Tag Archives: Change

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.

Fundamental Change

There are many in society who now hold to the idea that the world we have built is too complex to be “taken apart” and redesigned. They hold, as a result, that the best we can do is to make many small changes — small, so that if we make a poor choice, we can change away from it, and many, so that collectively these “add up” to redesigning the whole.

Add to this the concept that society can be perfected — or that the people in society can be perfected — and you get classical liberalism. Add to that the notion that experts know better than the common man or woman what needs to be done and how to do it, and you get modern liberalism, in its range of orientations from the socialist utopians through social democrats, through the power-and-influence band, to the social moulders and corporatists. In other words, today’s Republicans and Democrats in the USA, today’s Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the UK, and today’s five parties in Canada…

Some of us disagree with the very notions of liberalism. As with Hippocrates, we begin with the principle “Above all, do no harm”: change should therefore be slow and careful (yet not wholly forestalled). Yet we stand with the people, believing them capable of understanding complex issues and making good choices about them if they are treated as competent adults rather than children to be babied by the nanny state mentality. Experts thus advise, they do not control. From the span of social order and justice (the original CCF) to the indigenous Canadian Tory, this span is currently but a fragment found (almost exclusively) in two of our parties. But it is there.

With that, let’s turn to the question of the purpose of government.

Those of us who are not liberal generally agree that the purpose of government is the provisioning of peace and order, and clarity around the rules of engagement — this is the element of justice expressed not as equality (the liberal idea) but as fairness (the same rules for all) — and the capitalisation of infrastructure needed but not yet a viable commercial investment. We may disagree on the span of items requiring infrastructure investment, and on the number of rules of engagement that may be required, but, unlike the liberals in our midst, we do not try to invoke change beyond these limits.

At the moment, for instance, it is necessary to rethink the fundamental piece of infrastructure that is our socio-economic model. This is based in (a) the uninterrupted flow of cheap energy (underlying the expectation of endless growth), (b) a disregard for locality of origin of products and services — communities, in other words, should not be encouraged to be sufficient unto themselves (globalisation), (c) a notion that despite obvious regional differences around a continental scale country one’s location should not matter (equalisation) and (d) a redistribution model for taxation expressed through the funding of many “programs” providing services (the nanny state model of extensive welfare provisioning). On these principles we have built sprawling suburbs with no attention to transportation infrastructure beyond roads, which are provided at a market discount relative to all other forms for people and goods movement, to take but one consequence.

When the environmentalists in our midst start to talk about global warming, carbon reduction, etc., it is the consequences of these fundamentals that they point to. Thus, whether we are dealing with the Gordon Campbell Government’s decision that British Columbia will have a carbon tax (to change usage patterns) and a carbon trading scheme, or the potential for their national equivalents being bruited about by various people supposedly in the know about Liberal Party policy plans, the solutions on offer are all designed to attack the consequences of the fundamental infrastructure of society that we have built.

How, for instance, retirement savings and provisioning is to be handled in a society that no longer grows at a rate sufficient to afford endless growth in nanny state activities is apparently left to the typical answer: “Oh, you’ll do it somehow”. Ayn Rand, in her novel Atlas Shrugged, showed how this was the underlying expectation of every initiative to throw sand in the gears to achieve “social purposes”. (What she failed to examine was the question of whether we needed a new fundamental infrastructure in the first place.)

Endless growth, you see, leads to endless demand. Only in a society which is fundamentally conceived of as as allowing initiative to flourish but which may not grow will our innovations overcome our limitations without setting off year-after-year redistribution of resources.

Take government paperwork. I spend, depending on the quarter, six to eight times the time and energy handling regulations and reporting requirements for my tiny company as I do on managing that company. That is utterly ridiculous: were I to have the money to retire today, I would shut the company’s doors immediately. Why contribute one more minute of my life to bureaucracy, practically none of which benefits me? Yet the real losers from that decision would be other productive people who today can engage me on solving their problems — and to whom I would be unavailable at any price. Stagnation would replace change. Multiply that attitude, and whole communities lose their spark and die to subsist on the dole of government programs, all of which suck more life out of them than initiative would do, and which demand more money and more bureaucratic “feeding” as time goes on. The weeds take over the garden and starve the plants of life.

That is what a carbon tax would do. Forget the rhetoric of “revenue neutrality”: how can it be? Who pays, and when, changes from today — the burden is shifted. Worse, it is shifted into places we have consciously and deliberately disadvantaged by limiting their options already — and there is, despite the speechifying of politicians and experts, no real set of choices for the automobile and truck dependent far-flung villages and towns, and suburbs, of the Canadian landscape. We at one time had alternatives which we systematically starved into extinction. They no longer exist. Nor — under our current laws — will they easily come back.

Meanwhile, since no existing taxes are outright discontinued — all proponents of the social engineering that is carbon taxation merely diddle rates rather than make it impossible to collect further taxes of other types — these will soon become revenue accretive (to pay for more programs demanded to “relieve the suffering” brought about by the destruction of value in motor-dependent communities by this tax). This isn’t just sand in the gears of the economy, as one writer has put it: these are a means to outright stop innovation that isn’t part of an “approved path”. “Grind to a stop, we will.”

You can kiss your savings for retirement good-bye, then.

Let’s stop diddling around the edges. The disease is liberalism and the infrastructure it built of an economic model requiring endless growth. To “do no harm” these days we must detox our society, so to speak: we must wean it from dependency back to self-sufficiency, and wipe out taxes and programmes left, right and centre rather than add to the pile.

The end of cheap energy will take care of most of the issues with carbon emission. Going beyond that into changing what we tax to influence behaviour must start with what we stop doing and stop demanding those of us who create economic results must do. Otherwise we will starve ourselves — and, two decades hence, see if that wasn’t a highly accurate statement of our impoverishment under the weight of a state we can’t afford without the endless growth model cheap energy provided — instead of free up the initiative space and resources needed to change our fundamentals.

Sometimes the Tory advances basic change with many follow-on effects to correct a path that has gone fundamentally wrong. This is one of those times. For without such a diagnosis, this patient won’t make it.

First, detox the junkie (don’t give him or her a place to shoot the drugs into their body “under supervision”). All three Insite studies show that that medical principle holds despite the promotion of “harm mitigation”. So, too, we must detox the junkie that is the body public, whose answer to all questions is “what’s the Government doing?”

Don’t expect me to support you, Mr. Campbell, in next year’s election, unless you get cracking on what should have come with your carbon tax. As for M. Dion, I’d expect you to get the picture, too — except you’ve spent your entire working life with your lips firmly coupled to the public teat. Take your carbon tax proposal and go away.

Assume Nothing About the Electorate

Delightful though the new polls may be (or, depending upon your politics, horrid — I can’t rightly say that I care all that much at the moment) I think that, between last night’s Alberta election result returning very solid results to the Alberta PC Government of Ed Stelmach and the inability of either Federal party to capture the public’s imagination we have entered into a realm of waiting that will be resolved, eventually, by an earthquake.

Let me explain. All the incessant posturing, pre-electioneering, shouting, etc. that is modern politics in the age of the twenty-four hour news cycle, the spinmeisters, political consultants, and so on — all of which is focused on hard, fast, negative sound-bites — has alienated the electorate. The parallel to this, for those of us who have worked in and around the computer industry, was the late 1980s, when then “no one ever got fired for buying” giant IBM was almost universally disliked, mistrusted, yet (when a decision needed to be made) rewarded, for lack of an alternative. Alternatives are not a substitution of one company for another; they are a shift in the paradigm of use. When it came — with LANs, Windows 3.1, and the client/server computing model in and around 1992 — an earthquake occurred. IBM was rocked and spent years reinventing itself. (There are those who think this is about to happen to Microsoft in turn. We shall see.)

What this means is that the problem with politics has practically nothing to do with who the leaders are! The Liberals, for instance, will see no real gain by dumping Stéphane Dion for another leadership choice. Alberta PCs may be led by a less than stellar leader in Ed Stelmach — I expect the negative comments about him and his actions to begin again immediately — but that’s not the point.When the problem is the way we handle politics in the public arena, leaders are irrelevant.

I sometimes think the Green Party has it precisely backward (and I speak of them here because Green is as much a movement beyond normal politics as it is an attempt to enter the fray in the chambers of government). It’s not that we need another party. Instead we need a new politics. Part of the mania for Barack Obama that we see south of the border — and the original Tony Blair in Britain — and recently, Nicholas Sarkozy in France — and ever (malheursement) Pierre Trudeau in 1968 — is that they didn’t need to campaign from the sound-bite, negative, “my opponent est un gros enmerdement” point of view. They could strike out positively and say nothing about their opponents. (“Vote for us because of a, b & c” is so much more appealing than “Vote for us because we’re not those lying, cheating, stealing cretins”. So is treating the electorate as thinking, rational adults who are capable of responding to a sense of history, of vision and of direction rather than scaring them into taking action to avoid their fate.) That’s not to say that at various points in the campaign the experts didn’t create negative views, and the sniping didn’t begin — clearly it has — nor that the public is fooled with the leader keeping to high road while his or her entourage gets down in the mud (it is not; merde can be smelled even when the front-man’s shoes don’t stink).

Periodically institutions need reform. This is because, as Thomas Langan showed in his book Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom, the institution takes on a life of its own separate from the tradition that gave it life. The faith yields the Church, and by so doing people in charge of the churches have interests in their roles separate from those required of them by the faith. The desire for societal self-government yields parliaments and assemblies, and those who sit in them have interests (for their factions, as the first American President, George Washington, noted) that diverge from what the process of governance requires of them. So it goes, everywhere.

Our political institutions are in advanced decay. They have been subordinated to parties, and those who cling to the apron-strings of power these represent.

What this electorate — and I care little whether we speak of your municipal government, your provincial government or institutional Ottawa — is most waiting for is the person who will come to politics to reform the system. Reform, in this sense, need not mean “a new political faction”: it could come just as easily by working within an existing party. But it would be a reform, indeed, of how politics is conducted. They would take the Kinsellas with their “ass-kicking”, and the Carvilles and Morrises with their “triangulation” and “it’s (just) the economy, stupids”, and others of their kind and boot them overboard. They would stop playing to the polls, or even worrying about them — pollsters need not apply for work here. They would treat their counter-parts with respect and speak firmly but quietly about matters of import rather than seizing upon the “issue of the day” or seek to blow up the scandal du jour (really, what’s the difference between that and the pumping and dumping which our Securities Laws say is illegal around the stock market?) in their place. They would assume in everything they do that their potential voters are capable of following complex issues with complex argumentation and rational (i.e. not simplistic) solutions on offer.

They would, in other words, offer an adult in place of the schoolyard bullies we must listen to today.

Would they win at first? Oh, heavens, no! — for staying the course is part of proving that this is reform and not merely a dash of lipstick on the same old street-walking. But there comes a tipping point, and then the whole structure from before comes tumbling down. When they do, it will wipe much of the past out of existence.

This is what Preston Manning didn’t know and lost sight of (and why I could not support his Reform Party). This is what is yet to be born. This is why Albertans told pollsters they wanted change and then voted for more of the same. This is why Federal politics remains deadlocked; why BC’s politics are frozen almost to the point where Gordon Campbell could do anything and not fear returning to the other side of the House; why Dalton McGuinty exists in the face of Caledonia, incredibly bad economic management and the destruction of a province and why, in the face of everything, Vancouver will probably return Sam Sullivan and Toronto David Miller to continue their reigns of error.

We don’t want what’s on offer, but the alternative hasn’t been placed before us. When it is, watch out. The earthquake will be a sight to behold.