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, September 21, 2015

Relaxed times and popular amateurs

Let’s play with an optimistic proposition: that we’re not alarmed by the recent popularity of reactionaries with their shiny visions because we’re sure they can do little harm. We’re smart enough and strong enough to indulge the clowns.

No serious person thinks a rude President will get more done in Washington or be more successful than an attractive one.

No serious person thinks old-style “sovereignty” for Great Britain and a bombastic President would make either country more just or safer internationally.

No serious person wants to break up the European Union or see the United States turn away from rule-based global trade or its allies.

No serious person thinks either class warriors like Jeremy Corbyn or jingoists like Donald Trump can effectively address the menaces of nuclear proliferation or climate change.

No serious person believes that effective politicians do all the talking or that politics are merely off-Broadway productions.

And, yet, throughout this loopy season, the world-wise apparently remain unperturbed.

Do we really think today’s reactionaries can’t win, that complex thinking has the ballot edge over simple assertions? That the machinery of power has an adult mind of its own—and will promptly outsmart victories malcontents?

Why not? Savvy insiders and privileged free riders have swallowed this suicidal proposition before.

Political economists have amassed compelling historical evidence that sustained middle- and upper-class prosperity nudges politics toward more generous, but also more emotional, preferences. And we tell ourselves to worry about the dangerous influences of too-easy success at the top.

But remembering to worry is hard.

It’s difficult to imagine that we and not a family dynasty or investment bank could really screw us up like one of those places we see on the BBC.

Today’s easy ride for insurgents, however, may not be a tribute to their talents as much as it may be to how long our times have actually worked out for the best.

Congratulations. Now, let’s start worrying.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Canada's election: child refugees, civil war and our middle-class crisis

Canadian politicians do not shape our emotional responses to news from the real world. They cater—dignifying our anger and promising to do something when something terribly bad happens.

However, following us isn’t always easy. And the news this summer must be creating headaches in the brain-banks of our national parties.

Pre-tax wages and permanent full-time jobs in Canada have not been growing the way they were a generation ago; and they aren’t catching up with the top 1%. Consequently, it’s been driven into our heads that this election will be dominated by their material grievances and concerns.

All three campaigns have been offering basically the same time-tested response: help for the struggling suburban "middle class." It doesn’t have intense emotional appeal, but it can work, when it feels kind of reasonable: in effect, it is a concern that should be preoccupying the waking hours of our next Prime Minister.  

However, families today are not gathered around their mythic kitchen table working on their budgets or arguing about what should be done for them with next year’s looming fiscal surplus.

The dreadful news from the Middle East and Europe will make it awkward for the national campaigns to merely double-down on earlier themes about that tiring habit of climbing escalators the wrong way or the unjust pace of income growth among those who aren’t yet rich.

To my mind, the words "middle" and "class" are bland, static, and impersonal. Today, the abstract term "middle class" also feels rather classless against real news about refugee classes, dead children, sex slaves, and medieval executions.

So far, one candidate at least has altered his language, if not his driving message. Thomas Mulcair closes his latest get-to-know-me television commercial by promising simply to “help families get ahead.”

Monday, August 31, 2015

The re-invention of lying in Canada

We weren’t like this before. Ottawa-power chroniclers are emphatic: before Stephen Harper took over, even the roughest, most resourceful pistols in the PMO never lied.

We were effective, of course. We were UN-certified, cosmopolitan Machiavellians, respected troubleshooters and guardians of our model "Westminster" democracy. We were guileless and the country prospered. Indeed, by the time Harper got his hands on all that power we’d amassed in our capital, the art of lying had disappeared.

A little while before us, Canada’s politics weren’t so nice. The dangers of lying in politics weren’t ameliorated at our founding constitutional conferences. But it was alive in the shadows, as it was everywhere else, ever since that prehistoric bully recruited a magician to enthrall his tribe. Happily, in Ottawa, some 50 years ago, the icky business of lying became unnecessary. It fell into disuse and eventually we lost the knack.

Baseball fans like Lester Pearson and Ontario’s William Davis and their Red and Blue Machines impressed us with a striking made-in-Canada fact: in this gentle northern dominion, good government (with swelling treasuries) is good politics. The bad guys invariably were inept, distasteful, lost elections and were shunned.

Chronicler Stephen Lewis, a careful socialist who ended up working for Brian Mulroney at the UN, today moves crowds to their feet insisting that our national politics can be “civilized” again, when Harper’s out.

The PMO of good works can be restored.

Stephen Harper started out innocently enough as a young advisor to an innocent politician who took our appetite for honesty too far. Preston Manning didn’t catch the incumbent Liberal Prime Minister lying.

Rather, he disturbed Ottawa with simplistic ideas: "representative" means electing Senators; "representative" means every backbench knuckle-dragging fundamentalist should be free to speak freely in stone-cold sober conversations with press gallery journalists. “Balance” was, obviously, supposed to include balanced budgets.

Then, as now, he evoked the word “honesty” with the ease of an Alberta dissident.

Manning didn’t accept the Code of Conduct that senior political aids had been following for over a generation. Scott Reid outlined recently in the Ottawa Citizen the ploys that are permissible in an adult PMO: short of lying, you may manipulate, prevaricate, avoid unpleasant truths, deflect, distract and dance a jig.”  

Manning failed to beat the Liberals and, in failing, he corrupted Harper.

As a three-time election winner and Prime Minister, Harper will leave you fumbling in the dark if you don’t know the truth; and he doesn’t connect the dots for his enemies.

With a hard heart and a mind as quick as Pierre Trudeau’s (that most outspoken champion of our lie-free politics), it’s conceivable that Stephen Harper is not lying personally about Senator Mike Duffy. Conceivably, he didn’t worry that his brilliant Chief of Staff could be outsmarted by a self-indulgent broadcast journalist who never had to put the news in writing. Nevertheless, it is unlikely Harper ever fired a staffer for prevaricating.

However, influential Andrew Coyne, a columnist and CBC guest conservative with a heart a million miles from Alberta’s evangelical politics, simply damns all this as lying.

Stripping our PMO of those communication tools Scott Reid and the rest of us were permitted to use before Harper reinvented lying, of course, would make it impossible to run Ottawa on behalf of any interest other than status quo in Ottawa.

But, at least, once Harper’s gone, the lying will stop. People have short memories and the PMO will get back to being the light as well as the heart of our bruised union. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

After Trump’s done: who’ll be America’s dealmaker?

The only phenomenon this week as overblown and insincere as Donald Trump is the flagellation over Donald Trump: specifically, his weed-like persistence as the front-runner for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination. Frank Bruni and David Brooks of the New York Times intellectualize about how the terrible power of the communications industry has turned the awe of a race for the presidency into therapeutic entertainment, multi-channel dope for shallow voters angry that America isn’t working properly for them and their tawdry interests anymore.

Trump, of course, is too crude and too hedonistic to lead America’s vast, thin-skinned power structure. Nevertheless, he is sufficiently shameless, and carries a resume and bank credit sufficient to cast a harsh light on the true presidential front-runners.

The allure of power politics has cheapened the Manhattan entertainer brand of Jon Stewart. In return, Manhattan wheeler-dealer Donald Trump—not entertainer Donald Trump—is setting Washington on its heels.

Trump has a popular, not a populist, proposition: I don’t let things fester; I deal with them.

He appeals to the millions who’ve come to believe that Washington is run by a mellow, idle class of actors and scriptwriters who worry more about reviews than results. And the smooth, carefully considered, and thoroughly researched speeches and asides of the Clintons and the Bushes only stretch out the hurt of Donald Trump.

As a reluctant betting blogger, I suspect the moderates in the Republican Party already have the candidates and so credible a prospect of retaking the White House that they’ll survive Trump by holding their delicate noses.

Trump, however, must force the Democrats to think fast.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was the dealmaker who delivered Obama’s only historically significant domestic fix. The Democrat slate to replace Obama today is led by a calculator without domestic accomplishment, a smoothie who obviously won’t be beaten by her present challenger, an old pol who thinks he’s more sincere.

Don’t be disheartened, though, dear Democrats: thinking could be worthwhile. Read the New York Review of Books profile of Governor Andrew Cuomo by Jim Dwyer. Here’s an executive son of a bitch who makes only necessary enemies and knows more about how to be effective in politics, in this decade, than Hillary Clinton and any other candidate in either party now promising to end "gridlock" and make Washington a more businesslike American capital.

Friday, July 31, 2015

National Keynesianism and democracy’s optimal playground (part 2)

There are two broad arguments used to defend the floating loonie: (1) its price is set in the capital markets and, therefore, is above politics and amateur discussion; (2) dropping it for the best alternative (US dollar) would immediately disrupt and permanently limit the Canadian government’s ability to maintain stable growth and pursue independent commercial policies. Both defenses have effectively gone unchallenged over 45 years of business cycles and swings in Canadian confidence and disdain for the elephant down there.

The first defense is probably the best. Our float, ladies and gentlemen, only performs at its best when those fidgety politicians and their wonks are perfectly still. Having agreed on all sides that complaining is bad form, it costs little politically to support it. The loonie’s devaluation (that nasty new 23% tax) does hurt us, of course. That hurt, however, is not something top performers at the Bank of Canada need feel for us, let alone address.

Last week, in the Report on Business section of the Globe and Mail, David Parkinson wrote a story entitled “Why the Bank Doesn’t Care About the Recent Inflation Numbers.” If he’d been writing about similar machinations in the Vatican, it would have been on the front page. Here’s Parkinson’s clean explanation on why it’s simply not discussable to worry that Canada’s core inflation rate, for the last 11 months, has been above the bank’s own 2%  ceiling:

“In its closely watched quarterly Monetary Policy Report this week, the bank reiterated something it has been saying for a while now: That the core rate is overstating the true underlying inflation in the Canadian economy. It is being juiced by some temporary rises in a few isolated components of CPI, and, more importantly, by what it calls the ‘pass-through effects’ of the Canadian dollar’s depreciation over the past year or so.”

The bank and its accountable governor can "pass through" the pricing of the Canadian dollar to the capital markets, but Canadians cannot "pass through" the affects. They must absorb them.

Devaluation, nudged by bank-rate cuts and deprecating statements about the economy by the governor, is prized in private by Keynesians as the only civilized way to “adjust” costs (wages, salaries, and benefits) in industries that can’t seem to keep up when the dollar was strong. It tightens everyone’s belts—supposedly to give failing industry’s space to reorganize to meet competitive pressures. This gentle, opaque process leaves our politicians unscathed—and, unfortunately, the economy’s 20% productivity gap unscathed as well.

The second defense idles in the distance, like Napoleon’s fearsome reserves. Literally, Canada’s freedom to act as a G-7 power requires that we accept the inconveniences and uncertainties of a standalone, floating Canadian currency.

In 1927, American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes well served tax collectors everywhere when he explained that we pay taxes for living in a civilized society. In 1971, President Richard Nixon floated the US dollar in order to give Washington more freedom to manage the US economy within a severely changing global context. Ottawa still thinks that Nixon’s medicine for America was meant for Canada too.

Ottawa’s economic policy professionals insist that Ottawa needs a bank of its own that’s free to execute a responsive monetary policy for a uniquely Canadian economy. This flattering assertion rests on equally flattering assumptions. Canada’s economic circumstances are unlike America’s; its material aspirations, demographics pressures, trade prospects, business culture, and commitment to low inflation and full employment targets deserve the obeisance of a dedicated, separate dollar.

The historical adjustment mechanism of internal migration by people and capital from low wage and declining regions to more dynamic industries and regions, apparently, won’t happen continent-wide unless we totally erase our border.

Are Germans learning French? Has their common currency—the euro—turned French workers into Prussians? Do New Yorkers send their kids en masse to live in Houston to bolster national unity? Do Californians vote en masse like voters in New Orleans, Louisiana or Fargo, North Dakota? Does either of our two currency areas have in place a fiscal mechanism to deal automatically with economic shocks and Greek-style state bankruptcies that might befall some regions and not others? 


When Alberta is booming, is not Texas too? When Ontario is losing jobs to Mexico, does Michigan not as well? When jobs are scarce in Nova Scotia, are they not scarce in Maine? When real estate prices are white-hot in Toronto and Vancouver, are they not rising dangerously in booming US cities as well? Can you think of a year of depression in the US that didn’t depress most regions of Canada as well? 

A Keynesian from Mars would see that our two currency areas are highly diversified and viable—and divided from each other unnecessarily.

That’s an assertion that Martians and individual Canadians can make without making matters worse for the battered dollar they’re still stuck with. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could have an informal discussion on the subject while the politicians are wholly preoccupied with market-tested election clich├ęs?