Monday, December 29, 2008

Gentle Radical

It's been more than forty years since I walked into a lecture hall in Montreal to listen to a man I knew only as the son of the man whose name appeared above the entrance to the university library. I thought about that moment when Saturday's Globe and Mail declared Jean Vanier its Nation Builder for 2008. The subject of Vanier's talk that day was familiar to anyone who has followed his life: His focus was on those people who, in French, Vanier calls les faibles -- in English, literally, "the weak" -- but which more faithfully translates as "the vulnerable." Vanier believes we are all faibles. For him, however, the most vulnerable are the mentally challenged or, as current terminology would have it, the "developmentally disabled."

Vanier is the son of Canada's first French Canadian Governor General. He spent his youth in Britain and the British navy, a scion of privilege. Yet he left all of that behind and founded a community he called "l'Arche" -- the Ark -- to serve the very people he spoke of forty years ago.

What struck me most that day -- and what has stayed with me for the rest of my life -- was his notion that we, the privileged, owed a debt to les faibles. In my youthful narcissism, I had thought it was the other way around. But, for Vanier, these were the people who gave our lives meaning: they gave us the opportunity to work for what was good, decent and transcendent. It was a notion which I greeted with considerable skepticism. And, at the end of the lecture, I proceeded to the podium to ask him what I thought was a worldly-wise question.

I have forgotten the question; and I have forgotten the content of his response. But I will always remember how he answered my question. He did not dismiss me as another foolish youth. In fact, he gave me his complete attention. His eyes did not wander to other people or events in the room. He dealt with my skepticism directly and was in no hurry to move on. I was aware from that day forward, as I read his books and followed his work, that he is a truly remarkable man.

Vanier's conviction has never wavered. Today, as the world strains under the enormous burdens the best and the brightest have left in their wake, his message is the same. To those who have worshipped at the altar of free markets and global competition he says, "There's obviously a good aspect to competition -- the development of the body, the mind, creativity. But there's something where we can very quickly walk on people -- I want to prove I'm better than you. [What really matters is] how to find a world where the essential thing is to work for peace, to work to build something together." It is our recognition that we are all faibles that keeps us from walking on each other. "Vulnerability," says Vanier, "brings us together."

When I think about that lecture hall forty ago, I also think about a more modest lecture hall in which I sat a dozen years ago. It was the end of the day, at the high school where I taught for most of my career. The Director of Education for our school board had gathered us together to explain how The Common Sense Revolution was going to change education in Ontario. To underscore his point, he told us the parable of the animals at the water hole. It seems that a lion wandered into a gathering at a particular African source of refreshment. He surveyed the impalas, wildebeests, zebras and other long time members of the congregation. One of the impalas looked up and noted the lion's presence. "Well," she said, "this is certainly a change." The lion -- his eyes gleaming -- responded, "Yes. And from now on you're all going to have to run a lot faster."

That particular director has retired. I do not know what became of him. I assume that he has found a comfortable chair from which to view the passing parade. Jean Vanier has also retired. But he has not looked for a comfortable place to land. He gives L'Arche -- as he gave me -- his complete attention. He still visits its many homes throughout the world. And now, he says, "I am free to do what I like, and what I like is to announce the message: That people who are weak have something to bring us, that they are important people and it's important to listen to them. In some mysterious way they change us."

As we face the new year, we need to remember our debt to the vulnerable -- and we need to remember that we are all vulnerable.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lament for a Generation

History will remember Bernard Madoff as the incarnation of the financial folly of the late 20th and the early 21st centuries. But it will not place the blame for that folly at his feet. Instead, it will tell the story of a generation who fervently believed they could get something for nothing -- or next to nothing.

That story will begin in the late 1950's, when -- as Jeffrey Simpson wrote in The Globe and Mail -- there occurred "the intellectual revolution of Barry Goldwater's rage against the state, social conservatism, Arthur Laffer's curve, and the idea that ever lower taxes would bring ever higher revenues, so that budgets could and would be balanced by some miracle that had previously escaped economists and, indeed, previous generations of sound money, balanced budget Republicans."

Given a patina of respectability by academics like Leo Strauss and Milton Friedman, the revolution was carried forward by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. Always about a decade behind their democratic forebears, Canadians heard the same gospel from the mouths of Preston Manning and Mike Harris. The revolution reached its apex --and was asphxiated -- under George W. Bush in the United States and Stephen Harper in this country.

But it would be disingenuous to conveniently pin the tails on these donkeys. For, truth be told, the revolution and the destruction it has spawned was powered by a generation of donkeys -- my generation. As Jim Hoagland wrote in last Sunday's Washington Post, we are the generation who have "taken the greatest financial, technological and political opportunities the world has ever offered and abused them for our own pleasures, greed and egos."

Public schools and universities were built to educate us; the post World War II economy coddled and pampered us; and the health care and pension systems were constructed to lead us gently into the night. But, not content with our lot, we insisted on our right to have much, much more. Mr. Madoff's ponzi scheme was the prefect realization of that wish. He gave those of us, who are or soon will be retired, splendid returns. However, he achieved those returns by taking money from new investors -- the young -- and playing Robin Hood to those of us who took the proceeds and never asked how they were generated. As Mr. Hoagland rightly points out, we have left those new investors -- our children -- "fetid stables of debt, scandal and corruption."

The result is a rising tide of youthful anger. At the moment, it finds expression more in Europe than in North America. Students riots in Greece have left 70 dead and a trail of vandalism and destruction. That fire is spreading: "The same dry kindling of the Greek uprising is scattered around Europe," Hoagland writes," where youth unemployment rates are double or triple those of the population over 24, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and retirement benefits are politically untouchable. Similar tensions are rising in China, as the global recession deepens, in oil producing countries such as Russia and Iran that are caught in the whiplash of rising and falling prices, and most of all in developing countries with broken governments and economies that punish the educated young disproportionately."

It is not enough to lament the mess we have left our children. The clock is ticking and we must make things right. We must run monumental deficits to invest in their futures; and, when we have primed the pump and created jobs for them, we will have to follow Keynes' advice and pay for those investments in the good times. We have done just the opposite for nearly forty years -- and we are surrounded by the carnage we have created.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Grace Under Pressure

The problem with Hemingway's definition of courage -- grace under pressure -- is that, while it's a neat turn of phrase, it's nonetheless shallow. There is so much more to courage than just grace under pressure. Be that as it may, Bob Rae displayed both courage and realism last week when he bowed out of the race for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.

He faced a central political problem. As Jeffrey Simpson noted in The Globe and Mail, "Like Macbeth's 'horrible shadow,' Mr. Rae could not escape the reality and mythologies of his years as the NDP premier of Ontario. They have stuck to him and tormented his political career as a Liberal. Even outside Ontario, where Liberals and others had not experienced those years, the telling of the province's travails, and those of his government, spread across the land, seeping into the common (if potted) wisdom of what actually happened and why."

Some claimed that his insistence on the principle of one person one vote was an obvious attempt by a losing candidate to tip the race in his favour. However, the last time I checked, that principle was at the root of western democracies. Others claimed that his support for the opposition coalition was a loser's game. But again, according to the rules of parliamentary democracy, that principle has been in practice for hundreds of years.

Mr. Rae does not need anyone to lecture him on principles. But, as perhaps the best Canadian politician of his generation, he can read his times; and he understands exactly what Stephen Harper has been trying to do to his political opposition -- and exactly what kind of response it requires. More than that, he has a refreshing sense of perspective. "It's only politics," he says, "it's not the end of the world."

Somehow, one cannot imagine Stephen Harper making that kind of statement. Even if the coalition fails, it has given Canadians confirmation of what they have long suspected -- but which the Prime Minister has sought to soft peddle in a soft blue sweater. Put simply, Mr. Harper believes -- with Vince Lombardi -- that "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." The coalition has also given us a glimpse of how Stephen Harper reacts when he is genuinely scared. It is not a flattering portrait.

Harper is reputedly a very bright man. The late David Halberstam, in his book The Best and the Brightest -- the story of how John F. Kennedy and his brain trust blundered into Vietnam -- intended the book's title to be ironic. The title, he wrote, underlined "the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard won, often bitter experience." The prime minister is a bitter man but he is not a wise one.

Mr, Rae, on the other hand, has known -- and, as last week illustrates, continues to know -- bitter experience. But he has emerged from that experience a wiser and a much better man than Stephen Harper. Winning isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Prime Narcissist

Bob Rae has an adjective to describe Stephen Harper's appraoch to anyone who opposes him: "Nixonian." Rae knows his recent history. In fact, he had a passing acquaintance with the man behind the adjective. When his father was posted to Washington in the early 60's, Rae delivered Nixon's newspaper. But the events to which Rae refers occurred thirty-five years ago. For those who lack historical context, Rae offers a more riviting image of the Prime Minister. Harper, he says, "throws for the head."

Having pledged at the recent G20 meeting in Peru to act in tandem with his economic partners, Harper made noises about providing a fiscal stimulus package for the Canadian economy. As David Olive notes in today's Toronto Star, those partners have seen the danger and are acting decisively: "Collectively the U.S., Europe and Asia have committed $2.6 trillion (U.S.) to jump start economic growth, in addition to more than $2.7 trillion so far to bail out a crippled global banking system. The pump priming and financial system bailouts are huge, in part to inspire business and consumer confidence -- equal to 7% GDP in Germany, 16% in China, 21% in Britain." Harper has tried to suggest that his government was prescient, having instituted tax cuts of $2.5 billion (Canadian) last year, before the economic storm hit. But, as Olive notes, the tax cuts "were accompanied by $4.3 billion in spending cuts, for a net stimulus that is, in fact, negative."

And, when Mr. Flaherty offered an economic update to the House on November 28th, his only concrete proposals were to cut spending by $2 billion -- cutting public funding for political parties, banning public service strikes for the next two years (even though the largest public service union signed a four year agreement on November 24th) and dismantling pay equity mechanisms. He said he was considering a stimulus package. But, as he looked into his crystal ball, he saw modest surpluses. He concluded: "I hope the economy will be strong and we won't need to have any additional stimulus in the Canadian economy, but if it's necessary to do so, we will do so."

Mr. Flaherty's phlegmatic response is in stark contrast to Barak Obama's, whose country is the destination for 70% of Canada's goods and services. "We are facing an economic crisis of historic proportions," says Obama."The truth is we do not have a minute to waste." Mr. Flaherty's constituents must take great comfort in his expertise. In his riding, Olive reports, "year over year Employment Insurance claims have shot up 96%." In the face of this data, the government has declared a seven week time out.

Obviously, Mr. Flaherty is delusional. But his delusions are a mere subset of a greater delusion, which is the lifeblood of the current government. That delusion is the narcissistic certainty that what is good for Stephen Harper is good for the country. Facts -- like Harper's claim that there were no Canadian flags behind Mr. Dion, Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe when they signed their accord, even though there were clearly three in the background -- are irrelevant.

Indeed, Mr. Harper last week sounded eerily like Lucien Bouchard during the 1995 referendum, when Bouchard's volcanic temper was at full bore. In in his book, The Antagonist, Lawrence Martin wrote that Bouchard displayed "a form of intolerance rarely witnessed in modern Canadian politics. Those who didn't share Lucien Bouchard's ever changing view of the world were unworthy or disloyal. Politicians regularly harpooned one another over disagreements on issues, with the disputes sometimes descending into personal put downs. But rarely did the vitriol reach this level."

Like Bouchard, Stephen Harper is a man of seething resentments. Like Bouchard he is (in public) totally devoid of humour. And, like Bouchard, he is willing to take Canada to the brink. He should be removed from office. But it's clear that his Conservative caucus, as Adam Radwanski suggested this week in The Globe and Mail, is more of a personality cult than a party. The Liberals, for all of their problems, are still a party -- struggling with a way to remove Stephane Dion before his announced departure on May 2nd.

If the Conservatives will not remove Harper, then it's up to the coalition to do so. If they fail, constitutional democracy in Canada will have been dealt a terrible blow. As a last resort, it will be up to voters -- hundreds of thousands by that time will have received their pink slips -- to fire Mr. Harper. My guess is that he will not stay around long. When he is removed from the game for throwing at the head, he will not -- like the immature child he is -- head for the showers. He will pick up his ball and go home.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Drawing Back the Curtain

Carl von Clausewitz famously defined war as "politics by other means." Last Thursday, Stephen Harper declared war on all three opposition parties. If that analogy seems a little overwrought, consider what Tom Flanagan -- Harper's mentor and advisor -- wrote two years ago in his book, Harper's Team: "The 2004 election was our first Punic War, in which bringing the Liberals down to a minority government constituted moderate progress. We fought our Second Punic War in 2005-6, got control of the government, and reduced the Liberals to opposition status, burdened with inadequate funding and selecting a new leader. But what of the coming Third Punic War? . . .Objectively it would be more in our interest to beat the Liberals down to 20% of the vote, where they could duel with the NDP."

Despite the Conservative attack on Stephane Dion, Mr Harper's misreading of Quebec and his suggestion that Canadians should treat the economic meltdown as an opportunity to buy stocks sabotaged his party's Third Punic War. It ended in stalement. So, last Thursday, Harper adopted his final solution. It is worth remembering that, in the original Third Punic War, Rome razed the city of Carthage. And, in an effort to ensure that it would never rise again, the Romans sowed the surrounding fields with salt, rendering them barren -- an early version of Sherman's March to the Sea.

Those who contemplate war should really read von Clausewitz. Better still, they should read Winston Churchill: "The statesman who yields to war fever," Churchill wrote in My Early Life, "is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events." Obviously, Mr. Harper is no Churchill. Rather than setting up a duel between the Liberals and the NDP, he has managed to unite them -- something they would have never done on their own. And, even though the Bloc Quebecois will not join the coalition, they, too, are on side. It is always wiser in politics to divide the opposition, not to decimate it.

Managing the new coalition will be a very difficult assignment. And, because Stephane Dion is out of the running, that task will fall either to Bob Rae or Micheal Ignatieff. Word this morning is that the NDP will hold one quarter of the seats in Cabinet; the Liberals will hold the Finance and Treasury Board portfolios; and the jobs of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister will also be held by Liberals. Normally, a leadership convention would choose the Liberal leader. But Mr. Rae and Mr. Ignatieff both ran for the brass ring a little over two years ago. They are not unknown quantities in their party or with the public. If these were ordinary times, Dominic Leblanc might serve as kingmaker at a Liberal convention.

But these are not ordinary times -- something Mr Harper and Mr. Flaherty have refused to recognize. Both men have invested their entire careers in an old paradigm. And their inability to recognize that the old order is changing has weakened, perhaps defeated, their government. Both men spent the weekend furiously backpedalling. But I suspect that, a week from today, all three opposition parties will follow the counsel of Paul Martin's former communications director, Scott Reid. Harper doesn't play to win, Reid wrote in Saturday's Globe and Mail: "He plays to conquer. Under his guidance, the public interest is always subjugated to his personal political advancement. And he poisons Parliament with an extreme, bare fanged breed of partisanship that has no hope of repair until he is banished."

The challenge for a governing coalition is to convince Canadians that its members are acting in the public interest, and not for personal political gain. Whoever the Liberals choose as their leader will have to personify that notion -- and he will also need the personnel management skills to lead what the American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has called, "A Team of Rivals."

As for Mr. Harper, he will not go quietly. He may prorogue Parliament. He may provoke a constitutional crisis. His attempts to be gracious will ring hollow. But he has profoundly misunderstood his opposition. Even worse, he has profoundly misunderstood his times. Like "the great and powerful Oz," he has suggested that we "ignore the man behind the curtain." But no errant dog has drawn back that curtain. Mr. Harper has done it himself. As Jeffrey Simpson wrote in Friday's Globe, "That [Harper] acted in this fashion, at this time, was enormously revealing. And very sad."