A New CBC

In the interests of full disclosure, I am an ex-CBC employee (1992-1994).

Victor Wong, over at The Phantom Observer, has, over the past few weeks, run a series of posts polling and asking for comment on the CBC and its future. For die-hard Friends of the CBC, of course, the answer is always and forever “more money, fewer strings, hands-off [and why aren’t you expanding it?]”. For many on Canada’s right, including many of Canada’s private broadcasting conglomerates, the implicit answer is “please do away with this competitor”.

I am here today to speak out for a reformed CBC; a “new” CBC. CBC Management has made many questionable decisions over the years; I do not seek to defend these. But I also think the CBC has an on-going role to play in our national life: it is not an archaic remnant of our past.

I’d also note that I am not going to speak here of SRC, the Radio-Canada family of networks, mostly because it is a rare day that I tune into any of them: a little RDI extract on a flight, perhaps, and, if a particular news story warrants it, Le Téléjournal. Let someone who knows Francophone cultural needs intimately speak up in its defence.

Content Matters

My listening and viewing pattern is typical (I believe) of what the CBC needs to become. I seldom watch any television off air/cable/satellite: hotel rooms on business trips is about it, but there my station of choice is CBC Newsworld, not the main network, and none of the subsidiary digital channels. For radio, I am (if I am tuned in, typically while driving, which I do far less of these days) resolutely tuned to Radio One, not Two. That was true when Two had its former classical-centric programming; it is true today with the new mix of genres. (Mostly, if I hear Two, I hear it in the periodontist’s chair during a cleaning and examination.)

But I also have to say that I don’t choose Radio One as my first choice, either. Partly that’s the impact of podcasts: the programmes on One that I want to listen to are all available in podcast format, and iTunes graciously delivers them daily for my listening pleasure (also my skipping pleasure if today’s topic does not deliver on its promise). My first radio choice is generally CKNW, despite the fact that the phone-in format is boring: I’m far less interested in hearing the same daily rants from the public than I am interesting guests and competent, hard-hitting interviewers. But on the private station I find more topics of interest, so I’m more likely to turn it on and leave it on.

A reformed CBC must start with content that achieves that “turn it on and leave it on” impulse, be that a radio format or a television format, if the CBC is to “find an audience”. Podcasts, PVR-based time-shifting and the like are for people who already know what they want. The goal is serendipity: to surprise and delight the listener/viewer with something they would not have known was coming.

Now, in today’s world of millions of choices — I myself avail myself of the BBC, Australia’s ABC, NPR, and other “broadcasters” programming daily thanks to podcasts, plus many independent efforts on Internet Radio channels, BlogTalk Radio, etc., plus many private stations’ pod- and vodcasts (and it is a constant challenge of finding and pruning to fit into a day) — CBC needs to refine its voice. It needs to be known for something nationally — a place to turn to.

My recommendation: take advantage of the regions. Widen our horizons, using news analysis and documentary formats.

I could see the programming on Radio One, for instance, unfold through the day as follows: Morning drive (local), a national documentary/interview programme like The Current, then a series of regional lunch-hour programmes starting with Newfoundland and Labrador and ending with British Columbia until afternoon drive (local) begins — then the national news at six and As It Happens, followed by ideas-based programming. The use of regional programming brings our various national accents, world-views and local experts to the country at large.

Such programming, incidentally, is very inexpensive, relative to sports broadcasts or dramatic/comedic productions. Inexpensive enough, in fact, to be free of advertising.

Another advantage of the use of regional programming is that the main charge levelled against the CBC in the regions — its Toronto-Ottawa (or Ottawa-Montréal) centricity — evaporates. If (and I do not say that it does — or does not!) the CBC has a left-liberal bias, it does so because that is the predominant local political culture of these cities and educational institutions, think tanks, etc. (the source of the regular talking-heads of the network). Bring on the different flavours of political thought across the country! Show Torontonians that in the West the division is often between right (Conservative) and left (NDP) — that the West is neither monocultural (as they might well presume based on an electoral map) nor “just like them”. (The same is true for the Atlantic region and for Québec — who amongst us “got” the rise and fall of the ADQ, the passion Newfoundlanders have for Danny Williams, etc.?) Paradoxically, regional programme origination rather than endless rehashing of issues through Ottawa or Toronto-based interviewers should act to tie the country together — and the diversity it unleashes makes the CBC distinctive relative to the other national networks (which are not in any way regional) and local stations (which are not in any way national).

For television, documentaries play a larger role. But these, too, need to tell regional stories. As this past week’s helicopter crash into the Atlantic off Newfoundland showed, Newfoundland’s communities are familiar with the price the sea demands, and pull together in the face of familiar adversity and loss. One might think this a simply human story. But it is not: Newfoundland’s way of doing this is a story that should be told by Newfoundlanders to the rest of Canada. Similar adversity in other parts of the country is met in different ways: some part of Canada are more private in their grief and one does not easily see the “ties that bind”.

Few amongst us, for instance, recall that the engine behind the Reform movement at its founding was as much if not more British Columbian than Albertan; that Vancouver, with its mix of Liberal and NDP MPs was the place a populist uprising in Canadian politics happened. (Many Central and Eastern Canadians of my acquaintance thought of Reform as “those bloody right-wing Albertans”, with a dismissive shrug that “they’re not really like us”.) But explorations of how Alberta politics actually works, or why the three Westernmost provinces have seen parties merge, recrystallise, etc. over the years, would show elements of the Canadian matrix of opinion not easily found working exclusively in Southern Ontario.

These need not be hyper-expensive. It should not be the role of the CBC on television to travel the world; just travel Canada’s two lane roads with people who live in those regions to talk to people of the same region. Let us hear the dialogue, focused around an issue (a six week exposé in half-hour segments of the dying bounty of the oceans and how that destroys or rebuilds communities, for instance). These, in turn, could be sold as views on Canada outside the country.

In turn, not all of CBC television needs to be CBC-produced. All entertainment programming, yes (if any). But buying in similar high-quality programmes — for both radio and television — from the BBC, the ABC, etc. also makes sense. There is, for instance, nothing in BBC Radio Four’s In Our Time that would not suit an evening’s listening on CBC Radio One. Last week’s show was on the Library at Alexandria. Previous weeks have examined issues in physics, the life of Charles Darwin, etc. Solid educational programming done in an entertaining and engaging conversational format. The ABC’s Big Ideas series would offer public lectures given by people Canadians may not have heard of, but should. Some exchanges like this already occur: Big Ideas rebroadcast the CBC-produced Massey Lectures. Let’s do much more of it.

In turn — because the Millennial Generation and their younger siblings growing up digital do not watch television or listen to the radio other than rarely — all CBC programming ought to be available as pod- and vodcasts.

Finally, other than a programme like Hockey Night in Canada, there should be no advertising on CBC Television. (Most of CBC’s commercial revenues are sport-programming related in any event.)

Radio Two? A good question. I don’t have an answer for that. I think the recent changes were a plausible thing to try. The reality is that if I want to listen to classical music or jazz — and I have an extensive library of both — I’ll put on a disc rather than turn on the radio. If I want to listen to “the music I grew up with” (1960s-1970s), it’s on my iPod. I suspect I’m not alone in these habits. (I certainly don’t find commercial AM or FM music radio worthy of my time.)

Newsworld? This — not the main television network — should be the flagship station for CBC News and Current Affairs. But don’t overlook offering diversity: most viewers of Politics with Don Newman, for instance, know what angle Don’s interviewing will expose even before he welcomes them to the “brawdcast”. (I listen to the show via podcast as the visual element offers little to nothing over the soundtrack — and the podcast is commercial free.) But why not also have a Michael Coren, and an Adrienne Carr, hosting a political show? (These are two names chosen at random to broaden the spectrum.) A Green-biased show would handle economic stories far differently, as would a right-wing Christian moral perspective. 90 minutes (three 30 minute shows) of Politics with very different outlooks on stories would be far better than 60 minutes with one (and it matters not whether you agree or disagree with that outlook).

Just don’t go down the “let’s shout each other down” format used in the US media! (Interestingly, when we lived in The Netherlands, we discovered that the main channel there was turned over to different interest spectra on different days. The Catholic right got one night, the Labour Left another, etc. No attempt was made to be balanced; fairness was achieved by allowing obvious skews of opinion to be aired. This would work here, too, where the voices of region come with different outlooks, agendas, political philosophies, etc.)

I would very much like it if Newsworld could also be free of advertising, but that is probably not possible. Still, it should be a goal — perhaps beginning with commercial free news (so adverts only go into opinion/analysis shows).

As with BBC World, Newsworld should also look to put on programmes that expose other parts of the world to our view. Not only does this make more use of the extensive field resources the CBC has already deployed, it gives people a reason to tune into Newsworld as opposed to BBC, CNN, FoxNews, etc. (Most news channel watchers turn it on and let it run in the background of what they’re doing.)

… And Some Relief

Elements of the Broadcasting Act that controls the CBC require that off-air transmission of Radio One be available to very small communities, and off-air transmission of CBC Television be available to communities that are still on the verge of towns from being villages. Given Canada’s extensive geography, this means that CBC must invest hundreds of millions in physical plant — all of which must be maintained — to fulfil this requirement. This is money that by and large could be used for programming and elimination of some advertising.

So, Government should amend the Broadcasting Act to allow satellite-based transmission, receipt via cable, etc. In addition to the CBC’s channels on Sirius Satellite Radio, it would be possible to offer a simple gadget for use in an automobile or home that received only the CBC and SRC feeds from one of Canada’s satellites. Many remote repeater towers could then be dismantled. As a one-time investment, this would make far more sense than annual capital costs.

These are just some initial thoughts. To reiterate, I believe Canada needs the CBC. But we need a CBC that measures up to the best of the world, and yet shows us the great depths of this vast country. Today we have neither. Getting to that vision would make the CBC stand out in a crowded media space. Enough said.

Post-Party Depression

Who amongst the political cognoscenti does not deplore the following:

  • Falling rates of voter participation
  • The economics of fund raising
  • The rising number of potential candidates declining to run
  • The falling quality of elected members, and
  • The lack of “democracy” in our leader-centred parliaments?

All of these can be consolidated under the rubric of Canadian politics having moved to a “post-party” position. The breakdown of parties as the lead players in the system is the source of the “depression” being felt in the media and amongst party leadership (elected and back-room).

Why People Don’t Vote

The twentieth century was once described as a “short century“: 1914-1991 (originally 1989 for the fall of the Berlin Wall; updated for the fall of the Soviet Union). This was the period of the common man, of the mass, of the mass state (state capitalist [communist], social democrat, corporatist, etc.). Media outlets were few (relative to today), and required — as did almost everything else — large amounts of capital to be mobilized to allow them to even exist.

Whether one takes 1989 or 1991 as the date, one of the first events of the post-short-century period is the rise of the Internet, and, in particular, the World Wide Web. Suddenly any person could become a publisher: pennies replaced mounds of dollars as the cost of expressing oneself. Coupled with this is the ease with which the Web made everything fit nicely into one category: miscellaneous. No longer were institutions needed to organize ideas: any slice of opinion could be created and attract its followers.

In the mass age, to vote was to vote for a party. What had, heading into Confederation, been primarily a vote for a member (to act as a representative in a distant capital) had long since transitioned into, first, a vote for a party — a platform and ideology and a cabinet team — and, starting with Trudeau, a transition to a vote purely for a leader who would become Prime Minister. As we entered the 1990s, party big-tents began to break down: how else can one describe the splintering off of compromise over federalism leading to the Bloc Québécois, or the splintering off of compromise over neo-liberal populism that was Reform?

But the fracturing of the Progressive Conservatives was just the beginning of a realignment playing itself out in a Canadian context, but not at all unique to Canada.

What Reform (in particular; the BQ’s raison d’être being different) shows is a fundamental unwillingness, even in the late 1980s, to doing the work necessary to compromise on policy that is the essence of a big-tent party. Instead, Reform “took its ball and went home”, maximizing its vote by concentrating it. To be fair, as Reform moved from populist non-ideological movement to full-blown “neo-conservative” party, and thence watered down its social conservative and fiscal conservative roots in the transitions through the Canadian Alliance to the Conservative Party of Canada, it, too, has had to adopt the policies and practices of a big-tent party.

Conservatives who now look at the outcome and talk of replacing Mr. Harper, deploring the deficit and the budget, etc., are considered to be the “splittists” for daring to appeal, for instance, to the Party’s actual statement of principles. Many are walking away. But for every ten that do, only a handful will end up shifting to another party. Most will simply become “unpartied” — and likely will not vote.

For parties are not required and have become an anachronism. As BlueGreenBlogger noted, we don’t need mass media (the means by which mass parties “get their message out”). As I would note, we can now deal exclusively in issues. That will inevitably produce a sum of positions that matches no party’s set of policy compromises.

No Fibre, No Support

This, of course, is something overlooked by those who believe that, first and foremost, we must be “on side” with the leader and the party. Commentator Bec at Blue Like You, for instance, exemplifies this point.

If one does subscribe to twentieth century politics, as laid out in the opening to this post, then this position follows naturally: principle should not stand in the face of need. That need might be for continued power, it might be for future power, it might even be for someone or something to believe in. For someone to challenge a change of views — and I do not believe that anyone should be forced to maintain a position in the face of new information — on the ground of principle is to indicate where consistency is to be expected. What is it Edmund Burke said?

[I]t ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

I take this to mean that no politician and no party should abandon principles for any reason of expediency. Following the herd into “what to do” falls into this camp. In other words, the Harper who leads a Conservative Party that stands for these principles:

  • A balance between fiscal accountability, progressive social policy and individual rights and responsibilities;
  • The Conservative Party will operate in a manner accountable and responsive to its members;
  • A belief in the equality of all Canadians;
  • A belief that the best guarantors of the prosperity and well-being of the people of Canada are: (1)The freedom of individual Canadians to pursue their enlightened and legitimate self-interest within a competitive economy; (2) The freedom of individual Canadians to enjoy the fruits of their labour to the greatest possible extent; and (3) The right to own property;
  • A belief that a responsible government must be fiscally prudent and should be limited to those responsibilities which cannot be discharged reasonably by the individual or others;
  • A belief that the purpose of Canada as a nation state and its government, guided by reflective and prudent leadership, is to create a climate wherein individual initiative is rewarded, excellence is pursued, security and privacy of the individual is provided and prosperity is guaranteed by a free competitive market economy;
  • A belief that good and responsible government is attentive to the people it represents and has representatives who at all times conduct themselves in an ethical manner and display integrity, honesty and concern for the best interest of all.

has no business deciding to:

  • Overthrow fiscal accountability with a slush fund approach to spending.
  • Ignore those members who want to maintain the principle of fiscal responsibility.
  • Makes some Canadians (e.g. auto sector) “more equal” than others.
  • Take over decisions from individual Canadians by burdening them with debt repayment for multiple generations.
  • Overthrow fiscal prudence by massive deficit financing (and approving of the destruction of the Canadian currency by the Bank of Canada).
  • Massively meddle in the economy, deciding which old economy forces will be winners (at the expense of their peers, other businesses in trouble, and the creation of a twenty-first century economy for Canada.
  • Creates a situation where the ethical probity of his Government, Ministers and Members will now be able to be called into question.

while demanding the loyalty of Conservatives with more moral fibre than him.

But, for a party supporter like Gerry Nicholls, whether on his blog or in the press, or for a commentator who is not a party member like <a href=”http://blog.macleans.ca/2009/01/29/the-right-in-full-retreat/”Andrew Coyne, whether reporting on the budget or the abandonment of principle in our politics, just as with me, principle is the core of moral fibre. I know in my own case that I have respect for those who truly believe in other principles and are consistent in their application, even when I think them wrong.

But Coyne is right. Canadians who adhere to the principle of fiscal conservatism are on the outside looking in. For myself, I am not searching for another party, a new party or any party.

This is one of my issues. As I’ve often said, I embrace the independent member. One who plays to my issues will get my vote. Otherwise, I have joined those who ignore the system.

So Why Not a New Party?

The short answer to “why not a new party” is: I don’t want party discipline in the mix.

A Burkean representative is not a trained seal, applauding on command and voting against their principles and conscience because the leader’s whip says so. Given our undersized Federal Parliament and Provincial Legislatures, however, it takes a member of rare fortitude to stand against his/her party: the backbenchers are too few to make a difference, given the number of shadow assignments, parliamentary secretaryships, ministerial appointments, committee chairs, etc. on offer. (Then, too, such a member is seldom kept in the caucus, nor renominated by their party.) These are institutional issues. A candidate who runs as an Independent, however, is likely to keep that independence in practice.

As Australia is showing — where the number of independents in their State Houses and in their Commonwealth setting continues to rise — principle can be returned once it must be demonstrated to win support.

Issue Circles

The other major reason for avoiding parties (like the plague) from now on is that inevitably one is forced to choose between principles as the big-tent is formed. Suppose, for instance, one believed that it is long overdue that we should raise more tax from unwanted production of externalities (this is broader than a carbon tax but along the same line) and instead raise less in other ways. Suppose, as well, that fiscal responsibility, accountability and no deficit spending were another set of principles being held to. The second group would lead one to the Conservatives, but not the first. Which is to be abandoned?

Why have to make the decision? Why not work with two issue groups: one that presses for environmental change, and one that presses for responsible finances?

This is, of course, how many who are entering the voting stream see matters. They are quite committed to their principles — and they see no reason to engage in traditional politics to get their way. Indeed, wisely, they often decide to have nothing to do with “the system”, seeing newer parties (such as the Greens) as the moral equivalent to the older parties. Extra-parliamentary pressure is their avenue for policy change, as opposed to selecting “a winning leader” or a policy convention.

For those in parties, the drying up of donations, the evaporation of votes, the lack of ground workers for campaigns, the failure to acquire a candidate of choice — these are the causes for their depression. For those of us who found supporting their parties steadily less viable, however, our depression lifts when we finally say “enough is enough”.

Postscript: The Media

Previously I have lamented the media’s focus on horse races and process rather than issues. The good news about giving up on parties and leaders is that the traditional media loses any further relevance as well. (Blogs, Facebook Groups, Tweets, and the like, on the other hand, bring together people around individual issues.) In other words, the inadequacies and poor service of our media in Canada is something that will end soon: dead due to a lack of interest.

If you choose to continue to sop up political media by the (Imperial) gallon or the dekalitre, or see value in being a party supporter, go right ahead. I just find it so much easier to sleep at night not caring any more about the polls, the latest twist in the wind, and the latest betrayal of principle.

Soap Operas in the News

We find ourselves in the middle of a well-known curse, for it is true that we live in interesting times. Common sense has fled, as has basic numeracy, and our media fails us yet again, for the story isn’t about what is going on, but about the cut and thrust of competing sound-bites.

Truly, this is an era — internationally, federally, provincially and municipally — where soap opera has taken over all programming.

Delays of Our Lives

Does one hand know what the other hand is doing? Can anyone count? The current contre-temps in Ottawa is Conservative claims that the Senate (dominated by the Liberals) is hold up their spending bills, while, at the same time, Liberals claim the Conservatives could move faster. Go figure.

Do any media hosts point out that the bills in question arrived in the Senate only last Thursday and that they are already in committee? No, they do not. Instead, the story becomes the current line of “they’re not pulling EI changes out”. Good heavens, an ever-shifting target — on both sides of the aisle — is all that is deemed newsworthy now. It is the game of “he said, she said” and no logic applied.

As The Stomach Churns

Then there’s the meme of the “ever worsening economic conditions”. Does anyone ask why any of us should expect that anything done to intervene could have made a difference when it is historically established that monetary policy changes take nine months minimum, and as much as eighteen, to work their way into the economy and make a difference? Fiscal policy changes are typically a year or more into the future as well, yet the charge is “not good enough, do more” mere days after action is taken.

We are staring at an abyss, mostly brought about by our own bad policy decisions. So far, in listening to the English-language news, only the Australians (ABC Radio National) seem willing to actually add up the days, challenge the wisdom of doing more until the last actions have had a chance to work, etc. But in most of the rest of the world, no one is asking the question: they simply echo the Opposition’s standard mantra of “not good enough” (wherever they are). It is certainly no different here.

Meanwhile, of course, we are not solving the underlying issues. It is now clear that systematic embezzlement and pyramiding of risk was undertaken, yet we seem determined as international policy to leave it all in place. No wonder there is no confidence. Do you hear anything of this in the stories? No.

General Horses**t

Meanwhile, of course, we all stumble down the same paths while blaming other governments. “It’s not our fault, it’s theirs” has become as much of a meme as “they’re not doing enough” has across the aisles of our legislatures.

Let’s be clear: just because everyone else wants to, lemming-like, be an idiot, why does this require you to be one?

Countries (the UK, Germany) are already having trouble selling their government debt. In the case of Germany, this is the strongest part of the EU: we are not dealing with minor nations here. US debt demand is crowding out everyone else — including corporate needs, as businesses closing around the world because they can’t sell their debt at any price shows — and yet everywhere, from profligate provinces to spendthrift nations, there is an assumption that this paper can just “be placed” — and at rock bottom interest rates, too.

Again, where is the media, adding up the deficit numbers and asking where the placement money will come from? That might actually require the ability to add 2 + 2 and get 4, so forget that. Far easier to put on competing talking heads yelling at each other, isn’t it?

Beast-Enders

Here is where this sorry story will end: governments will fail. Provinces and states will have no choice but to wholesale chop their core programs for lack of funds. Nations will have no choice but to let inflation loose — and it will rise as interest piles up on the debt they’ve added. Trade deficits will lead to protectionism and further reductions in economic activity, as will the disappearance of more and more companies and with them their activity.

Where will what’s left of the media (for it is not immune to this) be? Carrying the screaming and reporting on the riots — but never, never pointing out how we’re headed toward this due to our choices today.

After all, the talking heads won’t point that out, and the idea of putting a story in context died a long, long time ago.

Constipated Street

The refusal of the media to do its job had its roots in the ease with which they could put talking heads on the air. Real investigation, and working out how to make it approachable for readers, listeners and viewers, costs more money than opening the phone lines or letting people shout at one another does. If today the media is looking at its irrelevance and shrinking audiences, it has only itself to blame — well, that and the theory (advanced by the media) that concentration of ownership was a good thing, especially using debt to make the concentration work.

The refusal of politicians to tell the truth to the people — to treat them as citizens, not as consumers — is also a key part of this. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can look at the banking “industry” (there’s your first sign of failure: banking is a “utility” and thus requires utility-style regulation) in the US, UK, etc. and see that the old Glass-Steagal and pre-Big Bang rules served those nations well — and that the current regime, of collateralized debt obligations, mark to market securities, liar-loan risk on mortgages, etc., has not. We might disagree about how to fix the situation, but the source of the problem is clear. It’s even bipartisan: the Conservatives made it happen in the UK and Labour has extended it; the Democrats made it happen in the USA and the Republicans extended it. Yet the issue cannot be spoken of — and the media only speaks of it in partisan terms.

No wonder our countries are dying. Systematic mediasclerosis and the big lie sound-bites will see to that. No wonder, too, the average person now has no confidence in the political system, the fixes on offer, or the news and reporting they see, hear and read.

No wonder, too, that so many dedicated bloggers have lost interest in blogging lately (myself included). There’s a feeling of ennui abroad that the train wreck is inevitable.

This is what happens when politics and the news and analysis work of the media degenerates into entertainment — and nothing more.

I Thought Prostitution Was Illegal

Watching politicians prostitute themselves to save their necks is never a pleasant experience. Despite all experience, the hope that it will be different this time springs ever fresh. Alas, the script was well-telegraphed, and yesterday the Finance Minister stood in the House of Commons and confirmed that Brian Mulroney’s quip about Bryce Mackesey — “there’s no whore like an old whore” — can now fairly be applied on both sides of the aisle, as naked ambition overcame any whiff of principle, honour and care for this Dominion and its bien-être.

I refer, of course, to the budget, that disgusting debt dragging on our futures, our children’s futures and no doubt their children’s futures in the name of political expediency and rank followership today.

Expect me to say nothing about the specifics. I have already had my say on how budgets should be constructed. As a proof of moral cowardice the Budget Statement of 27 January 2009 is a textbook case.

Demonstrating decisively that (a) no opportunity to miss an opportunity should be passed by and (b) no amount of pandering to those who want handouts does the job, the NDP and the BQ immediately dismissed any consideration of passing this budget — not, of course, because it is evidence of a failure of moral judgement but because it (a) doesn’t have “enough” in it and (b) rejecting it might lead to “power now”. Although the Liberals under Ignatieff have been more measured in their response (although not all: the media had absolutely no trouble finding front bench Liberals willing to go on air, rattling their sabre) they, too, find the budget “insufficient”.

This is why, philosophically, the only response to leftist thinking is to expunge it; giving leftists (mild, medium or hard-core) a bone or the keys to the vault only leads to immediate demands to go further, offer more.

One might, in a rational world, have expected that if any political party would have offered an alternative might just have been our so-called Conservatives. That they, in turn, are the Government might even had led to a budget that honoured some semblance (a) of restraint and (b) fiscal conservative principles. Alas, the exigencies of immediate political and personal survival trumped any appeal to principle.

If offering up the Opposition’s style of budget — no decisions to cut essentially complete programs, to cut the civil service, to (in other words) find the money for the new initiatives you want to put forward but rather to burden the country with a permanent massive increase in the size of government and massive deficits to burden the citizenry with taxes for years to retire these expenditures — is considered good policy by the Harper Government, then I say that “I’ll take my Liberalism straight up, thank you”. (Or, rather, since I voted Conservative in 2008 to avoid precisely this sort of outcome, you just lost my political and financial support. You want to be Liberals in Blue Clothing, you can enjoy Liberal financial and electoral prospects.)

Harper and Flaherty have established, for any that are watching their behaviour, that they have no moral fibre, no principles beyond their own personal political advantage, no concern for Canadians and their futures, and no ideas beyond the bankrupt Keynesian economics of the global left.

This volte-face is political whoring, pure and simple. Far preferable would have been to stand on principle, put a principled Conservative budget to the vote, and be honourably defeated on principle rather than to sell out, body and soul, for the mess of pottage that is an amended set of handouts.

Indeed, not only would this have been moral behaviour, it is also better politics than what we will see in the days ahead. Consider the question of the Government falling:

  1. The Governor-General would have grounds to consider an election request — an election to be fought on two clear alternative philosophies of governance — as the naked ambition and promises to bring the Government down “no matter what” from the NDP, BQ and a sufficient number of Liberals demonstrate that this vote is about seizing power from the elected choice of the Canadian people tout simple.
  2. Even if the Governor-General turned to the Opposition Leader to form a Government, the “coalition” as put forward by his predecessor is not a given, and a Liberal Government might well easily fall, leading us to the polls. The posturing of Layton and Duceppe is just that — posturing — and Ignatieff’s implicit “coalition if necessary but not necessarily coalition” would be put tot he test.
  3. If the Coalition as Dion put it forward did come into power under Ignatieff as Prime Minister, the Liberals and NDP would then “own the recession”, making the eventual campaign that would emerge at a later date again a battle of philosophies putting forward a principled Leader in Harper against a vendu in Ignatieff.

Well, that’s all off the table now, for Harper is not a leader — or, if you like, he is a leader like all the others, indistinguishable in any respect that matters from the self-serving, tap the public purse to re-elect poseurs that ignore principle on the front benches of the opposition parties.

Thanks, Mr. Harper, for selling the body of your new Conservative Party in full violation of your own party’s stated principles. Another Liberal — the party that puts power ahead of principle — Party now exists in its place.

Resign! Perhaps your successor can restore the notion of a principled party to Canadian politics. Your ability to do so is no longer credible.

I do hope you enjoy your bag of quarters, because yesterday you showed us all that you’re nothing more than a two-bit whore.

Are We Up to the Challenge?

So, with the oath of office taken and the speech given, the 44th American President, Barack Obama, moves into his own private hell. Such is the lot of leaders in our world, as rather than accept responsibility for ourselves we pile all our hopes and fears on their shoulders, and expect immediate results, to boot.

The speech, actually, was quite good, and said things that needed to be said. Whether they will be heard is a separate question. Western society is quite infantile: one friend of mine referred to it recently as “a teen-age girl, all emotional, demanding, whingy, self-centred”. Funny: sounds like a teen-age boy, too.

Highly insightful, as well, although such phraseology has no doubt given tellement offense. But speaking the truth in public has fallen from favour. Indignant, easily-bruised egos and those who use any comment to push their agenda have made it so, alas. So, too, the failure of most people to recognise the difference between opinion and statements with backing. Today that lack of understanding and confidence makes everything opinion — and therefore off the table (save only for call-in programmes and gatherings of the faithful).

Enough said. It takes real self-discipline and responsibility to accept that change begins with ourselves. It is not something we can believe in; it is something we have an obligation to attempt on our own. Doing so is a sign of maturation: the move from adolescence to adulthood. So, too, is recognising that the world is, and we work within its limits; wishing that that be otherwise is fantasy.

It is time for us all to stop indulging in fantasy. That will be hard. Today Obama called on his fellow citizens (and, by extension, all of those who engaged in Obamamania and stopped their day to celebrate him today) to step beyond infantile wishing into the hard work of adult behaviour. Let us do so.

Why a Deficit is Immoral

Conventional wisdom has it that governments must spend, spend and spend some more to dig the country — and the globe — out of the current downturn.

Conventional wisdom is dead wrong. All of this deficit spending will barely — if at all — make a difference in the near-term, and it will pile up problems not for the long-term, but for the medium-term: years in the middle of the next decade, at best.

A Little Bit Pregnant

First, let me say that I am not a deficit fanatic. I would like my government(s) to run balanced budgets: budgets that they expect to come in close to break even. Perhaps they have a good year and tax receipts are higher than expected? Then we have a surplus. Perhaps it was a tough year and receipts were lower? Then we have a slight deficit: exactly the same as the commissioned sales person or self-employed contractor who draws the same amount month after month for living expenses and could either end up with money left over as savings at year’s end, or has to dip into his savings to balance the books.

So a little red ink, from time to time, doesn’t worry me. In fact, it worries me far less than do massive surpluses because every line item, every department, every program has had contingency funds up the yin-yang. These are a recipe for bad decisions at the end of the fiscal year, otherwise known as utter waste, within the departments — and sloppy handouts, ill-thought-out programs and the like in the hands of politicians.

On the other hand, structural deficits — situations where the budget is planned to be in deficit annually (and where, as in the mess inherited from Trudeau and Turner by Mulroney, the deficit deepens annually as the interest pile up takes over everything) — are an incredibly stupid idea, on the same plane and of about the same moral quality as liar loans being written to create fees knowing they can’t be repaid.

Now, to be even-handed about this, none of our politicians are calling for a return to permanent structural deficit. No, all of them claim that we just have a crisis to solve now: we run up serious amounts of red ink for just a few years, and then we can return to fiscal prudence. So they say.

But when was the last time a government program was terminated, its workers fired, its office leases broken, with not one penny more to be spent on that again, ever? I can’t recall one. I can recall occasional shrinkages — rare moments, those — but in general, once a department or Ministry has a mandate, it never gives it up, and it never stops funding it.

For every dollar of “stimulus”, some civil servant handles it. Someone else supervises them. Someone else manages them. Someone else develops policy for the effective use of the money — and they have supervisors, managers, directors, too. Someone else audits them, supports them technically, prepares their briefs to Treasury Board, procures their supplies. All of these have management chains, too. Every one of these increments becomes permanent, because pay grades are based on the number of people — and number of dollars under administration — associated with a job. So every new initiative does two things: it adds to the pile of spending that is “Ottawa”, “Victoria”, etc., never to be removed — and it siphons 20¢ of every dollar spent off the top to pay for itself (on average).

Now do you see why I believe any planned deficit is an almost automatic route to structural deficits? At the risk of offending people, the planned “stimulus” deficit is like getting pregnant. The plan is to abort the pregnancy. Instead everyone delays — there are so many reasons not to act — and the child comes to term.

You can’t be a little bit pregnant. You either are — or you’re not. When it comes to the dangers of structural deficits, “not” — don’t spend, by intention, beyond your means — is the best public policy course.

Deficits Avoid Decisions

Governments that say they’re making the hard decision to forgo all the hard work of sweating down the last structural deficit and to take action “as it’s needed now” miss the point. Choosing to run a deficit is avoiding the decisions that do need to be taken.

How many old programs — all those civil servants and their management trees, chasing ever smaller returns in their program areas — could be outright eliminated to find the funds required for your “stimulus”, if, indeed, it is needed. (That’s a separate question that has as much to do with vote buying as anything else. Another day, perhaps.) Yes, that’s the harder decision, for almost every one of those programs has some advocate in the country who will scream bloody murder if it’s touched in any way.

Nevertheless, MPs and MLAs are elected for the express purpose of making decisions. If you don’t want the job, resign. (Regardless of party, voting your party line likewise is avoiding a decision. Each MP has a personal moral responsibility to decide issues on their merits. The House and Senate need far more Chuck Cadmans and far fewer trained seals.)

It would have been nice if we’d had a cap in place on spending ages ago: something along the lines of “Federal spending is, by law, not to exceed $5,000 per capita”. Budget growth then becomes a function of population growth. Otherwise, to start something new, you have to wind up something old. Perhaps the people who point at Olympic Gold Medals and demand more spending on amateur sport would be upset if the whole Department of Amateur Sport & Fitness (or whatever bureaucratic monicker it is using today) was summarily axed, along with all its spending, because GM and Chrysler need the money. But a cap would have trained our politicians to cut, and to do so regularly. At the moment they don’t have the habit trained. So they reach for deficits. It’s easier.

Why This Deficit Matters More than Previous Ones

There are many opinions out there today about what the future holds, and I’m not going to chew through all of them now. Suffice it to say there are three things on the immediate horizon that make running deficits a bad idea now — as I think you see, I think Trudeau-era deficits were an equal problem, but we had the time to fix that problem, and at the moment it doesn’t look good for the “ability to fix” this one out in the 2010s or 2020s.

You might remember Canada was the only G7 country running surpluses, and the only one retiring its national debt. This — and the price to get there was higher than it needed to be because of so many previous bad decisions (and so many bad ones made in reversing our disastrous structural deficit course) — was a benefit that would have made the 2010s and 2020s truly “easy street” for Canadians relative to other parts of the world. That’s what we’re giving up later this month, for it seems apparent that the Conservative Government will introduce a deficit-laden budget (and if they don’t, their successors will).

The three worries I have for the future are:


Demographics
The demographic bulge of the Baby Boomer generation is coming to “retirement”, and even with them continuing to work that work is likely to be part-time, both for personal reasons and as employers seek to reduce labour costs and revitalise their workforces. This reduces income tax receipts and employment tax receipts at the same time as pension demands increase. In other words, this was why we were working so hard to reduce the debt, knowing we were about to have a hole knocked permanently in government revenues. (Everyone who will work and pay taxes in Canada in the next twenty years is already alive, and we are singularly inept at maximising the return on our investment in immigration, aka “doctors and engineers driving cabs for a minimal income”.)

Liveable Infrastructure
This refers to the complex effects of energy costs on transportation, delivery, work and schooling, effectiveness of the housing stock, etc. Our current city-sprawl and choice to have goods — such as food — shipped thousands of kilometres so that we can enjoy the same diet year round is a infrastructure for living that probably is unsustainable into the future. That, in turn, implies spending a great deal of money to retrofit our human environment to deal with issues of affordability and cost, for it would be even more expensive to abandon what we have and build anew. What will be needed isn’t altogether clear yet, nor is how much of this must be done privately, what must be public:private in partnership, and where government intervention might be helpful. That it will need doing, though, is at the same level of clarity as a long-range winter forecast for cold and snow just about everywhere in Canada.

Unsustainable Program Transitions
This last refers to the entitlement programs already in effect in Canada — some federal, some provincial — that are slowly but surely eating us out of house and home. The public medical system in Canada, for instance, is in decay in most provinces, while simultaneously chewing through one dollar in two of the provincial budget (or more). Eventually the combination of decay, delisting of procedures and reductions in service capability that have been the norm ever since the provinces restricted medical school enrolment coupled with Paul Martin’s balancing of the Federal budget by slashing transfers to the provinces in the 1990s will bring the system teetering to the point of collapse. Throwing more money at these systems is probably not the answer; figuring out how to restructure the entire system is — but the longer we wait to tackle these hard questions, the fewer options we’ll have and the more likely we’ll toss money we don’t have at the time at the problem. After all, the auto makers wouldn’t have “needed” a handout now if they’d tackled their problems a decade ago.

All three of these argue that at some point in the next few years the Government’s freedom of manoeuvre will be deeply curtailed. Balanced budgets en route to that point would ensure we continued to hold the line on interest expenditures (which, as with our own personal budgets — a $10.00 pizza bought on a credit card at 24% interest and paid off by minimum payments turns into an over $220.00 pizza by the time it is discharged — is a pure waste of money). Practice at real decision making rather than sloughing the problem off into deficit spending would prepare the way for much harder decisions to come.

Oh, and I haven’t yet noted that the next years are likely not to be growth years. Indeed, except for the twentieth century, the norm in economic life is a balance of inflationary (growth) and deflationary (consolidation) years. After a sixty year continuous inflation, we should reasonably expect at least a decade-long deflationary consolidation. Instead, central bankers and politicians around the world think just slopping cash around in as many forms as possible will allow us to escape back to the abnormal conditions from 1945 to 2008. Bad thinking, at least from this student of economic history’s point of view.

So there you have it. These are the arguments for not going into deficit. Such a move robs our future, impoverishes our children, and probably is like standing, in the grand tradition of Canute, in the way of the tide. But there are few moral thinkers in Parliament today. Instead, I expect the calculation of votes, the bribing of we citizens with our own money, the unrighteous indignation of most days in the Commons and the subordination of the strategic to the tactical to continue.

This is, after all, Canada, a nation of whingers, who even as they manage their own money well will demand that their government do anything but.

Worth the Fee’s Goals for 2009

It’s good for the soul to take time off once in a while, and the past five weeks have been exactly that. A chance to take stock, to reread a year’s output, and to determine the future course of “Worth the Fee to Read It”.

No, faithful readers, this is not a good-bye. You can relax.

In looking back over the past year, however, the articles that I am happiest with all fall into one category. They are more philosophical, more reflective and more “why” oriented than the ones written in heat over some issue of the day.

These are what I’ll be doing more of in the year ahead. Less reacting to events, and more thinking about the big picture.

I hope you’ll find that interesting. My hope, as well, is that articles like that will stay “alive” longer. Something that reflects upon our condition at a fundamental level isn’t something where, a day or two later, there’s nothing to be said, because everything has moved on. No, a year-old posting of that nature may just be getting warmed up, and certainly isn’t (or shouldn’t be) past it’s “best before” date for comment and conversation.

That’s what I’m working on in 2009: raising the level of conversation in the comments pages of this blog. I look forward to hearing your voice raised frequently, because at the end of 2009 I’d like “Worth the Fee to Read It” to be a place to come back to, and to meet people you might not otherwise have met.

With that, let’s head in to 2009.