Statues

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Conservatives seem to love statues. And why not? Statues can be about anything you like – they don’t have to reflect real history; they can support any myth you want to attach to them. And statues can’t talk back. And they are sturdy. Build a statue and you can point to it and say: See I accomplished something. Even while there are so many real jobs that would help real people that aren’t being done.

In America, conservatives particularly like religious statues placed in or near government buildings. It doesn’t have to be Christian – a lot of Americans want to put of Jewish statues too. You know, plaques with the Ten Commandments on them. Too bad about that pesky separation of church and state in the Constitution.

In Canada, our current government really gets hard for stone. Or bronze. They plop up statues at a moment’s notice, either building them themselves or supporting some crackpot millionaire with a chip on his shoulder. Most of those guys have more dollars than sense and hopefully, after the election, they will simply fade away.

The statue that bugs me most is the one near my office on Parliament Hill. It commemorates the War of 1812, which the Conservatives claim was the founding event of Canada. Never mind that almost all of the soldiers were British and the few locals that got involved were either Aboriginal or some farm boys dragooned into the combat. No-one really took it seriously – a few building were burned and, at the end, the borders remained pretty much where they were. Both sides claim to have won so I guess that makes it a draw. A bit like kissing your sister.

This final skirmish of the American War of Independence was hardly a founding moment for Canada – that came in the uprisings of 1837 when McKenzie and Papineau demanded responsible government. Present day conservatives are hardly likely to want to commemorate that cause. Or remember when the people rose up against the conservatives of the day.

I hate the statue to 1812. To tell you the truth I have to resist spitting on it every time I walk by. Unlike real war memorials which celebrate the sacrifice of soldiers and remember the horrors of war, these soldiers seem almost gleeful as they fire their cannons toward the Chateau Laurier (named for a former Liberal Prime Minister) and point their muskets toward the actual War Memorial across the street. Pretty ironic in light of the events of last October.

This is a celebration of war, nothing more and nothing less. It is about what you would expect from a Prime Minister and Cabinet who like to prance around in semi-military clothing, pretending to be one of our men and women in the forces. It’s no wonder so many real veterans oppose them.

And that’s ten minutes.

Bargains

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Recently, an Environment Canada employee, Tony Turner, wrote and recorded a political protest song against the Harper government. He was subsequently suspended from his position and is being investigated by his department to see if he violated their code of ethics. This has generated considerable protest and demands that he be reinstated. Cries of ‘Censorship!’ are ringing out loud and clear.

While no-one opposes the Harper government more than I do and along the same lines as Mr. Turner (despite his occasional ventures into hyperbole), I don’t necessarily agree with the view that he was perfectly within his rights. There are consequences to speech after all – as the Hydro One employee who shouted obscenities at a reporter on air found out. He lost his job and rightly so.

During the 1980s and 90s, both as a political activist and as a low level union leader (I was a local president) I fought for an expansion of political rights for public servants. Now entrenched in contracts and legislation, most civil servants – right up to the top ranks of middle management – do have considerable freedom to express their views. They can have lawn signs and attend political rallies. They can hand out pamphlets (though not in the workplace where any sign of partisanship is banned) and they can make donations. They can apply for a leave of absence to run for office. This year 37 federal public servants have done exactly that.

Where is the problem then? The deal has always been that you can criticize the government about anything – except the area of your own job. So as an Environment Canada employee, Mr. Turner is free to criticize government for its policies on health care or the treatment of Aboriginals but not so free when it comes to climate change or pollution control.

There are good reasons for this. First, you are in effect criticizing your colleagues who either agree with government approaches (some do) or have agreed to do their best to implement them. Hardly makes for a stress free workplace. As well, one can hardly speak truth to power in the workplace while shouting your opinions to power outside of it.

There was in effect a bargain – civil servants give their advice and decision makers choose to either follow it or do something else. Would you really want something else? Would you want your lives to be run by experts and technocrats with no input from the people who were democratically elected? If so, why have elections at all? Why have politicians at all? Let’s have the country run by faceless bureaucrats like they do in China.

Public servants should speak strongly to the politicians. They should base their views on evidence and they should be as honest as they can possibly be – even if it goes against the public views of the government in power. Governments should listen carefully – and should often follow the advice they are given. But sometimes they should say thank you, we understand but we were elected to do xyz and will accept the consequences of not following your advice. Now go do this. And public servants should then go do that and if they can’t they should find other work. Which is what Canada’s chief statistician did over the cancelling of the long form census.

Unfortunately this bargain has been broken – first and foremost by the current government. Instead of quietly listening, they told public servants to shut up or they replaced them with people who would never say a harsh word. Then, instead of telling public servants to do this particular thing, they told them to do nothing. Go sit in the corner and be quiet. In part, this government lacks the courage of their convictions. They don’t want government to do certain things but fear the political repercussions of actually shutting down offending programs. Instead they tie the hands of civil servants and stifle them.

That’s been a standard approach of these guys. Big talk and not much action. Death by a thousand cuts. And in the end a decided lack of courage when it comes to doing what they really want to do. And thank goodness for small mercies.

Civil servants are used to being denied and to doing what they are told. They are not used to being silenced and told to do nothing. Despite what some people seem to think, people don’t join the public service to sit in their offices and do crossword puzzles.

No wonder morale is so low; no wonder public sector unions are – for the first time – actively campaigning against the government. No wonder Mr. Turner – who probably will be re-instated and told to edit bits out of his song (it’s too long anyway) – is protesting. No wonder so many public servants are taking leave or actually quitting their jobs to run against the government.

Nobody wants to work loyally for a boss who breaks trust with them.

And that’s a lot more than ten minutes. You can protest my broken promise anyway you like.

Surpluses

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Yesterday Stephen Harper got to brag that the federal surplus for the first quarter was $5 billion. For a party that makes fiscal (as opposed to economic) issues the centre of their platform this was very good news indeed. Or was it?

If you look back at previous first quarters, you will see that they almost always perform better than any other time of the year. The reason is simple – the first quarter includes April, the month where a lot of people pay their taxes. While tax revenue comes in every month of the year, April is always a little higher. This alone may account for a first quarter surplus when most authorities predict as small deficit for the year. Another explanation is that the government sold off a bunch of GM stocks at a loss while, at the same time, it hasn’t been spending the money they said they would spend – secret austerity that will eventually cripple government services. Still, Harper will brag and the other leaders will question his claims. It’s all politics.

And in any case we won’t have a clearer picture until we get the numbers from the rest of the year which won’t happen until well after the election.

But what does it matter anyway? Obviously surpluses are nice. Who wouldn’t like to make more money than they spend? A certain portion of families do that (the majority have seen household debt rise) – it is called savings. But what – as the banks like to ask – are you saving for? Notice that implication – the banks, those great fiscal conservatives, expect you to eventually spend those savings – on a house or a car or a vacation.

And for good reason. The greatest savers in the world are the Japanese. In part that has led the Japanese economy to stagnate for over 20 years. The government went so far as to introduce negative interest rates in order to stimulate citizens to spend a little money.

So the question is: why do governments want surpluses? The Conservative answer is clear. They want surpluses so they can lower taxes and shrink government programs. Tax cuts always go mostly to the rich and well to do – they pay the most taxes and so get the most benefits when taxes go down. The result is greater inequality and, in the end, greater social costs for health care or law enforcement.

Other people want to pay down the debt. This is not a bad thing but not something that one needs to get carried away with. A stable debt in a rising economy is essentially shrinking anyway. Look at it this way – if you owe $10000 and you make $20000 a year, you have real problems. Your debt is 50% of your income. If your income rises to $50000, it is still tough but you only owe 20% of your income. At $100000, it drops to 10%. At that ratio you would have no trouble managing your debt or paying it off.

With high economic growth, making a fiscal surplus is less important in the short term – though it should still be a goal over the entire 10 or 12 year business cycle.

In the meantime, governments should focus on using any surpluses to improve the lives of all Canadians through social programs that reduce long term costs to society and investments that create long term economic growth.

And that’s ten minutes.

Deficits

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When Stephen Harper was elected, he promised to change Canada until we could not recognize it. In some respects he has succeeded. On the world stage, we are no longer viewed as peacekeepers. While we are not yet considered warmongers, we are certainly seen as willing cheerleaders to war. He has significantly diminished our environmental record; making us look foolish on climate change abroad while gutting environmental legislation at home.

But nowhere has Stephen Harper changed Canada more than in the way we think about government spending. While perfectly willing to run seven consecutive deficits, he has ingrained in the minds of Canadians both that deficits are bad (or has he?) and that he is in no way responsible for causing them. This is a peculiar sleight of hand. On the one hand, he claims to be a great economic manager while, at the same time, denying any responsibility for what happens in the economy. The strange thing is how many people, both in and out of the media, have been willing – are still willing – to go along with it.

Take the matter of deficits for a moment. Both Mr. Harper and, more bizarrely, Mr. Mulcair, swear up and down they will never run a deficit. Mr. Harper is understandable. Balanced budgets are an ideological touchstone for the Conservatives; it matters not what is good for the country, it only matters that he ascribes to the great shibboleth. Mr. Mulcair is of course trying to fight the image of the NDP as profligate spenders – even though the evidence is that NDP governments are no more likely to run deficits than anyone else (in fact slightly less likely). It is all perception not good policy that matters.

In fact, whenever Mr. Harper or his supporters tout his economic credentials, I want to choke. He has a Master’s from a not very good school of economics (U of Calgary is good at a lot of things but economics and political science aren’t among them). I know more economic theory than Mr. Harper ever actually demonstrates.

Deficits are part of the economic cycle. You run deficits when the economy is in recession or when it is running too slowly to sustain itself. Mr. Harper has already shown his inability (in 2008) to recognize an economic disaster and seems to be in denial about a recession this year that he probably caused. So it hardly means much when he makes fun of Trudeau’s proposal to run deficits to kick-start the economy. The Prime minister is as emotionally and psychologically committed to austerity – despite the growing evidence that it hasn’t worked most places – as he is to using oil as the sole driver of the economy.

The Liberal proposal particularly makes sense if the focus is on much needed infrastructure, improved education and productivity incentives. Those are exactly the reasons why families run deficits – to build houses, get university degrees and purchase tools and computers to improve their economic prospects.

It could be worse. I go into deficit to go on vacation – which I suppose in Mr. Harper’s case would be all those military adventures in foreign lands.

But that’s ten minutes.

Wandering

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Years ago, a friend of mine was in charge of a large hostel. While it catered mostly to travelling youth from around the world, he told me that a growing part of his clientele were men in their forties and fifties; men who travelled the highways as tramps even though they didn’t have to.

Who were these modern day hobos? They were, for the most part, men who had achieved a certain level of success – as lawyers, business men or other professionals – who suddenly found themselves adrift. They had focussed on their careers and failed to notice that their families were drifting away. Their kids had grown and left home and their wives had slipped away to careers of their own or to relationships where they were a partner rather than an appendage.

Most had also discovered that their careers – that had been such a focus of their lives – had reached a nadir. They were as successful as they were ever going to be, had risen as high in the firm as their ability and ambition would take them and there was no place else to go. And all the money that seemed so important was gone – spent on divorce settlements or vain attempts to recover their youth.

While most people in this situation would retrench – accept their lot in life and do what they could to recover their families and their friendships, others would set sail on something new. A lot of people in middle life seek something new to rejuvenate them. Some take up a new passion – art or golf or a return to school (or perhaps a fling on Ashley Madison) – while others return to a passion of their youth. Some settle into quiet retirement, find God or start a new family.

And a few throw it all away – including their most important responsibilities – and take to the road or the high seas. It seems it is mostly men who do the latter. Perhaps they embrace the danger, the solitude, the self-reliance. They stay at hostels when they can or sleep in ditches when they can’t. They become lean and fit or grow drunken and dissipated. They lack any purpose other than to keep moving.

Sometimes, that desire to drift overwhelms us all. Sometimes it is in our blood. My father was a hobo – not out of desire but of necessity and not as an old man but as a youth – and his tales of travel filled up much of my childhood.

When the autumn comes, I feel it strongest. Years of schooling taught me that the autumn was the time of new beginnings, of new friends and new experiences. The autumn was the time to move along and so it has been. Almost all of my new ventures have started in the fall.

Still, I can’t see myself tramping alone into the horizon. Not with my knees; not with my love of comfortable beds and regular meals. I’ll have to make all my journeys in my mind.

But that’s ten minutes.

Partisans

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To watch the proceedings in Congress or the House of Commons, to follow the campaigns of those seeking the Presidential nomination or a seat in Parliament, to listen to media reports of political rallies, one might think that politics is simply war by other means.

Politicians are a bad lot. They sing their own praises while describing their opponents as nothing short of devils. Their followers are rabid – casting insults at anyone who might dare to question the wisdom of the leader’s policies. Not that policy seems to play much a role in elections.

Yet, all that is on the surface. Politics ultimately is not a sport; it is certainly not a horse race. Although there are plenty who would have you believe otherwise, politics is a collaborative process. The writers of the American constitution certainly understood that which is why they so carefully divided powers so that, if things went awry, politicians would still have to work together to get things done.

As Harry Truman said after he became President: My biggest surprise was when I gave an order and nothing happened. The President has a lot of power but over some things he is virtually powerless and has to work with members of Congress and state governments to accomplish much of what he does. This was by design – though like all designs it seldom works as well in practice as it does in theory.

Parliamentary democracies were less designed than evolved. Pieces were added or removed, adjustments were made and politicians muddled through as best they could. In recent years the power of the party leaders has become more concentrated but in most countries the absolute power of the Prime Minister is under constant challenge – from opposition politicians, from the public or more often than not from within their own parties.

And this is a good thing. Public governance, especially in a democracy, must always be fashioned on two basic premises: the public good is greater than the good of any particular segment and those who have power today will see it stripped away tomorrow. No matter how ingrained a party may be in the political culture of a state, it will always come to an end. If people in Alberta were shocked to see the Progressive Conservatives turfed after 43 years in power, think of how the Mexican people felt to see the PRI fall from grace after ruling the place for nearly 70 years.

Unfortunately, while politicians either know or soon learn after taking office that collaboration, negotiation and compromise are at the heart of a stable democracy, not all people elected to office – and especially not those who surround them as advisors or as partisan party activists – are actually politicians; they are merely political people. Partisans can never see that their ideas might be flawed or incomplete, can never truly question their leaders, can never see the opposition as other than enemies. They are little more than soccer hooligans, better dressed perhaps but no more capable of running a country than the hooligans are capable of playing in the world cup.

Partisans have a purpose in the electoral process but when politicians are nothing more than partisans, they are less than useless.

And that’s ten minutes.

One of Those Days

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Bear with me. There are days when I have nothing to say. Or I have things to say that I’m not ready or willing to express. There are days when I think silence would communicate more. There are days when I know that silence means consent or invites others to put words in your mouth. There are days when my focus is insufficient to settle on any one topic. There are days when too many ideas are tumbling around in my brain for any one to dominate. There are days when I simply can’t finish my argument to my own satisfaction. There are days when I think whatever I write will simply be a repetition of things I’ve already said.

This is one of those days.

It’s not that I have suddenly gone blank, suffered a stroke and sunk into aphasia, decided that nothing is troubling me, that my observations of the world are no longer worth sharing, that perhaps I’ve said enough already.

It’s just… I don’t know… hard to encapsulate.

I tried to write a general description of cultural relativity – you know,’ you can’t push the bus you’re riding in’ or ‘where you stand depends on where you sit’. Then I tried to make it more pointed – to describe how it is almost impossible not to see opposing views as ideology and your own views as mere common sense. But it got bogged down in terminology.

Then I began to explore the beauty of language, describing how sometimes I don’t care about plot or character, about dialogue or narrative tension or even about description. All I want is the rhythmic pounding of words upon the far shore of my mind, the perfect flow of sound and froth and… oh, to be a good enough writer to express what that feels like. I can’t define the poetry of language but I know it when I see it – like I know that feeling of slipping into another state of being when I hear wordless chanting, the thrum of voices that takes me back to the place we humans were before we were human.

So you can see why I’m not able to bear down today. Practical political theory fighting with pre-human emotional responses to primal communication.

Then I thought I could write something amusing about old men trying to hold on to their youth. You know the thing I’m talking about. I see old guys, their skin tanned and leathery, in tank tops and short-shorts, running like the devil is chasing them, running as if they could catch their fleeing youth, their mouths hanging open above the wattles of their necks, their eyes glazed over with exertion and pain, as young people – men and women – glide by them, unaware that their own youth is already pulling away.

And yet what else are old men supposed to do? Sit on their verandas and yell at the kids on their lawn? Curl up and die? And even when all we’re doing is racing to put down ten minutes of words, aren’t we – aren’t I – just chasing something that I will never catch?

Yeah, it’s one of those days.

But that’s ten minutes.

Writing About Place

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It is said that one of the distinctive things about Canadian literature is that landscape is part of the narrative; a character as much as the people who inhabit it. Yet, having read great fiction from around the world, I suspect it is not as distinctive as one might think. It is the emptiness of the landscape that stands out but even then, the writing of Tim Winton, for example, set in the vast empty seascapes of Western Australia might as easily be mistaken for Canadian as anything else.

Writing about place is, I think, what often distinguishes fiction from literature. Take mystery novels. The really good ones are set in specific places; the rest are set in a kind of stylized New York or Los Angeles. In fact publishers often encourage writers to re-write their works to reflect those particular film-identified places. Hell, movie producers do everything they can to make Vancouver or Toronto or even Denver look like one of those two cities – as if readers and viewers can’t tell the difference.

But sense of place often shapes character and character drives plot. Travis Mcgee would not be who he was if Florida didn’t live inside the novels of John D. MacDonald.

Still, it is a complex process. Too much detail and the reader can become lost in a morass of unfamiliar places; too little and the location can be anywhere. Or New York.

Recently my wife and I were discussing the book Suspended Sentences whose author Patrick Modiano just won the Nobel Prize for literature. The stories are so rooted in Paris they couldn’t take place anywhere else. The lists of street names and landmarks seem almost overwhelming – especially if you’ve never been to Paris. If you have, it soon becomes a map in your mind but even if you never have been to the City of Lights, Modiano succeeds in creating a mythical place for you. Soon, you know what will appear around the next corner and how it would be to stagger from this particular bar to that particular address.

Other writers succeed in different ways. Alice Munro, writing, ironically, from Paris in the New Yorker, created towns in southern Ontario that you simply know must exist, places you are sure you will find right beyond the next turn in the highway. But of course it is only a map of the mind – as real as any place built of wood or brick.

In my own writing, I’ve tried to build places both real and imagined. It is sometimes surprising to walk down a street in a town or city that I’ve written about and discover that this particular building is no longer there, or, more surprising, never was. But, to me, the imagined places of my stories are more real than the places they were modeled on. Because that is where my characters live. What could be more real than that?

And that’s ten minutes.

We’re All Doomed

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Pessimism is easy. All you have to do is listen to 24-hour news channels on a regular basis. It doesn’t even matter which one – MSNBC does the job as well as Fox News. It is not the falsehoods or hyperbole – it is the relentless focus on bad news. What qualifies as bad depends on their political view but make no mistake: the world is a bad place and getting worse by the moment.

Being an optimist is a larger stretch. You have to weigh the balance of probabilities; you have to think about the things you learn. You are forced to consider the lessons of the past while projecting possibilities into the future.

Right now, we seem to be faced with global economic uncertainty, terrorism expanding into ever fresh areas, massive and expanding inequality, climate change threatening to flood Florida (and most other lowland areas of the world) while bringing on devastating storms and spreading droughts.

How can you possibly be optimistic in the face of that?

Fifty years ago the problems were different – much more solvable. There was the threat of nuclear destruction from competing super powers; lead and other heavy metals were poisoning entire generations, bio-accumulative organics were wiping out species, air pollution, ozone thinning, growing authoritarianism and massive poverty and starvation. All of those problems got worse before…

They got better.

While nuclear war is still a risk, most people are concerned with nuclear terrorism. The number of actual weapons is on the decline and there are better mechanisms (hardly perfect) for controlling their proliferation. Let me put it this way – if Iran had a nuclear program in the late 1960s they would have had nuclear weapons by the 1970s.

There are now more overweight people in the world than malnourished ones. Democracy continues to expand and with it comes expanded civil rights for women, minorities, and LBGT people. Is there push back? Certainly. But it is a rear-guard action. The reactionaries have mostly lost in most places – they just don’t know it yet. Are there still places where freedom doesn’t rain? You bet – but even those places feel the tide of history.

We’ve cleaned up most of the old pollution problems – imperfectly it is true – but there is life in the Thames River again and we’ve mostly removed lead from the human ecosystem.

Even poverty is on the decline through an expansion of regulated markets and the advantages of spreading technology.

All of these solutions bred new problems; some of the new problems – like climate change – were there all along but were overshadowed by the difficulties facing the world.

In fifty years, we may have solved these issues and be facing new dangers. Or we may all be dead – I almost certainly will be, but that’s an entirely different story. We are all doomed, after all.

And that’s ten minutes.

Dog Days

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The dog days of summer are upon us. Although originally related to the rising of Sirius (the Dog Star) over the horizon – an omen of trouble and pestilence during the hottest days – nowadays we mean those late days of summer when nothing seems to matter. All the fervent plans we made are either done or abandoned and it’s too late to start something new.

In baseball, the teams are contending for first place but everyone knows it will not be decided now but in September and October. While the day to day doings of our heroes may pique a little interest, it really doesn’t matter in the long run. Other sports are either on hiatus or in their early days.

The same can be said of politics. In the USA, Donald Trump continues to lead the Republican polls, filling the headlines and social media sites with outrage or amusement but we all know that leading anything in August is a mug’s game. Nothing of significance will happen until the fall or maybe the winter. Call me after the first primaries and let me know where the toupee is then.

The Canadian election has been grinding on for three weeks now though it seems endlessly longer. People like me, who follow politics as closely as others follow baseball or, in Canada, hockey, eagerly lap up every bit of news and follow every shift in the polls, still know that it will all come down to the final five weeks. Who can say what another month of lackluster campaigning will bring? Will the voters remember who called the media “lying pieces of shit” or care who knew what about the Duffy affair? Will they be swamped with the commercial messages of all parties until they don’t know up from down or have they already made up their minds? Will this be the election where campaigns don’t matter?

Hard to say.

During the dog days, we want to care, we want to still wring the last bit of fun out of the ever shortening days, we want to get up and enjoy the heat while it still lasts before the snow flies (sorry Alberta – I feel your pain) but somehow it just seems easier to sleep in and lay around, dreaming perhaps of all the things we’re going to do as soon as Labour Day passes and the real world starts up again.

Which is of course foolish. Life is short. That is not an admonition to have an affair but a warning that every day not lived to its fullest is a day you will never get back, a day you may in the future regret as having been wasted. There are no lazy days when you are dead – no days at all.

So get up! Do something! Even if it is only to read that book you promised to read over the summer but never got to. Even if it is only to walk by the river with your dog. Every dog has his day and every dog day is still worth living.

But that’s ten minutes.