Monday, January 26, 2009

Potter or Scrooge?

In his review of last Tuesday's inauguration, Frank Rich noted that, in the midst of the general euphoria, Dick Cheney "in his black hat and wheelchair, looked like the misbegotten spawn of the evil Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life."

As Canada's Parliament returns to the House of Commons today, it will be interesting to see if Stephen Harper's near death experience has wrought any changes in the man. For literature and film provide two templates in this regard. There is, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge from Mr. Dickens, and Henry F. Potter from Mr. Capra.

When introducing his tough-on-crime agenda, Mr. Harper sounded a lot like Scrooge, complaining bitterly, "Are there no prisons, are there no work houses?" But after a visit from ghosts -- particularly the ghost of Christmas Future -- he apparently underwent an attitude adjustment.

Carefully targeted leaks have tried to convey the message that Mr. Harper has undergone some kind of conversion -- from modest surpluses to a deficit of $64 billion over the next two years. The devil, of course, is in the details -- particularly the details surrounding tax cuts. In the past, conservatives have turned to tax cuts the way the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding turned to Windex: they are unshakable in their belief that tax cuts cure everything.

That would now appear to be the case in Washington. Republicans say they will not support Mr. Obama's plan because there are not enough tax cuts. They have been in denial for a long time. And, even after the election, they continue to push an agenda which voters have soundly rejected. Perhaps that is not at all surprising for a party which currently is looking for someone to lead the Republican National Committee. One of the candidates recently sought support by sending out copies of a song entitled, Barack the Magic Negro.

The difference between Canada and the United States is that, after elections in both countries, new people are in charge in the South, while the same old crew is in charge here -- although the same old crew almost sent themselves packing just before Christmas. Canadians are well aware that the Prime Minister can change his clothes -- from suit to sweater. Whether or not he can truly change his mind is another matter.

Is Stephen Harper Ebenezer Scrooge or Henry F. Potter? Dick Cheney truly fits George Bailey's description of Potter -- "a warped frustrated old man." What Canadians want to know is whether or not Stephen Harper fits Potter's description of George Bailey: "a warped frustrated young man."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Future Unforseen

The picture has a special meaning for me. It was shot by a photographer who was aboard the train which brought Barack Obama and Joe Biden to Washington. It speaks to what will happen on Tuesday; but it also speaks to something I never thought would happen.

Forty years ago, about two months after graduating from university in Montreal, my father and I hopped in the family car and headed for North Carolina, where -- through a serendipitous congruence of events -- I found myself attending the University of North Carolina.

At the end of the first leg of our trip, we stopped in Washington, D.C. I had never been there; but I looked forward to visiting the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial and the Kennedy grave site. What struck me most, however, as we travelled around the city, were the extremes -- white Greek temples and row upon row of slum houses. The contrasts were so glaring, I wondered how people could tolerate them.

I thought of that trip when I read Frank Rich's column in this morning's New York Times. Rich (who is a few years younger than me) grew up in Washington, "a sleepy Southern town of the Eisenhower era." -- which meant that it was a segregated city. "I wish I could say that we were outraged by this apartheid," Rich wrote. "But we were kids --privileged kids at that -- and out of sight was out of mind. Except as household help, black Washington was generally as invisible to us as it was to the tourists who were rigidly segregated from the real Washington while visiting its many ivory marble shrines to democratic ideals." That was why the gulf between rich and poor went unnoticed.

But, like me, Rich had read John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me; and he had watched Martin Luther King deliver his speech outside the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. And he knew that, despite the invisibility of the majority of Washington's citizens, things were changing. This became particularly apparent when King was assassinated in 1968. Washington erupted in blind fury; and mobs torched those slum dwellings.

Still, "looking back on my high school years," Rich wrote, "I'm struck by how slowly history can move. The civil rights legislation of the Johnson administration had been accomplished by 1964 and 1965, but by the time of my graduation [in 1967] the impact was minimal, even in the city where the laws were written and passed." That was true in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I taught high school in 1969, to pay for my education. I taught in a school where 1% of the student population was black. On the other side of town there was a high school where there was not a single white student.

It has been over 145 years since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; and it has been just over 45 years since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. But it is precisely because history has moved so slowly that next Tuesday is so significant -- and why the tears you see mean so much. Those tears represent both the pain of the past and the hope of the future.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Great Financial Chain of Being

William Shakespeare lived in an ordered universe. The moral philosophers of his day conceived of that universe as a Great Chain of Being. God was at the top of the chain; the angels occupied a position immediately below Him; and humanity occupied the link below them. They were followed by animals, plants and inanimate objects. In turn, each of these rungs was itself further subdivided. The King sat on top of the human organization chart, followed by the nobility, followed by various permutations of the common man. This precise organization of the universe guaranteed stability -- unless Lucifer decided to challenge God's authority, or a member of the nobility tried to usurp the power of the King. And, if that occurred, God eventually reached down and set things right. Thus, in Macbeth and Hamlet and Julius Ceasar, pretenders to the throne eventually met their just and richly deserved comeuppance. The Great Chain exemplified what the philosophers called "natural law."

Classical economics has constructed something similar. The very wealthy, or the captains of industry, occupy God's rung on the ladder, followed by the CEO's, shareholders, etc. Mere "consumers" are the equivalent of inanimate objects. That organizational chart has been accepted for most of human history -- with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal -- as theologically sound. Indeed, Roosevelt's harshest critics accused him of tampering with natural law -- and they eagerly awaited the day when God would set things right. Forty years ago, God appeared in the form of a bespectaled little man. His name was Milton Friedman; and it was he who re-established The Great Financial Chain of Being.

But, as became clear in Roosevelt's day, the Great Chain is actually the Great Vacuum Cleaner. Rather than allow the wealth of the mighty to trickle down to society's least powerful -- and, apparently, least important -- creatures, this kind of economic organization actually sucks the meager wealth of those at the bottom to the top, because it is maintained by a tax system which is tilted decidedly in favour of the wealthy. Over time, those at the bottom are deprived of purchasing power. They can only purchase goods and services by going deeply into debt; and, eventually, they can no longer support the debt they have accumulated. When the broad foundation which supports the Great Chain begins to crumble, the whole edifice -- like the Twin Towers -- comes tumbling down. What Roosevelt did was to inject money into the foundation of the edifice. His various employment initiatives put money into the hands of those at the bottom and kept the system afloat.

Thus, in a financial crisis, the government must put money into the hands of those who have lost their jobs by giving them jobs which need to be done -- whether it's the Tennessee Valley Authority electrifying the country by building hydro-electric dams, or a Green Economy Initiative to create renewable energy sources.

Those who have been at the helm of the economy for the last thirty years, however, keep insisting that the way to put money into people's hands is to give everyone across-the-board tax cuts. The Americans gave away $150 billion in tax cuts last year and nothing happened. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, wants another $350 billion in tax cuts. And the word is that Jim Flaherty -- who two months ago foresaw a $100 million surplus, then last month predicted a $30 billion deficit and last week warned Canadians to steel themselves for rising unemployment -- is considering similar tax cuts in the upcoming budget. These folks maintain that the way to stabilize the building is to strengthen the roof. And they scratch their heads when, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it continues to sink.

Paul Krugman, this year's Nobel laureate in Economics, has advised President-elect Obama to ditch the tax cuts. "My advice to the Obama team," he writes in today's New York Times, "is to scrap the business tax cuts, and, more important, to deal with the threat of doing too little by doing more." That is advice which Canada's opposition leaders should also take to heart. It is too much to expect those who got us here to heed that advice. "By and large the free market medicine men," Thomas Frank wrote in last week's Wall Street Journal, "seem determined to learn nothing from this awful year. Instead, they repeat their incantations and retreat deeper into their dogma, generating endless schemes in which government is to blame, all sin originates with the Community Reinvestment Act, and the bailouts for which their own flock is desperately bleating can do nothing but harm."

The American Revolution, the French Revolution and World War I doomed the Great Chain of Being. But the Great Financial Chain of Being is alive and well.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Straight Out of Orwell

In an article in this month's Vanity Fair, Richard Clarke -- the former American Czar for terrorism -- describes a meeting which occured in the White House on the evening of September 11th. Recalling the meeting, Clarke reports Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's advice to George W. Bush: "And Rumsfeld said, You know, we've got to do Iraq, and everyone looked at him -- at least I looked at him and Powell looked at him -- like, What the hell are you talking about? And he said -- I'll never forget this -- There just aren't enough targets in Afghanistan. We need to bomb something else to prove that we're, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kind of attacks."

From the very beginning the plan was to shift the war from Eurasia to Eastasia. And, as Frank Rich wrote in Sunday's New York Times, the Bush administration had its propaganda machine ginned up and ready to go. "The one indisputable talent of [Bush's] White House was its ability to create and sell propaganda both to the public and to the press. Now that bag of tricks is empty as well."

The propaganda may have lost its punch; but the machine is still spinning recent history. As Rich reports, a booklet can now be downloaded from the White House website, which trumpets Mr. Bush's accomplishments. But the booklet's reading of history is highly selective: "Bush kept America safe (provided his presidency began on September 12th, 2001). He gave America record economic growth (provided his presidency ended in December, 2007). He vanquished all the leading Queda terrorists (if you don't count the leaders bin Laden and al-Zawahri). He gave Afghanistan a thriving 'market economy' (if you count its skyrocketing opium trade) and a 'democratically elected president' (presiding over one of the world's most corrupt governments). He supported elections in Pakistan (after propping up Pervez Musharraf past the point of no return). He 'led the world in providing food aid and natural disaster relief' (if you leave out Brownie and Katrina)."

All politicians leave mixed records behind them. But what is striking, as Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney leave office, is the refusal of either man to admit the possibility of error. When asked by Charles Gibson if the 2008 election was a repudiation of his administration, Bush answered, "it was a repudiation of Republicans."

All propaganda seeks to take credit (personally) and to assign blame (to someone else). Hence, as Orwell noted, one finds the ubiquitous use of the passive voice in sentences like, "Mistakes were made." Conveniently, of course, the sentence leaves no room for someone to take responsibility for those mistakes.

Clearly, as Mr. Rumsfeld suggested, the Iraq War was conceived as a demonstration project. However, when things go so catastrophically and so demonstrably wrong, one has two choices: Either one confronts the truth; or one seeks refuge in delusion. As Mr. Bush leaves office, he still clings to his delusions. Orwell would not have been surprised.