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)

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Canada’s interests in US elections? Please.

Here’s a dry twig to add to the bonfire of sorrows over last year’s presidential election. For a sitting president, securing votes in primaries and general elections beats any business and political relationship, even with Canada. Even a good president’s feelings don’t count for much should be stamped at the top of every fat memo about Canada’s geopolitical options.  

Barack Obama completed his historic presidency thinking as a Democratic politician: about his party’s interests, its allies, and its vanities about what’s best. The sweaty old pols were wrong. He didn’t overthink. He calculated and acted as a partisan president.

Being liberal-minded as well, Canadians decided eight years ago that Obama would be serving our interests when serving the better angels of America. If nothing happened, we’d accept that it wasn’t important or that our prime minister was on the wrong side ideologically—that, for instance, having a liberal across the table from another liberal would work wonders. It was gauche to raise structural issues: the asymmetry of economic and political power, the Democratic Party’s protectionist base, and the pesky fact that two-term presidents, like two-term prime ministers, usually become a touch arbitrary, and slightly bewitched by their power.

Canadians think about America’s future every day. And we hoped Obama would think sympathetically about us now and then. However, being a partisan in 2016, Obama spent his political capital strictly shoring up support for his party and his own presidency with US voters. Period.

Obama stopped promoting his own TPP trade deal with its enhanced trade terms for Canada and allies in Asia, and freed his candidate Hillary Clinton to campaign against it. He worked and dined with our new liberal Prime Minister several times through the year, without giving Canada any ground on softwood lumber quotas, or “Buy America” procurement practices, or even a down payment for the US half of the Gordie Howe International Bridge.  And, possibly of greater longer-term consequence, Obama never clearly championed the case for a common North American tax on carbon, a declaration that would have strengthened the credibility of Obama’s Paris agreement on Climate Change in Canada.

We can’t blame nasty 2016 for any of it.

It was hardly a bad year for Obama personally, or for America’s economy, or for the election prospects of his party, right through the first 10 happy months of the year. He didn’t trim his support for free trade or neglect Canada-US relations for a greater good: say, for instance, stopping a phony socialist or fascistic, vulgar amateur from winning the White House. His candidate Hillary Clinton was winning big, right up to their last joint campaign rally. Furthermore, until midsummer it was assumed that the Republicans would barely get their act together and would lose with a run-of-the-mill mainstream free trader or unelectable boor.

Yet again, Obama played US electoral politics to the hilt, without regard to friends in the bleachers.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Vladimir Putin, John Podesta, Rex Tillerson, and another Birther Movement?

It’s entirely possible that Donald Trump voters still don’t appreciate that he’s unfit to protect Eastern Ukraine, let alone is adult about the existential significance of America’s nuclear deterrent. Does he yet know that Trump no longer stands for luxurious escape? Are any of us sure he’s not beholding to Vladimir Putin and, therefore, too conflicted to be allowed to be President?

Can this sickening state of not knowing be intolerable, constitutionally? Clinton Campaign Manager, sad-eyed John Podesta, seems to think so, petitioning the Electoral College to receive an intelligence briefing on Russia’s dirty tricks before they ratify Trump’s electoral victory.

We do know one thing: Liberals are at their best unpacking to stay rather than packing up to leave centers of power. Up here in Canada, Justin Trudeau is successfully stretching out the thrill of Ottawa house-hunting and a family restoration in the last safe capital of liberal moral leadership.

American liberals aren’t haters. They only deplore the bad things others do and, obviously, deplore losing elections.


Getting in the way of a president-elect immediately after his election has a bipartisan history in this busy century—specifically: contested George Bush ballots in Florida and the persistent wish that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America. The legality of those elections, not the ignorance of the voters, was challenged. Resistance offered amateur partisans emotional release, but didn’t hasten their party’s return to power.

Indeed, it’s entirely plausible that Obama’s early, teasing silence on his birth certificate helped the Birther Movement” capture wide public attention and, in part, foul the brand of the presidential Republican Party.


Donald Trump has neither the exquisite WASP reserve of Barack Obama nor his political savvy. However, I can’t resist the thought that he’s putting the Democrat’s leadership in an increasingly awkward position on his bromance with Vladimir Putin.

Throughout the election, Trump purred that it would be “nice” to get along with Russia and its government. He won. And now he’s doubled down with provocative indifference by nominating Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, as his Secretary of State. Tillerson actually has a multibillion-dollar relationship with Putin and runs possibly the most globally invested business in the global economy. 

To economic nationalists dedicated publicly to the notion that global capitalism is out of control, Tillerson is a dangerous, unavoidable target.

As was that “black Kenyan” for Republicans, Rex Tillerson’s resume will raise money amongst core Democrats. Will ambitious Democrats, however, be able to keep their distance from the kind of vulgar taunts that disappointed Barack Obama—right through to his successful re-election in 2012?


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Being ‘not normal’ after the election of Donald Trump

I know this is no time to complain about the blahs. Life on the planet altered last week. People are disoriented; nauseated with fear; or in a rage. Meanwhile, I just want to be left alone to clean up the kitchen.

My social and, indeed, my domestic life demand that before uttering his name I repeat: “I detest Trump, his court of bigots, and all the low-lifers that poison US politics.”  All of it I’ve said, sincerely, before offering harmless, even old-hat comments about reports on post-election mental activity.

But, surely I don’t have to keep sounding-off like a hairy old radical from the Sixties before speaking freely in this mellow country. After all, what would be the point of Canada without its signature mellow ways?

My fellow Canadians insist on remaining separate from the US because they prefer our less important, calmer politics. After he first visited Ottawa nearly 8-years ago, they weren’t thrilled, as I was, by the idea of actually voting to re-elect Barack Obama. But let’s not dig up that old bone! Sarcasm is a dead weapon in the age of Twitter.

Until I watch the Senate hearings on his Cabinet nominees and hear old Red’s Inaugural Address in January, I will admit to only one common pain with you: Barack Obama was an abnormally careful and trustworthy president. But, there was never going to be a third act. So, we’re all being hurled forward into an old world: a dangerous time, without a great American in the White House.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Do we need to be big to be cosmopolitan political animals?

The just society has been restored. Best intentions, disciplined by fact-checkers, motivate our institutions. When we’re not on Netflix or vicariously fighting US elections, Canadians ponder Canada’s singular original flaw: being good, but too small. Canadians simply can’t shake the feeling that Canada could do so much more to save this troubled word if only it was bigger.

Happily, this problem has a gently impactful, re-calibrated century-old solution: a population target of 100 million bona-fide Canadians by 2100. Its champions most surely already own real estate in downtown Toronto and Vancouver, studied and vacation in Europe, and can’t stand America’s cussed indifference.

After putting up with more than a century of being less appealing to global risk-takers and mistreated minorities than the great happiness lady to the south, we’re now a first love, not a rebound destination. So, that old itch to be great too has found credible voices in our national politics.

Andrew Coyne gives the idea a cleared-eyed pass in his excellent column: “Increased immigration is good for Canada — and the reasons aren’t only economic”.

The target isn’t a leap of faith and wouldn’t require that much of an additional increase in annual immigration annually. We can micro-manage (high-grade) the admission of individuals keen to embrace Canada’s governing values. Coyne doesn’t try to argue that immigration will solve the emerging burden of grey dependents or increase real incomes per-capita by magically increasing our productivity. He settles on a classic liberal assertion, and a Machiavellian one:

“Ambitious countries want to grow, but growth also makes countries ambitious.”
“Second, it (population target) would add to our clout in the world. We would be growing at a time when our peers are shrinking. At 100 million, current United Nations projections suggest we would be second only to the United States (it is forecast to grow to 450 million) among the G-7, vaulting past Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.”
Since half of new Canadians settle now and will continue to settle in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and a fourth city, depending on shifting regional job prospects, Coyne is a hundred percent, half right: by 2100 Montreal and Vancouver will have joined Toronto as eminent, brutally ambitious centers of western creativity, commerce and civilization.
Having the talent and problems as big as New York’s and Los Angeles’s, it is reasonable to expect that Toronto will discover in its midst truly exceptional, cosmopolitan political leaders. Visitors will study how we run things as a giant city and we’ll be more entertaining than the Fins and Norwegians.
However, Canada as a nation-state and the public service in its national capital Ottawa won’t have more “clout in the world.” To put it personally, your choices of future prime ministers won’t give you added or less voice as an unregistered ‘citizen of the world’, let alone North America.
This is not a good thing or, happily, the way it must always be.
As a child of the Sixties, I still believe “clout in the world” is a constructive, indeed a healthy ambition--others out there will not stop seeking to have it and, often, in order to do less good. 
However, Machiavelli would only be amused at the thought that the nicest suburb on this continent wants to be a significant political force on its own. Indeed, as an Italian cosmopolitan--who’d see instantly that secret ballots in primaries, caucuses and general elections have the real power--he might ask: why do you follow US political gossip, passionately day-after-day, and reject any form of political participation?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Is Justin Trudeau’s ‘carbon price’ too good to oppose?

Some short speeches are worth taking nearly a year to write. Justin Trudeau’s you price carbon or I will declaration to the provinces may be one of them.

It respects the ancient rules of Liberal incumbency: it honors international commitments, has the sympathy of most go-to policy analysts, won’t touch the middle-class, ever so gently, for years. Best of all, it has a black-hat cast of detractors, right-wing deniers, left-wing dreamers, and even a prim prairie premier leading the charge.

Its weaknesses are also its strength. There will be two years for bureaucratic brainstorming with the three biggest Liberal provincial governments before Trudeau must decide whether to bring down the hammer, starting with a puny nationwide $10-per-ton tax on carbon. And, as a largely incomprehensible war cry, a “carbon price can be defended as one of those good whatevers smart people like and paranoids oppose. Being a euphemism for another consumption tax only makes it that much smarter.

With all this easily grasped by every opposition wordsmith with a security pass on Parliament Hill, why then are New Democrats and Tories (with the exception of that high-minded lone-wolf Michael Chong) not going along? Are they being too partisan too pass that life-or-death, good-citizen-of-the-world, common-sense test that is demanded by swing voters from coast to coast?

Duh. No.

In Canada, you can’t be dumb in public about a global threat as serious as climate change. But, you can, in fact, sound smart parting company with Justin Trudeau’s bold plan, and the qualified support of Andrew Coyne, for that matter, and be likeable by openly not liking Trudeau’s carbon tax plan.

First. Federal New Democrats are not honor-bound to keep up with the Liberals when they bully provinces and appropriate elements of a conservative market mechanism to fight a global problem. Furthermore, in opposition, they’d be crazy to support any tax increase that has to hit workers and families in energy-intensive ridings the hardest.

The left, of course, is free to outbid the Liberals with promises to raise taxes on those two exotic minorities: big business polluters and the rich.  However, they haven’t before and needn’t now help the Liberal Party’s indecently popular leader raise taxes on voting blocks that social democrats have solicited for generations.

Trudeau, on the face of it, has designed and intends to actually implement a carbon mitigation plan well to the right of Stephen Harper, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. New Democrats are free to leave him out there.

Second. Conservatives can survive being called hypocrites by Liberals.

Yes, Trudeau’s carbon “price” is less harsh and isn’t the federal government-money grab that was proposed by Stephen Dion. His “Green Shift" was soundly rejected in the 2008 election and Liberals learn from their mistakes. Nevertheless, Trudeau’s less rambunctious carbon tax plan will not be an alternative to inferior regulatory alternatives, but another add-on. His Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna has repeatedly assured lobbyists and provinces that they can keep bulking up subsidy and regulatory interventions.

Trudeau declared with great care that his carbon tax plan is “revenue neutral to the federal government.” Provincial governments will get every cent raised from their business and individuals. Nevertheless, its essential rationale and its inescapable impact on carbon consumers can’t be “neutral.”

The only way to leave energy-intensive users whole would be to provide matching rebates against each consumer’s carbon tax bill. But leaving them whole would contradict the whole point of Trudeau’s tax.

(Ontario Premier Wynne’s pre-election electricity rate rebate to hard-pressed electricity customers offers a real time example of trying anyway.)

It needn’t be supported today by scientifically literate and ambitious New Democrats or Conservatives.

The Trudeau government reply, of course, is that New Democrats are first to insist that Canada honor multilateral agreements and should, therefore, be first to back a carbon “price” plan that is sincerely designed to meet the climate change targets agreed to at the UN conference of all nations in Paris. The Trudeau government would also reply that the Tories have no right to complain because (1) they don’t care about climate change and (2) are not licensed to care about people. Sadly, both parties are too petty (as I am now) to hold hands and help Canada be seen to do its part to save the planet.

At the very least, the opposition—loyal, cynical, or otherwise—shouldn’t offer support, in advance, to the dark and sunny sides of a comprehensive carbon tax without (in concert with the provinces) full disclosure on how it would be applied.

In the meantime, let’s bear down on what the world truly needs: affordable technology alternatives to fossil power and a declaration by the next US president that she’ll propose and champion a substantive carbon tax or an alternative, verifiable form of American sacrifice worth Canadian sacrifice as well.