31 December 2008

Is consumerism always the answer?

The consensus of economists, business leaders and politicians seems to be that the solution to the current economic mess is for everyone to just go shopping. The same advice that George Bush offered to Americans after 9/11. More consumption, one might conclude, is the answer to every crisis from terrorism to economic collapse. And maybe, in the short term, it is. In the long term, I wonder.

Unless people see an increase in their incomes, buying more means running up more debt and excessive debt caused the financial meltdown in the first place. It is hard to see a long term answer here.

Then there's the overarching environmental threat. Are we not depleting the Earth's resources fast enough? Are we not polluting it sufficiently? Buying ever more stuff is a race to ecological catastrophe.

And consider those wise folk who handled their money responsibly and saved rather than going into debt. Central bankers are encouraging borrowing by lowering interest rates, thus punishing those cautious individuals who invested in instruments like GICs.

There is something fundamentally wrong here. For long term stability in the economy, we need better advice than shop until we drop. Advice, for example, like that contained in the posting by Mike Whitney "Wages, it all gets down to wages" on Another Point of View which suggests we need to create demand "predicated on wage increases instead of asset inflation." It is unlikely, however, the Prime Minister and his Minister of Finance will hear this kind of advice from their new Advisory Council. Having surrounded itself with a firewall of capitalists, the government has no ear for voices sympathetic to labour.

Nor, I suspect, will they or their council be interested in the possibility that the answer lies not in consuming more, but in consuming less and ensuring a more equitable distribution of that consumption. Yet this may very well be what the environment demands if the economy is to prosper or, indeed, to survive. To borrow Mies van der Rohe's architectural aphorism, sometimes less is more.

19 December 2008

Flaherty's partisan panel

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's newly-appointed Economic Advisory Council looks at first glance like, as Chairwoman Carole Taylor puts it, an attempt to "reach out." A second look reveals that it doesn't reach very far. True, Taylor is a distinguished Liberal and Power Corp. chairman Paul Desmarais Jr. has Liberal connections, but sectorally the Council hardly reaches past the business community. The only non-business members are Taylor and right-wing academic Jack Mintz from the University of Calgary. After that, it's all corporate chairmen, presidents and CEOs.

We would, of course, expect majority business representation on a panel set up by a Conservative party, but no labour representatives? Not even a labour economist? Only one academic economist? And, strangely, at a time of financial chaos, not even one banker. The absence of labour representation is particularly egregious. The Canadian Labour Congress, the largest democratic organization in the country, represents over three million workers. Its presence should be a given.

Considering the current economic crisis was precipitated by interests that place excessive faith in free markets, heavily weighting a panel with those interests would seem less than wise. Free market thinking got us into this mess; we need a much broader range of ideas to get us out of it. This council clearly doesn't provide that range.

18 December 2008

Jean Charest's exemplary cabinet

Once again, Jean Charest has set the standard. Acting on the precedent he set in his last cabinet, half of the 26-member cabinet forming his new government will be women. "A year and a half ago I created a precedent," said Mr. Charest. "Today I hope to have created a tradition.”

He has not only created a gender-equal cabinet, he has given the woman members powerful portfolios. Monique Jérôme-Forget will continue as finance minister, with responsibility for Quebec's major infrastructure program, and Nathalie Normandeau will remain as municipal affairs minister and deputy premier. As President of the Treasury Board, former international affairs minister Monique Gagnon-Tremblay will face the challenge of controlling spending as revenues decline. Rookie Kathleen Weil becomes Minister of Justice.

The shortage of women in our legislatures and cabinets manifests a fundamental problem in our political system, a fundamental injustice, an injustice that denies women equal opportunity and denies all of us the fullness of the intelligence and wisdom available to our governance. Mr. Charest has acted strongly to deal with this injustice. It's time for other political leaders to step up and follow his example. We will all be the beneficiaries.

12 December 2008

Atheism on the bus

As an atheist I've never felt much inclination to proselytize. It has simply never mattered much to me what people's spiritual beliefs are. How they behave, how they treat other people, has always seemed rather more important. In fact, I've always thought that there really shouldn't be an ism in atheism. Ism seems to suggest a practice, a set of beliefs, a dogma, a guiding book like the Bible or The Communist Manifesto, but atheism just means one simple, little fact -- you don't believe in a god. Period. Nothing to make a fuss about.

Recently, however, some atheists have been making quite a fuss. Prominent thinkers such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have written books that trashed God and religion generally while becoming bestsellers. Although I've sometimes wondered if it's really worth the effort, I have to admit religion continues, as it always has, to cause great mischief in the world. Hitchens et al. have a valid point to make.

We were reminded of that point during the recent American presidential election when oppressive Christianity saturated the proceedings like a fog. Not only did the candidates have to constantly trot out their Christian credentials but Obama had to defend himself against accusations -- yes, accusations! -- of being a Muslim. A black man can now run for president, but an atheist ... forget it. (Does this make atheism the new black?)

So I was delighted by an advertising campaign underway in Washington DC conducted by the American Humanist Society. Inspired by a similar project in Great Britain, they are putting up posters in city buses carrying the slogan "Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness' sake." My sentiments exactly. The campaign has a lighthearted flavour about it that I like. Stating your message with creativity and wit without bashing the other guys is an approach I appreciate. So keep on truckin', American Humanist Society, and a merry Xmas to you.

11 December 2008

What's behind the coalition shock?

Judging by the tortuous arguments being raised against the NDP/Liberal agreement, many Canadians seem to be suffering from coalition shock. This is to some degree understandable in that we don’t do coalitions very often. In most democracies, they are commonplace. Israel, a thriving democracy, has never had a government that wasn't a coalition.

But then most democracies wouldn’t entertain the idea of a political party that only had the support of 38 per cent of the electorate forming a government. Canadians do, even thought it is clearly undemocratic, largely because of our corrupt "first-past-the-post" voting system. This system routinely produces false majorities -- a majority of the seats in the legislature with only a minority support of the electorate. Elections are a democratic instrument, but in Canada they produce undemocratic results. Most democracies insist that elections reflect the will of the people, and they achieve this with proportional voting systems and coalitions. First-past-the-post has so inured us to unfair representation that we tend to be taken aback when we encounter an instrument, e.g. a coalition, that contributes to fair representation.

The arrangement crafted by the Liberals and the NDP more closely resembles the people’s will as expressed on October 14th and would therefore, with the support of the Bloc on confidence votes, form a fairer, more democratic government. It would, of course, be thoroughly constitutional.

Ideally, we might ultimately institute a proportional system of electing our representatives. We would then become accustomed to fair representation and would no longer be shocked by commonplace methods of achieving it.

10 December 2008

Who's afraid of the big bad Bloc?

One thing that has particularly upset Canadians most about the Liberal/NDP coalition, is the arrangement with the Bloc Quebecois. This is due in large part to people seeing the agreement as much more innovative than it is. It doesn't bring the Bloc into government, it simply says they will support the coalition on confidence votes, nothing more. In effect, the Bloc will do for the coalition in this Parliament what it did for the Conservatives in the last Parliament. In the last Parliament, it supported the Conservative government on a number of bills including two budgets, i.e. confidence votes. In other words, for the Bloc it's business as usual but with a new partner. The Conservatives had no problems with Bloc support then, but now ... well, they're separatists, you know.

So much for Conservative hypocrisy. But should progressives fear the Bloc?

The Bloc exists to promote the interests of Quebec as they see them, but then so do Liberal or Conservative MPs from Quebec, just as MPs from Alberta promote the interests of Albertans. That's what they're elected for, and that's what they get paid for. Bloc MPs also support the separation of Quebec, but that is largely irrelevant to the business of the House of Commons. House business generally concerns itself with environmental policy, Medicare, the economy and a host of other issues that have little or nothing to do with separation.

And on most of those issues, the Bloc's position falls somewhere in the liberal-left range of the political spectrum, essentially where most Liberal and NDP positions fall. There is a happy confluence of views. It means the Bloc should find it relatively easy to support coalition legislation, and it means the coalition should have to make little effort to gain that support. On issues such as the arts and youth crime, which hurt the Conservatives badly in Quebec in the October election, the coalition should encounter no problems. This is quite different from the last Parliament when the Bloc kept the Conservatives in power. I wouldn't dream of suggesting the Conservatives made back-room deals, but there could be no doubt they had to make more effort to get the Bloc on side.

Finally, a word about the separation thing. The Bloc position is, after all, perfectly legitimate. They want a separate country and they sincerely believe we would all be better off as two countries rather than one. I strongly disagree but, who knows, they could be right. In any case, this isn't some kind of betrayal of Canada. Splitting a country is fraught with danger, but some have done it with both sides agreeing they are better off. The former Czechoslovakia comes to mind. And Quebec separatists aren't threatening violence, just a democratic referendum and civilized negotiation.

There is little for progressives to fear from the Bloc Quebecois as supporters of the coalition on confidence votes. The Conservatives got their support in the last Parliament, and if there's no coalition, they may very well be seeking it in this one. Nothing new here.

05 December 2008

Mme. Jean's difficult, but correct, choice

So ... did our Governor General do the right thing?

The optics, as they say, are not good. To begin with, a democrat might cringe at the very idea of an unelected head of state shutting down our parliament. The Crown shuts the people out of their own house, you might say. We don't really have too much to complain about, however. We put her in the job, so we can hardly complain when she does it.

The real question is whether she should have prorogued Parliament to save the skin of one party, or rather, given the Conservative Party is a one-man show, to save the skin of one party leader. That is unsettling indeed. We can only hope that, as the constitutional experts seem to suggest, it isn't a precedent.

Nonetheless, there are some strong arguments in favour of the lady's decision:

First, it will allow things to cool down a little. Tempers are flaring across the county (not a bad thing in itself -- I haven't seen Canadians so passionate about things political for years) and looking at the whole affair from a bit more distance might clarify our vision. Of course, the increasing numbers of unemployed might not be so keen to have economic decisions put on hold for two months.

Second, it will test the coalition. If the coalition is solid, it will comfortably endure two months of waiting. If it isn't, better we find out before it forms a government. It has lots to do: firming itself up, gaining the support of Canadians, preparing a sound economic policy for the global recession, and (dare I suggest) finding a competent leader. It can spend this time productively ... or fall apart.

Third, Mme. Jean's decision guarantees her complete independence if the government falls to a vote of confidence in the new year. She will owe Harper nothing, having done him a very big favour this week. She will carry no baggage in offering the coalition its chance to govern.

I say all this with no sympathy for Mr. Harper. I believe he created this confrontation, I think he's bad for Canada and I would be delighted to see him replaced by a government that represented most Canadians. It would also be refreshing to see political parties working together for the good of the country. But allowing a thorough discussion of the whole issue is a good thing, too, particularly with the extensive misunderstandings about our political system that have revealed themselves to date.

This is very important stuff. It has to do with how we govern ourselves, and very little is more worthy of thorough deliberation than that.

03 December 2008

Stephen Harper blew his chance at statesmanship

Stephen Harper had a chance to be a statesman. He indicated he would be. After the election, he told Canadians he would work with the opposition to deal with the economic crisis. He sounded like he truly wanted to be leader of all the people. Then he blew it. The first thing piece of legislation he brought in had nothing to do with the crisis and everything to do with undermining the opposition parties. The real Stephen Harper, the us and them, firewall-building Stephen Harper, couldn't resist an opportunity to shaft his enemies.

The master strategist must have thought he had them over a barrel. If they defeated his legislation, he would claim it was a vote of confidence and call an election. The Conservatives, being in by far the best financial position, would win their majority. If, on the other hand, the opposition supported the legislation, they would cut their own financial throats. They would have been at a huge disadvantage in the next election, which we can be sure would not have been too long in coming. It was a sleazy tactic, but it seemed win-win -- too good an opportunity to miss. What the master strategist didn't count on was the opposition calling his bluff.

The Conservatives are crying foul, of course, claiming the leader of the coalition, Stephane Dion, was not elected prime minister as their man Stephen was. But he wasn't. There is no prime ministerial election in this country. We elect representatives for our constituencies, and traditionally the prime minister is that party leader who can command the most representatives in the House. If that is the leader of the Conservatives, then Stephen Harper becomes prime minister; if that is the leader of a coalition, then the prime minister is ... well, whoever the coalition chooses.

I admit I was beginning to think a new Stephen Harper was emerging. Earlier in the year he talked about the Conservatives moving toward the centre if they hoped to become the natural governing party. The Globe and Mail supported him during the election, saying he was growing into the job, and I felt maybe they were on to something. Obviously I was as naive as the Globe. I have, however, been relieved of any disappointment by the possibility of a government that actually represents most Canadians. Who would have thought? But with the coalition, that's exactly what we would have. And we wouldn't have another election for at least 18 months. My cup runneth over.