Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Can we stop pretending politicians "Manage the Economy?"

I have just come up with a theory.  The classic, timeless, legendary bumper sticker "It's the economy, stupid" slogan from Bill Clinton's Presidential campaign, did two things.  1) It kicked off two decades of  the North American political discourse's degeneration into an endless, thoroughly farcical theatre production of politicians making their whole exchange with the public about demonstrating their "credibility" on the "economy". 2) Although it was likely the Clinton campaign's goal to address this slap-down remark to his opponent and thereby derive electoral benefit from it (a goal that was achieved, hence the phrase's legendary status), the remark in hindsight can be said to have changed the nature of North American democracy.  The stated claim of every North American politician since is that their opponent(s) is stupid for not being sufficiently focussed on the economy, or stupid for having misplaced their focus from where it should be, the economy, and you should thus choose them.  This is misleading.  The real message, one I think most people a hear, is that we the electors are "stupid" and need to be constantly dragged back into line by our elected leaders and reminded the only thing that is important to them, because it is the only thing they condescendingly assume is important to us, the voters who grant them power: the economy.

This is why we live in the vacuous and pathetic world of prime time politics, where the average person wonders why chronically under-funded pension plans, record breaking debt and deficits, mother nature rearing her ugly head and saying she's not taking our shit any more, and the constant stream of mismanagement, bungling, meddling, corruption and incompetence we see in our political system are nowhere to be found in politician's speeches, sound bites, or debates.  Why is what we can so clearly see so elusive to the people who are supposed to be dealing with it?  Because we live in the real world and they live in a dream world, one where lies, acting, image, make-up, and bullshit all matter a lot more than changing a system that after all pays them handsomely.  But don't worry.  Just trust them on the only thing that matters, the economy.

As someone who has not managed to tune out nearly as much political propaganda as I should have, I'm used to hearing political messages that feature ridiculous slogans rather than substantive ideas.  And that might be tolerable if they weren't so bloody repetitive.  "A low-tax plan for jobs and growth."  What politician in North America, Liberal or Conservative, Republican or Democrat, Left or Right, did not sum up their plan this way in any campaign or political advertisement in the last five years?  What kind of morons do they think inhabit this continent? Do we look like a bunch of fucking monkeys? (Excuse my language) "Duh...low um...growth.  Cool.  I'm voting for that guy." (checked box)

The guy who says something true for once "You didn't build that..." gets assailed.  Yet it is true that the roads, airports, bridges, sewers, dams, nuclear power plants, and ports small businesses and all of us rely on generally require investments of magnitude not possible for the holy "private sector" to finance, and certainly not in the able to be drawn from the capital of sacrosanct "small business". 

Scarcely a day goes by when we don't read nauseating platitudes about "innovation", "small business", "growth", "entrepreneurialism", and the economy.  They are all good things.  They do create new ideas, new ways of doing things, and livings for people.  But what do politicians think they have to do with any of it?

Well, the consensus is after four years of low-growth, stagnating economies in all of the developed countries that something must be done.  Even though enormous amounts of public sector intervention were required just to maintain a bare-minimum, low-growth stagnation (and don't kid yourself Canada, without your commodities and oligopolies you're just as bad as Greece and everybody else), your presidential/prime minister/premier/Liberal leadership candidate swears her knows just what it takes to get the economy humming again.  A nip here, a tuck there, squeak squeak squeak and we're back to 3.5% GDP growth into infinity.  There will literally be walls papered with ipads in every household if you vote for me.

So Mr Hudak/Romney/Flaherty says this: "Businesses are holding back on investing in equipment and hiring workers because of uncertainty and runaway government spending.  So let's cut their taxes, "drain the swamp of red tape" and loosen the regulations and bureaucracy they can deal with, so they can "create jobs".  But if they don't create said jobs, the government will be deprived of more revenue which will cause an even bigger deficit, so won't that create more uncertainty? I guess you didn't hear them.  Just keep chewing on those words.  Create jobs.  Good, middle class, private sector jobs.

Meanwhile over in enlightened Liberal land we respond to our economic woes with a different sort of delusional chimera: The middle class.  Grind your teeth together and growl the words "Create jobs" if your conservative, and allow the mist to pass over your eyes and get out your most saccharine whine if you're Liberal - to say "the middle class".

It seems to me if there were a group in society worth using government money we don't have to help, it would be the "low" class.  Or the "underclass".  But uneducated, malnourished, poor people living in squalor and beset by a litany of social ills do not have any money, and so cannot contribue to our broken and defunct economic paradigm.  But educated, indebted, overextended entitled suburbanites who already receive an enormous amount of taxpayer support, whether it's through their CMHC insured mortages, their RRSP deductions, the roads they commute for hours in their leased cars on, the heavily subsidized commuter trains they take to work downtown, the agricultural subsidies that maintain food prices stable despite the loss of farmland their houses were built on - are tapped out.  They can't take it any more.  We need to make life easier for the middle class so they can spend more money on cars, tvs, and furniture and get the economy going again.  Even though there is no evidence of a shortage of cars, tvs, or furniture in the suburbs.

This was essentially Barack Obama's argument in the debate I watched.  And while I agree with him that the 1% or 0.001% have effectively run away with their consolidation of wealth in America, his thesis of "Our economy doing better when the folks in the middle class are doing better" is overly simplistic and dishonest.  More consumerism is the last thing that is going to ease the pain of North America's debt, deficits, unemployment, underemployment and social wreckage.

Then there is the most irritating politician in Canadian history, Justin Trudeau, getting on his soapbox in the star yesterday to complain about the decline of Canada's middle class saying people who don't see it don't get out much.  His concerns, among others, were that our children would not have as bombastically rosy and dreamy a world as we do and that Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto have become unaffordable cities to buy property in.  Yeah, and what power does a Canadian Prime Minister have to rectify any of that, you jackass?

If politicians were honest, they would admit that the abdication of personal responsibility in North America, the sacrificing of savings and thrift at the altars of speculation and consumerism, has caused the middle classes' current woes.  The thrust of their discourses reveals the total cynicism and calculation that dominates the environment in which they and their handlers operate: poor people don't vote, suburbanites do.  Even broke or tapped out suburbanites don't like to think of themselves as "low-class".  Come to think of it, who does?

When North America has a functioning economy again, one that is based on providing real goods and services for real needs and real demand, our society's health will be restored.  Until then, everyone talking about our current societal economic model based on artifice, greed, future-mortgaging, lies, and exploitation is blowing smoke.  If we allowed entropy and creative destruction to hollow out the cancers and vested interests that hold our society back, people's minds and abilities would thrive again.  That will happen when governments give up their awkward and misguided attempts to "manage the economy" and allow the status quo to die.  We need to tell them to stop driving the bus that's driving us into oblivion and let it crash, so we can all get out and build a society without them and their idiotic, entitled, delusional ideas.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Last Liberal Standing - Left Coast Edition

This little erratic stream of my rants and raves does not feel especially significant or prescient most of the time, but what joy I experienced yesterday when my analyses were confirmed on two subjects I have dealt with in recent memory.

The first was that the hapless Globe and Mail decided to go forward and commit suicide with its paywall (ironic and touching, really, after its bungling of the Margaret Wente plagiarism fiasco last month).  2500 commenters confirmed in a variety of hilarious and deadpan messages what I hypothesised some months back - that you'd have to be out of your mind to pay $20 a month to read that corporate rag online.  My guess is that that many people can't be wrong (average Globe article: 150-350 comments).  So peace out Globe, and good riddance.

The second way better, ultra juicy piece of news that didn't shock me was the resignation of Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, which I called for less than one month ago.  The official spin for people who hate themselves a lot less than me and thus, follow Ontario politics much less closely, was that it was "shocking".  Not so.  Anyone who has been following the gas plant cancellation knows that it is a debacle that even a superorganism made of a hybrid of Brad Pitt, Bill Clinton, and several cult leaders' DNA couldn't bullshit his way out of.  Dalton did a very normal and very self-interested thing by showing himself the door before anyone else could.  There is just no folksy, dad-ish, aw-shucks way to look the people of a province in the eye, and admit something to the effect of "I personally ordered the cancellation of two badly-needed, natural-gas fired power plants at the cost of a quarter of a billion dollars at a time when the province is grappling with a structural 14 billion dollar deficit for purely political reasons".  And it was thus that Dalton fell on this sword, allowing himself one more hokey, cheesy, platitude filled speech about the best place in the world and looking Ontario families straight in the eye with no mention, of course, of the plants.  So who knows? Maybe that Lacking Credentials posting kept him up at night, the idea that there was just one person out there who saw through all his BS (and who wasn't a Hudak operative) and put it on the internet for all to see.

So Charest went down in flames in QC on September 4, Trudeau reached for the stars for the LPC on October 2, and Dalton did his own rendition of "My, my, hey, hey" on October 16. Where does this leave the amorphous, strange beast known as the Liberal brand of Canada?

In unknown territory.

The ongoing federal disaster is well-known and exhaustively documented.  Several media outlets, including this one, can't turn away from the non-stop train wreck of grisly carnage, sort of like the O.J. Simpson trial.  But I promise that I will after today, at least for a little while.  Because there is no point in writing about the three biggest Liberal parties in the country now that the leaders, and therefore the actions and orientations of these parties, are all punted into 2013 and AYTBD.

Oh, wait.

There's still British Columbia.

Thank god we have that far-flung, rain-soaked, utterly unconcerned Canadian province known as "B.C.", , to make things interesting.  Sitting on the other side of the Rockies in its very own time-zone and having a peculiar character and vibe that is all its own, B.C. is notorious for its wacky and iconoclast nature.  In no domain is this more evident than politics.  The provincial leader of the B.C. Liberals, Christy Clark, is (she swears) asking British Columbians for the party's fourth (or is it fifth) consecutive majority mandate some time in 2013.

Now this might seem like a somewhat aggressive stance, given that out here in "Central" or "Eastern" Canada, as Ontario and Quebec are lovingly referred to by their western friends, Liberals have undergone a series of very painful Waterloos (including a humiliating and poetic defeat in Waterloo itself).  And the early oddsmakers do not like the prospects for Ms. Clark and her government's survival.  Ms. Clark, an unelected ex-radio host, took over the party in 2011 after Gordon Campbell had to resign in disgrace after winning a majority.  Yes. Mr Campbell, although already quite reviled throughout the province, carried through with a majority in the dark days of the 2008 economic crash with that spooky "Trust me, it's the economy" type of speech that worked for the equally loathed yet somehow re-elected Jean Charest in Quebec at the same time.  But he was chased out of the province under a hailstorm of boos when he implemented a Harmonized Sales Tax immediately after being elected with a majority when he had explicitly promised not to in the campaign.

Couldn't he have hung on and weathered the storm, if elections weren't due until 2013? Well, no, because B.C. has crazy recall legislation procedures that are unique in Canada which allowed the tax to be overturned by a citizens referendum.  This of course left the status of a 3 billion dollar slush carrot Ottawa sent for the purpose of implementing the tax (and which we haven't heard about since) in limbo.  So Campbell, who did the whole thing for his buddy the Conservative Prime Minister in Ottawa, stands down and gets promoted to the plum post of Canadian High Commissioner in London, UK, by his same Conservative Prime Minister friend Harper.

Still with me? Isn't Harper a Conservative? I thought Conservatives and Liberals don't get along.

Well, in fact the B.C. Liberal Party is sort of like a Conservative Party except that there is also a B.C. Conservative party but it has no seats - well, it had one, but the member jumped ship for the Liberals...see? Confusing and complicated.  So Clark's been veering left in the absence of a meaningful right opposition, playing the environmental card by talking tough on the pipelines, but the NDP should carry the day because they're strong, they're organised, people actually vote for them over and over in BC (unlike in most other places, where they win once) and they've flat out opposed the pipeline from day one.

What is the economic outlook in B.C.? Because we know how important that is for determining the outcome of elections.

Here again B.C. is on a unique tangent, totally set apart from the commodity fuelled Hummers next door and the rusty aging sedans back east.  The lumber doesn't pay the bills like it used to and there is no oil or fertiliser bonanza to pick up the slack.  There is also no established industry like there is in Central Canada to pick up the slack.  As much as Quebec gets called a mismanaged economic basket case there is no shortage of big companies to work for, even recent TSX superstars like Lassonde juice (makers of the perpetually on sale Oasis brand) and Dollarama (or as I like to call it, Craparama, in the Crappy Tire tradition) and it's dirt cheap to live here.  I looked at the Business Section of the Vancouver Sun when I was in BC last week and saw exactly one type of company in the "B.C. Companies" section of the stock page, of which there numbered about ten or fifteen in total: Mining Companies.  How about that diversification.

So with the 2nd highest unionised workforce in Canada working everywhere from government-run liquor stores to government-run ferries to government-run hospitals to government-run auto insurance companies, and the richest man in the province owning most of the billboards, car dealerships, cable network, and largest grocery chain that are not part of that Victoria-controlled mothership, "The Best Place on Earth" is looking a little third world after nine (or thirteen) years of Liberal rule.  Especially when you consider that everyone has to live in co-ops because nobody can afford 2 million dollar teardowns on 60K family income.  There are some bright spots.  The punjabi renaissance and endless land in Surrey is ensuring it will become the province's largest city by 2030.  And of course, the Bible Belt that stretches from Vancouver's Eastern suburbs all the way out to Hope will continue to experience healthy birth rates and pickup sales.  But "Lotus Land" might be in just a little bit tougher than its counterparts in the Canadian federation come 2013 and that is why its population will not be inclined to buy what Ms. Clark is selling.  Don't get me wrong, I love to visit but I wouldn't want to live there even if it is the "best place on earth".  It is also the last place anyone is, or will want to be, a card-carrying Liberal for quite awhile.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Justin Trudeau Nausea

Tonight, a few blocks from where I am sitting right now, Justin Trudeau will announce he is running for the federal Liberal leadership, at the William Hingston community centre in Parc-Extension, Montreal.

I have been pondering what to write about this event for a few days, and the mainstream media's political observer authorities (Hébert, Ibbitson, Coyne, and McGill prof Antonia Maoini) have already drawn most of the same conclusions as me.  The conclusion is that his odds of accomplishing anything in the role of Liberal leader (which of course he has already been de facto declared, despite not uttering a single word) are quite slim.  How can they draw conclusions when he has yet to even officially announce of his leadership campaign? Well, you see, this is the problem with Justin Trudeau.  The nature of his life and his persona is such that he will be a prime target to be defined before he can define himself, and that is because he has already defined himself.

There are so many things that are misguided, revolting, and just plain wrong about choosing Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader that it is difficult to know where to begin.  But this article has to be written, so let me try to get them off my chest in a collected and semi-coherent manner.  Let's start with my statement that he has already defined himself.

Growing up in the limelight as a Prime Minister's oldest son, the hopes and expectations were always quite high for Trudeau fils, perhaps unfairly and unrealistically so.  But we do not choose to be born son of a Canadian Prime Minister any more than we choose to be born to a dirt poor basket weaver in a smelly alley in Dakar, Bangladesh.  It is up to each human to make the most of the circumstances they are given.

So Justin could have laid low, made something of himself, been a businessman, an academic, maybe cut his teeth in something really gritty and realist and day-to-day, but not at all glamourous, like, I don't know, Quebec municipal politics or something.  He had all the resources to become an erudite scholar, a continent hopping CEO, even a feared and respected backroom political operator.  This is all speculation, but my point is that he had every opportunity to define himself in such a way that people would say "Here's a successful guy who happens to be Trudeau's son" rather than the "Oh god,..." rolling of the eyes he currently inspires.

Why does he inspire such sentiments?  Isn't a few years teaching high school, and another few years of looking pretty in the House of Commons at $157,000 a year, representing a riding he doesn't even live in good enough to lead a national party and one of the most developed countries in the world?  Am I being unfair to Mr. Trudeau, who has sternly admonished all those who critique his thin and unimpressive resume as unjustly comparing him to his larger-than-life father?

Yes, I am being unfair.  Because politics is a game of images, of impressions, of theatre and of manipulation.  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and Stephen Harper and even Vladimir Putin are, inasmuch as being real humans with all of the same earthly trappings as the rest of us, definitions of a series of assumptions and values and aspirations that are then packaged into their respective personas and fed back to the nebulous, shifting, uncritical "electorate".  Three of my four references are successful politicians because they and their operators have succeeded in this process.  Progressive and terse pragmatist, rational and incremental conservative, unifying and ruthless strongman.  Can you match the persona to the politician and then tell me who you can match the fourth "waffling and out-of touch tax evader" persona to (ok, that could be Putin too, but that's another column), and then tell me why the predictions for the November U.S. Presidential Election are looking so dim for him?  Because the only chance of winning elections (or in the case of Russia, being legitimately accepted as the only realistic authority figure) is to succeed in this propaganda battle.  It has nothing to do with beliefs, substance, policies or actions.  It's what adjectives that ultimately imply trustworthiness and confidence come to be associated with the person.  That is why Justin is doomed.

Other than a steady stream of vague and saccharine platitudes about youth (the youth are the future of Canada...hmm, when weren't they?) and the environment (I have a vision for a greener Canada...oh, I thought Canadians were actually all hoping for a dirtier Canada - please enlighten us), Mr. Trudeau has yet to make any statements that demonstrate significant knowledge of economics, our three-layered democratic system and its institutions, international affairs, Canadian regional specificities, or laws he would like to amend or pass.  You can find many M.P.s in the house across all parties, including in his own party, with much deeper knowledge in these areas. 

Mr Trudeau, on the other hand, has mostly made an impression on me by saying that marijuana should not be decriminalized because of his mother's past drug use, that the environment minister and former Global TV anchor Peter Kent is a "piece of shit", and that Quebec should separate if Stephen Harper continues to be Prime Minister of Canada.

In other words, these facts would lead to believe that as of right now, Mr Trudeau, if he is not the complete idiot that the first position reveals him to be, is a bit of a loudmouth and a flake.  A person we probably wouldn't even be listening to if he wasn't his father's son, which he is so quick to remind us we are not supposed to primarily define him as.  Do you see the problem with the image and the definition here?

There are other problems related to Canadian regional realities.  The name, the Quebec address and the French language abilities of Mr. Trudeau (not to mention the totally outdated, hardline anti-Québec attitude of his father) give the Ontario delusional Liberal braintrust wetdreams of a sweep in Quebec in 2015.  They forget that #1 - the name is more synonymous here with Ottawa arrogance and dismissal than an exciting national project and #2 - Mr. Trudeau is an anglophone more than anything.  He grew up in the rich part of Ottawa.  He went to McGill and UBC.  His Twitter is all in English.  He is obviously more comfortable in English than French.  Nothing wrong with all that of course, except that as usual the downtown Toronto liberal diehards need to give their heads a shake.  Trudeau père and his successor, Jean Chrétien, were patently enamoured with English Canada and its language, and had no time for their own provincial compatriots or their language, because a majority of them possessed some degree of nationalism.  These kinds of pan-Canadian francophone Quebeckers in the Trudeau/Chrétien vein are a dying breed.  It was actually the two anglo Quebecker premiers, Martin and Mulroney, who talked to the province like a adult in its language regularly and took its aspirations seriously, instead of dismissing like some too-busy parent of a developmentally disabled child.  Instead of blindly submitting to nostalgia for a time that no longer exists, Toronto Liberals should wise up to that fact.

Of course these same Toronto Liberals (the people I referred to earlier as the Ontario delusional Liberal braintrust) are Trudeau's bigger problem blocking his success.  He could get over his anglophilia here in Quebec: he has chosen to raise his kids here, after all, and has actually uttered a separatist sounding sentence.  Except he's running off to the GTA every two weeks to help out these same delusional Toronto Liberals.  The Toronto mayoralty race, seats in Brampton for the federal election, provincial by-elections.  The desperate Ontario liberals call Justin in to lend star power for electoral battle after electoral battle that they keep losing anyway, and he has been gullible enough, naive enough to listen to these Liberals constantly whispering in his ear "We need you Justin.  You're our only hope Justin.  Run for the leadership Justin." Why?  He should have trusted his own instincts, and his initial judgement.

Because make no mistake.  All Justin's campaign is run by old Federal Toronto hacks and worse, paragon of incompetence Dalton McGuinty's kitchen cabinet of advisors.  These people are so deluded they staged a putsch to make a windbag who had lived outside Canada for his entire adult life party leader.  These are the people who gleefully whisper about recruiting Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney to lead the Liberals.  You read that sentence in the paper every day.  Again, why? What has Mark Carney ever said or done in his life that would lead you to believe he would run the country any differently than Stephen Harper? Oh, well, that's a rational question and we Liberal operatives only deal in delusion.  He's a middle aged white guy who Canadians trust on the economy, like Stephen Harper only smarter cause he's like, a Goldman Sachs economist and stuff.  Voters will flock to us if we get him even though nobody's ever, you know, confirmed publicly that he's the least bit interested in the job.

Everything the Liberal party does has everything to do with getting power back and nothing about anything new.  They've been talking for six years about new ideas, top issues, consultation, and renewal but because they don't stand for anything except opposing Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair, nobody cares.  It's why the party has gone from 164 seats in 1980 to 35 today and is today chasing it all the way down the toilet to two (Westmount and Rosedale, where these diehard hacks all probably live).  

So I actually had a little respect for Justin when he initially turned the job down at the beginning of the summer.  Because nothing precludes him from being ready to go for it in ten years.  It would have shown that he's his own man, and that he's strong enough and independent-minded enough to resist the temptation of those idiotic McGuinty Toronto Liberal whisperer sycophants.  Instead he's been absorbed into the high flying Liberal delusion machine, which come 2015 he will be asked to crash straight into the mountain.  In the meantime I have to look at that stupid photo of him with his blazer slung over his shoulder in front of Parliament Hill for the next four years while the media chronicles Liberal delusion ad nauseum which, of course, they are going to do because he's Trudeau.  Meanwhile we'd get once a week on page 6 if it was anybody else deciding to lead a third place party.  And Justin knows that.  Which makes this whole "decision" of his even more nauseating than it already is.