Monday, October 31, 2011

The Ultimate Irony

I have long felt that modern conservatives lack a sense of irony. I can think of no credible explanation for this impediment. Perhaps it is genetic. But, as Paul Krugman points out in Monday's New York Times, whether they're aware of it or not, their irony is showing.

Krugman credits Barney Frank with a phrase which accurately describes them -- "weaponized Keynesians."

Right now the weaponized Keynesians are out in full force — which makes this a good time to see what’s really going on in debates over economic policy.

What’s bringing out the military big spenders is the approaching deadline for the so-called supercommittee to agree on a plan for deficit reduction. If no agreement is reached, this failure is supposed to trigger cuts in the defense budget.

What is truly fascinating is that the modern Republican Party, which holds that government spending is wasteful spending, is wholeheartedly in favour of spending for the military. Never mind that one of their own  -- Dwight Eisenhower -- warned Americans of the danger of the military-industrial complex.

Why favour spending on guns and bombs rather than roads and bridges? Krugman  writes that the answer lies in "a point made long ago by the Polish economist Michael Kalecki: to admit that the government can create jobs is to reduce the perceived importance of business confidence."

Republicans have argued all along that government inhibits business confidence -- and that the cure for the present malaise is an increase in business confidence. The problem, they say, is that confidence is in short supply. A dearth of demand is of no consequence.

If Republicans possessed a sense of irony, they would see the hypocrisy behind their position. But to compensate for that lack of irony, they have doubled down on outrage.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Blessed Are The Peacemakers

Chantal Hebert writes in today's Toronto Star that, while the growing list of NDP candidates "has all the makings of a decent future NDP cabinet, it has few of the trimmings that project strong leadership." However, after the party chooses a leader -- Gerry Caplan writes in The Globe -- the party's success will depend on how successfully he or she makes peace within the ranks:

The leadership process makes conflict almost inevitable and deeply divides the party. In politics, a party leader is a big deal. If you decide to run it’s because you’ve come to believe you’re the best person for the job. From there it’s a short hop, skip and jump to being convinced you’re the only person for the job, indeed the indispensable one. Soon you have not a soupcon of doubt that if anyone else won it would be a disaster of irreparable, epic proportions.

As the campaign goes on, and especially when the candidates are forced to meet repeatedly in debate – listening for the hundredth time to each other’s tedious gags, spin lines, talking points, personal stories, promises, banalities – their animosity, even contempt, for each other steadily grows. Only the potential need for a second-ballot deal prevents a public eruption. When the losers are forced to line up behind the victor after the final ballot, you can be sure they’ve been strip-searched for hidden weapons.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Therefore, opportunism is the name of the game:

the bitter antagonists [are] obliged to work together or the winner choos[es] the loser as a lieutenant, as in Mulroney-Clark, Chrétien-Martin, JFK-LBJ, Obama-Clinton, Ignatieff-Rae. The high profile Romney-Perry fiasco has yet to play itself out of course, but it does seem likely one will punch the other’s lights out on national TV one night, a fitting climax indeed.

But if acrimony is the lasting legacy of the race -- as was the case with Mr. Chretien and Mr. Martin -- the party can destroy itself from within. Jack Layton wanted his legacy to be a country which could rise above its bitter partisan divisions. The race for the leadership of his party will demonstrate if those who wish to succeed him have taken that legacy to heart. The NDP's success will be depend on what kind of peacemaker it elects.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

War Is Peace

The Harper government has turned Von Clausewitz' dictum -- that  war is "politics by other means" -- on its head. For this prime minister,  politics is war. Last week, he moved to finally obliterate the long gun registry, records and all. The Canadian Wheat Board is next in his sights.  Eight years ago, he demolished the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. And, in the last election, he almost did the same to the Liberal Party of Canada.

His next target, Lawrence Martin writes, is organized labour. Mr. Harper sees the NDP's ties to labour as its Achilles heal. And he's betting that union bashing wins votes:

A series of recent anti-labour moves by the Conservatives have been judged as politically popular. Lisa Raitt, the union-bashing Labour Minister, has racked up points in using heavy-handed tactics to prevent strikes by postal workers and Air Canada flight attendants.

In a sure signal of the government’s hard-line intent, she said last week that she was considering changing the Canada Labour Code so that the economy will be defined as an essential service. In that almost any strike could be said to affect the economy, such a move would give the government extraordinary arbitrary powers.

The Harper government has no intention of serving as a mediator between management and labour. It has made it clear that, in any negotiation, it sides with the bosses. And recent history is on the side of the bosses:

The strength of unions has declined significantly over the years. They accounted for 38 percent of the Canadian work force in the 1980s, but only about 30 percent now. Big labour supporters argue that just as unions have declined so has the middle class and so has the gap between rich and poor increased. It was the unions that were a major force in creating middle class prosperity, they say.

Mr. Harper says that his government stands up for the little man. But the growing income inequality of the Harper years belies that claim. Like all modern conservatives, Stephen Harper has declared war on the poor -- and anyone else he considers his enemy.

Some years ago, taking his cue from Sun Tzu, David Horowitz wrote a book titled The Art of Political War.  But before Horowitz, George Orwell reminded us that Big Brother needed perpetual war -- with interchangeable enemies -- to successfully remain in power. That war was fought under three banners: War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery.

Sound familiar?  It's time for the opposition parties -- all the opposition parties -- to get their act together.

Friday, October 28, 2011

And That Has Made All The Difference

Paul Krugman has been arguing against the doctrine of "epansionary austerity" for sometime. That doctrine holds that, if governments make deep budget cuts, the economy will expand. It has become a theology among American Conservatives. Until yesterday, it was a doctrine which the leaders of the European Union trumpeted at every opportunity. And Stephen Harper has made it clear that he, too, worships at that altar.

Krugman revisits what has become the all too familiar rationale for taking an axe to government expenditures:

This doctrine was sold both with claims that there was no alternative — that both bailouts and spending cuts were necessary to satisfy financial markets — and with claims that fiscal austerity would actually create jobs. The idea was that spending cuts would make consumers and businesses more confident. And this confidence would supposedly stimulate private spending, more than offsetting the depressing effects of government cutbacks.

He then examines what has happened in the countries which have applied that medicine:

Greece has been pushed by its austerity measures into an ever-deepening slump — and that slump, not lack of effort on the part of the Greek government, was the reason a classified report to European leaders concluded last week that the existing program there was unworkable. Britain’s economy has stalled under the impact of austerity, and confidence from both businesses and consumers has slumped, not soared. 

And then he turns to Iceland -- which three years ago was an economic basket case. Instead of following the conventional wisdom, Iceland made a different choice:

Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net. Where everyone else was fixated on trying to placate international investors, Iceland imposed temporary controls on the movement of capital to give itself room to maneuver.

 Did Iceland fall into the abyss?

Iceland hasn’t avoided major economic damage or a significant drop in living standards. But it has managed to limit both the rise in unemployment and the suffering of the most vulnerable; the social safety net has survived intact, as has the basic decency of its society. “Things could have been a lot worse” may not be the most stirring of slogans, but when everyone expected utter disaster, it amounts to a policy triumph.

Yesterday, the Europeans decided that it was time for their banks to take a haircut. It will cost the masters of European finance fifty cents on the dollar. Merkel, Sarkozy et al. also significantly expanded their bailout fund. In the grip of economic disaster, they chose another path. It's not a novel solution. In fact, it's as old as John Maynard Keynes. But, as Robert Frost wrote, that choice -- in the end -- will  "make all the difference."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Pattern Is Emerging

When Stephen Harper appointed Angelo Persichilli as his new Director of  Communications, he raised eyebrows. Mr. Persichilli is bilingual in a country with two official languages. But Mr. Persichilli's two languages are English and Italian. All of which is well and good. But some of us have come to think that high public office in Canada requires fluency in both English and French.

Apparently, Stephen Harper does not agree. Last week he nominated two jurists for the Supreme Court of Canada -- one of whom, Michael J. Moldaver, does not speak French. Judge Moldaver, we're told, is an excellent jurist. I assume that is so. But why -- in a court which hears arguments in both languages -- not choose an eminently bilingual justice?

Yesterday, the prime minister proposed that Michael Ferguson become Canada's new auditor general. Mr. Ferguson has served as New Brunswick's chief auditor. He is unilingually English in Canada's only officially bilingual province. One assumes that Mr. Harper believes that what worked in Fredericton will work in Ottawa -- even though the job description requires fluency in English and French.

Harper and his party -- particularly the party which launched his political career -- has a record on official bilingualism. Perhaps they assume that Canadians have forgotten the federal election of 1997. In that year, the British newspaper, The Independent, carried a story which began with the following two paragraphs:

Vancouver - On his small square patch of Canada, surrounded by a nine-foot fence of English laurel, Reform Man is railing against the Frenchmen who run the bloody government, and dropping remarks about Chinese drivers.

"I admire a lot of those other cultures, but in their own country," said Sid Blanchett, a diesel engine mechanic. Mr Blanchett lives in north Vancouver, a hotly contested riding in the 2 June election. There are two signs outside his fence: one for the Reform Party, and another that says "No More Prime Ministers from Quebec". He's proud to be a racist and a redneck, he said, if that means defending his own culture, religion, and traditions.

The "No More Prime Ministers from Quebec" signs also bloomed like dandelions in my Ontario riding. Mr. Harper's recent appointments, his destruction of the gun registry, and his omnibus crime bill are all reminders that, despite the repackaging and the pictures with kittens, Harper's base is -- and always has been -- solidly redneck. If further proof is required, consider Rob Ford's recent abuse of Toronto Police Dispatchers.

These appointments are deliberate. A clear pattern is emerging. Ignorance is in the driver's seat.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The New Scapegoats

Tom Walkom writes this morning that, when times get tough, people look for scapegoats:

In Germany after World War I, the scapegoats were Jews. In Canada during the slump of 1919-20, popular anger was taken out on Polish, Finnish, Russian and Ukrainian immigrants believed to be Bolshevik agitators. Many were rounded up and jailed without trial at the Kapuskasing internment camp in Northern Ontario.

But the Harper government isn't quite so openly xenophobic. Those it seeks to blame for  our current economic malaise are unions:

This is the significance of its extraordinary intervention in two Air Canada labour disputes.
While it is common for governments to beat up on their own workers, it is most unusual for them to take sides in private sector disputes, particularly in a competitive area like air travel.
The government’s stated reason for intervention in the Air Canada disputes — that it was protecting the economy — was laughable. This was particularly true in its first intervention, against striking ticket agents.
          That strike, which did not involve air crew, would not have stopped Air Canada from

It's a tactic which has been tried recently in Wisconsin and Ohio -- although it's interesting to note that, in Ohio, Governor John Kasich's attempt to destroy the state's public service unions is up for recall. And, according to Talking Points Memo, the tide is running heavily against Kasich:

The Quinnipiac poll showed that 56% of Ohioans think that SB 5, the new anti-union law passed by the Ohio Legislature and signed by Kasich, should be repealed, with 32% saying it should be kept. Independent voters favor repeal 52% to 33%, and even a little more than a third of Republicans want it scrapped. State residents may have that chance this November, as pro-union forces delivered more than five times the needed amount of signatures to force a ballot referendum.

All of this is immaterial to the Conservatives, of course. As Texans suggest that Harper's plan to build more prisons is fiscal folly, the government -- like the Titanic -- speeds ahead towards the iceberg. If it were really paying attention, the government might take a good look at Ohio -- because what goes around, comes around.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scrooge's Children

Last week, Brian Topp had the temerity to suggest  that it was time to raise taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. Jim Flaherty, predictably, called that notion "dreamy." In the last federal election, none of the parties dared make such a suggestion. When Michael Ignatieff wondered aloud on the issue, everyone rained on his parade. But, Lawrence Martin writes this morning, things have changed:

The tax breaks of the affluent class are becoming an issue everywhere. Debts and deficits, which were accrued in good part because of ideologically inspired tax-cutting, have reached threatening levels. As the global downtown drags on, the ever-growing income gap between haves and have-nots is being showcased. Economic nostrums such as deregulation are increasingly being called into question.

More than that, there is the simple question of social justice, a phrase which is absent from the Conservatives' vocabulary. Instead they speak glowingly of their management of the nation's finances:

They trumpet the splendid economic fundamentals, many of which – an example being the regulation of the financial sector – were put in place by previous governments.

Historically, Canadians have accepted higher taxes as the cost of a just society. While interim leader Nycole Turmel does not have the gravitas to make the argument, there are many in the NDP caucus who do have the necessary skills. "In Mr. Topp, Thomas Mulcair, in Peggy Nash and others they have an impressive set of leadership candidates who are unflinching."

During the minority years, the opposition parties blinked continually, afraid to bring on an election. Now, while the Harperites use their new majority to ram through all kinds of regressive legislation, the opposition parties have the time to define this government. The Harper crew is the spawn of Ebeneezer Scrooge. It's about time someone had the courage to say so -- again and again.

Monday, October 24, 2011

When Mean Rules the Roost

In today's Washington Post, E. J. Dionne reminds his readers what the Republican Party used to stand for:

The Grand Old Party instituted the Homestead Act and created land-grant colleges, the interstate highway system, student loans, the Pure Food and Drug Act and even a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
It was Richard Nixon who supported laws establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In signing the OSHA bill, Nixon called it “one of the most important pieces of legislation, from the standpoint of 55 million people who will be covered by it, ever passed by the Congress of the United States, because it involves their lives.” Yes, government regulations save lives, a view now heretical in the GOP.

Now Republicans see government as the root of all evil. Beginning with Ronald Reagan, they have campaigned on the slogan, "Government is not the solution to the problem, it is the problem."  And, therefore, the best way to kill -- or starve -- the beast is to cut taxes. But Reagan championed across the board tax cuts. These days, Republicans consistently favour tax cuts for the rich and  -- in a new twist -- complain that the rest of society doesn't pay enough in taxes.

Dionne writes that, even if the less affluent don't pay income taxes, they "still shell out a significant share of their earnings in payroll, sales and (directly or through their rents) property taxes."  Thus, the party of Lincoln has completely abandoned its historical base. They have forgotten his warning: "These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people."

Put simply: in today's Republican Party, mean rules the roost.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Is The West In Charge?

John Ibbitson wrote in Friday's Globe and Mail that the ascension of the Harper government confirms a power shift which has been happening in this country for over two decades. "The West," he writes, "isn't just in. It's in charge."

What does this mean for our politics? A powerful government that prefers market-based approaches rather than regulation, as the Wheat Board bill shows. A greater emphasis on Asia-Pacific issues: Mr. Harper is travelling to Hawaii, Australia, Thailand and probably China – for the second time in three years – in the coming weeks. And a federal industrial strategy, to the extent there is one, that will focus more on broadening the base in Alberta and B.C., and less on scraping the rust off the Ontario manufacturing belt.

Certainly that is what the Harper government believes.  But Mr. Ibbistson is given to overstatement. Despite his majority, the election results -- recently confirmed in provincial elections -- suggest that Stephen Harper is, and always has been, prime minister by default.

Like the George W. Bush Republicans, who squeaked into office in 2000, the Conservatives are interpreting their victory as an historic realignment of the country -- a realignment which was supported by 25% of Canadian voters. Canadians know who Mr. Harper is and they will tolerate him -- for awhile.

There is a recurring theme in Canadian newspapers -- nearly all of whom supported the prime minister in the last election. And that is that the Conservatives will be "in charge" for a long time. They would do well to remember Karl Rove's rosy predictions about a stable Republican majority.

Politics is simply too volatile these days to gloat over one's prospects. However, that has not stopped Mr. Ibbitson -- or Mr. Harper -- from doing so.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Suspicion Is The Prime Directive

Jonathan Kay is not a noted critic of the Harper government. But, in Thursday's National Post, Kay takes aim at Bill C-10, the government's omnibus crime bill. The Conservatives won a majority by claiming they know how to prudently manage the nation's finances:

But Bill C-10 will actually cost billions in the form of police resources and new prisons. That's why cash-strapped American states - which have long played the populist game of lock-'em-up - are moving in the other direction. Reformers in Texas, in particular, think we're nuts for copying the policies that they're now trying to dismantle.

The Harperites claim that mandatory minimum sentences will put real deterrents into the system and better protect the public. They say this as crime rates drop, and as Canadians -- according to the Canadian Index of Well Being --  "report high levels of personal safety; the proportion feeling safe walking alone after dark increased from 86% in 1993 to 90% in 2004."

What. exactly, is going on? It's seems pretty clear that the Conservatives believe they represent the majority of Canadians. The last election put the lie to that delusion. Most Canadians did not vote for them. Nonetheless, if they are paranoid,  the Conservatives  claim that the majority of Canadians are paranoid.

Suspicion is their prime directive. No one is to be trusted. The government has taken on the personality of the man at the top. He and they live in a Nixonian world.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mitt's Pursuit of Futility

Mitt Romney's pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination has cost him a great deal -- a great deal of money, a great deal of time, and a great deal of integrity. At the last candidates' debate in Nevada, he was in everybody's sights. His health care plan -- which served as the model for Obamcare -- was pilloried.  Mitt walked away from it.

He once favoured abortion. Now he condemns it. And, as Paul Krugman reports in Friday's New York Times, even though he once stood for environmental regulation, he now demands that those regulations be loosened.

Romney is simply getting in step with his party. Republicans are citing a study from the American Petroleum Institute which claims that removing restrictions on oil and gas extraction will create jobs:

If you take the study’s claims at face value, it offers little reason to believe that dirtier air and water can solve our current employment crisis. All the big numbers in the report are projections for late this decade. The report predicts fewer than 200,000 jobs next year, and fewer than 700,000 even by 2015.
You might want to compare these numbers with a couple of other numbers: the 14 million Americans currently unemployed, and the one million to two million jobs that independent estimates suggest the Obama plan would create, not in the distant future, but in 2012. 

None of this is surprising. Republicans have been in the pocket of the energy lobby for a long time. What is surprising is Romney's about face on the issue. When he was governor of Massachusetts, he supported environmental controls on coal fired power plants. “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people," he said.

During the last election cycle, John McCain waved the flag of Republican orthodoxy and saved his Senate seat. Perhaps Romney believes he's saving a spot for himself in the Oval Office. But, by trying to appease the Republican base, he has become a modern Sysiphus -- the personification of futility.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The CIW and GDP

For decades, many economists have noted that GDP is a crude index of a nation's well being. Yesterday, the University of Waterloo introduced a better idea. The Canadian Index of Well Being (CIW) has been in the works since 1994, when a group of academics began tracking data on a number of fronts -- "housing affordability, voter turnout, life expectancy, crime, air quality and income inequality." The result is a much better picture of how Canadians are faring.

The index shows that, despite the Harper government's hype about its superb economic management, the the quality of life Canadians experience is trending down. "This is a seminal report," says Roy Romanow, the chair of the index's advisory board, "because it puts out for the first time some measuring stick as to the actual impact of government policies."

And what, precisely, has been the impact of those policies?

The findings paint a mixed picture. Canadians’ quality of life has diminished in areas such as the environment, leisure and culture, and time use. Health-care advancements have been only modest. And it finds that the top 20 per cent received the lion’s share of rising income and wealth during the boom years while the gap with the bottom 20 per cent grew ever larger.

“What troubles me the most is that, at a time of good economic growth, there are notable disparities, and secondly, that they seem to be widening,” Mr. Romanow said.

We have had lots of anecdotal evidence that life has been getting worse for those who the Occupy Wall Streeters call the "ninety-nine percent." And we know that, over the last thirty years, most of the economic growth in Canada has gone to the wealthiest Canadians. But, at a time when the Harper government steadfastly maintains that what the country needs is more of the same policies, the CIW clearly shows that Stephen Harper is selling snake oil.

Not that the CIW will force the government to change its course. The Conservatives have demonstrated time and again that evidence has no importance for them. But what the new index does show is that the Emperor has no clothes.

And, as people hit the streets -- as they did yesterday in Greece, which Stephen Harper visited six months ago to encourage George Papandreou to do more of the same -- the reasons for the unrest will be abundantly clear.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The 21st Century Bickersons

E.J. Dionne writes that last night's Republican candidates debate was like listening to that popular radio program from the 1940's, the Bickersons. But instead of Don Ameche and Frances Langford, viewers were treated to Mitt Romney and Rick Perry putting each other down:

For the most part, Romney was fluid and fluent, as is his habit. But I thought the particularly bitter exchange he had with Perry, over whether Romney had hired an illegal immigrant, hurt Romney more than Perry. There was petulance and perhaps a trace of arrogance in the way Romney kept badgering Perry. “It’s been a tough couple of debates for Rick” and “You have a problem with letting people finish speaking” are Romney lines that will get played over and over, and I don’t think they came off well. In truth, neither Romney nor Perry looked great when they went into junkyard-dog mode, but it may be a net win for Perry, because he put himself on the same level as Romney.

That said, Dionne speculates that the real winner of the debate may have been Barack Obama. Rather than attacking the president, the Republicans have broken Ronald Reagan's eleventh commandment: Never speak ill of a fellow Republican. More than anything else, the debate illustrated how far the Republican Party has come since Reagan. The problem, of course, is that the distance has been a march to the rear -- and Reagan used to be a wild-eyed radical.

Perry wants to "defund the United Nations;" and Bachmann wants Iraqis to reimburse the United States for all the good America has done for -- or to -- them. Normally such a collection of chuckle heads, like the Bickersons, would be the source of uproarious comedy. But, if Sophocles had been in the audience last night, he would have recognized the kind of drama he was watching.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Rebranding of Canada

The Harper government has been working overtime to rebrand Canada. They hate what they see as the "mushy middle" which, for nearly one hundred and fifty years, has been the secret of Canada's success. They view with disdain the two parties that practiced the politics of balance -- the Liberal Party of Canada and the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

No, they proclaim, they stand for something. But what, exactly, do they stand for?  Lawrence Martin captures their vision pretty accurately:

Under the Conservatives, Canada is a country that venerates the military, boasts a hardened law-and-order and penal system, is anti-union and less green. It’s a government that extols, without qualms of colonial linkage, the monarchy, that has a more restrictive entry policy, that takes a narrower view of multiculturalism, that pursues an adversarial approach to the United Nations. In a historical first, Canada’s foreign policy, its strident partisanship in the Middle East being a foremost example, can be said to be to the right of the United States.

In a nutshell, the cliché about Canada’s being a kinder, gentler nation is being turned on its head. In hockey parlance – the preferred Canadian way of communication – we’re shifting, with voter approval, from a country of Ken Dryden values to one closer to those of Don Cherry.

The Conservatives believe that those who hold a different vision than they do are -- in Cherry's terms -- "pukes." They have nothing put contempt for the other side. Still, writes Martin, "It’s hard to conceive that a country inured since its birth to centrist precepts could move off those moorings as passively as it has."  After all, the Conservatives came to power with the support of 25% of Canadian voters. Nonetheless, they claim that support underlies their decisions to abolish the Canadian Wheat Board, to abolish the gun registry and to lower corporate taxes.

They do this as people around the world have taken to the streets to protest exactly what they stand for. The Harperites proudly stand behind a brand just as the world is burning it in effigy. The people in the streets understand that John Stuart Mill was right.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Life Gets Tough

Paul Krugman writes that the Masters of Wall Street are beginning to whine: "The modern lords of finance look at the protesters and ask, 'Don’t they understand what we’ve done for the U.S. economy?'" They really do not understand why people are in the streets, because they see themselves as indispensible. What's good for finance is good for the United States. It's an example of Adam Smith's invisible hand at work. But

the financialization of America wasn’t dictated by the invisible hand of the market. What caused the financial industry to grow much faster than the rest of the economy starting around 1980 was a series of deliberate policy choices, in particular a process of deregulation that continued right up to the eve of the 2008 crisis.

The world has been turned upside down. Favouring the wealthy was supposed to make everybody rich:

Somehow, however, that wonderfulness failed to trickle down to the rest of the nation — and that was true even before the crisis. Median family income, adjusted for inflation, grew only about a fifth as much between 1980 and 2007 as it did in the generation following World War II, even though the postwar economy was marked both by strict financial regulation and by much higher tax rates on the wealthy than anything currently under political discussion. 

And now ordinary folks have stopped believing the hype. Not only that -- they're angry. And those who have done so well  don't understand why the people in the streets simply won't go home. As Krugman writes,

until a few weeks ago it seemed as if Wall Street had effectively bribed and bullied our political system into forgetting about that whole drawing lavish paychecks while destroying the world economy thing. Then, all of a sudden, some people insisted on bringing the subject up again.

And they are not going away.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Who Will Lead?

We may be at one of those moments when the whole world changes. Like 1848, 2011 may turn out to be a  historic year for world governments. David Ignatius writes in Friday's  Washington Post that:

What’s intriguing about the eruption of Occupy Wall Street is that it’s so similar to other populist movements that are demanding change in nearly every major region of the world. You can’t help but wonder if we aren’t seeing, as a delayed reaction to the financial crisis of 2008, a kind of “global spring” of discontent.

Those who are in the streets are only unified by the rage they feel toward their countries' elites and by their ability to use social media to accomplish their ends:

The protesters do share some basics: rejection of traditional political elites; a belief that “globalization” benefits the rich more than the masses; anger about intertwined business and political corruption; and the connectedness and empowerment fostered by Facebook and other social media.

We could, indeed, be at a watershed moment. And, therefore, we face great opportunity and great danger.  Ignatiuus warns that:

Much of the world’s neo-populist anger is justified, given the greed and folly of recent years. What worries me is the echo of the 1930s, a similar period of economic change and dislocation. When the traditional business and political leaders seemed to have failed during the downturn of the ’30s, populist indignation veered sharply right and left — toward dangerous movements that expressed national indignation at the point of a gun. 

The United States had Franklin Roosevelt who could, Ignatiius writes, "rehabilitate the center." Germany had Adolf Hitler and Italy had Benito Mussolini. The leaders who emerge from the rage will make all the difference.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Country For The Young

John Ibbitson, in the Globe and Mail, worries about declining voter turnout. In all recent federal and provincial elections, turnout has gone south:

Ontario set a grim new standard last week, when only 49 per cent of electors cast ballots in its provincial election. The tentative turnout number from Tuesday’s election in Newfoundland and Labrador is 58 per cent, also a record low

Prince Edward Island looked better, at 76 per cent, when it voted Oct. 3, but that actually was the lowest turnout since 1966, when the province started keeping records.

According to Elections Canada, the reason turn out has declined is because young people increasingly stay away from the polls:

A study for Elections Canada published earlier this year found that as each new cohort reaches the age of 18 and becomes eligible to vote, its members participate in fewer numbers than the cohort that came before. Only a third of first-time voters today are actually voting, half the rate of a generation ago.

But beyond the statistics, there is a simple truth: Ours is a society which does not focus on opportunities for the young. We baby boomers have influenced public policy since we arrived. The population bulge we spawned has driven education policy, health care policy and pension policy since the end of the Second World War. And now, even in retirement, we refuse to leave the stage.

It's not that we don't have legitimate concerns. The problem is that our concerns have swamped the concerns of our children and grandchildren. It's time they had their say. And until they do, voter turnout will remain low.

Friday, October 14, 2011

In Their Sights

Rod Mickleburgh writes in this morning's Globe and Mail that the Federal Ministry of Labour may soon be a thing of the past. Like the Ministry of the Environment,  one suspects that -- for the Harper government --  both ministries are absolutely superfluous.

Mickleburgh suggests that Lisa Raitt's mandate is to make her ministry disappear. It used to be that the ministry facilitated labour settlements and acted as a referee when necessary. That, writes Mickleburgh, is no longer its mandate:

Ms. Raitt is doing her best to accelerate her portfolio’s demise. The right to free collective bargaining and the right to strike have been fundamental in this country for more than 70 years. With Ms. Raitt in charge, those rights appear headed for the trash can.

Take the postal workers, and don’t say “please.” Not only did the Lisa Raitt government order them back to work (not new), it imposed wages on the union that were actually lower than the employer’s last offer. Something like that hasn’t happened in Canada since the final daze of “Wacky” Bennett’s Social Credit government out here in the early 1970s.

Customer service agents at Air Canada, a private company, also faced back-to-work legislation this year, after only a few days on strike, with few flight disruptions. Why?
And now we have the sad farce of the current wrangle at good old Air Canada, with all sides bumbling around like a bat in a bowling alley.

The Harperites have made it clear from the beginning who they represent. Whether domestically or internationally, they will not be referees. Their job is to take sides. And the side they consistently take is the one with the most money and the most power.

Jim Flaherty said yesterday that the Occupy Wall Street protesters have no quarrel with the Canadian banks, because the banks are tightly regulated. The central thrust of the protests -- rising economic inequality -- was over the little man's head. Being a member of the one percent, he has no conception of how the other ninety-nine percent live.

Ms.Raitt, Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Harper just don't get it. That's why working men and women are in their sights.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Reverend Mr. Harper

Stephen Harper is a dreadful prime minister. But we would have made a superb minister -- the kind who stands smugly in a pulpit. He truly believes he is a member of the elect -- and his vocation is to bring everyone else into the promised land.

In this morning's Globe and Mail, he lectures his European brethren on their lack of fiscal virtue, warning them they must get religion:

To be clear, this crisis could have been contained. Instead, it grew. The good news is that this crisis can still be contained and reversed. The bad news is that, unless decisive action is urgently taken, our nations will once again be forced to respond to a full-blown global recession, albeit this time without the full arsenal of policy weapons at our disposal.

Harper chides Europeans for not acting decisively. But he does not question the austerity agenda they have followed -- an agenda he championed at the last G20 conference, and which he touted in a side trip to Greece earlier this year.

Harper has no doubt that austerity is the answer to the world's prayers. But, besides suffering from terminal certitude, he preens and -- yet again -- blows his own horn:

In Canada, our government has taken these challenges seriously. We have backed our words with strong action. We have a prudent, medium-term plan to return our budget to balance and protect our strong public finances. We will meet G20 deficit and debt targets well ahead of schedule. Yet, we also are implementing a pro-jobs and growth agenda that is focused on promoting investment, hiring and the retention of workers affected by the global economic downturn. In short, we have sought to strike the right balance between supporting jobs and growth, and reducing our deficit in a responsible manner. 

Of course, like everything else Harper does on foreign policy, this is all for domestic consumption. When Canada lost its bid for a seat on the Security Council, the international community passed judgment on Stephen Harper. Under this prime minister, Canada has become an international scold.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Answers Are All Behind Them

Ezra Klein, in his analysis of last night's Republican Candidates debate, writes: "The candidates vying for the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination want to force history backward." If there is one thing all of them want to do, it is to repeal everything the Obama Administration has done -- and then go much further than that:

Their proposals to roll back the growth and complexity of the state did not stop with the financial sector. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman promoted his plan to “clean all of the loopholes and the deductions” out of the tax code, which would mean removing the mortgage-interest deduction and the exclusion for employer-based health care, just for starters.

Cain scoffed at such incrementalism. His 9-9-9 plan, he said, “starts with throwing out the current tax code,” and then replaces it with a 9 percent sales tax, a 9 percent income tax and a 9 percent corporate tax.

Paul was not impressed. “What I hear here is just tinkering with the current system and not looking at something new and different,” he said, going on to suggest “a free-market economy without a Federal Reserve system.” That would be new and different.

Like petulant children intent on banishing adults from their world, the Republicans see one cause for all of the country's problems -- too much government. Not one of them will consider the possibility that those problems are the result of past Republican attempts to eviscerate government. And not one of them considers the consequences of what they propose. Klein writes that:

If every idea uttered around moderator Charlie Rose’s table was made into law tomorrow, the financial-regulation bill would be gone, as would health-care reform and the Federal Reserve. The tax credits that support the housing market would vanish, and so too would Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed housing giants that guarantee the majority of new loans. There would be a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, which would require more than $1 trillion in spending cuts if it was to be satisfied in 2013, and China would be branded a currency manipulator.

Simple minds propose simple solutions  -- and see the future in a rear view mirror.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Policy By Other Means

Lawrence Martin's review of Murray Brewster's book, The Savage War, illustrates yet again Von Clausewitz's observation that war is "policy by other means." Canada got into Afghanistan because the Martin government wanted to appease the United States for not being stupid enough to invade Iraq.

For the Harper Conservatives, the war offered a splendid opportunity to establish its brand as "the party of patriotism." The war was fought for domestic consumption, not to advance the cause of world peace:

In other words, if the Harper Conservatives knew the history of Afghanistan, they hadn’t learned much from it. Their political heart was set on military glory. “The Liberals had medicare and the CPP,” an insider tells Mr. Brewster. “We chose the military.” For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it was “ideological,” another insider says. It was damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. There’d be no cutting and running.

And when the war began to go badly, the government began to sell the war as a humanitarian mission. The problem was that Canada was not delivering what Afghans wanted -- "things such as schools, polio vaccinations, women’s rights, toys for boys and girls." Instead, Brewster writes,

When you drilled down into the numbers, you saw that almost everything we were doing for them was tailored to our tastes.” Issues such as education and health care were “easily understandable to people back home and, most important, politically sellable to a public that had already turned away from the war in droves.

None of this is surprising. Harper's foreign policy has always been about harvesting votes at home, not making a contribution to the international community. For Stephen Harper, the Afghan War was all politics all the time.

As for patriotism, the history of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan has once again proved that Samuel Johnson was right:  Patriotism is the last refuge of not just one scoundrel, but many.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Something's Happening Here

And what it is is increasingly clear. The people who were responsible for the financial crisis of 2008 -- and the growing economic inequality of the last thirty years -- are starting to get scared.

Eric Cantor said last week that "mobs" are now dedicated to "the pitting of Americans against Americans." When Elizabeth Warren repeated what used to be a self evident truth  -- that "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," George Will accused her of having a "collectivist agenda;" and the pundits at CNBC proclaimed that the Wall Street protesters were "aligned with Lenin."

Americans have seen this before. Franklin Roosevelt had a term for the people who are presently screaming "class warfare." He called them "economic royalists." The first thing Roosevelt did when he came to office was to reorganize the banking system. This time around, the banks got off unscathed. Paul Krugman writes in this morning's New York Times that:

They have paid no price. Their institutions were bailed out by taxpayers, with few strings attached. They continue to benefit from explicit and implicit federal guarantees — basically, they’re still in a game of heads they win, tails taxpayers lose. And they benefit from tax loopholes that in many cases have people with multimillion-dollar incomes paying lower rates than middle-class families.

This special treatment can’t bear close scrutiny — and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny. Anyone who points out the obvious, no matter how calmly and moderately, must be demonized and driven from the stage. In fact, the more reasonable and moderate a critic sounds, the more urgently he or she must be demonized, hence the frantic sliming of Elizabeth Warren. 

This time around government looked after the interests of the royalists first. But those royalists have suddenly realized that there are a lot more serfs than lords. And the serfs are insisting that the Masters of Wall Street visit the barber. It's time for a haircut.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Surveying the Wreckage

Surveying the wreckage of the Conservative campaigns in both Manitoba and Ontario, Andrew Coyne offers this analysis:

In short, conservatives in this country, at least of the partisan, capital-C variety, have lost their nerve. They do not believe in themselves, yet somehow hope the public will. They reek of flop-sweat, calculation and guile, yet ask the public to trust in their leadership. They offer no alternative, yet campaign on “change.” It is a formula guaranteed to fail, as it has done, over and over again. Yet it is the one they return to, over and over again.

Instead, he suggests, Conservatives have adopted a nudge and wink campaign, essentially saying, "You know what we mean, but we're not going to say it." Coyne writes that the public is not fooled:

They can smell fear, and they can tell when people aren’t being straight with them. Don’t want to be accused of hidden agendas? Have an agenda. Don’t think you can sell that vision? Find another line of work. You’re in the persuasion business.

His advice to conservatives is to develop courage for their convictions. But it's not quite that simple. The public not only smells fear. It sees wreckage. Ontarians remember what the Harris Conservatives left in their wake. They see Doug Ford hellbent on the same path. And all Canadians see the unadulterated folly of the so called "compassionate conservatism" of the second Bush administration.

Until modern Conservatives have the courage to confront the wreckage they have left behind, there will be no Conservative Renaissance.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Charisma Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

Dalton McGuinty won a third mandate yesterday. Six months ago he was a dead man walking. He will need support from the NDP  to keep him upright. But the truth is that the uncharismatic McGuinty will join Oliver Mowat in the history books as only the second Liberal Premier of Ontario to win three elections. And he did it by using what used to be a Progressive Conservative template: Ontario premiers are bland.

Tom Walkom writes in The Toronto Star that the real progressive conservative has one a third term:

Sometimes the governing party refers to itself as Progressive Conservative. Sometimes it uses the name Liberal. But no matter what it calls itself, the ruling party usually — usually — follows a standard pattern.

It intervenes in the economy to encourage business. It pays some attention to social needs (although it’s rarely accused of over-generosity). It doesn’t rock the boat. And, without being doctrinaire, it prides itself on being a competent manager of the province’s finances.

Very, very occasionally an outrider wins power at Queen’s Park: the United Farmers of Ontario in 1919, Bob Rae’s New Democrats in 1990, Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolutionaries in 1995.

But even in the rare case where this occurs, the new maverick government comes under intense pressure to fall into line with Ontario’s robustly bland traditions.

When McGuinty took on the Harris conservatives for the first time, they tried to paint him as Norman Bates. The strategy didn't work. Even though McGuinty bore some resemblance to Anthony Perkins, he simply was not scary.

Then they tried to paint him as incompetent. He may have reversed himself more than once on taxes. And there was the E health scandal. But Ontarians knew that, despite his mistakes, he was looking forward. And, most importantly, he wasn't Mike Harris. For the truth is that Mike Harris' ghost still haunts this province, as he now haunts Ottawa. Tim Hudak sounded too much like Mike Harris. Voters did not want to go back there .

Andrea Horvath will push McGuinty to the left. There will be some rejigging of the tax system. But the Green Energy Act will stay in place. And -- because Dalton McGuinty does not use his elbows the way Mike Harris did and Stephen Harper does -- the Liberals have achieved an historic third mandate.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Here They Come

The Occupy Wall Street Protests are moving north. Under the banner "Occupy Toronto," protesters are due to take to the streets on October 15th. It's easy to dismiss these folks -- as many have -- as simply lazy kids with nothing better to do. But, as Tom Walkom writes in this morning's Toronto Star, that would not be wise:

While the aims of the Wall Streeters remain distressingly vague, they do seem to be coalescing around a notion that American capitalism is fundamentally unfair — that it benefits only a tiny minority while leaving the rest disadvantaged.

That is a powerful message -- not only for Americans, but for Europeans and for Canadians, too. And history shows that small protests can explode -- particularly if the governing elites are not paying attention:

The Paris revolt of 1968, which briefly united students and parts of the industrial working class, almost brought down the French government. Yet it began with a series of relatively minor complaints about conditions in the country’s universities.

Egypt’s revolt last spring, which resulted in the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek, had its genesis in something called the April 6 Movement, a small group of regime critics who until this year had been spectacularly unsuccessful.

In short, history shows that, given the right conditions, tiny protests can suddenly blossom.

At the moment, no one can predict what impact these protests will have. One thing is sure. The tools of democracy have worked hard to protect institutions which are too big to fail, while those who are deemed too small to pay attention to are barely keeping their heads above water.

It would be foolish to dismiss these folks any longer.They may not have money -- but they do have numbers. And those numbers, once mobilized, could make life for those with money very uncomfortable.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Prime Minister By Default

Stephen Harper likes to claim that Conservative values are Canadian values. But, if the two provincial elections which have taken place this week -- and the one which will take place in Ontario tomorrow -- are any indication, Canadians are far from Conservative.

For the moment, they may be conservative -- with a small "c." The country's mood seems to be the same as the one that gave Harper his majority. Canadians are choosing to stay the course and do not wish to make any radical changes. But, on the theory that they know better than voters what's good for them, the Harperites are busy passing all kinds of radical changes -- an omnibus crime bill, the abolition of the Canadian Wheat Board, abolition of political subsidies, etc.

They are in a hurry to change the country before Canadians wise up. But, Chantal Hebert writes in The Toronto Star Canadians have cottoned on to Mr. Harper and are checking his drive for power by establishing a strong -- and progressive -- opposition in the provinces.

In Alberta, the Progressive Conservatives have elected a Red Tory as their new leader and Premier. In Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois may have imploded; but the election of a strong NDP caucus illustrates that Quebecers have no intention of abandoning their social democratic roots.

Because fate intervened and the NDP lost Jack Layton, Harper faces a weakened opposition in Ottawa. However, writes Hebert,

Even in profoundly conservative environments such as Alberta, Canada’s progressive streak is alive and well enough to change the rules of a game Harper was expected to dominate unchallenged for the foreseeable future.

The next four years are going to be difficult. No one should view them through rose coloured glasses. But, as the threat of social unrest grows in Europe, and as the Occupy Wall Street protests spread to other American cities, Stephen Harper's vision of a Conservative Canada is beginning to look more and more like a pipe dream. Still, he will try to make that dream a reality.

He would be wise to remember -- and wisdom is not his strong suit -- that he has always been prime minister by default.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

A Buffoon's Progress

Lawrence Martin writes, in today's Globe and Mail, that:

If you were picking the most valuable player on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s front bench, you wouldn’t be far off in pointing to John Baird, the Foreign Affairs Minister.

Baird, writes Martin, is "the dean of damage control, the team's most artful dodger."  It is really quite remarkable that Stephen Harper has seen fit to promote Baird to the position which is second only to the prime minister himself. Baird's  appointment is the equivalent of Mike Harris promoting John Snoblen -- a high school drop out -- to the post of Minister of Education.

It says everything you need to know about Stephen Harper's foreign policy. In the Harper government, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is a clown prince -- whose assigned task is to erase Mike Pearson's legacy. That became absolutely clear last week when Baird let it be known that the address on his business card was no longer the "Lester B. Pearson Building."

But a dedicated press and opposition may be able to put an end to Mr. Baird's progress. Martin writes that:

with Clementgate, the opportunity may be at hand. A $50-million political slush fund should be no laughing matter, not even for Mr. Baird. And as Treasury Board president during the time in question, Mr. Baird was the one who gave the green light to Mr. Clement to shower his Muskoka riding with taxpayer money slated to be used for border infrastructure projects.

If Tony Clement goes down, Baird could be next. As Martin points out, Harper is protecting Clement so he can protect Baird.

It says a great deal about Stephen Harper that he holds both men in such high regard. Unfortunately, the country -- domestically and internationally -- is suffering from the prime minister's lousy judgement.

Monday, October 03, 2011

We Need More George Baileys

Robert Kuttner writes, in today's Huffington Post, that the Occupy Wall Street protests are a sign of what is to come:

For three years, we have been wondering, where is the outrage? For a time, it was co-opted by the Tea Parties -- a faux populism, attacking government, financed by billionaires, delivering nothing to the 99 percent of Americans not represented by Wall Street. Now authentic protest directed against the real villains is finally here.

As heartening as the protests are, the villains still rule the roost:

The depth of the continuing recession can be traced back to the failure to radically reform the banks in the spring of 2009. Interest rates today are at record lows, but Wall Street banks still make their money from merger deals, complex securitization packages, and trading for their own accounts, while community banks are too traumatized to make loans to any but blue-chip customers.

Meanwhile, nobody has gone to prison for the systematic frauds that brought down the economy, consumers are getting gouged by new fees that the banks dream up to compensate for their own losses. And the mortgage foreclosure crisis continues to fester and drag down the rest of the economy

Kuttner reminds his readers that the two great reform movements of the 1960's -- ending the Vietnam War  and the Civil Rights Movement -- took a long while to get started and a long while to accomplish their objectives. And, Kuttner writes, there is no guarantee that the protests against a financial establishment which has wrecked the lives of millions will end as well as those earlier movements did:

Bankers have immense power, until public opinion turns decisively against them and democratically-elected leaders decide to lead. These protests were a long time coming; I fear that it will take far longer for the system to deliver the drastic reforms that we need.

George Bailey was an appealing figure. Unfortunately, the Henry F. Potters have been winning for a long time.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Costs of Inequality

Alex Himelfarb writes that, like our neighbours to the south, Canadians are falling into The Inequality Trap. And he warns that accepting that trap as a fact will have horrendous consequences:

In an extremely unequal society the very rich and corporations gain too much influence.  In the competition of ideas, money always talks – but with extreme inequality money talks even more loudly.  And undoubtedly that has an impact on how we see problems and what solutions we can imagine.  We  start to internalize the talk.  At worst, some begin to think of themselves as inferior,  that others are the job and wealth creators.   Many simply feel increasingly powerless and come to view government as a foreign thing, serving  its own interests or the interests of the powerful few.  They lose faith. And they lose hope.  And the inequality trap is sprung.

That loss of faith and hope becomes endemic and everybody loses:

In a society with just a few winners and many losers, a case can be made that everybody truly loses.   When he argued for higher taxes on the rich, [Warren] Buffett also said  that the rich people he knows are generous and giving and want what’s best for the country and their kids.  They too then pay a price when they live in gated communities, when they live in fear, when the distance between us turns us into caricatures or turns us against each other.  And how do we begin to develop a sense of the common good when we are so divided?

It's that sense of the common good which holds a society together. A society where the prime directive is that it's every man and woman for him or herself becomes inherently dangerous. In the end, gated communities cannot keep out angry mobs.

The present government believes that building more prisons will ensure that those mobs won't form. It believes it is acting proactively. Like the French aristocracy in 1789, it is convinced that it can protect itself from angry mobs. Unless it has a change of heart and direction -- things which do not appear likely -- it may face a very rude awakening.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Price Of Moral Clarity

Historians will not be kind to Michael Ignatieff. They will point to the collapse of the Liberal Party under his leadership -- although, in truth, it was a long time coming. He happened to be there at the fall. But, in the wake of John Baird's address to the United Nations last week, his review of Alan Wolfe's book, Political Evil, deserves careful consideration.

Modern conservatives like to think that, when it comes to international affairs, they stand for moral clarity. Certainly Baird likes to think that's what he stands for. But, Ignatieff writes,

We are indiscriminate in our use of the language of evil, Wolfe argues, because we like what the language does to our own moral standing. It makes us self-righteous. To call others wicked is to give us a moral privilege we may not deserve and a moral permission we are likely to misuse. The language of good and evil only seems to create moral clarity: It actually creates moral entitlement.

That sense of moral privilege was behind the Conservatives' attempt to shut down Insite -- which the Supreme Court, in a narrowly constructed ruling, rejected yesterday. In fact, the Harper government's whole tough on crime agenda is motivated by a sense of moral privilege.

And the Harperites bring that same sense of moral privilege to foreign policy. Their uncritical support of Israel comes from the same place. But, Ignatieff points out:

We need to set aside moral frames of good and evil that assign our politics - and our military - tasks they cannot accomplish; we need to stop seeing international politics as a morality play in which our role is to back innocence and victimhood against malignity and viciousness; we need to counter the politics of violence with a politics that drains evildoers of support and drives them to the margins. We need the inner discipline and self-knowledge to refuse the temptations of believing that we are always on the side of the angels.

The central flaw of the present government -- and one suspects that it goes back to the Prime Minister himself -- is the conviction that it  is always on the side of the angels. When one is certain that the Gates of Heaven will open upon one's arrival, one needs not admit imperfection.

Truth disappears for those who believe they possess moral clarity.