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)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Conrad Black and Michael Bryant: optimists and industrial interventionists?

Conrad Black, investor and conservative, and Michael Bryant, corporate lawyer and former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, both, with grace and courage, stood up recently to personal misfortune and, most likely, visceral fear. That they are both on their feet throwing punches in public demonstrates an underlying optimism about their own lives that gives optimism fresh weight.
But, still we don’t have to take their advice, especially when their optimism is directed toward the behaviour of governments in the private sector.
Conrad Black:
“The ideologically motivated nationalization of what Marxists call the commanding heights of industry is nonsense. But the opportunistic acquisition, as temporary trustee for the private sector of the country, of a non-management position of influence in a strategic and under-valued company, can be justified. C.D. Howe and R.B. Bennett would have taken this step, and whichever of them was in opposition would have commended the other for doing so. It is not too late. At the very least, Frank Stronach, one of Canada's outstanding industrialists, should be tangibly but not wastefully encouraged in his exploration of hybrid and electric automobile design and production.”
“So why do we continue to back the losers? Michael Bryant, a former Attorney General and industry minister for Ontario, who is now practicing law at Ogilvy Renault, jumped in with his analysis: "When governments withdraw from a loser, they are withdrawing from a voter." Because politicians don't want to turn their backs on constituents and jobs, they end up subsidizing dead industries. "Maybe governments could be more brave," he added.”
Note the words now underlined above: “opportunistic, temporary, non-management position of influence, strategic and undervalued company, tangibly but not wastefully encouraged.” Black is a highly resourceful, premeditated wordsmith and throws himself at his qualifiers. Bryant, chastened by real government experience, only adds “more brave” to help out.
Black is an eminent conservative. He can’t support an interventionist industrial policy for ideological reasons. So, he says his doesn’t. His qualifiers, however, are the euphemisms of most industrial policies launched since the collapse of the idea of simply nationalizing industry for the common benefit. His words are not the muscular words of old socialists; they are more likely to be found in briefs to governments by industries in trouble or by clever investment bankers. But, the same faith in “creative” government is there.
The public investments Black is inviting Liberals and Conservatives to undertake demand a level of technical knowledge, market insight, and management deftness and, yes, political courage in government that is not there on a routine basis, and cannot be promised in advance to justify pro-active investment in the market place. Investing in “winners”  in mature markets isn’t the same as public investments in basic infrastructure or public procurement practices that reward competitiveness and support long term research and development.
Harper and Obama intervened in the auto sector, not because they saw “value” others missed or thought those around them had too much talent to waste exclusively on non-commercial public service. Rather, they tried to serve a core public responsibility—to curtail recession and act as “last-man-standing” in an emergency. This guardian role for government is more consistent with government skills and, in the long-run, has proven to best serve high-value economic activity.  

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