this context, it is interesting to note the government recently announced that its fight against the deficit includes the elimination of 92 auditor generals. The decision was made by none other than Clement’s own Treasury Board, as well as by Public Works. Opposition critics find it heavily ironic that having lavished such largesse over his riding and having stirred the G-8 slush-fund controversy, Clement is now minister in charge of deficit reduction.

Under the banner of "personal freedom" the same Mr. Clement sent Statistics Canada's long term census form down the memory hole. His boss prorogued Parliament rather than turn over Afghan prisoner files.

And they claim they have the country's best interests at heart. What Canada needs, they say, is fewer auditors.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

He Likes To See Fear In Their Eyes

 When Wickileaks dumped those American diplomatic cables onto the Internet, we learned that Stephen Harper "likes to see fear in [the] eyes" of his employees. How disconcerting it must be, then, for him to encounter Michaela Keyserlingk, who is neither an employee or --  in Harper's universe -- an important person.

In 2009, Mrs. Keyserlink's husband of forty-seven years died of mesothelioma. A retired professor from the University of Ottawa, he did not smoke and had been the one-time Progressive Conservative riding association president for Ottawa Centre.

Mrs. Keyerlink is outraged that, while Canada removes asbestos from all its public buildings, it continues to export it to third world countries. Moreover, Canada has refused three times to acknowledge -- as  the United Nations does -- that asbestos is a hazardous substance.

To draw attention to the government's hypocrisy, Keyserlink has set up her own website, where she prominently displays the Conservative Party logo. The government has sent her a letter, ordering her to cease and desist. This is a typical tactic for this government. It regularly muzzles ministers and civil servants. But, this time, the tactic has backfired. As Tim Harper (no relation) reports in The Toronto Star:  "In one fell swoop, the party created a folk hero, brought attention to an issue they don’t like to publicize and came across as bullies."

Mrs. Keyerlink has offered to take the logo down, if she is granted a meeting with "a senior government official." Of course, this government refuses to stoop so low.

The Harper government continues to believe that the support of 26% of Canadians gives it a free hand. Oh, what fools these mortals be.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Foolishly Falling In Line

I'm sure key members of the Harper government read Lawrence Martin's stuff. I'm also sure they are not impressed. The trouble is that Martin sees through these folks -- and he has since the beginning. This morning he writes about who lost the War on Terror:

Ten years on, we are still presented with the insanity that sees a ragtag collection of terrorist twirps, pissants or whatever you want to call them holding hostage the world’s greatest military power. Washington got sucked right into their trap, colossally overspending on defence and driving the treasury into dire debt; starting a war with a non-guilty party on the basis of bogus information at an appalling cost of almost 5,000 American lives; building a surveillance state that erodes if not ravages once-cherished American freedoms. In the war on terror, is there any doubt who the loser has been?

But rather than taking the lesson to heart, the Harperites now intend to up the terror ante. Rather than dialing back the police state, they intend to expand it:

On the question of surveillance and reduced civil liberties, the latest Ottawa measure is what is termed “lawful access” legislation. This will compel Internet service providers to disclose customer information to authorities without a court order. In other words – blunter words – law enforcement agencies will have a freer hand in spying on the private lives of Canadians.

What Matrin knows is that the Harperites are not really focused on the economy. The Prime Minister's talents as an economist are underwhelming. They are not focused on military might. The government may wish to turn back the clock to when the term "Royal" was part of the naval and the air command. But Canadian military strength will not cause any country to reverse course.

The goal has always been power -- winning it and exercising it. It's about filling a vacuum at the core of a frustrated, mean spirited and paranoid group of MPs.

It has been a long, sad journey since the days of Robert Stanfield. Now Canadian Conservatives fall foolishly in line behind George W. Bush -- or perhaps behind his new Texas reincarnation, Rick Perry.

Monday, August 15, 2011

This Fish Is Beginning To Stink

During the election campaign, the government explained that the lack of a paper trail for the G8 funding in Tony Clement's riding was the consequence of necessary speed. Things needed to be done quickly, so the necessary checks in the system had to be discarded.

But The Toronto Star reports this morning that plans to funnel G8 funds to Clement's stomping ground began as early as 2008:

Municipal records from Gravenhurst and Bracebridge show that as far back as 2008 Clement and his local Conservative political team in Huntsville began drumming up projects in the Muskoka area that would qualify for G8 legacy funds. Those who had a hand in shepherding the proposals through the approval process were Clement’s constituency team, staff in his ministerial office and government officials under Clement’s authority.

When the Auditor General  asked to see documents which tracked the funding, she was told that, “Senior officials were not able to provide us with any information and said their input had not been sought as part of that process.” But documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that:

federal bureaucrats were actively involved in the file at various points, suggesting that senior government officials were either consciously involved in a cover-up or had been kept in the dark about the activities of employees in Industry Canada, including FedNor, Infrastructure Canada and Foreign Affairs, which housed the Federal Summit Management Office.

There is a reason the government sits on information. When such information sees the light of day, it reveals the Harper Government's utter hypocrisy. Let's not forget how Mr. Harper worked himself into a lather over the Sponsorship Scandal and how he rode that scandal to power.

So much for Conservative virtue.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Putting A Myth To Bed

A particularly potent myth has been circulating for about a decade. It is that the world's economic problems began with the fall of the World Trade Center. But, as Jennifer Wells writes in this morning's Toronto Star, it was "greed, not Osama" which wrecked world markets. The fuse which blew the whole edifice up was easy money:

It was a phantom prosperity, as was painfully learned. In his 2007 biography, [Alan] Greenspan too politely acknowledged the role that the “loosening” of mortgage credit terms for subprime borrowers played in heightening financial risk. “Vaporization,” would have been a more apt term. Within the year, Lehman Brothers would declare bankruptcy, the era of bailouts arrived (again), and we all became comfortable with the lexicon. (The Troubled Asset Relief Program would forevermore be known as TARP, and even the innocent were initiated in the ways of collateralized debt obligations.)

And we have yet to recover. The Star's David Olive is an optimist by nature. He too writes today that:

Just letting the fiscally ruinous U.S. tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 lapse would scare up $1 trillion or so, enough to cover two thirds of the deficit. And the long-term threat to the solvency of Social Security and Medicare? America’s population, in contrast with expected declines in most advanced economies, is forecast to surge 41 per cent by mid-century to 438 million. That’s 127 million new taxpaying Americans to the rescue. 

Unfortunately, that will not happen anytime soon. The American Tea Party is committed to no tax increases -- even if that means going back to the tax rates of ten years ago. And they maintain that position, as Standard and Poors declares that it was their intransigence which was primarily responsible for S and P's decision to downgrade the U.S. government's credit rating. Consider this response from would be president Michelle Bachmann:

It isn't true that the government would default on its debt," Bachmann told CBS' Bob Schieffer. "Because, very simply, the Treasury Secretary can pay the interest on the debt first, and then, from there, we have to just prioritize our spending....I have no intention of voting to raise the debt ceiling."

We are where we are because those who brought the economy down refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for the mess they created. And they refuse to acknowledge that their woodenheadedness keeps the economy from recovering.

David Olive may be right that this too shall pass. The problem is that it will take a long time to pass.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Inherit The Wind

Forty two years ago, I was preparing to teach my first classes. I had spent the summer at the University of North Carolina, studying John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Carl Rogers and American Literature. I was one of about fifty students who were about to enter the public schools as teacher interns. We taught during the day, went to school at night, and were visited frequently by the faculty in the School of Education. It was a baptism by fire. But it was training firmly rooted in the real world.

We were white middle class kids. Some of us were southerners -- from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. But a lot of us came from outside the South. I was the only student from outside the country. And, because a number of us were not familiar with the lives of African Americans, the faculty arranged a meeting between us and the kids on campus who were part of the Outward Bound Program. They were high school students who came from backgrounds less privileged than ours.

Martin Luther King had been killed the year before and the ghettos were still alight. During the course of the meeting, the conversation turned to guns and violence. Near the end of the session, one guy, from Long Island -- whose heart was in the right place, but who looked at the world with the flinty realism of a New Yorker -- said, "There's 22 million of you and 275 million of them -- and they have the guns. You can't win."

The Outward Bound kids were not intimidated by our presence. Unlike  their grandparents, they were not going to treat us with deference.One girl, who had been animated during the discussion, looked at us  -- as clear-eyed as the guy from Long Island. "I'd rather die standing up," she said, "than on my knees."

I've thought of her this week, as world markets have roiled and the cities of Britain have erupted in violence. During the last three years, people have been loathe to take to the streets. But, as things go from bad to worse, it would be foolish to think that those of us who live in steerage will not revolt against those of us who live on the upper decks. .It would be wise to recall that line from the Book of Proverbs, "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind."

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

One Good Man

Recently I have despaired that there was such a creature as a wise Republican. But I took note this morning of a piece by Charles Fried in The Daily Beast. Fried was Ronald Reagan's Solicitor General;  and he has taught at Harvard Law School for fifty years.

Fried begins his piece by cataloguing Barack Obama's weaknesses. And, truth be told, his assessment is pretty accurate:

Barack Obama is not a skillful strategist like Bill Clinton. He is not a gifted rhetorician like Ronald Reagan. Nor is he a bold and inspiring leader like Abraham Lincoln. And he can’t seem to shake himself loose from the strings that attach him to the trial lawyers, to big labor, and, surprisingly, to the standard banker-economists who got us into the mess we are in now.

At first blush, Fried seems to repeat standard Republican boilerplate. But  then he goes on to give Obama his due:

He is an honest man. He is intelligent, analytical, and knowledgeable. And he tries hard to think through the dilemmas which confront us and to tell us clearly and straightforwardly what he wants to do and why he wants to do it.

Fried then contrasts Obama with the other politicians who were involved in the debt ceiling negotiations. He finds little to praise:

When John Boehner at the height of the debt ceiling crisis answered him on the national media he simply did not tell the truth. He said that the president would not compromise, would not take yes for an answer, and wanted it all his own way. But he cannot have forgotten that he had negotiated Obama into far more cuts than Obama and his caucus had wanted, thought wise or even palatable in return for a modest increase in revenue to be achieved by closing egregious and unfair loopholes in personal and corporate taxes. This is the same compromise recommended by the “Gang of Six,” which included the extremely conservative and admirably patriotic Senator Tom Coburn, by the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson group, and by Republican economists like Martin Feldstein. It was the Speaker who, Arafat-like, walked away from that deal because he concluded he lacked the skill or the muscle or the spine to sell it to his own caucus. Let it be said that this compromise included recalculating the cost of living formula for social security—a change every responsible economist recommends—but the equally rigid Nancy Pelosi rejected.

He then turns to the Republican  who leads the race to oust Obama. He sees nothing but a hollow man:

And Mitt Romney, supposedly a man experienced in business realities, in a parody of himself, has pronounced that he opposed the deal reached on the very eve of default—because it did not go far enough in the direction of what the Tea Party wanted.

The politicians Obama is up against remind Fried of the characters in Arisophanes' play, The Knights. They are obsessed with finding a politician who fits the times. And, as proof that some metaphors never die, they find the perfect candidate in a local sausage seller. When he protests that he is not an educated man, his sponsors respond:

Politics these days is no occupation for an educated man, a man of character. Ignorance and total lousiness are better. Don’t jettison such god-given advantages.

Fried concludes, "Obama is too good for us." What a sad commentary on the state of American politics. But there is hope for the Republican Party -- if it listens to Charles Fried. There is still one good man within Republican ranks.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Second Great Contraction

The American economist, Kenneth Rogoff, suggested this week that we stop referring to our present economic woes as The Great Recession, and instead label the present situation The Second Great Contraction. The first Great Contraction occurred in the 1930's. The same thing is happening again.

The problem with our present terminology, Rogoff writes, is that it assumes that our present situation is just another -- somewhat tougher -- garden variety recession, a notion which "is predicated on a dangerous misdiagnosis of the problems that confront the United States and other countries, leading to bad forecasts and bad policy."

The market gyrations of the past week were certainly a reaction to bad forecasting. The debt deal which was reached in Washington is an egregious example of bad policy. The real problem, Rogoff maintains, is that policy makers have not truly understood how bad the situation is:

The real problem is that the global economy is badly overleveraged, and there’s no quick escape without a scheme to transfer wealth from creditors to debtors, either through defaults, financial repression or inflation.

During the First Great Contraction, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal transferred wealth from creditors to debtors. Economists like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich argue that the same kind of response is required now. They argue for a new Works Progress Administration and a new Civilian Conservation Corps. The need for infrastructure improvement is everywhere -- from bridges that fall into the Mississippi River to huge slabs of concrete which fall onto Montreal's freeways. We live in an age -- in John Kenneth Galbraith's phrase -- of "private wealth and public squalor."

But what the debt ceiling debate underscored  (yet again) was our political and power elites' absolute failure to come to grips with the real problem. And, until they change or are replaced, there will be no large scale public works programs.

In the light of that failure, Rogoff asks, "Is there any alternative to years of political gyrations and alternatives?" -- and then he answers his own question:

I have argued that the only practical way to shorten the coming period of deleveraging and slow growth would be a sustained burst of moderate inflation, say, 4 per cent to 6 per cent for several years. Of course, inflation is an unfair and arbitrary transfer of income from savers to debtors. But such a transfer is the most direct approach to faster recovery. Eventually, it will take place one way or another, as Europe is painfully learning.

Rogoff's suggestion will drive lots of policy makers crazy -- because it's difficult to keep inflation "moderate."  But, at the moment, those who hold the reins of power are not listening to Krugman, Reich or Rogoff. And, in the meantime, wealth remains in the hands of the creditors and hope drains away from the debtors.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Friday, August 05, 2011

It's Always Been About Jobs

Many people criticize Paul Krugman for being too shrill. But, after all, the policy elites have chosen not to take his advice; and, as economies around the world continue to deteriorate, he has become increasingly frustrated. He writes this morning that:

In case you had any doubts, Thursday’s more than 500-point plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average and the drop in interest rates to near-record lows confirmed it: The economy isn’t recovering, and Washington has been worrying about the wrong things.

It is supremely ironic that the day after Washington finally agreed to cut spending -- which we were told would increase business confidence -- world markets plunged. Somebody has been selling snake oil; and it's not Krugman. His message has been simple: Confidence will increase when employment increases. And employment numbers keep heading south:

Consider one crucial measure, the ratio of employment to population. In June 2007, around 63 percent of adults were employed. In June 2009, the official end of the recession, that number was down to 59.4. As of June 2011, two years into the alleged recovery, the number was: 58.2.

These may sound like dry statistics, but they reflect a truly terrible reality. Not only are vast numbers of Americans unemployed or underemployed, for the first time since the Great Depression many American workers are facing the prospect of very-long-term — maybe permanent — unemployment. Among other things, the rise in long-term unemployment will reduce future government revenues, so we’re not even acting sensibly in purely fiscal terms. But, more important, it’s a human catastrophe. 

If policy makers are smart, they will take Krugman's advice.That means using government resources to create jobs on public infrastructure. We were reminded again this week -- when a large slab of concrete fell onto Montreal's Ville Marie Expressway -- that the need for such programs is critical.

But, so far, nobody --  not President Obama, and certainly not Stephen Harper -- appears to be listening. Krugman is simply repeating what ordinary people have been repeating for three years:  Right now it's about jobs. It's not about debt.

The man has a right to be shrill.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Witch Hunt Has Begun

When historians look back at the Harper Government -- remember, that is its chosen moniker -- I suspect  they will point to this summer's hunt for "War Criminals" as a defining moment. As Carol Goar writes in this morning's Toronto Star:

For law-and-order enthusiasts, this is a welcome new chapter in Ottawa’s quest to ferret out undesirables.

For those who believe in the rule of law, the importance of evidence and the presumption of innocence, there is something chilling about this summer spectacle.

None of the 30 individuals whose mug shots are posted on the Canada Border Services website has been charged with any crime in this country. “There is reason to believe that they were implicated in such serious crimes as war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Kenney says.

The Harper Government's calumny against its political opponents is deeply disturbing -- but it has become common practice here and in the United States. However, to find an analogue to what is happening now, one has to go all the way back to Tail Gunner Joe. It was Joe McCarthy who began the Great Witch Hunt, by claiming that he had a list of government employees who were Communist moles. In a speech  delivered in Wheeling, West Virginia,  McCarthy said:

I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

Sound familiar? Two presidents -- Truman and Eisenhower -- refused to call McCarthy out on his lunacy. It was a journalist, Edward R. Murrow, who finally took on McCarthy during a famous broadcast in 1954:

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it -- and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

This is no time to buy what Vic Toews and Jason Kenny have been selling their fellow citizens. Like McCarthy, they seek to  retain power by sowing fear and hatred. The last decade should have taught us where that leads.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Misreading Your Opposition

 Storm clouds continue to gather around Nycole Turmel. She is not the first federalist politician who has flirted with Quebec nationalism. John English has documented Pierre Trudeau's early affinity for the narcissistic currents of Quebec politics; and many people forget that the former mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, first entered public life as a member of the Bloc Nationale -- an earlier incarnation of the Bloc Quebecois.

Anyone who knows  anything about Quebec politics should not be surprised by any of these revelations. The political significance of St. Jean Baptiste Day is part of Quebecers' DNA. So Ms. Turmel's former political affiliations are not unusual.

Still, they place her and her party in a bind -- simply because most of English Canada will not understand what is a fact of life in Quebec.  Robert Silver, in the Globe and Mail, echoes what will haunt Turmel:

This should be devastating news for the NDP. It casts a clear light on the dangerous game they’ve been playing in Quebec from the Sherbrooke Declaration on down the line.

Ms. Turmel's resignation from the Bloc, for "personal reasons," is even more troubling. Turmel says she joined the Bloc to support a friend, Carole Lavellee, the member for St. Bruno-St. Hubert. Political convictions should go much deeper than friendship.

But, most of all, these recent revelations make Turmel and her party fodder for the Conservative attack machine. It should be clear after five years that the prime minister is a nasty piece of work. In Bob Rae's memorable phrase, he "throws for the head." Mr. Harper and his minions will wrap themselves in the flag and attack Turmel as they attacked Stephane Dion and Micheal Ignatieff. Civility and decency are not part of their DNA.

Barack Obama's fatal flaw is that he misread his opposition. One hopes the NDP has not done the same.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Putting The Children In Charge

Joe Nocera's column in today's New York Times will be quoted often in years to come. He and a few others -- like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich --  have written that America's future is being sabotaged by the children who were elected last November. Nocera writes:

These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people. Their intransigent demands for deep spending cuts, coupled with their almost gleeful willingness to destroy one of America’s most invaluable assets, its full faith and credit, were incredibly irresponsible. But they didn’t care. Their goal, they believed, was worth blowing up the country for, if that’s what it took.

The truth is that the Tea Party Zealots -- who talk boldly about patriotism and love of country -- have struck deeply at their nation's foundations. Like Franklin Roosevelt, who reined in spending in 1937 -- and sent the country back into depression -- these folks are hell bent on repeating the same mistake. But

inflicting more pain on their countrymen doesn’t much bother the Tea Party Republicans, as they’ve repeatedly proved. What is astonishing is that both the president and House speaker are claiming that the deal will help the economy. Do they really expect us to buy that? We’ve all heard what happened in 1937 when Franklin Roosevelt, believing the Depression was over, tried to rein in federal spending. Cutting spending spiraled the country right back into the Great Depression, where it stayed until the arrival of the stimulus package known as World War II. That’s the path we’re now on. Our enemies could not have designed a better plan to weaken the American economy than this debt-ceiling deal.

Responsible adults know that sometimes you have to tell children "No!." -- even as they throw a tantrum, hold their breath and turn blue. When you give the children the run of the House, the place will be left in a shambles

This entry is cross posted at.The Moderate Voice.

Monday, August 01, 2011

This Is A Better Idea?

There are many around the world who are resting easier this morning. But Paul Krugman isn't one of them. He writes that the deal which President Obama reached with congressional leaders is a disaster:

Start with the economics. We currently have a deeply depressed economy. We will almost certainly continue to have a depressed economy all through next year. And we will probably have a depressed economy through 2013 as well, if not beyond.

The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is slash government spending, since that will depress the economy even further. Pay no attention to those who invoke the confidence fairy, claiming that tough action on the budget will reassure businesses and consumers, leading them to spend more. It doesn’t work that way, a fact confirmed by many studies of the historical record.

So, first and foremost, the deal is profoundly stupid policy -- policy which seems to have gathered a world wide consensus. Certainly, the Harper government intends to follow suit. But, on a much more important level, it sends a signal that hostage taking works. Following the Ayn Rand template, Republicans threatened to blow up the building and got their way. Krugman argues that

In the long run, however, Democrats won’t be the only losers. What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question. After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation’s economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can’t. 

There is an old adage: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."  But there can be no king -- and there can be no democracy -- when everyone is blind.