Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spinning the Absurd

"The Harper government's spin machine," Jeffrey Simpson wrote this week, "is so pervasive and over the top, daily exposure leads to the dilemma of laughing or crying." This is particularly true when the propagandists assume their usual self congratulatory tone and trumpet claims about Canada which are clearly untrue:

As in, Canada is "a clean energy superpower," a claim demonstrably false by any conceivable international measure. As in, Canada is "a free trade leader," a claim belied, among other yardsticks, by being shut out of the Pacific trade talks and being an obstacle to a deal at the World Trade Organization, both courtesy of agricultural supply management. As in, Canada is an economic model for debt management, a claim destroyed last week by the OECD, which lumped personal, provincial and federal debt together and showed Canada to be among the most indebted of member countries.

The Harper crew is nothing if not boastful. But the party line in defence of the purchase of new F-35 fighter jets has taken spinning the absurd to a new level. The new mantra is that we need the jets to defend ourselves from a Russian attack. Thus, we were told that our old CF 18's recently convinced a Russian bomber -- a prop driven aircraft which has been flying patrols in international air space since the beginning of the Cold War -- to head back home, as it has been doing for fifty years.

The story has all the ear marks of little boys showing the other kids in the neighbourhood their new toys -- a clear case of "Mine is bigger than yours." It should be funny. But, in truth, it's offensive. In both Canada and the United States we have elected leaders who have no experience of war. This writer is among those who have not known combat. And, while I would not wish that experience on anyone, it's clear to me that those who have been caught in the middle of a war have a much different mindset than those who now give the orders to dispatch soldiers around the world.

My father's generation -- those who managed to come home from World War II -- were not boastful. They lost spouses, family members and friends to bigger and better weapons. They understood war in terms of human cost and human loss. They saw human cruelty up close. And, having been there, they did not want to return. When he came home, my father refused to keep a gun in the house, saying he had had enough of them during the war. And, he said, he owed his survival to "pure dumb luck."

He passed away last year -- having voted for the Harper government in 2006. But I cannot imagine that he would nod approvingly at the PMO's latest absurdity. He had the kind of experience which is beyond the comprehension of Mr. Harper his silly band of patriots.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Marching Toward Insanity

On Thursday, outside a hardware store in suburban Washington, the Republicans unveiled their platform for the midterm election, calling their document A Pledge to America. The prologue was full of traditional Republican boilerplate:

We pledge to advance policies that promote greater liberty, wider opportunity, a robust defense, and national economic prosperity.
We pledge to honor families, traditional marriage, life and the private and faith based organizations that form the core of our American values.

The problem -- as with any political platform -- is that the devil is in the details. And a close reading of "The Pledge" reveals that Republicans, indeed, plan to give the devil his due. Specifically, they propose to:

1. Roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving at least $100 billion dollars in the first year alone.
2. Repeal and replace the government take over of health care.
3. Make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

There is a great deal in the document about the tyranny of big government. But, as Paul Krugman points out, the Republican platform is essentially a "war on arithmetic:"

The document repeatedly condemns federal debt -- 16 times by my account. But the main substantive policy proposal is to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, which independent estimates say would add $3.7 trillion to the debt over the next decade -- about $700 billion more than the Obama administration's tax proposals.

There is a legitimate argument to be made about when the Bush tax cuts should be phased out. And it bears repeating that the plan was, indeed, to phase them out. But what Republicans really want is to enter a time warp -- to return to a time when the Bush economic program was in place, and when there was no national health insurance program.

However, they want more than that: they want to privatize social security. Taking their cue from former House Leader Dick Armey, a number of Republican candidates now refer to Social Security as a "ponzi scheme." Not only do they want to roll back Obamacare. They want to roll back the New Deal.

Never mind that the financial meltdown of 2008 proved exactly why Social Security should not be privatized. Never mind that Bush's own advisers warned that the cost of administering a private social security program would rise from 0.9% to 5%. That is all minutiae. The real problem, they say, is government.

That was Ronald Reagan's line. We now have thirty years of data on the success of Reagan's experiment. Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." What "The Pledge" makes clear is that losing the 2008 election has driven the Republican Party crazy.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Harry Knew and Stephen Doesn't

As the government's attempt to scrap the long gun registry goes down to defeat, it is already plotting its next move. Having erected billboards in the ridings of MP's who previously voted against the registry, it is now revving up its election rhetoric, claiming that the death of the registry is an example of what would happen if Canada was governed by "a separatist coalition."

In a speech at the Chateau Laurier yesterday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty began fanning the flames of paranoia. He has given this speech before:

Under an Ignatieff-NDP-Bloc Quebecois government, nothing would be safe. No part of our economy would be spared. No taxpayer would avoid the hit. Any coalition that would give the NDP access to taxpayer's wallets should strike fear in regular Canadians. What's more, any coalition that would give a veto on national policy to a party dedicated to the break up of our country is unacceptable.
A review of recent history reveals that the Harper government recognized Quebec as "a nation within a nation." A review of more ancient history reveals that less than fifty years ago -- when the country elected successive minority governments -- Parliament brought in the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare and a Canadian flag. These achievements required cooperation.

Both Mr. Layton and Mr. Ignatieff have suggested that all parties work to fix the weaknesses in the registry. But Mr. Harper and company are a peculiar species. They appear to have been born without a cooperative gene in their bodies. More importantly, they appear to have no sense of history. And, therefore, they are ill equipped to face the future.

Harry Truman said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." If there is one thing that is striking about the Harperites, it is how rarely they refer to historical precedent. Their ignorance of history goes a long way to explain their inability to make inroads in Quebec. That ignorance -- and Mr. Harper's appalling people skills -- are the reasons he leads a minority government.

Deborah Grey once said of the Prime Minister, "People skills? He was more fond of policy. Constituency work seemed like a grind to him." Like Richard Nixon, he is an introvert who is deeply suspicious of those around him. He sees opponents as enemies; and the paranoia his mistrust breeds makes cooperation with them impossible.

When it came to Richard Nixon, President Truman did not mince words: "Richard Nixon is a no good lying bastard," he said. "He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in."

It's clear that, in the coming election, the government will try to scare voters to death. If Canadians have a sense of history -- and if they remember what happened to Richard Nixon -- they will send Mr. Harper and company to the opposition benches.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

When Lunacy Masquerades As Scholarship

In the most recent edition of Forbes Magazine, Dinesh D'Souza writes that "Barack Obama is the most antibusiness president in a generation, perhaps in American history." Given the renewed health of Wall Street and the fact that General Motors is once again turning a profit, D'Souza's assertion is certainly suspect.

But even more suspect is what Newt Gingrich has called D'Souza's "stunning insight" into Obama's character. D'Souza, claims that -- you've heard this one before -- the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. He first paints a scurrilous portrait of the president's father. "So who was Barack Obama Sr?" he asks:

He was a Luo tribesman who grew up in Kenya and studied at Harvard. He was a polygamist who had, over the course of his lifetime, four wives and eight children. One of his sons, Mark Obama, has accused him of abuse and wife beating. He was also a regular drunk driver who got into numerous accidents, killing a man in one and causing his own legs to be amputated due to injury in another. In 1982 he got drunk in a bar in Nairobi and drove into a tree, killing himself.

The president is not the first man to have had a no count for a father. He's certainly not the first president who has risen from less than auspicious circumstances. President Reagan's father had a less than healthy taste for strong brew. And President Clinton's stepfather -- whose name Clinton bears -- could be, we are told, a very hard man. None of us gets to choose our parents.

But having maligned the senior Obama, D'Sousa then goes on to assert that the president is living out his father's frustrated dreams. Like his father, D'Sousa writes, the president is an anti-colonialist:

From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father's position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder. Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America. In his worldview, profits are a measure of how effectively you have ripped off the rest of society, and America's power in the world is a measure of how selfishly it consumes the globe's resources and how ruthlessly it bullies and dominates the rest of the planet.

These assertions seem to be directly at odds with Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan. But D'Souza simply ignores Afghanistan. In fact, the whole article ignores facts which contradict its central assertions. It is an example of argument from innuendo; and, as scholarship, it is pure bunk.

Mr. D'Souza is a graduate of Dartmouth. He is currently president of King's College in New York City. Mr. Gingrich holds a doctorate from Tulane. Both men are reputedly smart fellows. One wonders. . .

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Failed Elite

"What is a failed elite?" John Ralston Saul asks in his most recent book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. He then answers his own question:

One afraid of ideas, afraid to talk to the citizenry through ideas, afraid to encourage the wide discussion of ideas in order to find the basis for its actions, unable to act except in a veiled or populist manner, afraid of the idea of power except as an expression of interests. A failed elite would rather sell than buy, rather trade in wealth than create it. They would rather be employees than owners, managers than risk takers. Some people believe that elites fail because of their particular ideology. But ideologies are usually the refuge of the fearful.

When looking back on the four years since the Harper government came to power, it is remarkable to note how its prime directive has been fear: fear of debt; fear of "unreported crime;" fear of the other -- whether they be Tamils, Muslims or "a separatist coalition."

They are not the only failed elite. Much the same can be said of the Opposition, and -- in the United States -- the second Bush administration, and now the Tea Party, which is overwhelmingly white and wealthy. As time passes, failed elites become increasingly divorced from the citizenry they supposedly serve. James Travers, in yesterday's column, notes that trend in Ottawa:

Always a place apart, the village huddled below the Peace Tower is less and less like, or connected to, the rest of the country. Insulated from the worst of hard times and obsessed with scoring partisan points, the national capital has lost touch with Canadians focused more on pressing personal and local issues.

Our leaders, Saul says, refuse to recognize that "we are a Metis nation," which has historically been committed to the Aboriginal concept of the ever expanding circle. Instead, taking their cue from Mike Harris' so called "Common Sense Revolution," they see Canadians as a collection of interest groups to be played off one against the other. Their strategy -- divide and conquer -- is as old as it is inappropriate for this country.

Saul points out that, like Canada's aboriginal peoples, we have traditionally negotiated solutions to problems -- like national health care or Quebec separatism. Quite simply, we solve problems by talking our way through them. The Harper government has a hard time talking its way through anything. When things get sticky, it prorogues Parliament. It would much rather proclaim policy, as it did this summer with its decision to eliminate the long census form.

The result is anger and cynicism everywhere -- sure signs that our so called "best and brightest" are intellectually exhausted.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Now Is The Time

Last week, in Cleveland, Barack Obama took inspiration from a former Republican president. "In the words of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln," Obama said, "I also believe that government should do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves."

The Republicans have travelled a long way since Lincoln's election. The Party of the Little Man still claims that title. But its policies belie that claim. For the last thirty years, Republicans have given their blessing to a growing income gap. And, today, as they stand four square with the wealthy, Obama is right when he says:

Make no mistake: [They] believe we should also give a permanent tax cut to the wealthiest two percent of Americans. With all the other budgetary pressures we have -- with all the Republicans' talk about wanting to shrink the deficit -- they would have us borrow $700 billion over the next ten years to give a tax cut of about $100,000 to folks who are already millionaires. These are among the only folks who saw their incomes rise when Republicans were in charge.

David Frum claims that Republicans have branded themselves the party of fear and anger. But they have no program. If, as some pundits expect, they take control of Congress in November, they

will arrive pre-exhausted, without ideas, ready to do business with K Street from Day 1. This is not good news. But it's also unfortunately not surprising news. For 24 months an emotionally intense opposition to the president has been unsupported by anything like a Republican policy agenda.

And it is that vacuum at the center of the Republican Party which is so deeply troubling. Up to this point they have, indeed, made something out of nothing. If the Democrats are to succeed in November, they will have to convince Americans that anger and fear are no substitutes for ideas. But that won't give them control of the agenda. For that to happen, Obama will have to convince a majority of voters that he understands their frustrations and that he is in it for them.

Bill Moyers likes to tell the story of the relationship which existed between his father -- a modestly educated man -- and Franklin Roosevelt. Apparently, the two never met. But, Moyers wrote, "When Roosevelt was president, [my father] knew he had a friend in the White House."

Obama's single greatest failure to date has been his inability to convince ordinary folks that they have a friend in the White House. The speech in Cleveland could be a turning point. But it's late in the game.

Now is the time for the president to return to the rhetoric which got him elected.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Harper

Canada's "new" Conservative Party -- and its Prime Minister -- were diagnosed long ago by Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson understood that even the most humane person has a dark side, which is only held in check by social convention. The problem for Conservatives -- as James Laxer recently noted -- is that they are only conservative when they are held in check by a strong opposition. And -- at least until recently -- that opposition has been pretty feeble.

The Harperites' dark souls are really libertarian; and, as libertarians, they hate conventions -- any conventions, whether they are census forms, long gun registries, or the institution of Parliament itself. Their ultimate goal is to free themselves of limits -- any limits. Their problem is that Canadians are suspicious of their intentions.

So, at election time, Mr. Harper dons a blue sweater -- the equivalent of a white lab coat -- makes his rounds, and adopts his best bedside manner. Once elected, he retreats into the basement, mixes up that potion of mean spirited policies, and attempts to accomplish by stealth what he can't accomplish in the light of day.

The problem would be difficult enough if Harper were the only Hyde in the party. But, as James Travers observes in Thursday's Toronto Star, there are other Hydes lurking in the party's basement. In the run up to the vote on the long gun registry, two lesser Hydes -- James Bezan and Garry Breitkreuz -- have found their way out of the lab. Bezan

hee-hawed his way on to You Tube -- complete with horse and cowboy hat -- and Breitkruez mused about a clandestine police scheme to wrench guns from cold Canadian hands. Along with looking and sounding foolish, the two Conservative MP's exposed the soft underbelly of a Harper strategy that once seemed bulletproof.

The problem for Dr. Jekyll the Prime Minister is that he finds it increasingly difficult to control his dark side. It shows up at very inopportune times -- during elections, for instance -- and in the lazy days of summer, when he thinks Canadians aren't paying attention. Now he finds it hard to control the lesser Hydes within his party.

We all know how the story ends.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Labour Day, 2010

Last week, as we drove into downtown Toronto, my wife spotted a fellow sleeping on a bench. He was covered with a green garbage bag. Luckily, the week had been unseasonably warm. The poignancy of his situation hit us with some force because, two hours earlier, we had watched a clip about a house which had recently come on the market in Edmonton, Alberta. It was a cavernous place, equipped with the latest technology, including a driveway complete with several drains and submerged electric cables. The owner would part with his property for a mere $5.25 million.

In Canada, there is something faintly ridiculous about owning a heated driveway. It conjures up images of pre-World War II France, sitting smugly behind the Maginot Line, certain that it could avoid invasion -- either by the Germans or the armies of Old Man Winter. In four months time, the guy on the bench will be scrambling to find whatever protection he can.

I thought of him again when we got home and I read Bob Herbert's column in Saturday's New York Times. Herbert told the story of sixteen janitors who had been laid off from their jobs at a "luxury complex" owned by J.P. Morgan Chase. The janitors had been paid the princely sum of $13.50 an hour. Herbert noted wryly that each janitor's weekly take home pay "wouldn't cover Jamie Dimon's [Morgan Chase's chief executive] dinner tab." Morgan Chase's second quarter profit was $4.8 billion.

And so, on this Labour Day -- in both Canada and the United States -- we find ourselves facing The Great Divide. The numbers of the homeless and the unemployed are growing exponentially, while the captains of the economy -- thanks to taxpayer bailouts -- continue to proper, moving from one palace to another.

In the meantime, the word "shared" -- as in "shared risk," "shared sacrifice," "shared responsibility" and (as Robert Reich has pointed out ) "shared prosperity" -- has disappeared from the public lexicon. The irony, as Reich also observes, is that the economy will never recover unless and until we rediscover a sense of shared prosperity.

Labour Day used to be about shared prosperity. Today, with only 7% of the private workforce unionized, there is little to celebrate. The fellow on the bench knows that. He is easy to ignore. But we ignore him at our peril.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.