Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, August 25, 2014

How about a Harvard school on the art of “not doing stupid stuff”?

Built just beyond the green-hued shadows of Harvard’s Kennedy School on Governance, our school would also teach tomorrow’s influential advisors and elected leaders how to climb and survive while not doing stupid stuff* - before being allowed to coin geopolitical strategies.

--How to help the press entertain the people without making entertaining decisions.

--How to keep Washington excited and empathetic without straining the nation’s resources.

--How to keep the base without offering fresh doctrines and world-views.

*The school’s mandate has been inspired by Barack Obama’s exquisite gaffe about “not doing stupid shit”. By all means lets keep the word “shit” but not in our motto. The contribution of this advanced learning center will only be universal if it attracts uptight as well as cool political junkies. We know already that without excellent training awkward leaders are easily forced to stick out their chins, cross their fingers, and just do - you know what.

Building even a small Obama School on Prudence alongside Kennedy’s storied edifice would be neat - and poetic to those who are less dreamy about JFK than about BO. However, there are two drawbacks: Clinton Democrats wouldn’t bother to raise a penny; and the name would scare off moderate Republicans most in need help.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Market champions and the Canada trap (part 2)

Modern history has produced one non-lethal alternative to economic development’s reliance on capitalist markets — democratic socialism. By using public investment as an alternative to profit-seeking capital, socialists would deliver individual and community betterment more equitably.

Even after rebranding themselves as social democrats and befriending small business and Tory protectionism, however, they couldn’t match capitalist economies at making money or alleviating poverty. Socialist development produced fewer plutocrats. 

But the poor remained poor.

Left and right intellectuals offer different reasons for why they failed: cronyism, unpatriotic elites, US imperialism, bad harvests, vodka, the persistence of inefficient religious and ethnic prejudices, and the challenge of restraining public unions in societies that rely every day on numerous public monopoly services.

(Canadian progressives especially swooned over "public entrepreneurs" like Maurice Strong who promised professional politicians like Bob Rae and Pierre Trudeau that he could turn them into respected commercial investors as well as shrewd politicians.)

In any event, democratic socialist economics isn't offered to Canadians anymore as a nation-wide alternative by any major political party.

No reliable consensus exists, however, on how to best secure market capitalism’s promise.

We believe rhetorically that healthy economies — as well as political elites — need persistent competition. Markets that can’t be managed by yesterday’s winners are needed to drive progress. However, life here is too easy to submit wholly to market capitalism’s harsh logic.

The Canadian intelligentsia presumed Canada had two choices: continental Keynesianism or Canadian Keynesianism. In the trial-and-error of politics, the consistent winner is the latter. It wins elections not by its wins in economics but by the horror it makes of the American alternative. The USA, we are warned, is an awkward date internationally and a dying economic force as well.

A true economic union with the US may have been Stephen Harper’s first and true passion.  But Barack Obama is not interested in trying anything complicated that would merely excite Canadians. And, as important, Canada’s business leader, most high-profile economists, and consumer advocates haven’t given Harper any indication that they care that much.

Still, the status quo is fraying: after 25 years, Mulroney’s proud free trade agreement with the US still hasn’t closed Canada’s 20% productivity gap; only the resource exporting regions are holding up the Canadian dollar, competing successfully for private investment, and holding up the federal government’s generous transfer-payment system.

Often, the first step away from danger is to remember what’s past is past.

The great elixir for Canadian capitalism isn’t going to be an unfettered Canadian free market. The rest of Canada doesn’t exist even today as the primary market for Canadian traders.

In its most comprehensive, most recent summary of provincial input-output data and international and interprovincial trade flows, Statistics Canada spilled the beans.

In total, in 2010, Canadians earned $123 billion more from selling to foreigners than by selling to Canadian neighbors. And the US customer alone generated more income than all interprovincial trade. The largest, most urbanized, and most advanced provinces — British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec — rely most heavily on the American consumer.

Nationalists can say the data is static. But nothing in the data is very new or offers any hint that the future will be more Canadian and less continental.

Of course, nationalist market champions are right to complain about interprovincial trade barriers. However, almost all the remaining barriers are in public procurement or caused by provincial monopolies in energy, food, and alcohol.

I’m for zero preferences in government procurement and full customer choice in energy services — and in wines, spirits, and dairy products. However, that’s because I want to pay less.

Conservatives would be more interesting and more credible by tackling big government for its rip-offs, phony business exploits, and infringements on our freedoms than by trying to make it smaller on behalf of an imaginary pan-Canadian market.

One transcontinental market for Okanagan and Niagara wines will benefit a few charming businesses but won’t secure decent middle-class incomes for the next generation living in Toronto and Vancouver. Building a fast rail line from Windsor to Quebec City will impress railway builders but won’t make Quebec an alternative to Michigan or Ohio for Windsor or London workers.

A perfect Canadian free market would attract intense academic interest.
But it wouldn’t earn us the money, security, and personal satisfaction that we would realize by being wholly awake and committed participants in the imperfect North American mixed economy we’re in this very moment.    

Friday, July 25, 2014

Market champions and the Canada trap (part one)

Canada was born to set limits. Victorian liberals feared that its protectionist logic and aristocratic architecture would inhibit the budding liberal passions of the age. (Throughout the English-speaking world, liberals battled high tariff walls as well as ethnic, class, and religious limits to the emancipation of the individual.)

Today, in the economic sphere, market champions appeal to textbook liberal economics but long ago stopped questioning our Confederation’s founding ambition: building a distinct transcontinental economy out of the remnants of British North America.  

The hottest liberal society on earth (just next door) and Canada’s awesome and unfailing natural endowments have made it possible for Canada to keep getting better without being truly liberal or too reactionary.

Center-right liberals and economic conservatives champion the value of markets in stimulating productivity, innovation and enhancing the consumer’s purchasing power. They defend Canada’s 25-year-old tariff-free zone with the US and Mexico (and love the pressure-cooker environment of landing trade agreements elsewhere). They worry about the country’s poor productivity performance and stagnating middle class.

They’ll trade with the devil.

Yet, they limit their "radical" outbursts to strengthening Canada’s economic union and attacking asinine provincial protectionists.

They’ll call for bold leadership to strengthen the east-west machinery of our federation—while assigning our north-south prospects to commercial lawyers and mood swings in Washington. They’ll rail against a century of provincial market monopolies in electricity, in booze, in the oldest white-collar professions, in eggs and in milk, and in local government procurement. They’ll editorialize about labor-market and government-transfer policies that ensure quality living amidst economic stagnation.

Then, they’ll rest. Worn down by the so-called statist bias of a country with an old soul. 

Rather than robust commercial and cultural integration with 320-million like-minded neighbors, rigorous "Canada First" thinking among 35-million Canadians across six time zones is their battle cry, their quixotic reform agenda!

Andrew Coyne is the best muse we have for better housekeeping inside the box. Stephen Harper is exhibit A, as its most promising failure. He didn’t invent the term "economic union." But, unlike any prime minister before, he clearly detests the barriers in its way and has had a majority to work against them. Yet his biggest accomplishment in smoothing the bumps in our federation has been to harmonize Brian Mulroney’s sales tax.

Coyne’s contempt for Harper allows him to keep his hopes alive. Besides, after eight years in office, Harper is surrounded by young conservatives who think they could be more persuasive, more persistent, and, of course, harder on the unenlightened. New champions of a seamless Canadian market will speak up.

What’s to lose when they lose tomorrow?

In Canada, policy failure is forgivable. And it’s a lot safer to fail at something wrapped in the flag than at something truly important.

Rather than honor past and pending failures, however, let’s consider why their project is inadequate as well as futile—and what they lack the courage to try.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Democracy needs better not fewer ‘populist’ leaders (part 2)

Democrats didn’t enjoy being defined narrowly as "liberals" after Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and everywhere conservatives cringed at being called "conservatives" after the Great Depression. Now, fortunately, neither word is a conversation stopper. We accept that both approaches to government can help us deal with the future.

The word "populist" has been treated differently. It emerged during the Gilded Age more than a century ago to describe the anti-elitist sentiments of farm and labor movements and the platform of a truly intimidating election machine — the People’s Party. Its cause was naive: the people should have a decisive say in national affairs.

In the 1890s, people power was a tricky idea. On both sides of the border, conservatives disdained the masses and liberals feared them. They united to create legislative speed bumps such as un-elected and indirectly elected upper houses to keep popular passions at bay. For heaven’s sake, most people don’t understand commerce, dislike abstractions, and are too emotional to deliberate according to the evidence.

Conservatives and liberals today are content that universal suffrage, minority rights, a robust economy, and orderly representative government can exist together — under proper management. The credentialed and clever, after all, are still running things, including the language of our politics. People power erupts primarily in focus groups.

Yet the adjective "populist" is still flung by the "ins" at the "outs." It’s a one-word meme for meanness, envy, ignorance, and wishful thinking. There are "populist" platforms, "populist" gimmicks, "populist" foreign policies, "populist" flatterers, and "populist" haters.

"Populists" are accused of being too enthusiastic about the bad wars and isolationist about the good ones. They’re too easy on big government when it’s flush and too cynical when leadership is urgently needed. Critics worry that we’re too cynical and also suspect politicians who are successful at exciting people to vote.

 “Populism” is invoked when the right tries to be more appealing to the middle class and it strikes when the left tries as well.

Yet it’s actually not an ugly word. It’s threatening not because it offends our humanist values, but because it takes them all too seriously.

According to Webster, it’s about the “common people.” And according to Oxford, it’s about “ordinary people.” Both dictionaries agree, however, that a populist is a member of a “political party that claims to represent the people.”

The people, per se, don’t worry our elites terribly. They do delegate power when they vote, and accept that they can’t speak individually for the whole. It’s the politician in the centers of power who has the power to rally the people.

An A-list of persuasive leaders would include TR and FDR, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Lyndon Johnson, and Canada’s René Lévesque, WAC Bennett, Tommy Douglas, and Pierre Trudeau. I’d include all of them along with those noire pinups: Huey Long and Mike Harris. Barack Obama has a fading chance to make it if they’d actually take the initiative and win again at something big.

You don’t have to be a hater or philistine to disrupt the deadening status quo and earn first-class enemies. Each on my list could scare — and could thwart — special interests. They could demand more than entrenched professionals thought would be political or manageable. None rose by being team players on someone else’s team.

Popular leaders — who can turn to the people when they’re cornered — are rare. Yet big democracies like ours would stop evolving if we didn’t have a few of them in our capitals or making threatening moves in the hinterland.

The most dangerous problem in our modern governments is not too little data, too few analysts, or even bitter division. What stops difficult change is the absence of leaders who can rally the people when their peers are in their way.

Trudeau didn’t succeed in securing a Canadian constitution because his caucus was especially smart and loyal or because he was the best student of constitutional law around the First Ministers table. Johnson didn’t extend civil rights for Blacks by transforming Washington or by using executive orders. Douglas didn’t secure universal public health insurance in the '60s because right-wingers then were lousy fighters.

Democratic government, of course, is weak when privileged interests are too powerful. However, those interests are most powerful when elected officials are more comfortable with lobbyist and policy professionals than with the people they represent.

When governments — either democratic or authoritarian — are quiet, they aren't likely working at their best for us.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Democracy needs better not fewer ‘populists’ (part 1)

As democracy in Western Europe and North America ages before our eyes, the hunt for youth, élan, and forceful government grows. Other countries allegedly are doing the brave, optimistic things we used to do: reforming taxes, restructuring economies, and asking for sacrifice. And they are making spectacular progress without governments like ours.

Increasingly, analysts blame the model of democracy we try to practice. "Government of the people, by the people, for the people" sounds, to many, as dangerous and as quaint as the divine right of kings. Now "popular" democracy is being relabeled "populist" democracy, a political culture in which mostly shallow opinions hold sway.

In Canada, even liberal nationalists will say good government is preferred to the common man’s heady "pursuit of happiness." After all, "limited authoritarianism" sounds robust and more adult. It’s driving Asia’s progress, isn’t it? 

In his review of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, National Post columnist Jonathan Kay brutally described Ontario as a near perfect example of how our proud democratic machinery is paralyzed by an incumbent’s obsessive need for peace and popular acceptance. Innumerable fixes and blue-ribbon missions to find "evidence-based" consensus have replaced choosing one side or one answer over another.

Kay accepts that we wouldn’t tolerate the arbitrary and corrupt features of the “Asian alternative,” yet he concludes:

“But as the example of Ontario shows, we have gone too far in the other direction: Populist democracy and its attendant addled economic policies are destroying our ability to create the basic building blocks of a functional society. A generation ago, the choice between Ontario and China as a model for developing countries would have been an obvious one. In 2014, like the Ontario election itself, it looks more like a dead heat.”

Justin Trudeau couldn’t put it any better.

Okay, Ontario is poorly led. However, it is Ontario’s elites, not its "childish" masses that need a shaking.

The only time I worked full time for an insurgent democratic politician — a "prairie populist" — was in 1967. Alvin Hamilton was running for national leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. He had too many ideas, talked too long to delegates, disliked Toronto’s "blue machine" and was called a red Tory well before the label learned to nestle alongside an Order of Canada pin.

"Populists" were on the outs then. And, after a career on the inside, I can attest that they’re not on the inside now. Most important, there is no serious evidence, in polls or in election results, that voters in this relatively jumpy civilization are any harder to lead now than they ever were.

It’s not the hoi polloi that thinks strictly in four-year bites, polls constantly, is up in arms about paying for needed services, hates pipelines, airplanes, iPhones, air conditioning, and power steering — or has decided that the '50s were the best.

Even for a pessimist, it feels silly to worry that Ontarians today are too spoiled, too embittered, too fearful, or too touchy to be governed responsibly. And it is.

Ontarians are well known across Canada for wanting to leave things pretty much the way they are. But they’re not less accommodating today than they ever were. They fear change and they fear falling behind; they hope their leaders will strike the right balance.

The blame for the potentially fatal mediocrity of our decision-making rests in government, not in the governed.

And the failure to fix its machinery — an enfeebling maze of lucrative little deals, obsequious consultations, and retractable choices — calls for more persuasive democratic leaders: competent populists, neither well-traveled snobs nor compulsive listeners.