Monday, March 30, 2009

Remembering Mary

Mary Saunders died last week. Her name probably has little significance for readers of this space -- except for those who are members of my immediate family. She would be uncomfortable knowing that I mentioned her here. She did not seek the limelight.

But she needs to be remembered here because she touched so many lives. She was the dear friend of my wife's mother. They met each other when they discovered that their children attended the same elementary school. They also discovered that they shared a passion for bridge and parish bizarres. Most of all, they were each other's confidants.

When my mother-in-law died sixteen years ago, Mary stepped in and took her place, as grandmother to our three sons. The picture shows her in that role with our youngest son, who was three months old when it was taken. She sent the kids cards at Christmas and always slipped in money for presents. Most of all, my wife would call her frequently, as she had called her mother, to talk about their mutual activities.

When we returned to Montreal -- usually twice a year -- we would meet Mary at a local restaurant for lunch. The only times we ever disagreed were when it came to paying the tab. We eventually agreed that we would alternately pay the bill.

Mary spent her entire life in Montreal. Despite the political storms of the sixties and seventies, she and her husband Robert (who everyone called Nuffy) continued to live in the house they built at the end of World War II on the western side of the island. They raised two sons there: one who stayed in the city, and one -- who like so many of our generation -- headed down the road to other provinces and towns. She and Nuffy took great pride in their children and grandchildren. She was of that generation who stayed home and raised her children as a vocation. She was no shrinking violet, however. She could spot foolishness long before it arrived; and she could laugh appreciatively at human foibles.

When Nuffy died in the late eighties, she stayed put. She lived on her own, even as her knees made it increasingly difficult for her to walk. And, even though she did not go out regularly for errands, when she did go out, she drove herself to her destination.

The value of a human life is not measured by the money a person makes or the fame he or she achieves. It has everything to do with the intersection of that life with the lives of others -- and in what happens when those lives touch. In her nearly ninety years, Mary touched a lot of lives. All of us in this family were blessed because our paths crossed hers. We miss her terribly; and we still have a hard time getting our heads around the idea that we will no longer be able to meet her for lunch. But the good news is that -- as my sister-in-law reminded my wife -- her mother has her bridge partner back.

Monday, March 23, 2009

They've Had Enough

In his book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore quotes James Madison, one of his country's founders, and one of its first presidents: "A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction," Madison wrote. It is for that reason that "the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of [the nation] must secure the national councils against any danger from that source." Hence, it was essential for any democracy to establish a separation of powers; and to build in a system of checks and balances to guard against the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands.

The rise of neo-conservatism has been couched in religious language, says Gore. But, essentially, the goal of the movement has been to wed wealth to power -- something not new to human history. Before the rise of Reagan and the two Bushes, there was the unmitigated frenzy of the Jazz Age, which ended in The Great Depression, and the rise of Franklin Roosevelt. Before that there was the Gilded Age, and the countervailing forces put in place by Roosevelt's cousin, Teddy.

Wealth seeks Power as a consort. And so it has always been. The difference now, writes Gore, is that an "informed citizenry," which the founders saw as the antidote to concentrated power, now relies on television as its main source of information -- not the printed word. The problem with television is that it is a one way medium. Information is passed down from elites to ordinary -- as in "undistinguished" -- citizens. There is no opportunity to carry on a two way conversation. Democracy is founded on the principle of reciprocal communication between those who govern and those whose consent makes that government possible. That is why the notion of a legislature -- whether it be the Mother of all Parliaments in London, the federal and state governments in the United States, or the federal and provincial parliaments in Canada -- is at the center of those democracies. And in those legislatures, decisions are supposed to be made on the basis of collective reason.

One way conversation makes it easy to concentrate power in the hands of those who view themselves as a special, gifted class. The last fifty years has seen a shift away from decision making by the peoples' representatives to what David Halberstam in the 1970's called "The Best and the Brightest," or what later day journalists have called "The Smartest Guys in the Room." Our reliance on these so called experts has led to the general certitude that they know better than the uninitiated what is best for their country.

But this first decade of the new millennium has proved that the best and the brightest can be breathtakingly stupid, whatever their supposed area of expertise. Whether it be the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the global financial system, the people who have been in charge have left ruin and chaos in their wake.

That is what the furor over executive bonuses at AIG or the protests in France last week were all about. Venality piled on top of incompetence will no longer get a free pass. The "undistinguished" are taking their cue from the movie Network. Like Howard Beal, they have declared that they are "mad as hell" and they're not going to take it any more. They are insisting that they be heard, and that communication become a two way street again.

Those in power who misread their anger will reap the whirlwind. As Frank Rich warned in Sunday's New York Times, "in the credit mess, action must match words." And, as James Travers wrote in Saturday's Toronto Star, "sooner rather than later" the Prime Minister "must tell the country what this government will do for ailing industries and their workers." If Mr. Obama, Mr Harper or Mr. Sarkosy get it wrong, they will be washed away in a tide of public anger which the world has not seen in a long time.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Angry Right

David Frum -- who has been burnishing his conservative credentials for two decades now -- has recently found himself the target of attacks from the political party he supports. Frum has written several books; he has written for William F. Buckley's National Review; he has written speeches for the second President Bush (it was Frum who coined the phrase "axis of evil"); and he has been a resident scholar at The American Enterprise Institute.

But, as he revealed in a cover article for Newsweek, his credentials are being questioned by some who consider themselves true believers. On March 3rd, radio talk show host Mark Levin was apoplectic. "There are some people who have claimed the conservative mantle . . ." he fumed. "They're so irrelevant . . . It's time to name names . . .! The Canadian David Frum: Where did this a-hole come from? . . . Hey Frum: you're a putz."

Frum, like many Canadians, has dual citizenship. His father is Canadian; his mother, who worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was an American. But Frum has had the audacity to question the wisdom of some of his party's loudest voices -- particularly Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh, wrote Frum, is "a man who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as "losers." With his private plane and cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self indulgence." The problem for conservatives, Frum contended, is that Limbaugh appeals to the shrinking Republican base. "From a political point of view, Limbaugh is kyrptonite, weakening the GOP nationally."

Frum has been joined in his criticism by New York Times columnist David Brooks. "Let's face it," wrote Brooks in the Times last week, "the current Republican response [to the economic crisis] is totally misguided. The House minority leader, John Boehner, has called for a Federal spending freeze for the rest of the year. In other words, after a decade of profligacy, the Republicans have decided to demand a rigid fiscal straitjacket at the one moment in the past 70 years when it is completely inappropriate."

If the angry white men who have become the party's spokesmen take the time to peruse Brooks' birth certificate, they will discover that he, like Frum, was born in Toronto. No doubt, some will question whether both pundits are "real" Americans. These are the same folks who wondered if Barack Obama was truly an American because he was born in Hawaii; or, if John McCain was truly an American because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. (American law stipulates that, to be president, you have to have been born in the United States.)

What all the noise indicates is that, like the financial system which modern conservatism did so much to engineer, the movement itself is now intellectually bankrupt. Frum and Brooks are questioning the only thing the movement has left, which is dogma. They are asking the movers and shakers in their party to rethink their view of the world. Unfortunately, the old adage is still true: empty barrels make the most noise.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Of Trains and Automobiles

Outside the train station, in Belleville, Ontario, there is a plaque. It proclaims that the building was erected in 1841 -- more than 25 years before Canada officially proclaimed its existence in 1867. The nation was born in the 19th century, during the first attempt at globalized trade -- a period which roughly corresponded to the reign of Queen Victoria. One hundred and fifty years ago, railroads formed a loosely woven quilt which covered all of North America. They symbolized the riches produced by the Industrial Revolution; and they were the source of treasure for a few of the robber barons who bestrode the era.

Canada had three railroads: The Grand Trunk Railway -- which built the station in Belleville -- joined two countries, Canada and the United States. Most of the track was laid on Canadian soil; but the two terminuses were in Portland, Maine and Chicago, Illinois. The Canadian Northern Railway stretched from Quebec City to British Columbia, cutting a wide swath through Northern Ontario to Winnipeg, then heading northwest through Edmonton, and on to British Columbia. The most storied, and the longest of all -- The Canadian Pacific Railway -- stretched from coast to coast and symbolized the country's motto, "from sea to sea." Every small town in Canada had a station, or at least a grain elevator, and was connected to the main route by a branch line. In a large, sparsely populated country, railroads were the heart which pumped the nation's economic blood.

But when the world economy came apart -- in the aftermath of World War I -- railroads were in trouble. Canada never needed three railways. One century built too many railways. The next built too many automobiles. When the Grand Trunk and the Canadian Northern declared bankruptcy in the early 1920's, the Conservative government of Sir Robert Borden nationalized them, blending the two into one. The government dubbed the new entity the CNR -- Canadian National Railways. And, throughout the Depression, Canada was served by two railroads -- from sea to sea.

But after World War II, transportation shifted away from the railroads to the passenger car and the transport truck. In the United States, the Eisenhower administration built the Interstate Highway System; and, by the mid sixties, the Canadian government completed the Trans Canada Highway. Passenger service on both American and Canadian railroads dried up. Tracks were abandoned or "rationalized," with two or more railroads sharing the same tracks. And, on the Canadian prairies, trucks pulled up to the grain elevators which stood beside abandoned railroad tracks. The governments of both countries took charge of what passenger service remained -- in short busy corridors between New York and Washington or Quebec City and Windsor.

If railroads were the symbol of 19h century prosperity, the passenger car was the symbol of 20th century prosperity. And, as the second attempt to globalize trade has come to a standstill, the automobile -- like the steam locomotive before it -- is about to be metamorphosed. But, just as railroads did not totally disappear, automobiles -- and the companies which make them -- will not go the way of the dinosaur. We got a peek at the future last week, when auditors for General Motors -- which fifty years ago was the world's largest industrial corporation -- concluded that the company would have difficulty remaining "a going concern." The company which Walter Chrysler built -- a company once noted for state of the art engineering and innovation -- is about to go under.

As it did for the railways, government will have to become a major stakeholder in a radically transformed automobile industry -- an industry which will no longer be the economic engine of both Canada and the United States. There will be howls from market fundamentalists, who will claim that government should not stand in the way of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." But because cars and trucks -- like the railroads -- touch the lives of so many people, a smaller government supported transportation industry -- an industry which will include heavy investment in urban mass transit -- is just around the corner. It is a construct which has been adopted in the past -- and which is about to be adopted again.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Now For the Hard Part

British economic historian and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson was in Ottawa last week. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he predicted that the global economic crisis is far from over. In fact, he said, things could get pretty nasty. "There will be blood, in the sense that a crisis of this magnitude is bound to increase political as well as economic [conflict]. It is bound to destabilize some countries. It will cause civil wars to break out, that have been dormant. It will topple governments that were moderate and bring in governments that are extreme. These things are pretty predictable. The question is whether the general destabilization, the return of, if you like, political risk, ultimately leads to something really big in the realm of geopolitics."

And from Europe this morning comes a story, in The New York Times, that things could be falling apart in the European Union. "The leaders of the European Union gathered Sunday in Brussels," ran the lead, "in an emergency summit meeting that seemed to highlight the very worries it was designed to calm." The economic crisis has driven a wedge between the countries of what Donald Rumsfeld called "new and old Europe." The problem, according to the Times, is that "the 16 nations that use the euro -- introduced in 1999 and one of the proudest European accomplishments -- must submit to the monetary leadership of the European Central Bank. That keeps some members hardest hit by the economic downturn, like Ireland, Spain, Italy and Greece, from unilaterally taking radical steps to stimulate their economies." And newer members of the Union, "including Hungary, Romania and the Baltic states, are in a state of near-meltdown."

The crisis is forcing countries to reach across cultures and political systems. And this is particularly true of the United States and China. Ferguson believes that what he has dubbed "Chimerica" -- the fusion of the United States and China -- "really is the key to how the global financial system works." The United States is the major market for Chinese exports; and social stability in China rests on the system of factories which export to America. The Chinese are the major holders of American debt, which is growing astronomically as the United States seeks to stimulate and stabilize its economy. Despite the deep seated distrust which has existed for sixty years between the two nations, it is essential that they work together.

Unfortunately, says Ferguson, even if Europe and Chimerica manage to finesse their differences, "This is a very unfair crisis. The epicentre is the United States, but the rest of the world, and particularly America's trading partners, will get hit harder than the U.S." That includes Canada. But because our economy -- unlike the economies of Asia -- is not wholly focused on exporting to the United States, things will not get as bad as they could get. That is small comfort.

We now know the downside of globalization. The brave new world of globalized trade hangs by a thread. As Ferguson has been warning for years, "it's a fragile system."