Sunday, December 30, 2007

Tribalism Run Amok

The assassination last week of Benazir Bhutto is a reminder that, as much as many of us would prefer democracy to any other kind of rule, there are certain prerequisites on which any democratic state must be founded. In many parts of the world, those prerequisites do not exist; or they are actively being undermined. And the first -- and most important -- prerequisite is the rule of law. All democracies are governments of laws, not men.

Whatever her faults, Bhutto was a democrat. David Ignatius, writing this past Friday in The Washington Post, remembered encountering her when they were both undergraduates at Harvard: "We had no idea she was Pakistani political royalty. She was too busy jumping into her future to make a show of her past." He recalled crossing her path a few years later at Oxford, where she was president of the Oxford Union debating society: "She was wearing a Rolling Stones T-Shirt, the one with the sassy tongue sticking out, and I recall thinking that Pakistani politics would never be the same once she returned home." On that score, Ignatius was right. Elected to -- and deposed from -- the Prime Ministership of her country twice, her life and times were tumultuous.

The tumult continues; and it is impossible to predict how the saga will play out. Haroon Siddiqui has written in The Toronto Star that "the crisis has two faces -- one as seen by most Pakistanis and the other as seen by the United States and, by extension the rest of the West, including Canada. Most Pakistanis view the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as an unholy alliance, with [Pervez ] Musharraff doing America's bidding, which is partly why he is unpopular. And Pakistan's democrats deeply resent Washington's choice of a military man as its instrument."

In North America, says Siddiqui, "Bhutto was portrayed as 'Pakistan's last great hope' in the headline of one magazine. But most Pakistanis did not share that perception." Her party is a family business -- her son has been appointed her successor -- and, as Ignatius admits, " the corruption charges that enveloped her second term as prime minister were all too real."

Still, whatever her failings, she stood for the rule of law -- which meant that, ultimately, she agreed to play by the rules. No democracy can exist unless its citizens abide by that agreement. It is only that agreement which keeps the tribes from each other's throats. In the name of safety, several governments -- including our own -- have sought to overlook or short circuit the rules. No one can predict what will come next in Pakistan. But unless and until the rule of law can be re-established, the safety of every Pakistani is at stake. That is a lesson which also applies to those of us who are thousands of miles away in North America.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A New Year's Reflection (2008)

During the middle two weeks of December, I attended three funerals. The first was for my wife's cousin, who died much too early. He was 30. The last funeral was for a former officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. He was 89. Clearly, death has respect neither for youth nor age. That fact might cause one to reflect on the unfairness of things.

But what struck me at all three funerals was how one life touches so many other lives -- and, often, that one life reaches across barriers of age, gender, language, culture, race and ability. This was particularly true in the case of Simon Lortie, my wife's cousin. Simon was perfectly able bodied until the age of 19 when, swimming in the Atlantic -- not far from Boston -- he dove into a wave and broke his neck. The accident left him a quadriplegic.

He returned with his family to Montreal, where he underwent months of rehab and he began looking at the world from the perspective of a wheelchair. But the accident did not turn Simon into a narcissist. Self pity was not in his vocabulary. With a partner he started his own business. He had always loved music and the nightlife of Montreal; and he continued to make the rounds of the clubs and to enjoy the various musicians who, with other artists, give Montreal its unique elan. With help from a visiting attendant, he lived in his own apartment. Perhaps most importantly, he joined the Association des paraplegiques du Quebec (The Quebec Paraplegic Association) where he counselled others who found themselves in circumstances similar to his. And he became a community activist, lobbying for wheelchair access to public buildings and public transportation.

Simon's name became a watchword -- particularly in Montreal's French language press -- but he was thoroughly at home in both French and English. He even spoke a little Italian, his grandparents' native tongue. From his parents he learned tolerance for the many cultures and languages which gathered with human faces around the family table.

The church was packed -- there was standing room only. There were many people in wheelchairs, some on crutches -- white faces, black faces -- and personal recollections in two languages. The service was a reminder, for those of us who grew up in what used to be called Quebec's Two Solitudes, that so much of what separates us is mere claptrap; and, if we can take the time to build walls, we can also take the time to tear them down.

In the last two decades the tribes have been resurgent. Much time and blood have been been spent in ethnic cleansing. Simon's short life was a rebuke to the lie that there is salvation in the tribe. And, as the new year begins, his life reminds us all that the length of time we have is unimportant. It's what we do with the time we have that makes all the difference.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bali: Success or Failure?

Much has been written over the last week about the UN Climate Congress, which went into overtime last week in Indonesia. The inability of 192 nations to agree to hard targets for greenhouse gas reductions has caused some commentators to despair. And one could, understandably, read the outcome as collective denial.

Certainly, the Harper government, for all its happy talk about its good intentions, continues to ape the position of the Bush Administration because, I suspect, the Prime Minister -- trained in Friedmanesque economics -- believes that any measures which apply brakes to an unfettered economy are clear and present dangers.

Most Canadian commentators found Environment Minister John Baird's performance at the conference embarrassing. And, given Canada's past environmental commitments -- which admittedly were not kept -- the Harperites refusal to accept hard targets for greenhouse gas reductions left several foreign observers flummoxed. Writing in the Toronto Star, Chantal Hebert referred to Mr. Baird's appearance as a Bali Flop: "For all intents and purposes, the Bali meeting was a multi- day communications disaster for the Harper regime. It set back a year of conservative efforts to re-brand the party on climate change and confirmed the issue as the government's Achilles heal."

But for Canadian commentators whose perspective was broader than Canada's role at the conference, there were signs of hope. Also writing in The Star, Richard Gwyn focused on the last minute concession by the United States to join the discussion -- after George W. Bush has gone back to Texas: "Almost any U.S. President, let alone Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, is bound to be more open and conciliatory," wrote Gwyn. More importantly, "at Bali, China and India hid behind the U.S. While it was being bashed, they could remain silent. The late U.S. concession, though, put the spotlight on these 'late polluters' and other comparable if smaller ones such as Indonesia and Brazil."

What or who was responsible for the change in American direction? Clearly, for the first time, the Bush administration faced a full court press from the international community. From the mighty to the humble, the message was the same. As a delegate from Papua, New Guinea told the American delegation: "If you're not willing to lead, please get out of the way." But, according to Gwynne Dyer, it was Al Gore who prevented the conference from running aground. Gore told the conference: "Over the next two years the United States is going to be somewhere it is not now. . . there will be a new (presidential) inauguration in the United States." So the conference removed the call for hard emissions targets and bought Gore's argument that there was hope -- if nations kept talking and reached an agreement by 2009.

"So don't believe the cynics," wrote Dyer,"who say that public opinion does not matter. A large majority of Americans are far ahead of their government in their desire to see effective action on climate change, and the Bush Administration is fighting a delaying action." One wonders if the Harper government has got the message. Bali ended with an agreement to keep talking -- and the knowledge that the biggest polluters are now inside the tent. No one ever claimed that it was going to be easy to get 192 nations to agree to save the planet. But an agreement is within our grasp.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mr. Gore's Speech

Scholars who focus on American Literature, when they set the boundaries of the American literary canon, always save space for speeches -- usually delivered at critical moments in the nation's history. There is, of course, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered in August of 1963, not long before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And William Faulkner's speech, delivered in Oslo as he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, is a favourite of those of us who made a living teaching the language and its literature.

My guess is that, likewise, the speech Al Gore delivered in Oslo last week -- in a decade or two -- will find its place in the literary canon. Employing wit, passion and a sense of history, it was a call to action. And, while it lacked the rhetorical flourish of Winston Churchill (who Gore cited) its simple but powerful rhetoric stands as a beacon in the swill of modern Orwellian spin.

Gore began with a reference to Alfred Nobel who, like Gore, got the chance to read his own political obituary, "a judgment, which seemed to me harsh and mistaken -- if not premature." But like Nobel, Gore said, "that unwelcome verdict also brought a precious if painful gift: an opportunity to search for fresh new ways to serve my purpose."

It is, indeed, one of the ironies of history that Gore, the wordsmith and teacher, has been far more effective outside government than he ever was within. When it came to warning of the danger we face, Gore -- like Churchill -- did not mince words: "We the human species are confronting a planetary emergency -- a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here." Every day, Gore said, we dump "another 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet." And, every day, scientists tell us that "something basic is wrong." Pulling no punches, Gore declared, "We are what is wrong and we must make it right."

But, as dark as the skies and the future might look, he was no pessimist. His parents' generation met the same life or death challenge in World War II. And, Gore believes, this generation has the power to rise to the occasion. Reminding his audience that Mahatma Gandhi "awakened the largest democracy on earth and forged a shared resolve with what he called 'Satyagraha -- or 'truth force'"-- Gore proclaimed that, "in every land, the truth -- once known -- has the power to set us free;" and the truth is that we need "a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store carbon dioxide. And most important of all, we need to put a price on carbon with a CO2 tax that is then rebated back to the people, progressively, according to the laws of each nation, in ways that shift the burden of taxation from employment to pollution."

Gore ended his speech with a call for both China and "my own country . . . to make the boldest moves or stand accountable before history for their failure to act. We have everything we need to get started," Gore said," save perhaps political will, but political will is a renewable resource. . . . So let us renew it, and say together,'We have a purpose. We are many. For this purpose we will rise and we will act.'"

Those simple declarative sentences have stark beauty and power -- the same beauty and power of The Gettysburg Address. One day they will take their place in the canon beside Lincoln's address. My hope is that, just as Lincoln reminded us that we need to be guided by "our better angels," Gore's words will do the same.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Greasing the Political Wheels

There is little to recommend Karlheinz Schreiber. It is not difficult to understand why, when John Crosbie and Peter Lougheed were asked to meet with him, they turned down the invitation. Self promotion is nothing new; but Mr. Schreiber appears to have been on the make for a long time -- and he is unapologetic about it. Moreover, the only truly credible piece of information he has offered the House Ethics Committee is his own assertion that he "was born ugly, not stupid."

Still, before we send him back to Germany -- where the mess he is in seems, ironically, as putrid as the mess he finds himself in here -- we should hear his tale, as convoluted and as incredible as it may be. And, as the House Committee and the public inquiry heed Mark Felt's advice to "follow the money," Canadians need to ask themselves if, indeed, they have been stupid.

Lawrence Martin, in The Globe and Mail, points out that the real "outrage" in the midst of all the noise surrounding Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Mulroney, is how Schrieber and his associates helped engineer the campaign to dump Conservative Party leader Joe Clark -- which paved the way for Mr. Mulroney's ascension to power. "Back in 1983," Martin writes, "when backers of Brian Mulroney were leading a campaign to unseat Joe Clark as party leader, Tory strategist Dalton Camp noted how something strange and alarming was going on." Camp claimed that "'foreign money' was fueling the anti-Clark drive. It was a grave allegation -- foreign interests hijacking the Canadian political process. But he offered no proof."

Mr. Schreiber does not inspire confidence. But, if he is credible on this point, we now have the proof. According to Martin, "Walter Wolf, an Austrian, and Mr. Schreiber, a German, secretly funded the dump Clark campaign to the tune of estimates that run to the hundreds of thousands. Then Bavarian premier Franz Joseph Strauss was orchestrating the drive, and also may have helped bankroll it. Mr. Wolf and Mr. Strauss detested Mr. Clark's moderate brand of conservatism. They wanted him out, and with their plotting, they succeeded. Few words in protest were heard then -- or since."

No one should be shocked to discover that money greases the wheels of politics. Sir Hugh Allan donated large sums to John A. Macdonald's Conservatives, hoping that he could buy a controlling interest in the new Pacific Railway. And, as the Gomery Commission discovered, Jean Chretien's Liberals rewarded Quebec advertising agencies with large contracts, on the understanding that a significant portion of that money would find its way back to party coffers. Mr. Mulroney stands in a long line of Canadian Prime Ministers who have known how to use money to accomplish their political goals. If Schreiber's claims -- and what Martin reports -- are true, Mr. Mulroney's sound and fury about John Turner agreeing to the appointments PierreTrudeau made before he left office qualify as comic relief.

Some will say that all of this is simply more of the same. But, in the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, there are differences. Those differences are the source and the amount of the money. It is not news that politicians can be bought and sold. But who is doing the buying and selling has always been important. Mr. Schreiber seems to offer Canadians a take on one of their Prime Ministers which -- like several others -- is far from flattering. However, it is not enough to take comfort from the fact that the people eventually sent him and his party -- at least temporarily -- into oblivion. The question is, were they had? And, if so, how do they ensure that it will not happen again?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Echoes of Isaiah

We are just about three weeks away from Christmas. As a child, I was taught that Advent was the Season of Expectations. For a kid who was focused on what would find its way under the tree, it was easy to relate to the Season of Expectations -- as crass as mine most assuredly were.

But as we began Advent this week, I found it hard to imagine any truly realistic expectations. The world, as Wordsworth wrote, is "too much with us." From Karlheinz Schreiber putting on a peekaboo performance in front of the House of Commons Ethics Committee, to the announcement that the United States has signed an agreement with the Maliki government to establish permanent military bases in Iraq, to the report which declared that Toronto is the poverty capital of Canada -- and that the number of poor children in this country is 20% higher than it was in 1989 -- there was more cause for disappointment than there was for expectation last week.

But I was taken aback yesterday when I came across a passage from Isaiah -- which everyone has heard; but the source of which few, I would guess, know. Like most of my generation, my acquaintance with the Book of Isaiah comes from secondary sources. My introduction to Isaiah came from attention to the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. He returned to Isaiah again and again: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together." That was Isaiah. He could be the bearer of bad news; but he was also the prophet of possibility. And then there was his faith that natural enemies could build a peaceable kingdom -- the lines behind John A. MacDonald's vision of Canada: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. . ."

It was Isaiah who made me think of King and MacDonald yesterday, when I came across the lines, "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

One could argue that we have always been a long way from the future Isaiah imagined. But it was he who inspired King and MacDonald. And it was that inspiration which led both men -- living a hundred years apart -- to accomplish what many thought was impossible. Such is the power of expectations. Down through the centuries, like Isaiah, Christmas has raised our expectations. What matters, in the end, is what we do with those expectations.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

And Life Goes On

In the November 14th edition of The New York Times, Kurt Campbell -- a former official in Bill Clinton's Pentagon -- asked the question, "What has become of the Iraqictects?" Campbell pointed out that, unlike the last generation of war planners -- whose saga the late David Halberstam chronicled in his book, The Best and the Brightest -- the advisers who planned the War in Iraq seem not to have experienced any adverse consequences.

Campbell, an alumnus of Harvard, recalled seeing, "the lonely ghostlike figure of Robert MacNamara, striding around Cambridge making presentations to a new generation of would-be strategists about how to learn from his mistakes of the past." MacNamara and his brethren had to "endure booing on college campuses, shunning from old friends and colleagues, brutal treatment from the communitariat at the time, and the kind of bitter despair that generally accompanies a thorough going battlefield defeat." Unlike the Kennedy generation of cold warriors, this group of hawks have simply left government to pursue "challenging new directions in the private sector." In fact, concluded Campbell, what is truly puzzling is how "normal" all this seems to be.

What has changed? Naomi Klein's book, The Shock Doctrine, recounts the assault on western democracies since the end of the Vietnam War. She contends that governments, from Chile to Argentina to Russia to Washington -- where the trend began -- have been, in her phrase, "hollowed out" by the evolving military industrial complex. Klein labels the next generation of this corporatist marriage the "disaster capitalism complex."

Taking a cue from Ronald Reagan, who declared that, "government isn't part of the problem, it is the problem," modern neo-conservatism has sought to dismantle government by contracting out to the private sector most of its functions. As a result, many former civil servants have left government service to found their own companies, which in turn have been awarded contracts to do what government used to do. Hence, Joe Allbaugh, the former director of FEMA founded New Bridge Strategies, whose mission is "to be the 'bridge' between business and the lucrative world of government contracts and investment opportunities in Iraq." His replacement at FEMA, the hapless Michael D. Brown -- after he was fired from that job -- set up his own company "specializing in disaster preparedness." And, of course, Erik Prince -- the CEO of Blackwater, a private mercenary army -- has been in the news a lot of late. In fact, there are more private contractors fighting the war in Iraq than there are American soldiers.

By privatizing the war, the Bush administration has dampened public criticism. Most citizens -- unless they have a family member in the armed services -- have no direct stake in what happens in Iraq. And, while the private contractors do have a direct stake, most contracts have been awarded on a no bid, cost plus basis. If they are lucky enough to have cultivated the right people, they have a guaranteed money making operation -- and there is lots of money to be made, despite all kinds of evidence that what they have been paid for has not been done.

This phenomenon is particularly striking in the case of Mr. Rumsfeld, who has recently "returned to the private sector." When he entered government, he was supposed to place his holdings in a blind trust. And certain investments, like his shares in Lockheed and Boeing, were placed in that kind of vehicle. But Rumsfeld refused to divest himself of his shares in Gilead Sciences, the company which he used to chair (the company which holds the patent on Tamiflu, the vaccine which the American government has chosen to stockpile in case of a flu epidemic.) When discussions were held about purchasing a vaccine, we are told that Rumsfeld left the room. But, even in his absence, things turned out swimmingly for Gilead. According to Klein, "In July 2005 the Pentagon purchased $58 million worth of Tamiflu, and the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would order up to $1 billion worth of the drug a few months later." If Rumsfeld had sold his shares in Gilead in January, 2001, when he entered office, he would have received $7.45 for each share. By refusing to sell those shares "through all the avian flu scares, all the bio terror hysteria and through his own administration's decisions to invest heavily in the company [writes Klein] Rumsfeld ended up with stocks worth $67.60 each when he left office."

The Vice Preisdent's fortunes have followed a similar path. While Mr. Cheney did sell some of his Haliburton shares when he entered office -- netting a profit of some $18.5 million -- Klein reports that he didn't cash out entirely. "According to The Wall Street Journal, Cheney hung onto 189,000 Haliburton shares and 500,000 unvested options even as he entered the vice presidency." Haliburton, as one of the chief beneficiaries of the new no bid cost plus contracting process, has done remarkably well during the war. Klein notes that, "the company's stock price rose from $10 before the war in Iraq to $41 three years later -- a 300 per cent jump -- thanks to a combination of soaring energy prices and Iraq contracts both of which flow directly from Cheney's steering the country into war with Iraq."

Through it all, these gentlemen have operated on the principle that self interest is in the public interest. In fact, what they have done is merge the private and public spheres, while reaping huge profits along the way. George Bush likes to compare the reconstruction of Iraq to the Marshall Plan. In fact, written into the Marshall Plan was a specific prohibition against American contractors participating in the rebuilding of Europe. The American government bankrolled the reconstruction; but Europeans actually did the work. The history of reconstruction in Iraq has been a history of American contractors reaping profits, even when work, in the vast number of cases, wasn't done. The Iraqis have simply stood by as spectators. And for the architects of the war, the profits have continued to roll in -- just as they did before this generation of The Best and the Brightest entered office. Life has gone on with astonishing normality. And they tell us that this is a war without end.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mr. Mulroney, Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Harper

The Canadian chattering class was abuzz last week after Prime Minister Harper appointed David Johnston, the president of the University of Waterloo, to determine the parameters of a public inquiry into what is being labelled the Mulroney-Schreiber Affair. We have been here before. When the Liberal government, which succeeded Mulroney, charged that Mulroney had received cash for steering Air Canada's purchase of new jets to Europe's Airbus Industries, Mulroney launched a lawsuit, claiming that the government had besmirched his good name. The government eventually settled with Mulroney out of court for $2.1 million.

But, in the last four years, certain facts have come to light. First, Mulroney did receive $300,000 from Karlheinz Schreiber -- in cash, in three installments, in envelopes, in hotel rooms. Second, Mulroney was delinquent in paying taxes on that income, something he has since rectified. And, third, as the CBC program The Fifth Estate has verified, that money was Airbus money, which had been deposited in a Swiss account in Schreiber's name. Whether Mulroney knew about the source of the money is not known.

After initially stonewalling opposition calls for an inquiry, Harper decided to reverse himself -- after Mulroney called for an inquiry, and after Schreiber claimed that he had sent a letter to Harper's office, charging that he and Mulroney had discussed the payments two days before Mulroney left office -- a letter which Harper says he never saw.

Mr. Schreiber is quite a piece of work. An acknowledged arms dealer as well as passenger plane salesman, he has had ties to other politicians, most notably Marc Lalonde, Pierre Trudeau's political lieutenant. He would appear to have a talent for ingratiating himself with the powers that be -- whatever their political stripe. He has been ordered to return to Germany, where he faces charges of fraud and tax evasion. It is in his self interest -- something he has promoted quite successfully -- to drag Mulroney into the mess in which he now finds himself.

The problem is that Mulroney, who claimed in his libel suit that "he had never had any dealings" with Schreiber, clearly misrepresented the situation -- which reminds Canadians that, before he left office, they regularly referred to Mr. Mulroney as "Lyin' Brian." More than that, the whole affair puts Mr. Harper in an awkward position. In his Reform Party days, he referred to Mr. Mulroney as the enemy. But since being elected prime minister, Harper has arranged a rapprochement with Mulroney and his supporters in the party. Some observers see Mulroney's influence in the appointment of Michel Fortier to Harper's cabinet. The fact is, as Andrew Coyne observed in Macleans last week, " . . . Harper is tied to Mulroney, as Mulroney is tied to Schreiber, not by any opposition insinuations or press vendettas, but by their own appalling lapses of judgment."

An inquiry may find that Mr. Mulroney did nothing illegal. He is, first and foremost, a very smart lawyer; and one assumes that he would do nothing to put himself in legal jeopardy. However, with the mounting evidence of income inequality in this country, one can understand why Canadians might be more than miffed to discover that another one of their leaders was particularly adept at feathering his nest. At the very least, the inquiry should follow the money -- as difficult, and as embarrassing as that might be.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Another Remembrance Day

Yesterday was Remembrance Day. And in every city, town and hamlet across this land, Canadians gathered at their local cenotaphs to remember those men and women who are buried in Europe or at home -- and to pay homage to those soldiers, sailors and airmen who are still with us.

Those who are still with us are dwindling. The number of former soldiers who walk down the Main Streets of Canada each November 11th grows fewer and feebler with each passing year. But we still feel compelled to drop what we are doing at eleven o'clock, and think about the young men and women who will never grow old.

And what do we, the living, owe them? I wish I could say that we owe them the gift of universal peace. The two Great Wars of the last century were supposed to be the Wars to end all Wars. If only. But the years which followed each of those conflicts should have taught us that such noble aspirations are short lived.

So, where does that leave us? For awhile Canadians found military purpose in peacekeeping. But, in fulfilling our NATO commitment, we have discovered that we no longer perform that role. If Afghanistan teaches us anything, it is that it is much easier to get into a war than it is to get out. Therefore, when our leaders beat the drum, telling us that it is our duty to defend our country, they should always be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Those who give the orders rarely lead from the front. And the young almost always bear the burden of the battle.

It has been a long while since we fought the good fight. But, every Remembrance Day, we recall that there was once such a fight; and we recall that we enjoy the blessings of this country because those who joined the Canadian armed forces did what was necessary. In the end, the best way to honour the dead is to distinguish between the necessary and the nihilistic. Those whose names are on headstones in Europe and the war monuments across Canada know that difference.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Friedman's Faustian Bargain

It has been almost a year since Milton Friedman's death. At the time, memorialists everywhere sang his praises. The New York Times called him "one of the 20th century's leading economic scholars;" and not one of the obituary writers failed to mention his firm conviction that human freedom and free markets were inextricably linked. He was not always so feted. The first thirty-five years of his career were spent in the wilderness -- although life in the economics department at the University of Chicago was far from shabby.

But the Keynesian Revolution had marginalized a man who felt that his country had gone off track with the New Deal. He steadfastly clung to his belief that classical economics was the equivalent of Keats' Grecian Urn, where both truth and beauty coexisted.

Then came the Cold War; and Latin American politics took a distinctly leftward turn. John Foster Dulles became Secretary of State; and he vowed to stamp out the heresy of Communism with the same zeal with which his own parents had set off for China to convert the locals to Christianity. With support from the State Department, the University of Chicago established the Center for Latin American Economic Studies; and, under the leadership of Friedman and Arnold Harberger, it took up the task of placing its economics graduates in positions of influence throughout South America.

The problem was, however, that -- as Naomi Klein tells the story in her book, The Shock Doctrine -- all attempts to implement Chicago's take on economics met with defeat at the ballot box. The reason was not hard to understand. South America had a vibrant union movement; and it had its own economic advisers -- who understood that one of the essential outcomes of Friedman's free markets was concentration of wealth at the top of society. Why should the masses vote themselves into poverty?

So Friedman advised his charges that crisis meant opportunity. When their societies were in crisis, what was required (wrote Friedman) was "shock treatment" -- an economic version of what the American military has called "Shock and Awe." The first such opportunity came when the Chilean army -- with the help of the C.I.A. -- overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvadore Allende. Before the revolt, a group of Chicago graduates had drawn up a program for a new economic order to be established after the coup.

The plotters knew, however, that there would be stiff resistance. As Orlando Letalier -- a member of Allende's inner circle -- wrote in The Nation in 1976, "The economic plan has had to be enforced, and in the Chilean context that could be done only by the killing of thousands, the establishment of concentration camps all over the country, the jailing of more than 100,000 persons in three years . . . . Regression for the majorities and 'economic freedom' for small privileged groups are in Chile two sides of the same coin." Needless to say, Letalier's opinions were not popular with the new Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet; and, a month after his critique of the new order appeared, Letalier was murdered in Washington, where a bomb tore apart the car he was in.

Despite the repression which accompanied the new order, Friedman flew to Santiago to act as a "technical adviser" to Pinochet. When asked about his work with Pinochet, Friedman claimed that his role was that of a physician giving "technical medical advice to the Chilean Government to help end a medical plague -- the plague of inflation." And, for awhile, the cure worked. In fact, it inspired similar coups throughout the Southern Cone of South America -- in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. But eventually, after all of these countries had instituted the three pronged program which Friedman recommended -- privatization of state owned enterprises, government deregulation and slashing of social spending -- all four countries collapsed under mountains of debt. The same thing happened when Friedman's formula was applied in Mexico, Russia and China. In each case, what saved the economies of all these countries was coordinated international government intervention -- something Friedman claimed was unadulterated heresy.

The story keeps repeating itself. In North America, as recent statistics have indicated (see my post for October 22nd) we are reading from the same textbook. Augusto Pinochet died -- a little less than a month after Friedman's death -- just as he was going to be tried for crimes he had committed while in power. Friedman received the Nobel Prize in 1976, just as successive coups were ensuring that hundreds of thousands of people disappeared or were forced to lie down on bed springs attached to car batteries. Another form of shock treatment was being administered during South America's long, dark night.

In Christopher Marlowe's play, Dr. Faustus, a scholar achieves fame and gains the respect of his colleagues. But he does so at the cost of his soul. Somewhere, Milton -- like the rest of us -- must be asking for mercy.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Is Iran Next?

In the October 8th edition of The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reported that Pentagon planners had, for sometime, been developing plans to attack Iran. "This summer," wrote Hersh, "the White House, pushed by the office of vice president Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran." The original plans called for a "broad bombing attack." But the redrawn plans would emphasize "'surgical' strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere."

Shortly after Hersh's article appeared, Mr. Bush -- at a press conference -- declared, "I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." One should note that the information necessary for constructing a nuclear weapon is all over the Internet. If possessing knowledge is the threshold for an attack, the entire world is a target.

Defenders of the president claim that Bush, whose command of the English language is worse than embarrassing, was merely displaying more of his shattered syntax. But, in an address to the Washington Institute for Near East Studies on October 22nd, Vice President Cheney warned, "The Iranian regime needs to know that, if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences."

Even Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has joined the chorus. He has vowed that, should Iran develop a nuclear weapon while he is president, he will attack Iraq's neighbour. That, he says, is "a promise."

It is interesting that all three of these men have never served in combat. And, therefore, none of them have any familiarity with the unintended consequences which accompany the use of military force -- what former Secretary of State Colin Powell has called the Pottery Barn Rule -- "you break it, you own it." It was President Kennedy's familiarity with that rule which led him to build a naval quarantine around Cuba, rather than invade that island.

As a glaring example of the Pottery Barn Rule, Iraq is Exhibit A. Yet both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney refuse to recognize it. It could be that they are simply dense; or perhaps, convinced of their own righteousness, they are incapable of admitting a mistake. Whatever the reason, both men appear to be drawn more to the power of myth than to the power of facts. And, when it comes to myths, there are chiefly two which, apparently, appeal to both men. The first is The Myth of the American West, where it is easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys -- and where the administration of justice rests on the principle that the guys in the white hats are quicker on the draw than the guys in the black hats. The other myth is the Myth of American Invincibility. In this myth, the American military -- like Washington's army at Valley Forge -- endures unspeakable hardships; but, in the end, it triumphs. That myth died in the jungles of Vietnam thirty-five years ago. But it was resurrected by the Neo Cons when the Cold War ended; and it was promoted by a generation of boosters who spent the Vietnam years far away from those jungles. In the last four years, the Myth of American Invincibility has died another death in the sands of Mesopotamia.

It is this mythological perspective which appears to have led the president and vice president to conclude that the U.S. can ride out the consequences of a "surgical" strike on Iraq. Having destabilized Iraq and empowered Iran, they now propose to take those intransigent mullahs to the woodshed. But, as a former senior intelligence official told Hersh, "Do you think those crazies in Tehran are going to say, "'Uncle Sam is here! We'd better stand down?' The reality is an attack will make things ten times warmer."

It would have done a world of good if the education of Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney -- and Mr. Giuliani -- had included stints in the jungles and rice fields of Southeast Asia.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The House Never Loses

Last week, Hugh MacKenzie -- an economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives -- wrote an editorial which relied heavily on recently released data from Statistics Canada. The data underscored what an earlier study (see my post for March 7th) confirmed. The last fifteen years have seen a growing gulf between the richest 5% of Canadians and everybody else. All of this has happened as leaders of all political stripes have sung in chorus that tax cuts create a tide which, in turn, raises all boats.

"It turns out," wrote Mackenzie, "that the share of income among the richest of Canadians is actually concentrated right at the top -- among Canada's richest. Between 1992 and 2004 [the richest 5% of the population carved out] 25.3% of the economic pie." But "more than 90% of the gain in income share among the richest 5% went to the richest 1% of Canadians. And, remarkably, 20% of the gain went to the richest of the rich, the millionaires sitting in the top 0.01% of Canada's income scale."

Writing in The Toronto Star, David Olive put those statistics in context. "Statistics Canada reports that 2.8 million families, or one in five, live below the low income cut off, or LICO, the new politically correct term for poverty line. The gap between rich and poor has reached a three decade high, a prosperity gap usually associated with underdeveloped nations." Referring to Mackenzie's work, Olive pointed out that "a stunning 80% of families have seen their earnings and after tax income stagnate or decline, after inflation, over the past generation."

Such is the hypocrisy of economic and social conservatism. The family values folks have had a disastrous effect on the people they say they revere. Tax cuts led to a decline in social investment, on the theory that the poor, with money in their pockets, would look after themselves. But those tax cuts came in the form of tax credits. And tax credits only apply to those who have incomes. And those with larger incomes receive larger tax breaks.

It has been the same story south of the border, where all of this economic flim-flam began, thanks to Milton Friedman and his colleagues in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago. In his blog last week, Robert Reich -- the former Secretary of Labour and now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley -- wrote that, according to data supplied by the IRS, "the wealthiest 1% of Americans are earning 21% of all income. . . The bottom 50% of all Americans, when all their incomes are combined together, is earning just 12.8% of the nation's income."

At the same time, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty promised more tax cuts. And President Bush vetoed a bill which would expand health coverage for uninsured children because it would "encourage socialized medicine." As E.J. Dionne pointed out in The Washington Post, by the same logic we should not encourage public education. Today's conventional wisdom is that social investment is socialism. Franklin Roosevelt faced the same criticism. His record speaks for itself.

In the mid 1970's, in the wake of his Nobel Prize, Friedman and his wife wrote a book titled Free to Choose, which PBS turned into a popular series of programs. But, as the last twenty-five years have shown, what Friedman called "freedom," actually meant "privilege." In the name of freedom, economic policy makers have rigged the game. That little white ball keeps coming up on the same few numbers. And it keeps coming up on them again and again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

(Once Again) In Praise of Speedskating

Last March, I wrote a short piece in which I unabashedly sang the praises of speedskating. Having just returned from the first meet of the new season, I wish to reiterate what I wrote then. Speedskating truly symbolizes what is best about Canada. It encourages excellence; it seeks to make a place for everyone; and it is based on the simple proposition that doing something well can be fun.

As I also wrote at the time, my wife and I find ourselves in rinks across this province at ungodly hours; and we drive considerable distances for that privilege. But, after all, going anywhere in this country usually involves travelling a considerable distance.

This weekend's competition occurred two weeks after Marion Jones returned her Olympic medals to the International Olympic Committee. It struck me, as I watched the competition, that perhaps speedskating is so enjoyable because its devotees are passionate amateurs. They all have day jobs, because no speedskater can make a lucrative living doing what he or she loves to do. There are no astronomical salaries, and no agents who are laughing all the way to the bank. And, so far, the fame speedskaters have achieved has been relatively modest. Perhaps that explains why, to the best of my knowledge, BALCO has not peddled its products to Olympic speedskaters.

My wife, who had broken an arm a few weeks before I wrote the March post, has healed nicely. She did not participate this weekend. She wisely decided that she was not ready for a two day meet; and, while she has been back on her skates since the beginning of September, she will begin competing at a smaller, shorter event later this fall. And she has decided that there are some exercises which she will not attempt. Speedskating is fun; but nursing a broken arm isn't.

I wrote last March that, if a visitor to Canada wanted to know what this country was like, I would take him or her to a speedkating competition. I still stand by that statement. Speedskaters live in a community which represents what is best about the Great White North. Despite the hype, Canada is much more than just Hockey Country.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Staying the Course

That phrase does not carry positive connotations these days. Given what has happened in Iraq over the last four years, it has come to stand for, at best, inertia -- at worst, folly. But that phrase best describes the results of the Ontario election. The number of members who were elected by each party stayed about the same. There was not much discussion of pressing issues, which everyone knows are coming down the pipe. And the answer to the question, "Do you want to change the way we elect our representatives?" was a resounding "No!" This province's voters were not feeling particularly enthusiastic about their politicians. But they weren't prepared to send them packing, either.

Dalton McGuinty's Liberals won 71 seats, or 66% of the legislature with 42% of the vote -- which proponents of proportional representation will maintain is exactly the problem that needs to be fixed. However, the proposal to move to proportional representation was soundly defeated, 63% to 37%

John Tory, who began the race as a clear favourite for premier, self destructed during the campaign; and, in the words of one wag, he created a wedge issue -- public funding for all faith based schools -- which he promptly used against himself.

Only the New Democratic Party's Howard Hampton increased his share of the popular vote -- his party harvested 19% of Ontarians ballots -- but his share of seats remained the same.

As we awoke this morning, not much had changed. But we are all aware that change is coming. One of every seven jobs in Ontario is related to the auto industry. And, as our neighbours in Michigan are well aware, that engine of economic growth is in trouble. The forest industry in Northern Ontario is also mired in an economic swamp. Pulp and paper is not the ticket to prosperity which it once was. And, while $80 a barrel oil has done wonders for Alberta's economy, Ontario buys the black stuff; it doesn't produce it.

Cynics may claim that Ontarians were playing the role of Sergeant Schultz, the dull witted soldier on Hogan's Heroes. Perhaps they "see nothing -- nothing at all." But it's probably more accurate to conclude that they simply chose the devil they knew -- because, although the Liberals do not inspire fervid devotion, they are -- generally speaking -- competent.

And Mr. McGuinty's victory was historic. It's been seventy years since the Liberal Party of Ontario won back to back elections under Premier Mitchell Hepburn. If John Kenneth Galbraith were alive, he would remind McGuinty that Hepburn's tenure was, in Galbraith's opinion, "one of the most corrupt in Canadian history." This, from a life long Liberal -- both north and south of the border.

We await the future. And we hope that -- as far as the Liberals are concerned -- history does not repeat itself.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

What Kind of Jobs?

In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called an election, the purpose of which was straightforward. He was seeking a mandate from Canadians to do something which they had consistently and steadfastly refused to do for one hundred and twenty years: enter into a free trade agreement with the United States. One of the chief benefits of the agreement, he said, was that Canadians would be deluged with "jobs, jobs, jobs." Mulroney won the election; and, six years later, the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) morphed into NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

From the perspective of twenty years ago, it would appear that Mulroney was, indeed, a prophet. According to a report in The Globe and Mail last week, the employment picture in Canada is the best it has been in thirty-three years: "Canada's jobless rate surprisingly fell to a thirty-three year low of 5.9% last month after employers added 51,000 jobs. Wages are rising at the fastest pace in a decade and labour shortages -- not tightening credit conditions -- are what's most worrying executives."

In the same week, a report written by Armine Yalnizyan for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, reached the following conclusion: "a surging economy has coincided with a process of redistributing incomes from the less affluent to the richest." After analysing data from Statistics Canada, Yalnizyan claimed that, "only the richest 5% enjoy the spoils of economic progress . . . and this is in the best economic times." Canadians have known good economic times before. But this time, said Yalnizyan, things are different: "Something significant is shifting in Canada. A generation ago, the gains from economic growth were more widespread, and the taxes generated by that era of prosperity financed investments across the country, in every neighbourhood, that enhanced the quality of life for all citizens."

My generation benefited directly from those investments. Governments built public schools, universities, roads, hospitals and community recreation facilities. And, when we followed the conventional wisdom and graduated from institutions of higher learning, lo and behold, there were jobs waiting for us. Moreover -- it now seems particularly quaint -- we only needed one of those jobs to pay the bills.

Our children face a much different world. In a column in Friday's New York Times, Bob Herbert cites a study which was released last spring. The study showed that "men who are now in their thirties earn less than their fathers' generation did at the same age. The median income for men in their thirties in 1974, in today's inflation adjusted dollars, was $40,210. According to the study, which used Census figures from 2004, those annual earnings have dropped to $35,010."

There are those who claim that this phenomenon is the inevitable consequence of free trade -- more jobs at lower salaries. Herbert claims that it is the consequence of a failure of imagination. "In the first two or three decades after World War II," he writes, "men and women of talent and vision gave us The Marshall Plan, the G.I. Bill, the interstate highway program, the Peace Corps, the space program, the civil rights movement and much more."

Our son recently returned home after having received an Honours B.A. and teaching for a year in South Korea. He then headed for Toronto, seeking a career. What he found was lots of jobs for $8 - $10 an hour --not enough to pay the bills. He is home now, where rent and food are free and he is working two jobs, hoping to eventually go to graduate school, where he can acquire marketable skills. And he is thinking of returning to Asia -- because, when he posted his resume on a website for teachers of English as a second language, within one night he got six inquiries from China and, within two days, three job offers from South Korea.

Well, some will say, his degree has opened doors for him. True. My wife and I have always encouraged our children to see the world. As someone who can earn a good living teaching in Asia or Europe or South America, he thinks of himself as a citizen of the world. And yet . . . there is something wrong with this picture. When Mike Harris slashed nursing jobs as part of the "Common Sense Revolution," he told those recently unemployed professionals, "Just as Hula Hoops went out and those workers would have to have a factory and a company that would manufacture something else that's in, it's the same in government, and you know, governments have put off these decisions for so many years, that restructuring sometimes is painful." Given the fact that, with an aging population the need for nurses surged, Mr. Harris was -- to put it charitably -- myopic.

We have lived for a generation with myopic leaders. Our son will make his way in the world. But there are so many more who have not had his advantages -- or who have not had the advantages we baby boomers have had. The late John Kenneth Galbraith loved to tell the story of how his father -- a small town Ontario teacher, farmer and politician -- during a local election, mounted a pile of manure and apologized to his audience for standing on his opponent's platform. If those good people had no trouble recognizing horse manure, neither should we.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Referendum

In ten days there will be an election in Ontario. But this time around there will be more than just an election. On the same day, Ontarians will be voting in a referendum which could radically change the way elections are conducted in this province. And, because Ontario is Canada's most populous province, that decision could have ramifications for the whole country. Experiments -- like medicare, which began in Saskatchewan -- often begin in the provinces and are later adopted and adapted in Ottawa.

The referendum gives the voters of this province two ways of choosing representatives to the provincial legislature. The time honoured way -- what is generally referred to as First Past the Post -- could remain as the the option voters feel most comfortable with. Essentially, it operates on the principle that the candidate with the most votes -- regardless of how many candidates compete -- wins the right to represent the voters of his or her district, or riding.

But this time, voters are being presented with a second option, which was formulated -- not by political professionals -- but by a Citizens Council, whose purpose was to discuss electoral reform. What the Council is proposing is called Mixed Member Proportional, which (as the name suggests) is one type of proportional representation.

The decision confronting voters is not easy, because there are strong arguments for each option. But before considering each option, a brief review of Ontario's electoral history is in order. There are three major political parties in Ontario: the Progressive Conservative Party, whose positions are, generally speaking, to the right of centre; the Liberal Party, whose policies are generally to the left of centre; and the New Democratic Party, whose policies are further to the left of the Liberals. It was a New Democratic government, for instance, which brought in a single payer health care system in Saskatchewan.

In the last seventeen years, Ontarians have elected governments from each of the three parties. The problem is that all three governments were elected by less than fifty percent of the popular vote -- around forty-five percent of all votes cast. When we elected a New Democratic government seventeen years ago, they won with approximately 37% of the popular vote . But this phenomenon is nothing new. In fact, this pattern goes back farther than just the past seventeen years. Even though the Progressive Conservatives held sway in this province for forty-two years before voters began a wholesale shuffle of governments, the fact is that the last time an Ontario premier received over fifty percent of the popular vote was over seventy years ago.

Because, under the present system, majority governments can be elected with less than a plurality of the popular vote, and because some see certain political victories -- like former premier Mike Harris' triumphs in the 1990's -- as brutal exercises in unbridled and unwise power and policy, Mixed Proportional Representation has a large constituency.

Essentially, under MMP the number of seats in the legislature would rise from the present 107 to 129. In an election, voters would cast two votes -- one for a candidate in each of 90 ridings and one for the party of their choice. The remaining 39 seats would be assigned by each party, based on the total popular vote each received on the second ballot. To qualify for an assigned seat, each party would have to receive a minimum of 3% of the popular vote, or about 150,000 votes.

Ironically, one of MMP's staunchest defenders is the conservative columnist, Andrew Coyne. "Supporters of the status quo," Coyne writes, "cite its tendency to produce stable majority governments. But these aren't majority governments. They're legalized coup d'etats." Moreover, under the present system, says Coyne, new parties can't get any traction. He points to the Green Party, which in the last federal election received 660,000 votes but not a single seat. As things stand now, writes Coyne, "The winner is not the candidate who receives a majority of the votes cast, but simply the one who comes in first place. With four candidates, it can be done with as little as 25% plus one of the vote. The other seventy-five percent of the voters are rewarded for doing their civic duty with . . . bupkis." This is not an argument to be dismissed lightly.

But, piling irony on irony, the liberal columnist, Ian Urquhart -- and his paper The Toronto Star -- have come out in favour of the present system. Under the new system, Urquhart writes, "the number of parties in the Legislature would multiply . . . and the political consequences could be quite unpredictable." As an example he points to New Zealand, which in 1993 adopted MMP, the same system now being proposed in Ontario. "Now New Zealand has eight different parties in its Parliament, including a Maori party, one that opposes more Asian immigration, and another that wants a hard cap on government spending." Trying to knit together a governing coalition composed of such divergent views could be difficult. Then Urquhart ends his argument with a touch of hysteria: "So we might end up with another Mike Harris who becomes premier with the support of a pro life party and/or a northern party that is against gun control and for logging in provincial parks."

It is most unfortunate that Urquhart has stooped to this bit demagoguery. For his side, despite its obvious flaws, has the better argument. The real problem with the new system is that the political parties would appoint the thirty-nine members whose seats would be assigned proportionally. A bedrock principle of responsible government is that representatives are directly responsible to the people who elect them. The new system makes these representatives responsible to their parties, not to the electors in each riding.

The other flaw in the MMP proposal is that it assumes that parties are static organizations whose policies and, indeed, whose principles do not change. People forget that the Conservative Party which Mike Harris headed was not Bill Davis's Conservative Party. When Davis retired, a core of former students from the youth wing of the party, steeped in the economics of Milton Friedman and the neo-conservatism of Irving Kristol -- and inspired by the success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan -- assumed leadership positions in the party hierarchy. When Harris retired, the party (under John Tory) returned to positions much more akin to those which Davis, whom Mr. Tory had worked for, favoured.

And political parties come and go. Remember the United Farmers of Ontario? Or the Progressive Party? Or Social Credit? Or Les Creditistes? More importantly, the party name does not guarantee a consistent set of principles. The Liberal Party of British Columbia does not operate on the same principles which defined the federal Liberal Party under Pierre Trudeau. The names stay the same; but the platforms depend on who is in charge at a particular juncture in history. Those who are in the wilderness today may be at the centre of power tomorrow. Stephen Harper springs readily to mind.

Therefore, despite its flaws, the present system is preferable to a well intentioned, but less desirable, alternative. And while I have decided to reject MMP, I do agree that changes are needed. To begin with, as the supporters of MMP insist, we need more seats in the legislature, so that populations within ridings are more equitable. Perhaps, now that we have set standard election dates, we should have a provincial census a year before each election. It is worth remembering, too, that it was the Harris government which reduced the number of seats in the legislature from 130 seats -- one more than MMP proposes -- to 103 seats. They claimed that the province could not afford 130 politicians, so they configured Ontario's provincial ridings to the corresponding federal ridings.

The best way to safeguard a democracy is to ensure that there is a direct link between the people and their representatives. In the end, we get the politicians we deserve; and we have to take responsibility for the choices we make.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Premature Burial

There should be no attempt to guild the lily. Stephane Dion and his party took a drubbing last week in three Quebec by-elections. The results have prompted some commentators to predict that the Liberal Party of Canada has outlived its relevance. Writing in the Globe and Mail last week, Jeffrey Simpson declared, "For more than a century, and up until recently, the Liberal Party formed the sturdiest political bridge between French speaking Quebec and the rest of Canada. . . Now that bridge has collapsed."

Having lost all three elections, there are some inside the party who would like Mr. Dion's head served up on a platter. The rumours of a coup did not take long to materialize. But Lawrence Martin, also writing in the Globe, warned Liberals -- particularly supporters of Michael Ignatieff -- to think again. Quoting Shakespeare's Iago -- not an altogether appropriate allusion -- Martin counselled patience: "How poor are they that have not patience. What wound did not heal but by degrees?"

For, any fair analysis of the three elections should not just concentrate on Dion's weaknesses (of which there were several) but on the strengths which the other two parties brought to the contests:

To begin with, even though Outremont has been a Liberal bastion for seventy-five of the last eighty years, the fact is that the NDP had a star candidate in Thomas Mulcair. A former minister of the environment in the Liberal government of Jean Charest, Mulcair is a household name across the province. His positions are considerably to the left of Charest -- who, one should remember, ran as a Progressive Conservative when he was in Ottawa; and, as his recent tax cuts confirm, is more of a centre right politician than Mulcair. Perhaps Mulcair's resignation from Charest's Liberals was inevitable. Mulcair also owns a political pedigree. He is, after all, the great grandson of a former Quebec premier, Honore Mercier. Add to that the fact that Jack Layton is no stranger to Quebec politics -- he was born in Montreal, graduated from McGill, and his father was, like Charest, a Quebec member of Brian Mulroney's cabinet -- and it becomes clear that, at least to some degree, Quebecers could look at the former as a native son and at the later as -- at least -- a returning prodigal son. Mulcair was the perfect candidate to challenge the Liberals in Outremont.

In the other two ridings -- both rural -- the Liberals were doing battle in old Union Nationale territory. Until the advent of the Bloc Quebecois, these ridings were strongly nationalistic but also strongly conservative. So it should have surprised no one that, when these electors were presented with a federalist and a conservative option -- something that had not been available to them since Bouchard persuaded most of the Conservative Quebec caucus to follow him out of the party -- they returned to their roots.

As Chantal Hebert wrote in The Toronto Star, the story behind these three elections is about ex-Bloc voters fleeing to the NDP and the Conservatives. That is why Gilles Duceppe has drawn a line in the sand. He says he will not support October's speech from the throne unless the Bloc has concrete input into government policy. If Stephen Harper does not reciprocate, there will be an election. Duceppe is betting that Harper's capitulation to his demands -- or an election -- is the best way to stop the hemorrhaging of voters from his party.

It all adds up to something that happens every generation or so in Canadian politics. The old log jam between Federalist Ottawa and sovereignist Quebec has -- for the time being -- been broken.The entire political landscape in Quebec has changed in the last decade. The question is, have the Liberals taken notice?

First indications are that they have not. Mr. Dion was elected because of his integrity. He was untouched by the sponsorship scandal and he had the reputation of a boy scout. In fact, Paul Martin had pushed him out of his cabinet; and, even though Dion was the author of the Clarity Act, and he was the party's chief salesman for the legislation, he had no ties to Alphonso Galliano and other Liberal bagmen who so generously distributed federal money to party supporters. Dion was a policy master who carried no scent of corruption. Unfortunately, he is an awkward politician whose shrillness alienates members of his own party, not to mention the ordinary citizens of his province.

There has always been a tension in Quebec between proponents of social democratic policies and those who favour small "c" conservative government. Until recently, the Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois have been able to unite these two polar opposites under the banner of Quebec Nationalism. As that nationalism wanes, the NDP has decided to play to the social democrats; and the Conservatives have played to those who favour limited government -- while at the same time, appealing to Quebec nationalists by proclaiming that Quebec is "a nation within a nation." Mr. Harper and his party will come to rue that policy. Anyone familiar with the history of Quebec knows that it will come back to bite them.

For the time being, however, the Liberals under Dion are stuck in the middle, not appealing to either segment of the population. But the Liberals still have one historical asset on their side. They are the only federalist party to elect French Canadians as leaders. From Laurier to St. Laurent, through Trudeau, Chretien and Dion himself, they have consistently alternated English and Quebecois leaders. (Quebcers always saw Paul Martin, from Windsor, as a Franco- Ontarian. The Conservatives, under Brian Mulroney, came close to choosing one of nous autres.)

French Canadians have always been acutely aware that they are an island in an anglophone sea. And in any federal election they have always asked, who will best look after our interests? They might not have always agreed with everything their leaders did. They were unhappy with Laurier when he reached a compromise between Protestants and Catholics over public education in Manitoba. And, even though Trudeau had imposed the War Measures Act, they knew every time they saw both languages on the back of a cereal box that he had brought them into the centre of the Canadian political system.

The challenge facing Dion and the Liberals is to prove to Quebecers that "Canada's natural governing party" is the best party to look after their interests. The sponsorship scandal struck at the very foundation of that conviction. Instead of brokering their place in the federation, Quebecers still feel that the Liberals played them for fools. The scandal did immense damage to the Liberal brand. And, while they were trying to recover, the political landscape shifted under their feet. Any recovery will require the party to acknowledge those truths. And it will also require that a man who is not a natural politician heed the advice of those in the party he does not trust -- the back room strategists. If Dion and his party do these things, their predicted demise -- as Mark Twain once quipped -- will have been "greatly exaggerated."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Delusional Presidency

When the dust has cleared and historians start to get their heads around the Second Bush Administration, they might -- in their search for primary sources -- turn to Jack Goldsmith's book, The Terror Presidency. Goldsmith is a conservative legal scholar who teaches at Harvard. But, in October 2003, he was appointed to head the Bush Administration's Office of Legal Council. Shortly after assuming his post, he determined that several of the administration's previously written legal opinions rested on "severely damaged legal foundations," because they were "sloppily reasoned, overbroad, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the president."

When Goldsmith sought to withdraw some of these opinions, he encountered stiff resistance, particularly from David Addington, who now serves as Dick Cheney's chief of staff -- and who has advanced the novel argument that Cheney is not a member of the executive branch of government. As Goldsmith tells the story, when he sought to withdraw the so called "torture memos," which interpreted the Geneva Conventions as allowing certain interrogation techniques like water boarding, Addington was furious. The fact that the United States had prosecuted water boarding as a war crime for one hundred years was irrelevant. "The president has already decided," Addington told Goldsmith, "that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections. You cannot question his decision."

And therein lies the essential delusion of the Bush presidency -- in a time of war, when the nation's security is at stake, a president has full authority to do as he chooses. Congressional and legal oversight -- which would allow for second guessing -- be damned.

That essential delusion has, in the case of Iraq, led to a series of other delusions. The first was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The second was that the United States could bestow democracy on Iraq. The third was that the so called "surge" would buy Iraqis "breathing space" to achieve national reconciliation. The latest delusion, as was apparent last week, is that if the surge does not promote "top down" reconciliation, it will promote "bottom up" reconciliation -- with Anbar province serving as exhibit A for the defense. But, as many reporters who have been on the ground in Iraq will tell you, that reconciliation began before the surge was conceived.

Goldstein resigned his position nine months after he assumed it, presumably because the powers that be were not heeding his advice. And his advice was that there was a template for the way presidents should exercise power in wartime. That template was established by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, two presidents with some experience of conducting a war. Instead of relying on what Goldsmith calls "the hard power of prerogative," the second president Bush would have been wiser to practice "the soft factors of legitimization -- consultation, deliberation, the appearance of deference and credible expressions of public concern for constitutional and international values -- in dealing with Congress, the courts and allies."

The irony, of course, is that the first President Bush understood and practiced this template. It is tragic that, while the father provided his son with a "teachable moment," the lesson was lost. Obviously, the second president Bush has -- as the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne once phrased it -- "learned much amiss."

On Thursday, Mr. Bush announced that the thirty-one thousand soldiers in the surge would be home by the time he left office. He did not note that the joint chiefs have told him that the armed forces does not have the manpower to sustain the surge. Instead, he claimed that the reduction of troops represented a "return on success" -- meaning that there will be the same number of troops in Iraq when he leaves office as when the surge began. Clearly, Mr. Bush holds fast to his delusions.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Bitter Gardener

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has had a lot of time to brood since he left office in 1993, as the upcoming publication of his memoirs makes clear. It is not unusual for politicians to use their memoirs as an opportunity to settle old scores. But, in an interview with CTV last week, which preceded the release of his eleven hundred page magnum opus, Mulroney 's vitriolic recollections of his two arch political enemies made headlines.

Mulroney's animus for his one time law school chum, Lucien Bouchard, should surprise no one. The story -- that if Bouchard showed up at his funeral, Mulroney had instructed his wife Mila to ensure that the traitor was escorted to the door before the obsequies commenced -- has been circulating in the media for years.

What did stun many Canadians, however, was his bitter attack on Pierre Trudeau. He blamed Mr. Trudeau for scuttling the Meech Lake Accord, which Mulroney had carefully crafted with Canada's provincial premiers. But he went further than that. Referring to Trudeau's anti-war activism in the early forties -- when Trudeau was barely out of his teens -- Mulroney fumed, "This was a man who questioned the allies when the Jews were being sacrificed; and when the great extermination program was on, he was marching around Outremont on the other side of the issue."

One can understand Mulroney's disgust with Trudeau. Rex Murphy -- who argued last year that Trudeau deserved the accolade The Greatest Canadian -- wrote this week in The Globe and Mail that Trudeau's condemnation of the Meech Lake Accord, "blistered where it didn't demean, and only ceased to scorn when it turned to deliberate and scathing ridicule." Murphy conceded that "Mr. Trudeau in full snarl was a terrifying spectacle."

But Mulroney's condemnation of Trudeau in the forties does not consider Trudeau's actions in the context of either time or place. Mulroney neglects to mention the 1944 election in which conscription dominated the debate -- and in which Mackenzie King's campaign slogan was "Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription." Quebecers have historically been loathe to enter what they see as foreign wars. The same dynamic is currently at work as the Royal 22nd Regiment fulfills its mission in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Trudeau was not the only prominent French Canadian who opposed Canada's participation in the war. Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, as a young man, was on the same side of the issue -- a decision which both admitted later was misinformed.

But Mulroney misses the larger point of Trudeau's wartime activities: Trudeau saw Quebec nationalism from the inside; and, in the larger world, he saw the consequences that kind of nationalism had when it was allowed to play itself out on the world stage. Trudeau learned from the experience; and it left him with a passionate commitment to multiculturalism and pluralism. Most important of all, however, it is hard to accuse the man who was prime minister during the October Crisis of 1970 of a lack of "moral fibre."

Mulroney's take on Trudeau also puts in relief his failure to see Lucien Bouchard for who he was. After all, Bouchard began his political journey as an ardent supporter of Trudeau. But, as Lawrence Martin traces that journey in his book, The Antagonist, Bouchard soon deserted Trudeau for Rene Leveque's vision of an independent Quebec. By the early 1980's, Bouchard returned to the Federalist fold to become Mulroney's ambassador to France. But Bouchard joined the separatist camp yet again when he founded the Bloc Quebecois in 1991 -- after breaking with Mulroney over Meech Lake. He subsequently left the BQ to become the premier of Quebec under the Parti Quebecois banner. He has since resigned that position to sit as a private citizen in magnificent isolation. If Mulroney had really understood Quebec Nationalism, he would never have made his Faustian bargain with Bouchard.

For in the end, Trudeau did not kill Meech Lake. Mulroney did that himself by setting in motion what Peter C. Newman called a "bloodless revolution." In his book, The Canadian Revolution, Newman argued that in the decade between 1985 and 1995, Canadian attitudes underwent a profound shift: Canadians traded their traditional deference to authority to open defiance of it.

"Deference to authority," wrote Newman, "the root attitude that separated Canadians from the earth's less timid mortals, had at long last come into open disrepute. As the Mulroney years rolled on, and the attitude toward their namesake shifted from simple derision to blind hatred, Canadians set out to challenge that most painful of paradoxes: that in a functioning democracy like Canada, people get the politicians they deserve. By the early 1990's this sentiment became too painful to endure."

Thus, when Mulroney told Canadians that Meech was a good deal, they simply didn't believe him. And, when the 1993 election rolled around, even though Mulroney had retired and the hapless Kim Campbell had taken his place, the party which had rolled up the largest majority in Canadian history was reduced to two seats in the House of Commons -- and its popular support stood at 7%.

Mulroney's tirade against Pierre Trudeau is simply an attempt to shift blame. No amount of name calling will obscure the fact that Mulroney's poor judgment is at the root of his attacks on both Trudeau and Bouchard. The good news is that Canada survived Mulroney, and so did Trudeau. And, even though Trudeau could be withering in his criticism, as Marc Lalonde reminded reporters last week, Trudeau's reaction to Mulroney's assault on his reputation would probably be something like his reaction to the discovery that, on one of his infamous White House tapes, Richard Nixon had referred to Trudeau as "a son of a bitch." When asked to comment, Trudeau quipped, "I've been called worse things -- by worse men."

The harvest from Mr. Mulroney's garden tastes distinctly sour.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Woe to the Witless

Michael Ignatieff sent the image makers of his party into fits of apoplexy last week, during the annual gathering of the Liberal caucus, which is held every year before the fall session of Parliament. It seems that the entire caucus -- meeting in Bay Bulls, Newfoundland -- boarded a ship, named the Atlantic Puffin, to do a little whale watching. Unfortunately, the whales refused to put in an appearance. When a reporter expressed his disappointment at not seeing any whales, Ignatieff tried to see the bright side of things. He took a couple of minutes to wax rhapsodic -- tongue in cheek -- about the bird which gave the boat its name.

"The puffin is a noble bird," said Ignatieff, "because it has good family values. They stay together for thirty years. I'm not kidding. They lay one egg and they put their excrement in one place. They hide their excrement. . . . They flap their wings very hard and they work like hell. This seems to me a symbol of what a party should be."

The strategists in the party were horrified. They immediately had visions of Conservative attack ads, featuring clips of Ignatieff commenting on the virtues of hiding one's excrement. Given past ads which the Harper government has run against Stephan Dion, they were not conjuring up imaginary chimeras. But sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to laugh at him.

And, as Susan Delacourt wrote in Saturday's edition of The Toronto Star, Mr. Dion seems incapable of using humour in his defense or in a counterattack.. He "isn't able to arouse crowds to anything but polite laughter," she wrote, " and usually that's a line that has been written for him." As for the Prime Minister, Delacourt noted that, before he was elected to the cat bird seat, he was known to do "good spirited impersonations of Liberal cabinet ministers and some gentle pokes at his own party's foibles." But,"Harper's idea of a joke now is to say something mean or dismissive about his opponents. He also thinks it's funny to make a joke about the media almost every time he appears at a press conference." She concluded that "humour seems to have gone out of fashion in Harper's Ottawa."

The editors of The Globe and Mail have suggested that the Prime Minister learn to "lighten up." But The Globe's own Jeffrey Simpson has noted that among the many adjectives -- like "sober, serious, self assured, intelligent, controlling, decisive, cold, formal and, sometimes, imperious" -- which accurately describe the prime minister -- "humourous" is not one of them. "No politician who has a clothing and makeup adviser, as Mr. Harper does," writes Simpson, "will ever 'lighten up.'" So it would appear that, while both leaders of Canada's governing parties are "intelligent" (in an academic sense) neither has much of a sense of humour. That's a pity.

Over the weekend, my wife, our youngest son and I visited Sir John A. MacDonald's former residence in Kingston, Ontario. MacDonald was Canada's first prime minister and, as my son commented -- laughing as he did so, "Canada's most famous drunk." But he was also renowned for his sense of humour. My favourite MacDonald story is about the day MacDonald encountered one of his political rivals on a narrow sidewalk which both were trying to navigate. "I will not yield to a liar and a drunk!" huffed his opponent. MacDonald -- stepping off the sidewalk -- replied, "But I will!"

MacDonald's time was much like our own. Slander was standard political practice; and liquor fuelled most political discussions. But with his supporters and his rivals he managed to build a country which -- by land mass at least -- is the second largest in the world. He knew how to use humour to dissolve tension and outrage. Today we have a surplus of both. What we need is more humour.

Monday, August 27, 2007

American Napoleon?

Even George Bush's strongest supporters were surprised last week when he chose the Vietnam analogy to buttress his argument that there should be no draw down of troops in Iraq. Actually, he was using an argument that has long been a favourite of American conservatives, starting with Ronald Reagan. That argument is that America lost in Vietnam because it lost its nerve, once congressional Democrats -- taking advantage of the disarray following Richard Nixon's resignation -- stopped funding the war. Mr. Bush claimed that, if American troops leave Iraq, there will be a replay of helicopters leaving the roof of the U.S. embassy, accompanied by scenes of military equipment being pushed into the sea or being abandoned in the desert.

However, the Vietnam analogy is fraught with problems for Mr. Bush. To begin with, there is the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the argument -- which historians generally agree was a trumped up case -- for the escalation of the war. Recalling Lyndon Johnson's rationale for widening the war brings up echoes of those weapons of mass destruction and the mushroom cloud conjured up by National Security Advisor Condi Rice. Then there are Mr. Bush's and Mr. Cheney's personal histories, where -- by student deferments or family connections -- both men managed to avoid service in Southeast Asia, while others had no such option. It reminds people that those who serve in Iraq bear an unequal burden. Now most citizens, like Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, can choose not to serve. Finally, there is that black marble wall in Washington, which is a reminder of those who died in the service of a failed policy.

There are more negative parallels between Vietnam and Iraq than positive ones; and Mr. Bush has given his critics lots of ammunition to use against him. Writing in his blog on August 22nd, Robert Reich -- Bill Clinton's first Secretary of Labour -- concluded, "The apparent stupidity of this man -- or his assumption of the stupidity of the American people -- is unfathomable."

But perhaps the Vietnam analogy really doesn't fit. In an article in The Nation for the week of September 10, Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian History at the University of Michigan, argues that the real echo of Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq is Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. "There are many eerily familiar resonances between the two misadventures," Cole writes, "not the least among them that both began with supreme arrogance and ended as fiascoes. Above all, the leaders of both occupations employed the same basic political vocabulary and rhetorical flimflammery invoking the spirit of liberty, security and democracy while largely ignoring the substance of these concepts."

Cole is not alone in seeing the similarities between the French Invasion of Egypt and the American invasion of Iraq. In a report on May 17th, 2004, CBS News correspondent Tom Fenton pointed out that two prominent historians saw Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq as folly. Henry Laurens, who Fenton called "an eminent specialist on the Arab world," noted that,"the French went in posing as liberators, proclaiming their goal was to free the Egyptians from the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. Impoverished, backward Arabs would welcome French soldiers and the revolutionary ideas they brought." But, even though Bonaparte's campaign began well, "remnants of the old regime began a guerrilla campaign in the countryside, and in the cities several insurrections had to be harshly repressed. The war widened, and the French finally lost Egypt against the forces of the British and the Ottomans." Harvard historian Samuel P. Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, saw the American invasion of Iraq in similar terms. He claimed that "the American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has spread, rather than contained the war;" and, he concluded, the war against the Iraqi people was a struggle which the United States would "never win."

The final paragraph of Cole's article is a cogent summary and comment on the parallels between Mr. Bonaparte's and Mr. Bush's forays into the Middle East. It bears repeating:

"It is no accident that many of the rhetorical strategies employed by George W. Bush originated with Napoleon Bonaparte, a notorious spinmeister and confidence man. At least Bonaparte looked to the future, seeing clearly the coming breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the likelihood that the European Powers would be able to colonize its provinces. Bonaparte's failure in Egypt did not forestall decades of French colonial success in Algeria and Indochina, even if that era of imperial triumph could not, in the end, be sustained in the face of the political and social awakening of the colonized. Bush's neocolonialism, on the other hand, swam against the tide of history, and its failure is all the more criminal for having been so predictable."