Sunday, January 25, 2015

Neo-Liberalism: The Undying Monster


Neo-Liberalism came to Canada long before Stephen Harper came to Ottawa. It was ushered into public policy by Brian Mulroney, who privatised crown corporations like Air Canada and Petro Canada. Jean Chretien and Paul Martin contributed to its juggernaut by signing NAFTA and by introducing fiscal restraint.

But Donald Gurstin argues in his book, Harperism: How Stephen Harper And His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, that neo-liberalism's entrenchment in this country is the result of the long hard work of organizations like the Fraser Institute, the Frontier Centre and the Macdoanld-Laurier Institute:

As of this writing in mid-2014, a tightly knit, smoothly operating neo-liberal propaganda system has been installed in Canada. The foundations of wealthy businessmen, corporations, and individuals are investing more than $26 million a year in neo-liberal think-tanks and single-issue advocacy organizations. (This figure doesn’t include Calgary’s School of Public Policy, whose financial statements are buried within the university’s accounts.) The long-term goal is to discredit government as a vital institution and to champion market alternatives.

As a result of the massing on the right, the political space is crowded with a seemingly endless flow of studies, reports and commentaries supporting neoliberal perspectives. Of course, people are not automatons who blindly internalize these messages. But gradually, and especially as a result of constant repetition, some ideas rise to prominence, while others fade away. People are presented with a changing set of ideas from which they must make selections to make sense of their world: economic freedom and school choice are unqualified good things; the tax burden is burdensome and requires relief; government is inefficient because it harbours bloated bureaucracies and overpaid public employees; the private sector is hobbled by red tape; and so on.

As a result of the constant drumbeat from the Right, neo-liberal ideas have assumed the status of axioms; and they made Stephen Harper's success appear inevitable. The damage has been catastrophic:

He’s hobbled government’s long-standing social-democratic obligations by slashing revenues to their lowest levels — in relation to the size of the economy — they’ve been at in fifty years, when the state first implemented its major social programs. One estimate pegs Harper’s tax cuts at $45 billion a year in foregone revenues. With total revenues at about $250 billion, that’s nearly a 20 per cent cut. Call it privatization by default. If there’s not enough money in the public coffers to finance health care, post-secondary education and rising old age security needs, they will have to be provided by the private or voluntary sectors or by individuals.

But Mr. Harper's success was never inevitable. It has only been possible because the Right has understood what Goebbels meant by the Big Lie. If you repeat a lie often enough, people will assume that it is true.

The Great Recession should have proven that neo-liberalism was a Big Lie. But, thanks to the think tanks, it keeps re-appearing -- like Frankenstein's monster in those old Universal sequels.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

That Grievance Mentality


Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address this week. Here are a few highlights:

  • We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions.”
  • “We still need … a higher minimum wage.”
  • “Free community college is possible.”
  • “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.”
  • “Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 per cent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth.”
  • “No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”

Jeffrey Simpson writes:

Could any Canadian imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying such things? If Mr. Harper were a U.S. legislator, he would have been sitting in the House of Representatives chamber with the sullen-looking Republicans. The Republicans might have chosen Senator or Congressman Harper to deliver their critical reply to the President’s address.

The speech made clear just how much distance there is between Harper and Obama. I suspect that Obama really has little use for Harper -- a suspicion that is bolstered by Harper's cancellation of the Three Amigos Conference:

With political optics defining almost everything in Ottawa, the Harper government dreaded a late-February meeting in Canada featuring Mr. Harper, Mr. Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Planning had been proceeding until the Harper government abruptly announced it was pushing back the meeting until some unspecified later date.

What Ottawa dreaded was the public airing, on Canadian soil, of disputes over Keystone XL and Canadian visa requirements on Mexicans. This would not have looked good, since it would have underscored how clumsily the Harper government has played both files.

What has sent Canadian-American relations south, Simpson writes, is Harper's "grievance mentality:"

A grievance mentality has settled over the Harper government because of Keystone XL, which Mr. Obama obviously opposes, although no final decision has been rendered.

The grievance mentality is deepened by the sense that the Americans have given nothing in return for Canadian participation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the venue Canada provided for the U.S.-Cuba talks. Things have improved a bit, but they got so bad a while ago that the U.S. ambassador to Canada had to get Prime Minister’s Office’s approval for meetings with cabinet ministers.

That grievance mentality, however, does not confine itself to Canadian-American relations. It defines everything Stephen Harper does. It shows through in his dealings with Parliament, with the provinces, with evironmental groups -- with anyone who opposes his agenda.

Harper came into politics with a chip on his shoulder -- a chip which has only grown bigger over the years. The man is the walking definition of  "grievance mentality."

Friday, January 23, 2015

Going To War In His Armchair


Stephen Harper told us that there would be no boots on the ground. It turns out there are, and they're on the front lines. Michael Harris writes:

At some point, a Canadian soldier is going to be captured or killed in action. The prime minister will hold a sorrowful press conference — without taking any questions. The emotional dividend from these inevitable events will be used by his hawkish administration to justify a more “robust” response — i.e. more boots on the ground to protect our forces. And so on … until it’s Afghanistan Redux.

Those of us with longer memories might call it Vietnam Redux:

This, of course, is exactly how the Americans eased their way into the war in Vietnam after the French were whipped. That initial helping hand to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam turned into a military operation that dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than were dropped in the entire Second World War — and the Americans still lost.

It ended on April 29, 1975, with a desperate airlift of U.S. citizens from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, as the Viet Cong overran the city. It was a war that started with trainers and advisers. It ended with the deaths of more than fifty thousand U.S. soldiers — and 3.8 million Vietnamese. So forgive me if the “trainer” explanation rings a little hollow.

And, if anyone in the Harper government actually read history, they might have paid attention to the Russian experience in Afghanistan:

Before the Americans showed up with their army, the Russians were the occupiers. They tried to force changes on an ancient society which didn’t see the world through western eyes. The result was a bitter war that the Russians lost to an alliance of local forces — including the Mujahideen, which gave the world the CIA’s most famous trainee: Osama Bin Laden.

It is instructive to read through the dispatches from Russian generals trying to tell Moscow it was losing the war. The Politburo ignored the warnings, wanting only good news from the front — the kind of news that reinforces the idea that the war is “working.”

But Mr. Harper is an armchair general. He knows nothing of war -- and nothing of history.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tearing Away At The Nation's Core


The Harper government is busy preparing new anti-terror legislation. But, Colin Kenny writes in today's Toronto Star, we don't need new legislation. We need adequate funding of the institutions which apply the laws we already have:

No less than eight pieces of anti-terrorism legislation have successfully passed through Parliament since the Twin Towers fell. These laws made comprehensive changes to Canada’s legal landscape to ensure the country has the powers it needs to prevent terrorism.
Harper himself has acknowledged this, stating just recently to the press that, “the reality is that our security agencies are able, in the vast majority of cases, to identify threats that are out there and to prevent them from coming to fruition.”

So why the new legislation? The prime minister believes it is an all important a wedge issue:

Harper sees the passage of further counterterrorism legislation in Parliament, no matter how unnecessary, as a valuable wedge issue that will help with his re-election.
Last year, the prime minister’s handlers went to great lengths casting him as a reincarnated Ronald Reagan on the world stage, unafraid in staring down the Russian bear.

Now, they’re trying to burnish this tough guy image by having Harper pretend he’s making big strides in combating terrorists by passing superfluous laws.

It's all about votes at home. It's always been about votes at home.

Mr. Harper's economic strategy has also always been about votes at home. Yesterday, the Bank of Canada drove another nail into his economic strategy. While he has been buying votes, he has also been shredding the nation's core principles -- something he will continue to do with his new anti-terror legislation.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

They Didn't Know What They Were Doing Or . . .


In last Sunday's New York Times, Paul Krugman tried to answer the question, "Why do conservatives hate good government?" His answer was pretty convincing:

Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure. I’m partial to that story, partly because it helps explain why climate science and health economics inspire so much rage.

What they seek to establish is a rigid, class society -- where everyone knows his or her place. In today's Toronto Star, Carol Goar argues that Stephen Harper is well on his way to establishing such a society, where movement between the classes is non-existent. A poll from Pollara suggests that:

A substantial chunk of the adult population — 45 per cent — is trapped below the middle class. They think they’re stuck there for life, no matter how hard they work.

“The key finding (of the poll) is that Canadians have very low confidence in their social mobility.They don’t think they can move up.”

Consider some of the poll's other numbers:

  • Half of Canadians (49 per cent) said they were worse off financially than their parents.

  • More than half (55 per cent) were pessimistic about the employment outlook for their adult children.

  • Eight out of 10 working Canadians said their salaries were not keeping pace with the cost of living.

  • More than three-quarters (79 per cent) were worried about being able to afford health care as they aged.

  • A sizeable majority (85 per cent) agreed that “income inequality is no longer about the gap between rich and poor; but between the very rich and everyone else.”

  • As Reformers, the Harperites sold themselves as the champions of the little man. But once in power, they became the little man's worst enemy. With everything they have touched, the Harperites have produced the opposite of what they promised.

    Either they didn't know what they were doing. Or they lied.

    Tuesday, January 20, 2015

    The Rooster's Mistake


    Since coming to office, Alan Freeman writes, Stephen Harper has had an incredible run of good luck:

    The Liberals had bequeathed the Tories a sound fiscal situation and a string of surpluses, so much so that in its early years, the Harperites could cut taxes and still boost spending on their favourite causes like the military, with seemingly no consequences. They also inherited a well-regulated banking system and an earlier ban on bank mergers that meant no Canadian bank was big enough to swagger on the world stage and do the kind of foolish things their U.S. and UK counterparts ended up doing. These factors, the consequence of Tory fortune rather than policy decisions, made a real difference when the financial crisis hit.

    But the Tories’ real stroke of luck was that resource prices, particularly oil but also coal, iron ore and other commodities, remained strong even after the financial crisis, reflecting China’s continued growth. As manufacturing in central Canada collapsed, the West surged, filling federal coffers and providing jobs to unemployed workers from Central and Eastern Canada.

    What’s more, real-estate prices not only didn’t dip, they kept roaring ahead. Again, luck was the major factor at play. Like other bubbles, Canada’s real-estate boom was powered by its own internal logic, as well as low interest rates. It didn’t really make any sense but the politicians weren’t about to complain. When it came time to vote, Canadians peered south of the border and saw devastation when it came to employment and house prices. Canada was doing pretty well so they held their noses and voted for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in 2008 and 2011.

    Perhaps appointing Jim Flaherty as Minister of Finance bestowed the Luck of the Irish on Harper. But that luck has run out:

    The collapse in the price of oil isn’t the fault of Harper or his hapless finance minister, Joe Oliver, but neither was the run-up in the price to their credit either. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of fortuitous circumstances. The problem occurs when you take that luck for granted, promising tax cuts and a return to surplus when prudence would have told you to hold off.

    Harper has made the rooster's mistake. He has assumed that, because he crows, the sun comes up every morning. He's still crowing -- but the sun is setting.

    Monday, January 19, 2015

    The Poisoned Well Of Information


    Will Colonel Sanders get the chickens to vote for him again? That, Michael Harris writes, is the question which the next federal election will turn on. And, given what has happened to the Canadian media, it's a lot easier to get the chickens to vote:

    The mainstream media could once be relied upon to distinguish the hot air from the facts. That is still partially true, and there are many fine journalists on the scene. But the media landscape is profoundly changed. You could be forgiven, for example, if you mistook CBC board meetings these days for Conservative party fundraisers. According to the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, it is donor country, full stop, with eight of the eleven current members of the board having contributed to the CPC. It is transformation-by-patronage of a national institution, handing over the controls of a 767 to someone without a pilot’s license.
     Conflict of interest is everywhere these days:

    The truth is, the mainstream media outlets have ceded obscene tracts of their authority to people they should be covering, not covering up for. Why should Stephen Harper be writing editorials for the National Post? Why did the calamitous Fords get a radio show from CFRB, a news/talk station with a CRTC license? What was John Tory doing on his radio show, informing his listeners or setting the stage for a successful campaign for mayor of Toronto?

    Far too many of the facts that fill our newspapers and television broadcasts come from people with skin in the political game – either as representatives doing PR for the political parties, or former politicians embarking on post-political image-revision. If you had to choose, who would you rather listen to on one of those back-slapping panels that plague contemporary television – Andrew Mitrovica or Stockwell Day? What on earth is Stockwell Day doing on the CBC as a political commentator? Are we supposed to believe Day has suddenly rediscovered his honesty and cojones now that he only has to make his living as a “political consultant” (a.k.a. lobbyist)? He is still a partisan and he now stands to lose hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, if he is no longer part of the “in crowd” in Ottawa.

    There is one more question behind the next election. How many of those who didn't vote last time around will vote this time?

    There are a lot of theories floating around about why 9 million Canadians didn’t vote in the last election. I lean towards the view that the hellish cascade of agenda-driven, special interest, utterly poisoned communications has persuaded them that dropping out is better than engaging. They don’t know who to believe, they don’t trust anybody, and they don’t think they matter. And the less wealthy and more disenfranchised they are, the more likely they are to ‘fuggit.’

    They know the well of information has been poisoned. And they have elected to get nowhere near it.