Freedom

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Everywhere man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. So thought Jean Jacques Rousseau back before the French Revolution. One wonders what he might think now. Plus ça change… and all that, I guess.

Freedom is relative, of course. Very much a case of the chains half on or half off. In the West, we often talk about how free we are and, yet, whenever someone chooses to exercise that freedom, say by refusing to stand up when an anthem was played, we get all sorts of responses – such as the pastor who stated at a football game (to wild cheers) that anyone who refused to stand, should be shot.

That struck home since, on occasion, I’ve refused to stand for such ceremonies. I got some dirty looks – or, this being Canada, some sidelong glances – but no one pulled a gun on me. Of course, talk is one thing – it’s a free country isn’t it? – but action is quite another. “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?

Religious freedom is one area where people become particularly confused. They feel that their freedom has been limited if they aren’t allowed to impose their views and values on other people, aren’t allowed to be paid by the government but refuse to serve citizens if they don’t like the cut of their jib. It’s public service folks! If you want a cult-run state, move to North Korea.

Or they believe in freedom religion but only for their own. Daesh (ISIS if you like) is all for freedom of religion – you’re free to convert anytime you like. And if you don’t… well, you have no one to blame for yourself.

But, of course, freedom can take many forms. In some places, people have proposed right-to-work legislation – even imposed it – but what they really want to do is take away your freedom of association, or put it more bluntly, they want to outlaw unions. And why not? Employment they say is a matter of a contract between two people – a boss and a worker. It’s a bit like saying that anyone can get in the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world and expect a fair fight.

Still, we have the right to vote, right? Well, we do as long as someone is watching. But look away for even a moment, and someone will start to find ways to exclude some voters. Voter registration and identification is just a modern form of the Jim Crow laws that were designed to keep black Americans from voting or the Indian Act in Canada that denied indigenous people the vote into the 1960s. Even when we talk of wasted votes or design systems where votes don’t really matter, we find ways to limit political freedom – at least for some of us. The very wealthy can always buy whatever freedom they want and often do.

Still, not all is lost. In the West at least, what used to be solved by force of arms – war and revolution – is now achieved through voter revolts and populist movements. Not always pretty but less likely to enslave us. And if it does we can turn to another old time thinker who said, echoing Rousseau: Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.

And that’s ten minutes.

Party Unity

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While it may be a consummation devoutly to be wished, the question of unity within the Democratic Party remains in doubt. Or does it? A poll released yesterday suggests that 90% of hard-core Bernie Sanders supporters intend to vote for Clinton in November. Despite protests at the Democratic convention, it turns out that just as Bernie Sanders doesn’t control or even speak for his most rabid partisans, they, in turn, don’t speak for the majority of Sanders less active supporters.

Nothing new here. People who go to conventions are not the same is ordinary voters – they have more ego invested. Having been battle tested, they are always ready for the fight even if every victory they achieve is bound to by pyrrhic.

What will happen to the Bernie or Bust people? I expect a lot of them will take their ball and go home and won’t be heard from again until after the election. Others may turn their frustrated energy towards a campaign for the Greens or, illogical as it may seem, for the right wing Libertarian Party candidate. A few may even campaign for Trump. But most of those who remain active will work to get Democrats elected – they may not support Clinton directly but will pick local candidates for Congress or Governor to try to break the Republican stranglehold on those elected bodies.

The same cannot be said for the situation in Republican Party. Whereas the second place finisher for the Democrats, Bernie Sanders, called on people to elect Clinton, Ted Cruz, who finished second for the GOP, refused to endorse Trump and was actually booed off the stage. Meanwhile, numerous Republican leaders have been lukewarm in their endorsements or are actively working for the defeat of their own candidate. How that works out on Election Day is anyone’s guess, but the same Pew poll that showed the shift in Sanders supporters found that fewer than 80% of those who worked for another GOP candidate will vote for Trump. I doubt if many of those will wind up working for Clinton but it may give the Libertarian candidate a boost. Or, more likely, it will add to the huge number of Americans who simply don’t vote.

While many progressives and independents were somewhat shocked at the rhetoric at the GOP convention, they might take comfort in the fact that most of the convention-goers there, like the Bernie or Bust folks protesting at the DNC, don’t represent anyone but themselves. Radicals make great TV but seldom deliver what they promise. Trust me, after 45 years of activism on the left, I know.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Memes

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Yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook which consisted of an unflattering picture of an angry looking Hilary Clinton and a caption “I’ll get you and your little bird, too,” a reference to the finch that landed on the podium during a Bernie Sanders speech. It was posted by a progressive woman (a Sanders supporter) with a note saying that it should be taken as humorous.

Let’s be clear: this was meant to remind you of the wicked witch from Wizard of Oz (who is eventually killed). The word ‘witch’ is often used as a euphemism for the word ‘bitch.’ What struck me about this is the number of times I’ve heard right wing white men make misogynistic and racist remarks and then excuse it with: It’s just a joke. Don’t you have a sense of humour?

I get it. We often make rude jokes among ourselves – denigrating people for aspects of their character or background because attacking their policies is just too time and energy consuming. My wife and I have often said that it’s a good thing our living room isn’t bugged, given some of the snarky remarks we’ve made about politicians and, even, about tragic public events. We say things to each other that we would never dream of saying in public. Or on Facebook.

What’s the harm, you might say? When politics is reduced to memes, discourse is reduced to angry shouts, democracy becomes demagoguery and racists and sexists are given a free hand. It is no more acceptable for those on the left to do it than those on the right.

But it is so damn easy, isn’t it? I’ve been guilty myself. I made a meme showing a smarmy looking Ted Cruz with the logo beneath his face saying “Five Affairs” as if he were bragging. Below that was Vezzini from the Princess Bride (Cruz is a big fan) saying “Inconceivable.” With two images and three words I both call attention to the rumours around Cruz and question his ‘manhood.’

Here’s an easy one for Clinton supporters to use. Find a picture of Sanders making a speech – hand raised, preferably in a fist. The caption? “Old Man Shouting at Clouds” Now we get to point out that Sanders is indeed the oldest candidate for President ever and suggest that his policies are not only fuelled by anger but also that they are unlikely to change anything.

Would that be fair? Not in the least. Would it be funny? To some people maybe; others would see it as ageist and simple-minded. That’s what memes do. Make light of everything and reduce it to the lowest common denominator – usually by playing on half-truths or outright lies. Lies seem to be the main currency of modern politics in America.

The solution to division in America is not more insults, lies, invective or bad and unpleasant jokes. The solution is honest discourse and spirited but reasoned debate. You actually see that, for the most part, between Sanders and Clinton. It even, from time to time, appeared in the Republican debates. Maybe, whoever becomes the candidate for their respective parties, we’ll see it in the presidential debates.

But in America in 2016, I suspect it will all be reduced to an insulting picture and a few simplistic insults. Funny? In a sick kind of way, I suppose. I’m sure anti-democratic thugs the world over are laughing their heads off.

And that’s ten minutes.

What Journalists Know

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Very few journalists understand how politics work. Even fewer have a clue how governments work. Almost none grasp the complexities of public policy. Not surprising – they were never trained to know and were actively discouraged from taking part. Even when they have acquired some understanding, they assume none of their readers and listeners are interested or capable of following them, so they dumb it down. Better to report on a well-developed cliché than do any deep analysis. It improves your chance of hosting your own show or appearing on page one.

Take the recent response of reporters to the Federal budget. Their initial reaction was to focus on the deficit and on the ‘path to a balanced budget.’ They also noticed that the budget was a lot shorter than in previous years. Deep.

Of course, it wasn’t a lot shorter. The government had provided two volumes – the first the budget proper and the second the fiscal background, which they knew that no-one but policy wonks would care about. They also thinned down the political rhetoric – though they certainly didn’t eliminate it. Maybe the question should have been: why were Conservative budgets so needlessly long?

It is the fiscal analysis that gets at the issue of the deficit and the debt. It is pointless to talk about raw numbers, since, because of inflation and economic growth, they aren’t based on the same calculation from year to year. Think of it this way. In 1980 you made $20,000 but spent $30,000. You had a deficit of $10,000 or 50% of your income. In 2010, you made $60,000 but spent $75,000 (by now your banker should be worried). You had a deficit of $15,000 but that was only 25% of your income. Not good, but better.

But here is the number that really counts. In 1980, you ran your first debt so your total debt was 50% of your income. This puts you in a position similar to France. But in 2010, your debt (let’s say you overspent by $10,000 a year) has reached $300,000 which is now 500% of your income. This places you in roughly the position of Argentina just before the country went bankrupt. By the way, if you are worried about government debt in Canada, you should be terrified by personal debt which now stands at 164% of disposable income. Fortunately most of that debt is in mortgages.

Canada’s current debt to income (GDP) ratio is 31% (this is only federal debt; count in provincial debt and it’s not so rosy) one of the best in the world – much better than our European and North American friends. You might think this is because of the fiscal prudence of the previous Conservative governments but you would be wrong. While the Conservatives did shrink the ratio initially – though not as quickly as the previous Martin government had – it began to rise again in 2008. While the Conservatives claim to have left the country in surplus, it was accomplished, if at all, through financial tricks that actually left the country in worse shape than it had been even a year or two before. It was, as they say, good politics but lousy policy.

The current fiscal plan is a steady state one. The debt ratio won’t rise – though it won’t fall either. Given the huge contingency fund, the low estimate of the price of oil and the pessimistic forecasts for economic growth, the deficits might actually be smaller than projected – or the government may have the fiscal room to fulfill those of their election promises, like homecare, left out of this budget, without running up big bills.

But that – the real story – is apparently too hard to explain or to figure out how to dig into. So, when they interview the PM or the Minister of Finance, they constantly interrupt and return to the tired old shibboleths of the evils of the deficit, as they were trained to do by Reform and Conservative rhetoric — Stockholm (or Stockwell Day) syndrome, maybe. Meanwhile they let the opposition blather on with nary a question even when the union-bashing, poverty-shaming neo-con Ms Ambrose spouts Tea Party language – calling the request for the rich to pay their share “class warfare.” They are only slightly tougher on Mr. Mulcair. Maybe they just feel sorry for them both, since neither of them are likely to be leaders for long.

Journalists need to up their game and trust their audiences to follow along. Or just give up and admit they take their orders from on high. And, though I’m writing this on Easter, I don’t mean from Jesus.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

Down in The Gutter

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American politics may have hit a new low with accusations that Ted Cruz engaged in extra-marital affairs. This comes after a nude picture of Donald Trump’s wife was used in an attack ad by a pro-Cruz SuperPAC. Never have such tactics appeared in American politics. Well, if you don’t count the outing of John Edwards and Gary Hart, the vicious attacks on serial monogamist Newt Gingrich, efforts to impeach Clinton over a blowjob, the various Senators and congressmen caught doing the dirty in public washrooms or the various rumours spread about Presidential infidelities going right back to the founding fathers.

Sex and politics have always been mixed up in the United States – not surprising for a country founded by Puritans and other fundamentalist Christians. Of course, this is also the country that gave us Mormonism, the religion that solved the problem of philandering males by letting them “marry” as many young girls as they like.

Of course, everyone says that it is not the sex that matters but the hypocrisy. I’m sure that if Cruz hadn’t been so rigid, I mean, firm, or rather, determined in his sexual purity, none of this would have come up. In any case, after a brief spurt of outrage, I’m sure we’ll soon return to more usual discourse – idiot, snivelling coward, jerk, liar – to which we’ve become accustomed.

All this is being driven by the on-going uncertainty about who will get the Republican nomination. Analysis of the latest polls suggest that Donald Trump will win just enough delegates for victory before the convention is held. Or he will be a few dozen short. Neither result will ensure he gets the nomination if the organizers adjust the rules to let delegates become unbound before the first vote. It’s all very complicated but you can read about it here. Trump has threatened lawsuits and predicted riots if such shenanigans occur. I think I’ll avoid Cleveland this July (or, well, forever. I mean, Cleveland!)

On the Democratic side, Sanders supporters have begun a ‘we was robbed’ narrative, starting some time ago but reaching a crescendo with the total mess that came down in Arizona. No one questions that it was a voting disaster but it was run by the state of Arizona and its hard-right Republican government. The gutting of the Fair Voting Act – which was implemented precisely because of states like Arizona with a history of depriving minorities with the vote – coupled by the archaic rules used by the state for registering voters was the source of the problem. It’s notable that voters were particularly impeded from voting in counties with high black and Hispanic populations, hardly fertile ground for Sanders based on past performance.

Of course, a few Sanders supporters probably think the clearly liberal, Ms. Clinton, is in cahoots with the Republicans to keep their guy out of the White House – highly plausible given the warm and cozy relationship the GOP has had with the Clintons over the years. Of course, Clinton hasn’t been exactly nice to Mr. Sanders either – though so far she hasn’t suggested he’s a closet communist. But as June approaches and if the race stays close – I wouldn’t be surprised if photographs of baby Bernie in the arms of Joseph Stalin appear.

And that’s ten minutes.

Boaty McBoatface

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Boaty McBoatface. Really?

I guess this is the democracy that the Internet was designed to bring us. An on-line poll to name a new arctic research vessel has proposed the above name. It is leading the polls, well ahead of a bunch of other stupid names. I guess it has the advantage in that it saves people the effort of googling who Shackleton was.

I like democracy as well as the next person but it does have its limits. That it can be railroaded by idiots is only a minor criticism. After all, the people who own the boat (a branch of the British government) have the final say as to what the boat is actually called. I expect a committee of toffs is sitting around right now, snorting over their tea, and saying: That’s why we went to Oxford and they didn’t.

So, having a bit of fun is alright when nothing much is at stake. It’s like when the people of the Northwest Territories were asked to come up with a new name for the territory after Nunavut split off. In a similar on-line poll  “Bob” was the second favorite choice. Now that might seem like innocent fun except it was a campaign designed specifically to reject the preferences of indigenous people for a name that reflected their heritage.

And, sadly, that is what populist and plebiscitary democracy often gets you. Illogical or contradictory policies (like when California required smaller class sizes in schools but no increase in school budgets) or an opportunity for the worst among us to hijack the process for their own narrow and often repulsive objectives. It might work okay if voting were compulsory but even then I have my doubts. When voting on these types of measures only draw ten or twenty percent of the electorate – special interest groups will always win. And by that I don’t mean what most people mean when they say ‘special interest group.’ I mean people with money. No one has more special interests than rich people.

As they say, it’s all about the Benjamins.

I’ve seen lots of arguments that say money doesn’t affect politics. Usually, the argument points to the fact that this politician who spent $25M failed to defeat that one who only spent $12M. See – money has no impact. Except, of course, the both spent bucket loads of money and, in order to get it, they both had to moderate their policies to please their funders – whoever their funders might be. And some of the funders are progressives – up to a point. Even the most liberal billionaire has an agenda, generally directly connected to how they got their billions.

And the real measure of whether money counts is not taken by comparing the well-funded campaigns of career politicians (and these days, everyone seems to either be one or be on their way to becoming one) but in the results of plebiscites (in those places that have them) where money clearly makes a difference. And the exceptions you might point out are exactly that.

And while it may not matter when you are giving a joke name to a boat – it has massive effects when you are shaping public policy.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Progressive Problem

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I’ve spent a certain amount of time talking about the Republican race for the Presidential nomination but it is worth looking at what is going on in the Democratic side as well. Unlike the Republican race, there were never more than two serious candidates – which is quite something in itself. A year ago there was only one. The rise of Bernie Sanders can only be viewed as a good thing – if only to sharpen the Democratic progressive agenda and to present a radically different view of how politics can be conducted. Sanders and Clinton have their differences but have mostly – though hardly entirely – avoided the vitriol of the Republican race.

Bernie Sanders is – like Donald Trump in one way at least – an outsider. While he had held elected office for 35 years (25 years at the Federal level), he comes across as a non-politician. In part, this comes from the fact that for most of his life he has sat as an independent – an independent democratic socialist to be exact – rather than within one of the two mainstream parties in America. Perhaps because of the security he feels in his Senate seat – Vermont is unlikely to turn on him now – or because of his age, Sanders has a refreshing candor. And he is a good, natural speaker unlike his rival Hilary Clinton who sometimes seems earnest but wooden.

Sanders has been particularly effective at motivating young voters, much like Barrack Obama. In most other respects Sanders is nothing like Obama. He has so far shown himself unable to bring large numbers of blacks or Hispanics into his camp. Other than the young, Sanders biggest group of supports are angry working class white men – the same demographic that Trump draws his support from. Of course, the BernieBros – as they are called – are not the same as Trump’s adherents. They are hope-filled rather than hate-filled. But, still, some of their attacks against Hillary have been sufficiently misogynistic that Sanders has had to disavow them.

Clinton seems like a career politician – mostly because she has been in the public eye since her husband was elected President. In fact she has spent far fewer years in electoral politics – and a much smaller percentage of her life – than Sanders. His obscurity has, well, obscured how much of a Washington insider he is. Clinton is also sometimes accused by progressives of being Republican-lite though her voting record is nearly as progressive as that of Bernie Sanders. Her proposals are not nearly as radical as the ones that Sanders has made but probably have a higher percentage chance of being implemented – if she becomes President.

Bernie Sanders and his supporters are a serious obstacle to that goal. Not because Sanders is likely to win the Democratic nomination. Sorry, but at this stage, that is hardly an outrageous statement even if it provokes outrage. It has nothing to do with super delegates who might switch allegiance if Sanders wins a majority of primary delegates – the party establishment is driven by pragmatism not ideology and might swallow the fact that Sanders has never been (and may not now be) a Democrat.

But the numbers don’t lie. Sanders is 300 delegates behind and while his best states may not have voted yet, neither have some of his worst states (Arizona and New York are likely to be won by Clinton). He not only has to win most of the rest of the states, he has to win them by sizable margins. So far, he hasn’t shown the ability to do that.

And, of course, Sanders hasn’t faced twenty years of character assassination by the right the way Clinton has. Perhaps that is the most striking thing about Clinton – that she has endured so much abuse, almost all of it based in lies and innuendo, rather than evidence, yet is still standing and still strong. The biggest question that must – or at least should – weigh on the minds of Democrats is whether Sanders can do as well in what is certain to be a vicious fight for the White House.

At some point Sanders may have to accept that he won’t win the Democratic nomination; then he has to decide if he wants to be another Ralph Nader and hand the White House to the Republicans. And even if Sanders throws his support behind Clinton, will his supporters follow him? Or will they stay home, or worse yet, vote for Trump?

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.