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)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Obama and US Climate Change Movement: Who’s the Walrus? Who’s lunch?

Five living Presidents acknowledge the problem and must know that an effective response will demand ‘muscular’ American leadership - at home and globally. Four failed in office and the incumbent is failing too. Yet, the Climate Change Movement is still soft on Barack Obama.

The smartest, best-financed, most theatrical grassroots lobby since Sixties lacks something. The Civil Rights movement made its own mistakes and suffered for those mistakes. But it never outsmarted itself.

That movement didn’t check out its tactics or ambitious demands with Democrat Presidents Kennedy or Johnson. They challenged influential conservatives as well as liberals. There certainly wasn’t a Freedom March on Washington to celebrate Executive Orders and thank either President for their eloquent speeches. Their political savvy didn’t impress but their courage did. 

Climate change is intensifying and its Movement is anxious, a voice of alarm in every public square, explaining the science, naming deniers, and warning Obama that: he sure better do what he’s already signaled he’s comfortable doing.

New York Times explained just last week how Obama’s I’ll Do What I Can Plan can help secure a global agreement that’s less laughable than what’s on paper now:

*His negotiators will aim for a “sweeping” set of commitments from all the significant polluter nations. But it will be an “accord” not one of those clunky treaties that must be ratified by at least 67 votes in the US Senate.

*Implicitly, Congress won’t be asked to provide the US Executive any new tools to make an important difference; for instance, a staged carbon tax or standby tariff on high carbon imports.

Apparently, Obama will coax leaders of burgeoning state-directed economies to reset their priorities, threaten powerful domestic allies, without asking US legislative branches to legislate - without formally binding the next President, let alone the United States of America.

Cute? You bet.

Professional advocates quoted in this front-page story, however, are content; Obama is being “realistic” about his limits. “There’s some legal and political magic to this,” purrs Jake Schmidt, an expert in global climate negotiations with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a distinguished Washington environmental lobby.

A smooth leak gently handled by a great liberal newspaper; nothing surprising here.
After all, without the US at the table, there won’t be another UN negotiation. Diplomats, advocates and their media trackers would be stuck in Washington agonizing over another crummy Canadian pipeline.  

Many of us can accept that Obama knows - and likes - what he’s doing. And admire his subtle calculations, if not his soaring speeches.

During this fall’s Congressional elections, Obama Democrats want to brag about America’s fossil fuel boom as well as their support for clean energy - and portray Republicans as anti-science and scarier than the weather.

Moderates within the two national parties, market economists, techno optimists - and most likely Barack Obama - see that significant market changes in the US are already shifting against the dirtiest fossil fuels. So, he favors tweaking regulations that tweak business, leaving noncommittal legislators and consumer at peace.

However, do any of these mitigating explanations have a place in the heads of a radical movement?

Specifically, is it in the interests of the Climate Movement’s transformative vision to accommodate a self-styled lame duck President and his Do What I Can Plan? Is it in its interest to assist the Democratic Party paint Republicans as impossibly hostile to their cause? Is it transformative to help divide Americans along ancient party lines on a profound national responsibility?

Is it progress to accept an evasive legislative strategy that strands moderate Republicans and lets blue Democrats off the hook in Congress?


What’s fascinating about all this is the willingness of the Movement, the champions of an agenda that is determined to change how humankind lives and earns a living, to accept so easily politics as usual.  Surely their radical agenda should only reward and comfort politicians with the nerve and skill to change what’s possible. 

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, let's 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 of 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.