Monday, February 22, 2010

Ignorance Is Strength

There was a time when the Republican Party was a big tent. But, after the election of Ronald Reagan, the party marched further and further to the right -- until it now resembles The Party in George Orwell's novel, 1984. Orwell imagined a world in which -- twice a day -- the clocks struck thirteen; and in which -- once a day -- everyone dropped whatever they were doing to participate in The Two Minutes Hate. He left a vivid picture of that exercise:

Within thirty seconds, any pretense was unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

After reading accounts of last week's Conservative Party Action Conference, which was keynoted by Glenn Beck  -- a man with a history of drug abuse and mental instability -- one is left with the impression that something very much like that is afoot in the United States. The same kind of paranoia was on display at the Tea Party Convention two weeks ago, where Sarah Palin was the featured attraction. It does not take much imagination to conjure up a vision of the assembled multitudes shouting,"Love is Hate!" and "Freedom is Slavery!" instead of exhorting the former vice president to "Run, Dick, Run!"

What is even more distressing is the tendency of Republicans to throw the history of the past decade down the memory hole. This is most evident in their collective screed against government spending and deficits. In an article in last Wednesday's Toronto Star, David Olive challenged the notion that Democrats are the party of fiscal irresponsibility:

The biggest increases in national debt relative to GDP since the end of World War II have occurred during the tenures of Ronald Reagan (+18.5%),  George W. Bush (+11.9%) and George H. W. Bush (+11.2%). As for all important job growth, Democrats have occupied the White House for just one-third of the years since 1977, when Carter took office, but have accounted for roughly two-thirds of the job growth over that 32-year span.

As the accompany graph makes abundantly clear, the Republicans have been smoking something funny. Their claims are simply at odds with the facts. But facts -- and logical consistency -- seem to have no bearing on what is happening these days. 

Three weeks ago, President Obama  put forward legislation to establish a commission whose mandate would have been to study government finances and make recommendations for the future. It would have been modeled after the commission which reviewed Pentagon commitments and recommended closing military bases at the end of the Cold War -- and it was an idea which Republicans had touted. But, when push came to shove, seven Republicans -- who had co-sponsored the legislation -- voted against it, saying they would consider spending cuts but not tax increases.

When Obama set up such a commission by executive order last week, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson -- a  man whose use of barnyard humour causes some to mistake his brilliance -- declared that he wasn't "smokin' that same pipe;" and he expected "Rush Baby" to make him a target. Mr. Limbaugh should be forewarned: if he chooses to mock the former Senator, Mr. Simpson will make chicken feed of him.

In fact, the entire Republican program can't pass the barnyard test. John Kenneth Galbraith -- the Canadian  economist, whose father was a local politician in Ontario -- loved to tell a story of accompanying his father around the hustings when he was a child. Once, at a meeting of local farmers, the elder Galbraith -- finding  no stage upon which to stand -- mounted a manure pile and apologized to his audience for addressing them from his opponent's platform.

It's time the Democrats confronted Republican arguments head on. For, like The Party in Orwell's  novel, the Republican rallying cry is, "Ignorance is Strength!"

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What the Rest of the World Knows

Three weeks ago, Stephen Harper went to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. With his characteristic self satisfaction, he advised the participants that the nations of the world should follow a policy of "enlightened self interest." According to Don Tapscott, the movers and shakers were "underwhelmed." The international community took the measure of Mr. Harper some time ago; and The Economist expressed its collective opinion, when it declared that he is a man who acts out of "naked self interest."

That judgment was reinforced last week, with the release of a new international poll, indicating that Canada's standing in the world has fallen significantly since Mr. Harper's ascension. In China, the perception that Canada has a positive influence on world affairs has fallen from 75% in 2008 to 54% last year. In the United States, during the same period, Canada's positive image has fallen from 82% to 67%. And in Britain, which we used to call "the mother country," the numbers show a similar precipitous decline, from 74% to 62%.

Certainly, the government's disregard for environmental policy has a lot to do with those numbers. But I'm willing to bet that, when Mr. Harper touts Canadian financial institutions, the rest of the world knows that the stability of our banks has nothing to do with him. They remember that it was Paul Martin who put this country on a sound financial footing -- and who first floated the idea that the G8 should be expanded to the G 20. It was The Economist which eventually defined Mr. Martin as "Mr. Dithers." But it was also willing to give him his due. The magazine does not give Mr. Harper the same benefit. In Europe, at least, the prime minister is seen as a poseur, who takes credit where it is not due, and who shifts blame when it is due.

Mr. Harper's shell game was on full display at home last week, when the Prime Minister's Office launched an attack on the CEO of the Toronto Dominion Bank. Speaking to another economic conference in Florida, Ed Clark told his audience about a pre-budget conference which he and several others attended with the prime minister. "We had a meeting two weeks ago," he told his audience,"and almost every single person said raise my taxes. Get this deficit down." Unfortunately, Mr Clark said, Harper "doesn't listen, but you get to chat with him."

A day later, the PMO distributed an email, claiming that, "another member of Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff's so called 'economic brain trust,' Bay Street Banker Ed Clark, lectured Canadians from sunny Florida on our need to pay higher taxes." -- as if the bankers in Florida were somehow a cut above the hoi polloi in Switzerland. And, as if the policies which Mr. Martin and Mr. Chretien put in place back in 1993 had nothing to do with Canada's financial health.

The rest of the world knows that the Emperor has no clothes. So do the country's bankers. And the polls suggest that ordinary citizens are beginning to see what the Prime Minister looks like under that blue sweater.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Two Kinds of Revolt

This is a winter of discontent. But, North and South, the winds of revolt are blowing from opposite directions. This past weekend, Sarah Palin addressed the Tea Party Convention in Nashville. "How's that hope-y change-y stuff workin' out for ya?" she asked the angry crowd. Calling for a revolution, she proclaimed that what her country needed was "a commander-in chief, not a professor of law." It was precisely what the Know Nothing Party wanted to hear.

In The Great White North, the anger comes from the opposite direction. It isn't proroguing Parliament that feeds the public discontent, Rex Murphy declared from his new perch at The National Post. It is the Prime Minister himself. "As long as there is an 'edge' to Stephen Harper," Murphy wrote, "as long as a good swathe of the electorate has this visceral distrust with where he may want to lead the country, and he by tactic or tone feeds it, his ability -- even in this period of weak and uncertain Liberal fortunes -- to gain a true majority is greatly circumscribed."

If there is a common thread which ties Palin's Tea Partiers to Harper's Conservatives, it is that both parties know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. The Palinites don't see universal health care as an investment which will pay dividends down the road. And the Harperites see attempts to slow climate change as a cost to the petroleum industry.

That is why Michael Ignatieff's announcement last week that the Liberals will resurrect their daycare program -- which the Harper government replaced with piddling monthly cheques -- is an important marker. The deficit, Ignatieff declared, should not be used as an excuse to "shut down discussion in this country about social justice." The Conservatives may favour stay-at home-childcare, but it can't be done on $100 a month.

And Ignatieff's focus on the young is critical. It is true, as Jeffrey Simpson wrote last week, that few politicians are giving much thought to the social costs of aging. But it is equally true that government policy has been tilted -- for decades -- towards the needs of baby boomers. It is not enough to fulminate about the debt we are leaving our children. The real question is whether that debt is consumptive debt or invested debt. If we invest in the young, it will pay dividends in the future. Perhaps the single most significant thing the Tories did was to reduce the GST. They signaled that they were hellbent on consumption. And their attack on Stephane Dion's carbon tax was the same song with the same refrain.

Sarah Palin and Stephen Harper -- as well as their acolytes -- are lost in the past. They may huff and puff as much as they choose. But it's only hot air.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Wrecking Crew

Last October, Michael Bliss speculated that Stephen Harper was on the verge of becoming this country's next Mackenzie King: "The government's policies are broadly acceptable to Canadians," he wrote, "it continues to inch upward in the polls, and it would very likely eke out a majority in a general election today."

On Friday, he appeared again in the pages of The Globe and Mail, proclaiming that the public outrage at Mr. Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament was "a tempest in a teapot and the opposition parties are trying to keep it boiling." Instead, Bliss advised, the Opposition should "take a golden opportunity to rest, reconsider and recuperate." For Bliss, it's all a blip on the radar screen. He appears to favour the government's agenda; and the means of achieving that agenda is not an issue.

Because Mr. Harper and the recently retired American president have so obviously drunk from the same well, Mr. Bliss's opinions should be considered alongside those of Thomas Frank, whose book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, is a fascinating chronicle of the second Bush administration and its discontents. Frank says that neo-conservatives, like Bush and Harper, champion four key objectives once in office. First, they oppose bringing top notch talent into government service. Second, they wreck "established federal operations," because they disagree with them. Third, they make a cult of outsourcing and privatizing. And, finally, they pile up "an Everest of debt" in order to force government into crisis. The results are cataclysmic. "The ruination they have wrought has been thorough;" Frank writes, "it has been a professional job. Repairing it will take years of political action."

When one considers what the present government has done in office, the parallels are stark. The way it has treated Linda Keen, Paul Kennedy and Richard Colvin speaks volumes about its ability to attract and keep good talent. Its handbook advising caucus members on ways to obstruct government is a cynical attempt to shift blame. And Mr. Flaherty's last fiscal update mimics his colleague, former Ontario Education Minister John Snobelen, whose prescription for forcing change was to "create a crisis." The debris Mr.Snobelen left behind still clutters the province's schools.

Professor Bliss would have us believe that all it would take to change things would be for the opposition to have the courage of its convictions and force an election. But, as Mr. Frank makes clear, democracy is not just about elections. It's about what governments do between elections. And, the truth is that -- while Mr. Bush and Mr. Harper have no trouble with government -- they have a visceral hatred of responsible government. The issue is, how do citizens hold a government accountable between elections? Professor Bliss is unconcerned with that conundrum.

Joseph Campbell once remarked that the road to a full and a fulfilling life lay in "following your bliss." If, in the present circumstances, Canadians were to follow the good professor's advice, they would be collaborators in catastrophe.