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)

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.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Want your Senate to answer to you or be ‘independent’?

Canadians are sensitive to the corruptive power of hot patriotic rhetoric in American politics. We’re unmoved by flag-waving braggarts. Instead, we’re soft on a sedative: the proposition that our decision-makers serve us best, ever more intelligently, when we’re not in their face.

An extra measure of independence for legislators and public executives is presented to us as time-tested good housekeeping—a virtue that sets Canada above the more tactile and demanding politics to the south.

The Americans inherited the slave industry and we embedded in our political culture a British constitution of limited democracy and the good citizen’s general willingness to go along. 

Yet, any morning, in every public institution, from the PMO down to every crown agency and regional government outpost, those who hold power are reminded in little, unpleasant ways that they hold that power at our pleasure. Their unease about their professional mortality is palliated directly by obsessive market surveys, focus groups, and waves of fetching press gallery spinners, bureaucratic neologisms, and incomprehensible ‘accountability’ data dumps.

Also, there’s the confusing verbiage of our constitutional monarchy—a magical system of government that hides in every legal statute who exactly is the boss. On the outside, popular public intellectuals also write papers shoring up the credibility of independent decision-making and the impossibility of improving on the democratic reforms secured in the 1980s.

 A House Undivided: Making Senate Independence Work by former Senators Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal is a classic, bringing nuts-and-bolts authenticity to the task of trying to organize Justin Trudeau’s new Senate of 105 un-elected, free-thinkers into a workable legislative assembly.  

There will be, they proposed to the Public Policy Form, weekly Senate caucuses of the four regional power blocks that formed British North America back in 1867. To give Justin Trudeau greater latitude in guessing who would best represent these regions, the age limit of 30 and the property minimum of $4,000 for Senate appointments will be eliminated. Necessarily, the PM’s freshman Senate existentialists will need to meet regularly “in conference” to sort out their differences with the less sober, rather harried elected politicians from the people’s House of Commons.

(The Senate’s own reform committee outdid Kirby and Segal by recommending that the Senate allow their debates to be televised. Idle masochistic Canadians surely can’t be satisfied watching only unaccountable US Senators indifferent in what they think.)

Some sandboxes should be for the children or sent to the museum of civilization.

Trying to make a Canadian law-making institution less offensive by reforming its appointment procedures and business practices is, at best, a sincere waste of time.

Placing our upper house beyond electoral redress by the people has not, as Victorian authoritarians told us, led to more “sober second-thought.” The Senate is illegitimate today because, time and again, we’ve seen that informed adults voting are superior guarantors of durable progress than organizations of aloof worthies.

Yes, too much democracy—via plebiscites, recall of legislators, and too frequent elections—could drive us into a ditch. And with that concern very much in mind, the US constitution evolved a democratic balance: elections every two years for the people’s assembly and every six years for its Senate. They accepted that scrambling for money and voter approval shouldn’t go on constantly. They didn’t go so far, however, as to eliminate elections for the US Senate altogether.

Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal were superior Canadian senators. And they are listened to in Ottawa today. Lyndon Johnson, Ted Kennedy, Robert Taft, and Evert Dirksen, however, made political history, and did so, in large part, because they could win big elections and scare presidents.

Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be elected shortly; and neither will be subdued by The Guardian or The Globe or the UN. To govern, however, the winner must regularly secure majorities and super-majorities in a separately elected US Senate.

Will Justin Trudeau’s government ever be subdued or driven off course by the Senators Justin Trudeau appoints to the Senate? Against that test, our $90-million-plus Senate is more bling-bling than a check on the awesome power of the PMO.

Democracy’s catch-22: for an effective Senate to be independent of the PM of the day, its Senators must first be empowered by being elected and, along with the PM, obliged to answer regularly to the people.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Quit! You’ll only lose your brand.

Every successful candidate—as well as most losing ones—for President of the United States attract public intellectuals. They offer their services as storytellers, media whisperers, and strategic thinkers. They make a difference; they help launch and sustain good and unforgettably terrible ideas as well. And they are rewarded richly in the best sense of the word: their exceptional brains work most brilliantly around power. They must, however, swim in one of two immense pools: the Republican and Democratic parties. The action is not on the beach with the independents.

The entry fee into these ponds has lightened; old-boy passports aren’t as valuable as they once were. Presidential politics today is an extremely competitive marketplace, with demanding investors who thrive in the vicious new meritocracy. So, merit should get you in.

Exiting is not as easy: it can cost you your name, career, and friendships. It raises a character question: Can you be trusted on any team?

Loyalty is not just a harmless pat on the back for dutiful service. The word imposes a sin tax on exit: being known as disloyal. Being loyal doesn’t get you a promotion or keep the business innovative or on its toes. It simply allows the institution to not worry about potential quitters 24–7. (Insights on the power of loyalty goes to Albert O. Hirschman's "Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States")

The above considerations partly explain why David Brooks in Time for a Realignment and avowedly partisan thinkers write passionately about the dislocation and movement of millions of voters, while largely sitting still themselves. Their squirming has generated entertaining and clever discussion—and we should appreciate that.

Joseph Nye, the liberal who coined the strategic panacea soft power hilariously excoriates Republican Donald Trump for being soft on Vladimir Putin and squeamish about committing US forces to any war to defend Lithuania. Conservative David Frum speaks soulfully about his dark night in the Republican Party. He chooses forthrightly to campaign against Donald Trump as a loyalist’s first step to unite conservative Republicans, later.

Their loyalty shouldn’t be overvalued. There’s another equally effective way to be intellectually and politically useful: quit.

Too little attention is paid to the virtue of picking up and leaving. America is great if only because America and it’s more timid northern cousin are populated by switchers and quitters, not only by those who keep their heads down, wait for bad times to pass, or hope that their bosses will wake up one day and stop treating them as soreheads and has-beens.

Think of those illustrious troublemakers insiders loathed at the time: Theodore Roosevelt and his Progressive Party, René Lévesque and the Party Quebecois, and Preston Manning and Reform Party.

Singing the praises of the two-party system is an establishmentarian excuse for not rocking the boat amongst the brains at the top as well as amongst the white trash below decks. Throughout the modern communication age, the oldest parties have set the rules and acquired for themselves tremendous advantages to ward off revolts and new competition.

The privileged, of course, have done all this to make politics less corrupt and politicking more like a profession.

Yet, there’s no compelling evidence that breaking down the quasi-monopolistic advantages for Democrats and Republicans and Liberal and Conservative parties would lead to the chaotic fragmentation of our popular democracies. Insurgencies are eventually absorbed by both adaptive competitors and by an enduring preference by voters to give one party, not coalitions, decisive power to govern.

Malcontents serve new ideas within established parties. However, they only rouse themselves when there’s reasonable prospect that neglected constituencies will exercise their freedom to move on.

More public intellectuals should try it—light the way, so to speak. Real change needs them.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Is the US ballot question getting too heavy?

The logic behind Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, President Obama’s ex-cathedra observations, and a wave of conscience-stricken conservatives all claiming that Donald Trump is “unfit” for high office is too depressing to voice on mainstream television.

So hide the children: this year’s presidential election is too dangerous to be close. Indeed, the democracy-wary founding fathers may have been right: today, with all its awesome power and global obligations, maybe America shouldn’t be using the popular ballot to select its party candidates and elect its Commander in Chief.

The Khan family took the high ground and played it safe, simply questioning Trump’s knowledge of the US Constitution. The Clinton campaign, however, has gone much further, declaring that Trump is irredeemably, “temperamentally” unfit; that by his tweets alone, it’s evident that if we gave him the power he might blow us up.

The crazy guy is saying it would be nice to get along with Putin; the sane lady is claiming that she can save Estonia and, as well, has the right fingers to rest near the Red Button. Republican leaders in positions of trust are being told to put America First and ease the way for another Clinton Presidency.

As a small Canadian talker, not a fighter, I’m temperamentally unfit to cheer for a bully. And Trump baldly presents himself as that. Likewise, however, I suspect that Americans don’t welcome    months before the big day, before even a candidates debate has been held instructed that ‘civilization as we know it’ will be on the ballot this November.

The election probably will stay unpredictable for weeks to come because in the land of the free there are millions of independent voters who don’t like to be hurried.

You have to trust insiders to trust what they tell you: what they think is cooking deep inside the heads of the two leading candidates.

In a popular incumbent’s year, the insiders can scare you silly. Think of Mitt Romney. Before he challenged President Barack Obama, he was widely recognized as the progressive, Republican policy-wonk that authored Obamacare.  By Election Day 2010, he was a tin man who’d like to disenfranchise the poorer 47percent of Americans.

Or more to the point, remember liberal Senator Ted Kennedy’s pal, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater? Goldwater was trounced in a landslide by Lyndon Johnson’s anti-nuke campaign in 1964, just month’s before LBJ’s massive escalation of American military participation in Vietnam’s civil war.

Events can be hard on voter expectations. Close elections, however, haven’t yet put America’s direct democracy in fatal disrepute.