Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Eye On The Future

In today's Globe and Mail, Micheal Ignatieff offers a response to those despicable attack ads that Conservatives ran from the day he became Liberal leader until the day he resigned that post -- the ones that ended with the tagline, "he didn't come back for you."

Even though the ads sought to paint Ignatieff as some kind of  untrustworthy oddity, Ignatieff reminds his readers that "nearly three million Canadians -- 9 percent of the population," live and work outside Canada:

Most of these expatriates are in the United States, but you can find Canadians everywhere: on oil rigs offshore in Ghana, in NGOs in African villages, hunkered down at United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, and in brokerage houses in Frankfurt, London and Beijing. Increasing numbers of our expatriates were born outside Canada, came to this country and now have moved on, taking their citizenship with them.

The Conservatives would have you believe that they are deadbeats -- freeloaders. They argue that once you leave, you can't come home again. There is, writes Ignatieff, "a weird insinuation: Why would anyone come home, unless you were just in it for yourself?" The Harperites have turned the old Canadian inferiority complex on its head and used it as a weapon. Returning home is a sign of failure, both internationally and domestically.

It is yet another sign that the Conservatives are a party of the old -- led by a fifty-two year old prime Minister who is so much older than his years.. He and they simply do not understand the young. Ignatieff writes:

So many of the young Canadians I meet want to be global citizens. They want to be expatriates. They want a life that includes a couple of years in Mumbai or Shanghai, a summer teaching English in Tanzania, a year or longer working for some company in South Korea.  
Young Canadians know which way the world is going, and they want to be out there, at the heart of the action. They are thinking about what a good life looks like and they know a good life might take them beyond our borders. Some won’t come home again, but others will, because they realize being away made them more Canadian, not less.

Ignatieff has his eye on the future.  Harper dreams of resurrecting the past.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reach For the Top?

 In Macleans recent survey of Canadian Prime Ministers, Stephen Harper occupies the middle ground. He is rated 11th out of 22. Wilfred Laurier comes in first; hapless Kim Campbell occupies the last spot. The top four prime ministers -- Laurier, MacDonald, King and Pearson carefully cultivated the political middle. So it's perhaps not surprising that Harper -- a man whose political raison d'etre has been to eliminate the political middle -- should only be rated average.

However, Lawrence Martin -- in today's Globe and Mail  -- claims that Harper has a shot at the top.The recent debate on back to work legislation for Canada Post showcased the country's extremes, Martin  writes:

But our harsher political divide is in no way reflected by a polarization in the country itself. As Canada approaches its 144th birthday, rarely have the bonds of unity been so strong. With the success of the Conservatives, western alienation, which spanned four decades as one Quebec prime minister after another led the country, has all but disappeared. For a longer time, the threat of Quebec secession was in the air. But, astonishingly, the near vanquishing of the Bloc Québécois has been followed by another stunner – the unravelling of a Parti Québécois that appeared ready to take power in the next provincial election.

That calm, says Martin, provides Harper with a golden opportunity. He may not be well loved,  but

politically, the glue of the old liberal middle is all but gone. With the new harsher mix of left and right, the noises will be louder. But rarely has the country been in better shape to cope and to move forward. The provinces and the regions are quiet. On the national unity front, it’s about as calm as Canada can be.

Martin is one of our best commentators. And, while it's true that the forces which have historically pulled Canadians apart are -- for the moment -- in stasis, my hunch is that there are more primal forces at work. George W. Bush once joked that his constituency was "the haves and the have-mores." Stephen Harper serves the same constituency.

As long as the have-nots accept their lot, Stephen Harper will ride above the roar. But if those who have been left behind in Harper's brave new world decide that they are mad as hell -- and if they take to the streets -- Kim Campbell may wind up looking better than Stephen Harper.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Defining The Government

The outcome was inevitable. The mail will be delivered on Tuesday. But the parliamentary filibuster was worth it. What we finally had in this country was a genuine debate. And the "Harper Government" -- remember that's the phrase they themselves chose  -- is finally being defined by the other side.

As Tim Harper notes in The Toronto Star, the Conservatives "have left no doubt they will use legislative muscle to blunt the inalienable right of workers to withdraw services as their last bargaining tool, even going as far as demand that workers accept less than their employer had offered."

It is true that 7 of 10 Canadians wanted their mail delivered. But it's a safe bet that  the government's path to that objective isn't going to sit well with a significant number of them. Likewise, the government's decision last week to stand alone on the side of the asbestos lobby will also alienate another significant portion of voters.

For years, Conservatives have declared that it's all about money. Government, they say, spends too much of it. But, once in power, it becomes clear that it's all about power -- the concentration of it. The Harperites were willing to legislate the employees of a private company back after one day. The have dictated the terms at Canada Post. They no doubt are congratulating themselves.

Voters in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida have discovered that they were played for chumps. If the opposition continues to successfully define the new government, it won't be long before some of its most ardent supporters begin to doubt the party of  "free choice."

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The New War On Crime

In his latest blog post, Alex Himelfarb warns that -- after the Canada Post filibuster is over -- the opposition should turn its attention to the government's omnibus crime bill. That bill takes its inspiration from the four decade old American war on crime. The problem is that several Americans, who have been front line soldiers in that war, have declared it a failure.

Consider Asa Hutchinson, the former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Hutchinson "is now saying that we in Canada should avoid their mistakes, singling out often unfair mandatory minimum sentences and insufficient investment in preparing prisoners for reintegration."

Jonathan Simon has written a blistering critique of the American war on crime. His book, Governing Through Crime compiles a list of the collateral damage:

Simon tells us that the policy not only drew on the fears of Americans, fears about crime, fears about the future, fears of “the other”, it validated and nurtured those fears. And, in so doing, created a self-perpetuating machine. Tough could never be tough enough. It wasn’t enough to take away an offender’s freedom, hard time had to become harder and longer. Any new incident, every grizzly crime begged for more intense punishment, more people in jail for longer. When crime continued to rise, that called for more of the same, redouble the punishments, build more prisons. That’s how policies that just about nobody believes make any sense – three strikes and your out, for example – become law.  A self-perpetuating machine.

And, despite the clear evidence of failure, the Harper government proposes to boldly go where the Americans have been before. Their policy meets Albert Einstein's definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.

The opposition is going to be very busy.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Facing Facts

My wife and I used to live a half hour away from the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec. My grandmother grew up on a farm just outside Thetford Mines. So asbestos is part of the family history. The problem is that the history of asbestos is fraught with pain, suffering and unnecessary death.

We have known for decades that asbestos, like tobacco, kills. But, like the presidents of the big tobacco companies, Canadian governments -- federal and provincial -- have lived in denial, claiming with Industry Minister Christian Paradis, that asbestos is safe when used  "in controlled circumstances."

As Susan Riley writes in today's Ottawa Citizen, the science is incontrovertible. As for  Paradis' defence of asbestos,

This claim has been roundly rejected by medical and scientific experts, including Peter Goodhand of the Canadian Cancer Society, who insists "all forms of asbestos, including the chrysotile asbestos mined in Quebec, cause cancer."

And yet this week, at a meeting  of the Rotterdam Convention in Switzerland,  Canada refused to recognize asbestos as a hazardous substance. Campaigning in Quebec in April, the prime minister promised that, "this government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where sale is permitted."

Asbestos used to be vital to the economy of the Eastern Townships. But, more than the health hazards of asbestos, the urbanization of Canada  led to the economic decline of that region. My grandmother was one of twelve children. Six stayed in Canada and moved west -- to Montreal, Ontario and Saskatchewan. Six boarded a train on the old Grand Trunk Railway and headed south to Portland, Maine, spreading out from there. When the population of the high school  where I used to teach declined from 1100 to 300, the four of us -- our two eldest sons were born in Sherbrooke -- headed west. Our third son was born in Ontario.

To this day, I love the Townships. There is no more beautiful place on the planet. But facts are facts. We had to face them and change our trajectory. The Harper government refuses to deal with facts. That is why we are fast becoming an international pariah.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Leaving Afghanistan

America has reached a crossroads.  And Barack Obama has a difficult road ahead, because it is his task to lead the nation into a world of limits. From the very beginning, Americans have seen their country as a land of infinite opportunity. And, as long as the frontier beckoned, anything seemed possible. It was the frontier, after all, which nurtured Abraham Lincoln.

Now another president from Illinois has told his fellow citizens, as Richard Cohen writes in The Washington Post, that "the American century is over." That knowledge will be a bitter pill for many. But America has been here before. Cohen writes:

I have heard this speech before. I heard echoes of Richard Nixon explaining “Vietnamization.” Gonna turn the war over to our stolid allies. We put them on their feet. We trained them. We supplied them. We schooled them at our elite military academies. They looked splendid in their uniforms. But when the U.S. pulled out, South Vietnam collapsed. It will happen again in Afghanistan. I think Obama knows that. He fought this war -- authorized the West Point surge -- because he did not know how to get out. Now, he does. As any previous president could have told him, it’s by getting out.

Some will see the retreat from Afghanistan, like the withdrawal from Vietnam, as a defeat. But the Vietnam War was a mistake. It was the wrong response at the wrong time. After 911, the enemy was Al Qaeda, not the Afghans; and Iraq had nothing to do with the attack on the World Trade Center.

It has taken awhile to put Vietnam in perspective. And it will take time to see the last decade -- with the benefit of hindsight -- clearly. Recognizing the finite nature of one's circumstances is the beginning of wisdom. And with that recognition comes another kind of wisdom. We are not merely citizens of the country of our birth or our choice. We are also citizens of the world -- a world that has always been finite.

This entry has been cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Post Mortem

In the latest edition of The Walrus, Warren Kinsella analyzes the reasons for The Liberals' disastrous election outcome. It's clear that he has little patience for Michael Ignatieff's strategic skills. More importantly, he claims that when Ignatieff had a chance to form an alliance with the NDP, he got cold feet. Others in both parties were talking of an alliance:

In the spring of 2010, a number of eminent Liberals (among them Jean Chrétien) and New Democrats (Ed Broadbent, Roy Romanow) started musing, once again, about bringing the two parties together — through co-operation, or a coalition. The impetus was simple: Harper and the Conservative Party were getting stronger; Ignatieff and the Liberals were getting weaker. Grassroots progressives were worried, too. After four years of a Conservative minority government, many in each party’s base were prepared to consider a coalition, despite concerns by some about the suitability of the right-leaning Ignatieff as its leader.

For Kinsella, Ignatieff's chief weakness was his  inability to recognize an opportunity when it presented itself  -- and his ability to confuse opportunity and disaster:

The second reason for the Liberals’ failure was the terrible strategic error of voting to defeat the government when they did. The Tories had been out polling the Grits for months and had an overwhelming fundraising and organizational advantage. Experienced senior Liberals, like campaign manager Gordon Ashworth, pleaded with Ignatieff to wait for the political environment to become more favourable. Despite all this, however, Ignatieff pushed for an election he could not win.

One can argue that Ignatieff was backed into a corner. He had to respond to the government's continued contempt for Parliament. For Kinsella, Ignatieff -- despite his smarts -- was simply a lousy politician. He admits that Ignatieff ran a good campaign; but Ignatieff failed to recognize, as Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, that "the ripeness is all."

Kinsella still sees some kind of Liberal-NDP merger as the way to defeat the Harper government. "Personally, [he writes] I’m motivated to do what Stephen Harper himself did and bring together like-minded partisans to do some good for the country." That conclusion -- and his analysis -- remains controversial. But Ignatieff's claim that he is "a teacher borne and bred" is an honest admission that politics isn't his forte. The next Liberal leader will have to be a consummate politician.

The Face Of The Conservative Revolution

Two stories this morning -- one in The Globe and Mail and the other in The National Post -- put the Conservative Revolution in perspective. In The Globe, John Ibbitson claims that the Conservatives still see themselves as underdogs. Their summer strategy is to shore up their beachhead around Toronto and to storm B.C.'s lower mainland, warning that the Liberals are coming. They hope to become "Canada's Party"

by convincing themselves and their supporters that the big, bad liberal elites are still Goliath and Mr. Harper’s Conservatives remain the underdogs, even if every shred of evidence suggests that it is the Tories who are the giants now.

Harper's Conservatives, born of Western alienation, arrived in Ottawa with a chip on their collective shoulder. That chip has grown bigger with their majority. But there is more than Western alienation behind the Harper Conservatives. There is a distinct world view which defines all Conservatives these days. That world view was best expressed by Scott Fitzgerald ninety years ago. "The rich," he wrote, "aren't like the rest of us."

And this morning, in The National Post, we have an illustration of that observation. Affidavits, filed by U.S. prosecutors, suggest that time behind bars has not humbled Conrad Black:

“Black initially demanded special treatment, expecting counsellors to prioritize his requests over those of other inmates,” said Tammy Padgett, the unit manager of Lord Black’s prison ward. “During the time that Black was at Coleman, I observed that he gathered a following of inmates who performed services for him, acting like servants,” she said in a two-page affidavit filed by U.S. prosecutors in advance of a June 24 re-sentencing hearing.

“These inmates cooked for Black, cleaned for him, mopped his floor, ironed his clothes and other similar tasks. This is not at all frequent at Coleman.”

Conservatives are convinced that class matters -- and that class distinctions, which have been fudged by the welfare state, need to be re-established. It's time, they proclaim, to reassert privilege.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

And So It Begins

True to its prime directive -- that the private sector can do anything better than government -- the Harper regime announced yesterday that it will close down Audit Services Canada, which -- according to The Globe and Mail --"bills itself as having 'a fifty year record of helping to improve public sector accountability and operations.'" What the announcement means is that 92 government auditors across Canada will lose their jobs and be replaced with an unspecified number of private contractors.

It's interesting -- and deeply revealing -- that the first job cuts made by this government  are to government auditors. This is the government which,  just two weeks ago, revealed that there was no paper trail to accompany G8 and G20 security costs. When John Baird and Tony Clement admitted to that "oversight," their defense was that they needed to expedite arrangements -- even those costs associated with Mr. Clement's riding.

And, yes, that would be the same Tony Clement who announced the death of Statistics Canada's long form census.  This is the same government which refused to offer complete cost estimates for its purchase of F35 jets and new federal prisons. This is the same government which insisted that reports on Afghan prisoners  not  be made in the usual way -- by memos to various government departments.

Perhaps Environment Minister Peter Kent will soon tell us that the government is trying to save trees. Stranger pronouncements have emerged from other ministers. But a pretty clear pattern has emerged over the last five years: This is a government which wants to leave no paper trails.

Evidence -- facts -- are this government's enemy. They undermine almost all of its policies. This is a government based on certain theological assumptions -- that unfettered markets are sacred; that social policy is an individual choice, not a communitarian one; that foreign policy is only credible if you can intimidate your rivals with hard power -- and that it's time to return to the strong and stable 1950's.

Never mind that the 1950's were neither strong nor stable. Never mind that they were dominated by paranoia and prejudice. For this Prime Minister --  born in 1959 -- they were a Golden Age. And so the march backwards begins.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Press Is The Enemy?

Two weeks ago, Conservative Party President John Walsh sent a missive to party supporters: "During this election campaign, we faced an onslaught of negative attacks like never before from the media, from pundits and from anti-Conservative lobby groups and union executives,” he wrote. The clouds were gathering: “The fear among the opinion establishment is that if our government is successful, and Canadians see the benefits of lower taxes, sensible and less-interventionist government and more personal freedom, the Conservative Party of Canada will continue to win future elections.”

Based upon Pamela Wallin's performance yesterday on CTV's Question Period, one would be well advised to take that forecast with a grain of salt. Debating Senate reform with the NDP's  David Christopherson, -- who suggested such basic constitutional change should be put to a referendum -- Wallin responded that the result of the last election, "in our system, sir, is a mandate."

When Christiopherson shot back that Wallin was being "arrogant and elitist," Ms. Wallin lost her cool. Mr. Christopherson, she said, was being "simplistic and ill informed."

Mr. Harper appears to be having some difficulty commanding the loyalty of certain Conservative senators. Obviously, Ms. Wallin is not one of them. She has undergone an interesting political evolution. Starting as a member of the NDP's Waffle, she was later appointed Consul General to New York by Jean Chretien, and -- most recently -- to the Senate by Stephen Harper. Harper also appointed former journalist Mike Duffy to the Senate. Both members of the chattering class are still chattering. But they know who the boss is.

Mr. Harper's strategy seems to be to co-opt whatever opinion makers he can -- and then use the same attack machine, which doomed Stephane Dion and Micheal Ignatieff, against the others. Our prime minister is quite a piece of work.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Future Is In The Hands Of The Young

Frank Graves has sifted through the entrails of the last election, trying to figure out why he and all the other pollsters didn't see Stephen Harper's majority coming. His conclusions merit careful attention:

 In a nutshell, what went wrong is that Mr. Graves created state-of-the-art methodology to effectively random survey the entire voting-age population. In doing so, he drew in a big segment of potential voters who use cellphones only – 15 per cent of the total, double the percentage in 2008. This segment of the voting-age population has been either excluded or underrepresented in conventional polling methodology. They tend to be younger and to belong to the more than 50 per cent of the electorate under the age of 45 who don't vote.

While Graves clearly identified two voting significant cohorts, the data on non voters is highly volatile. But when he revisited the data, Graves discovered that:

if under-45 Canadians had voted in the same proportion as over-45 Canadians, there would have been no Conservative majority but more likely an NDP-led coalition. 

Those non voters swung the election to the Conservatives. It is in the party's interest to keep non voters disengaged. And  appealing to the young does not appear to be part of the game plan. By micro-targeting voters and  programs to the over 45 crowd, the Conservatives have discovered how to win a majority with 24% of eligible voters.

Graves analysis does, however, show where opportunity lies. The party that can reach the young is the party of the future. The present government is devoted -- in the words of the American economist Paul Krugman -- to "eating the future."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Importance of Undergraduates

Jeffrey Simpson raises an important and controversial issue this morning. At Canadian universities, he writes, undergraduates are at the bottom of the totem pole:

They arrive at many campuses – this doesn’t apply at smaller schools – and spend the first two years in monster classes of hundreds and hundreds of fellow students. They might actually interact with a teaching assistant in a seminar, but face-to-face time with a professor would be rare. It’s a poor way to learn.

As the father of three sons -- two who have graduated, and  another -- God between us and all harm -- who will be heading to university in September, I know that the picture Simpson paints is accurate. Our two older sons  have received funding by serving as teaching assistants. I am grateful  that door has been open to them.

Simpson surely does not begrudge graduate students their ability to pay for their education. Nonetheless, his contention that

In most schools, and across the academic world, the professorial Holy Grail is research. Tenure and promotion, by and large, depend more on research and publications than teaching. (Again, there are scattered exceptions.) There are few sticks and carrots – or not enough of them – to get professors back in the classroom more frequently, which is the single best thing that might improve the quality of undergraduate education

is absolutely true. The people who generate a major portion of university funding "get the shaft."

The prime purpose of university is not the prime purpose of the faculty. That is not to say that there are not superb teachers on university faculties. Any of us who have been lucky enough to spend time in that world have encountered them. The problem is that the incentive system on campuses does not prioritize teaching. Governments should readjust funding formulae to focus efforts on undergraduate education.

Not only in education, writes Simpson, other areas of public policy, it's time to re-conceptualize the delivery of public services:

The biggest problem of public management today, and not just in higher education, is that public agencies lack systematic incentives to improve quality. Performance toward certain objectives that society has every right to demand for its tax dollars – a better undergraduate experience, better health-care delivery, better education results – is not adequately measured. Measurements are not compared and the financial results do not follow from those results.

 I rarely agree with  Mr. Simpson. But, as New Democrats and Liberals meet this weekend, restructuring the incentives which drive public policy should be at the top of their agendas.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Calm Before The Storm

Lawrence Martin, in this morning's Globe and Mail, makes a strong case for the ascendancy of Stephen Harper. Rarely have the stars aligned themselves so thoroughly in a Prime Minister's favour. He controls the House; he controls the Senate; he has absolute control of his party. Even the Parti Quebecois -- the bane of so many other Prime Ministers' existence -- seems to be imploding before him.

And, writes Martin, Harper is not going to tamper with fate by presenting the country with a grand vision and grand promises:

Lifelong politicians think first and foremost of politics. This Prime Minister is a lifelong politician. Policy is not his top priority; stacking the political deck is. Brian Mulroney and others have urged him to do something grand, and a case can certainly be made that now’s the time to do it. But you get the idea that Mr. Harper has developed a strong sense of what governments are defeated by and that he will devote much energy to avoiding those traps.

Mr. Harper has been very good at stacking the deck. However, that is also his weakness. His government -- and yesterday's budget -- favours winners. The last thirty years have seen an international order which favours winners. Harper has not come to power by rowing against the current. But, as several commentators -- including the Globe's John Ibbitson -- have pointed out, things change once the people who have been dealt a lousy hand organize:

In the past, when governments have swung the axe aggressively to save money, people have taken to the streets. Labour has brought its workers to the lawns of legislatures. Brian Mulroney and Mike Harris faced major demonstrations and public-servant strikes.

But people don’t seem to demonstrate against the Harper government, apart from the odd smatterings of curmudgeons who show up at this event or that. The unpleasantness at the G20 summit last June was more about globalization in general.

"Will people take to the streets?" Ibbitson asks. Regardless, the Conservatives are hell bent on making drastic cuts, while they spend huge sums for jets, overseas military bases and jails for "unreported" criminals. It's pretty clear that the budget cuts will hit the youngest the hardest. The deck has been stacked against them. That's what Brigette Depape's act of civil disobedience was all about last Friday.

In this age of social media -- which Ms. Depape and her generation understand very well -- it would be wise to recall the summer of 1968.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

It's Not Just The Young

It's not just the young who understand what Brigette Depape's protest was about. There are members of my own generation who understand what has happened in the last thirty years. Some -- like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich -- keep trying to deliver the message. However, as academic economists, they are working at a disadvantage.

There is a significant part of the population who are skeptical of anyone from the academy who tries his or her hand at politics. John Perkins comes from a much different background. As a former employee of Charles T. Main of Boston, he has served as an enabler of the kind of economic policies which have been sacrosanct for the last thirty years. He has also documented the disasters which have followed in their wake.

In a recent interview with Amy Goodman, Perkins -- the author of Confessions of An Economic Hitman -- talks of the havoc he helped cause; and he worries about the future which his grandson will inherit. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, he has undergone his own conversion.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Times They Are A Changin'

Elizabeth May and Carolyn Bennett think it was "inappropriate." But what Brigette Depape did yesterday is not a one day story. Her generation has the most to lose from a Harper government -- and they know it.

They also know that the Harper government commands the "respect" of 24% of Canadian voters.

The times they are a changin'. Ms. May, Ms. Bennett -- and Mr. Harper -- be forewarned.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Headed in the Wrong Direction

On the day that the U.S unemployment rate went up for the second month in a row, Paul Krugman wrote that: "To be sure, things could be worse — and there’s a strong chance that they will, indeed, get worse." History is repeating itself. Unfortunately, The Great Depression occurred eighty years ago, and today's politicians have no long term memories and very short attention spans:

Somehow it became conventional wisdom that the deficit, not unemployment, was Public Enemy No. 1 — a conventional wisdom both reflected in and reinforced by a dramatic shift in news coverage away from unemployment and toward deficit concerns. Job creation effectively dropped off the agenda.

Krugman warned back in 2008 that the stimulus package was too small and too short lived. His opinion was considered too radical by those who supposedly knew better. Those who "knew better" had not just found a home in Washington. They were also ensconced in Europe. The same economic stagnation has been occurring there for sometime.

If there is one consistent reaction from those in power, it is what the American historian Barbara Tuchman has called "wooden-headedness" -- which inevitably leads to folly. Tuchman wrote that foolish policy is marked by three identifying characteristics. It

1) “must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight;” 2) “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available,” and; 3) that alternative must have been in existence beyond the life of a single individual and recommended over time by significant political opposition.

Krugman and other economists like Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz warned that the response in 2008 was an example of folly. Time has proved them right. The question is: Is anybody listening?

Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Sense of Balance

In his recent book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, John Ralston Saul writes of this country's deep aboriginal roots, which have profoundly influenced how Canadians view the world and themselves. One of the values Canadians cherish, Saul writes, is a sense of balance -- balance between man and nature, balance between us and others, balance between rich and poor.

It is precisely the balance between rich and poor which neo-liberalism -- and the Harper government -- threatens. Everywhere the economic policies of the Chicago School have been applied, there has been stark -- and rising -- inequality.

In a recent blog post, Alex Himelfarb reminds his readers of the work of Karl Polyani. Polyani understood the power of the word freedom. But freedom means many things -- and the problem with neo-liberalism is that it defines freedom as "economic freedom."

Polanyi warned some sixty years ago against a narrow economic definition of freedom that could too easily mean freedom from our obligations to others and, at worst, the freedom to abuse and exploit. For Polanyi, such an approach meant real freedom for the few, not the many, and was built on delusion, the pretense that earnings reflect only individual effort and merit, rather than the contributions of many and the investments of previous generations more willing than we to pay their taxes – not to mention the role of luck and inheritance. Polanyi rejected the notion that the economy, the market, was the basis for all human organization and freedom. Instead, he viewed the economy – and freedom as well – as embedded in society.

Polyani feared that such a narrow emphasis on economic freedom would lead to a deep social schism between those who were devoted to protecting their privilege and those who were protecting themselves from the privileged.

It's clear that Stephen Harper is profoundly ignorant of Canada's Aboriginal roots. His long term goal is to bury those influences and replace them with a more European -- and, frankly, a more American -- philosophy of government. Whoever wins the battle for balance will affect the long term future of this country.