Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Manley Commission

The work of the Manley Commission has received generally good reviews -- largely because Manley and his fellow commissioners have refused to carry anyone's water. Tom Axworthy, one of Pierre Trudeau's principal advisers, wrote in The Toronto Star that their report "will make uncomfortable reading for everyone in Ottawa." Axworthy continued: "Perhaps the most depressing of Manley's findings is that the 'government from the start of Canada's Afghan involvement, has failed to communicate with Canadians, with balance and candor about the reasons for Canada's involvement or about the risks.' There can be no more serious indictment of a country's political system than going to war without telling the citizens why, or the severity of the risks involved."

It is that essential failure which undercuts Manley's recommendation that Canada remain in Afghanistan past February 2009, the scheduled date for the withdrawal of Canadian troops. Manley recommends extending the mission, providing that two caveats are met: that NATO deploy another 1,000 troops to the Kandahar region of the country; and that Canadian soldiers be provided with new and better equipment. NATO pledged today that it would find the troops. We shall see what comes to pass.

Manley has concluded, along with James Travers -- also writing in the Star -- that to withdraw from Afghanistan "might wreck NATO as well as Canada's reputation." One should not forget, however, that it was Donald Rumsfeld, with his distinction between "old and new Europe," who started to dismantle the alliance. The silliness about "freedom" -- as opposed to" french" -- fries didn't help.

And those developments point to the elephant in the room. What lies at the heart of NATO's reluctance to commit itself to Afghanistan is George W. Bush's decision to remove strategic assets from that country in order to invade Iraq. The Second Bush administration, in NATO's view, switched focus from the business at hand to what Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld saw as unfinished business, left over from the administration of Bush's father . NATO was left high and dry; and Osama Ben Laden was left to roam the mountainous no man's land between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And now NATO is awaiting the results of the American election. The alliance will make no significant decisions until it knows who will succeed Bush the Younger. Until the members of the alliance know that the next president makes better decisions than The Decider, there will be no real movement on Afghanistan.

That is a insight which apparently has eluded Stephen Harper, whose foreign policy continues to echo that of the Bush administration. His current claim that his government does not make changes in policy regarding Afghan prisoners -- the military does -- sounds remarkably like Bush's assertion that politicians shouldn't decide what happens to the nation's troops, the generals should. George W. Bush is a tragic example of The Peter Principle played out on the world stage. It may not be long until Canadians conclude that Mr. Harper, like Mr. Bush, was not the right man not to lead his country.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

An End to Magical Thinking

The last two weeks on global stock markets have been a roller coaster ride with which no theme park could compete. And, while many people saw it coming, what is most remarkable is that the so called best and brightest didn't. The question is why?

In the last thirty years of his life, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith saw the Keynesian consensus, which he had helped build, crumble. A new generation of economists, in an attempt to transform economics into a natural science, tried to build a set of mathematical models which could predict the future. It was, in fact, Milton Friedman -- Galbraith's academic antagonist -- who claimed that any theory should be judged, not on its realism, but on its predictive capacity.

The problem was that, at the heart of the new economic models, lay the bedrock assumption that human beings are rational creatures who make rational decisions. If one buys that assumption, mathematical economic models work. Galbraith contended that economics existed as part of a matrix which included politics and history, both of which offered a plethora of evidence that human beings often make irrational decisions. He claimed that any attempt to turn economics into a rational, self regulating system was, in effect, to believe in magic.

What the current gyrations on the world's financial markets proves is that Galbraith was right and Friedman was wrong. And, if there is any lesson to be taken from recent and future financial turbulence, it is that -- as Richard Gywn wrote this week in The Toronto Star -- we need to relearn that "when governments leave the marketplace to itself, as has been the prevailing ideology for the past couple of decades, the result is both an outburst of entrepreneurial energy and creativity but also a thundering great smashup."

The markets have taken some hope from the coordinated cutting of interest rates by central banks and from the American Congress's promise to cobble together a stimulus package. But, as Robert Reich wrote this week in his blog, "As a practical matter our only real hope for avoiding a deep recession or worse depends on loans and investments from abroad -- some major U.S. financial firms have already gotten key cash infusions from foreign governments buying stakes in them -- combined with export earnings as the dollar continues to weaken." Reich concluded that, "We're going to need the rest of the world to bail us out." We have been reminded again that, whether the subject is global finance or global warming, we are all in this together.

And we have been reminded that, whether the movers and shakers sat in the executive offices of Enron, or the White House, or City Bank, the story ended the same way. The new technocrats know a lot about statistical analysis. It's a shame they know so little about Sophocles, Aeschylus or Euripides. The Greeks could have told them that this was going to happen. Their predictions were based on a thorough knowledge of human nature -- not magic.

Friday, January 18, 2008


In defending his government's decision to sack Linda Keen, the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Stephen Harper cast himself and his confreres as guardians of the public trust. "We had to intervene to stop a course of action from the president of the nuclear commission which would have needlessly jeopardized the health care system and the lives of Canadians and people around the world," he told reporters in Prince Albert this week.

Former Conservative (now Liberal) MP Garth Turner saw a pattern. "Stephen Harper dumped me," he wrote in his blog this week, "for being an MP who tried to speak for principle first and party second. Bill Casey was fired as an MP for speaking for his constituents first, and being a follower second. Michael Chong was outed for putting the concept of Canada ahead of vote pandering to Quebec. Now Stephen Harper has done it again, firing Linda Keen for doing her appointed job of making sure nuclear reactors are safe."

"The pattern is unmistakable," Turner wrote. "It reminds me of a famous Humphrey Bogart movie, 'The Caine Mutiny,' in which an insane naval commander abused his power after seeing imaginary threats all around him." Some might see Turner's take on things as nothing more than sour grapes. But the communitariate has been uniformly critical of Harper. In The Globe and Mail, Lawrence Martin wrote, "Since taking power two years ago this month, this type of behaviour has been a hall mark of this government. It confuses class with crass." Martin did not side automatically with the opposition parties, who "typically took their case way overboard, comparing the Keen affair to Communist witch hunts in the U.S. following the Second World War." And, Martin pointed out, the opposition parties voted for a bill to overule Keen and restart the Chalk River reactor-- which she had ordered shut down because Atomic Energy Canada had not installed required safety upgrades -- even though various medical experts did not see the shutdown as life threatening. There is more than enough blame to go around. But the blame should not rest on Keen's shoulders.

Harper is no Joe McCarthy. But his paranoia is reminiscent of Richard Nixon, whose penchant for vengeance was personal -- he had his staff draw up a list of "enemies" -- and whose establishment of a "plumbers" operation in the basement of the White House led to his downfall.

Writing in The Toronto Star, Chantal Hebert focused on Harper's paranoia. "Two years [after Harper's election] is seems that Canada has traded a government with a short attention span for one whose policy focus is so narrow that it often borders on fixation. The latter goes hand in hand with an unprecedented degree of micro-management from the top, an obsessive preoccupation with iron clad control over even the most fact based communications." The result, wrote Hebert, is that, "according to government insiders, that combination is well in the process of rendering parts of the federal policy apparatus inoperative."

As Nixon's paranoia became full blown, his government ceased to function. No one is suggesting that Harper has reached the point where, like Nixon, he is strolling down the corridors of 24 Sussex Drive having drunken conversations with the portraits of his predecessors. But his two year tenure has given Canadians enough time to take the measure of the man. And, before long, he will be seeking a majority government. Clearly, the principle of caveat emptor applies. A secure Harper administration would expose Canadian democracy to a lot of unhealthy fallout.

This is a government which has been conceived in one man's image. And, therefore, it should remain a minority institution -- until such time as Canadians choose a man in their own image.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Falconer Report

Last week, Toronto human rights lawyer Julian Falconer released a report which was the product of an investigation ordered by the Toronto District School Board. Mr. Falconer headed a panel which looked into conditions in Toronto's public schools, after fifteen year old Jordan Manners was shot to death inside C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute. The report has caused waves throughout the system. Mr. Falconer and his colleagues found that "a culture of violence" exists in some public schools; and, in a press conference, he expressed the opinion that Jordan Manners died of " flat neglect, pure neglect."

Moreover, Falconer laid the blame for the present situation squarely at the feet of former premier Mike Harris and the policies he and his minions instituted in the last half of the last decade. "The Tory government of the late 1990's," Falconer wrote,"embarked on a deliberate course designed to net out 'equity' from the equation."

What that meant is practice was that the province assumed all funding for public education. School boards had no control over their source of funds, and no flexibility to meet individual needs. Each school board was funded by a formula which linked the number of students in a system to the amount of money the system received. Communities, which for years had looked enviously at the rich tax base Toronto's business and manufacturing communities provided the city's schools, felt that a blow had been struck for fairness.

But, for the board which served the province's largest immigrant community, the reality was that the support systems for new immigrants and economically disadvantaged students were gutted, because the money to support those systems disappeared. The Harris government decreed that guidance counsellors, social workers and after school programs were non-essential services.

On top of its new financial constraints, the board found that it had to apply a new Ministry of Education initiative called The Safe Schools Act . Falconer found that the consequences of this piece of legislation were particularly tragic: "The impact it had on youth" he wrote, "particularly African Canadian youth, is a stark example of the fallout of this government policy." In the name of "safe schools," students were expelled in "droves." The Safe Schools Act was implemented by Harris' first minister of education, John Snoblen -- himself a high school drop out -- who honed his administrative skills at the waste management company he inherited from his father. Unfortunately, for most of the students who were expelled from the system, the career opportunities which awaited Mr. Snoblen did not exist.

Mr. Snoblen was famously videotaped by one of the functionaries at the Ministry of Education, telling his employees that sometimes you had to "create a crisis" to initiate reform in a system. Snoblen's strategy should not have been surprising, because the Harris program came right out of the play book authored by the bright lights at the University of Chicago's Economics Department. (See my post for November 3, 2007)

The Chicago School's program has been applied in many places throughout the world -- and the results have been universally disastrous. In Toronto, writes The Toronto Star's Jim Coyle, "with the attack on social services, the dearth of child care and after school care, in those most critical hours for the young and restless, with the closing of community centres, the most vulnerable have been left to sink or swim in the wildest of seas."

Within the system itself a new spirit of competition -- for students and resources -- was set in motion. This fostered an ethic of self promotion: schools developed their own websites trumpeting their accomplishments; and staff who sought promotions did the same. In such an atmosphere, it made no sense to have a public discussion of a school's shortcomings. And, thus, the Falconer commission discovered that seven months before Jordan Manners was shot to death, according to The Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford, "several Jeffreys students approached a female teacher to tell her that they believed a young Muslim girl had been sexually assaulted by a group of male students in the second floor boys bathroom." The teacher reported the incident to the school's administrators; but "for eight months, until Mr. Falconer and his investigators discovered what allegedly had occurred in June last year, nothing happened." The principal and two vice principals have since been charged with failing to report the incident, as they are required to do under Ontario's Child and Family Services Act.

They may well have to pay the price for their "pure neglect." But the responsibility for what has happened in Toronto's schools goes much higher. Mr. Harris retired from government and handed over the reins to his finance minister, Ernie Eves. Mr. Snoblen abandoned his seat before the next election and headed for his ranch in Oklahoma to herd cattle. Like the Buchanans in Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, "they retreated into . . . their vast carelessness and let other people clean up the mess they had made." That job has fallen to Mr. Falconer and the members of his commission. They -- and the Toronto District School Board -- have a huge task ahead of them.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Primary Concerns

In 1814, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "An enlightened people and an energetic public opinion . . . will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government." His opinion is worth remembering in a time which tends to echo the contempt in which H.L. Mencken held the American electorate, whom he referred to as "the booboisie."

But what happened last week in Iowa may be a signal that the common man has, in George W. Bush's phrase, been "misunderestimated." For, the caucus victories of both Barak Obama, on the Democratic side, and Mike Huckabee, on the Republican side, were striking rebukes to the elites in both parties.

There was a time when party bosses gathered in smoke filled rooms to choose their parties' presidential candidates. But, when president Theodore Roosevelt and governors like Wisconsin's Robert LaFollete ushered in the Progressive Era, the presidential primary became the vehicle by which an enlightened public wrestled control of the political process from entrenched interests.

Over the years, with the help of political consultants and the codified techniques of mass communication, the party elites have learned how to control the primary process. However, in the last eight years -- according to conservative commentator David Brooks in The New York Times -- there has been a catastrophic failure of what Brooks calls, "the leadership class." That class includes more than just politicians. It includes the Brahmans of the Fourth Estate and the uniformed military at the Pentagon. The consequence of that failure has been what Brooks has called "two earthquakes."

"This is a huge moment," Brooks wrote last week. "It's one of those times when a movement that seemed ethereal and idealistic became a reality and took on political substance." From the other side of the political spectrum, Brooks' friend, E.J. Dionne, wrote in The Washington Post that, "Iowa voters in both parties staged a rebellion against the status quo and against the past."

Of course, it will take more than the selection of two insurgent candidates to cure America's political ills. The common man and woman have learned a lot in the last seven years about Congressional math. They have learned you can win the popular vote and lose the election. They have learned that it takes 60 votes, not 51, to pass legislation in the Senate. The have learned that, if you believe in divided government, it's better to have one house of Congress at odds with the other house, than to have one house divided against itself. And they have learned that, even if both houses manage to pass a piece of legislation, the president -- through the use of "signing statements"-- can virtually ignore any clause, or, indeed, most of any bill that comes to his desk. During the second Bush administration, "the aristocratic spirit of government" has been given free reign.

We will have to wait to see if this rebellion has legs. The cynics claim that Huckabee will not do nearly as well in New Hampshire as he did in Iowa. But they speculate that John McCain, who used to be an insurgent in another political life, may -- with Obama -- walk away with a victory. However, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, the choices of their parties' elites, are taking off their gloves.

More importantly, the primaries which follow Iowa and New Hampshire have been -- up to this point -- the places where the traditional tools of mass communication have been employed by the powers that be to slap down political upstarts. It is worth remembering that, in 2000, the Bush organization put an end to McCain's presidential quest be starting a whisper campaign in South Carolina, to the effect that McCain was the father of an illegitimate black child. Such are the joys of politics as usual.

My money's on Obama. But I would be quite happy to see him run against Huckabee. That contest would have been ordained by the people. It remains to be seen if the people are willing to tolerate politics as usual. If they rejected the usual hokum this time around, Mr. Jefferson would be pleased.