Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Insipid St. Not Allowed

(a poem) by Theo Caldwell

If someone you know says what can and can't be,
And insists you matter less than some endangered rainforest tree,
If she or he declares you're just a face in a crowd,
Then you might have had a visit from Insipid St. Not Allowed.

Insipid lived long ago, when people were still allowed to do and say things,
When holidays were holy and not just children's playthings.
Of course, children are important, and Insipid knows that too,
Which is why St. Not Allowed wants to raise them instead of letting you.

Left to your devices, you'd teach them nonsense about Easter and Lent,
Instead of the most important things: Self-esteem and the Environment.
You'd teach them there's right and wrong, as if you could judge,
Instead of embracing their open minds and giving them organic, low-fat fudge.

“What’s wrong with an open mind?” Insipid asks, and it’s a fair point,
And if the Saint’s words meant just that, no one’s nose would be out of joint.
But “open mind” means shut your yap, you exclusionary lout.
In the name of tolerance and diversity, your beliefs must be stamped out.

If you don’t teach your kids that the marriage of two Rons is alright,
Then Insipid will do it for you, and please don’t put up a fight.
You may win on Election Day, but Insipid won’t be done yet,
The Saint will come for your house, your church and your pet.

Insipid is a Saint in the most modern way,
With no God but the Earth and only gender-neutral things to say.
In Insipid’s time, firemen were men, not combustion intervention counsellors,
But the Saint killed off differences, as the Patron of language heptachlors.

Insipid loves all people, but the Saint keeps a list,
Of non-recyclers who don’t know that Columbus was a racist.
“No free speech for hate speech,” Insipid says, and it’s really true,
That if you look ‘round and don’t know who the oppressor is – it’s you.

Insipid was martyred by having to choke,
On the intolerance of others and a plume of secondhand smoke.
But whenever some pure soul tells you what you can’t think or say,
Rest assured that St. Not Allowed still lives to this day.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Power to the People - Tax Cuts as Stimulus

On Tuesday, January 27, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have a rare opportunity to change the landscape of Canada’s finances. That is when Harper’s embattled government will present its budget to a skeptical and ambitious House of Commons. If he has the nerve and the will, the Prime Minister can reverse the way Canadians think about taxes and spending, to the betterment of the nation.

In these troubled times, citizens have taken it upon themselves to become more literate in the ways of the economy and government. One of the first terms they have acquired is “stimulus,” which is broadly defined as anything the government does to give the slumping economy a kick in the behonkus.

Most commonly, stimulus is thought of as the government spending money on various industries and projects. But if we unpack what stimulus is meant to mean – that is, government finding ways to get investment flowing among businesses and individuals – one of the best ways to do this is to allow folks to keep more of their own money in the first place. To wit, tax cuts are a kind of stimulus.

In order to embrace this concept, citizens first need to understand that the government doesn’t run the economy – private enterprise does. Governments establish and maintain the parameters within which businesses create jobs and investments. With the right regulations, structures and laws in place, the best thing government can do is empower people to spend their money, take risks and reap the rewards of a free market system.

A cut in personal and corporate taxes, as well as a holiday from the capital gains tax (which would be relatively painless, since not many Canadians are fretting about how to offset gains just now), would place billions of stimulus dollars in the hands of private citizens and go a long way toward helping our country through its economic troubles.

This mission, should the Prime Minister choose to accept it, will require a selling job, since it defies common wisdom as to the role of government and taxes.

Decent and otherwise intelligent people will say, “We have to raise taxes so the government can create jobs by hiring more people.” There are at least three things wrong with this simple statement. First, raising taxes doesn’t necessarily raise revenue; indeed, it can easily do just the opposite as investment and innovation are squelched and taxpayers find ways to stash earnings. Second, government does not create jobs, businesses do. Third, even if government did create jobs by hiring people, swelling the civil service ranks is no way to steer a country into the economic fast lane.

There is, of course, a role for government expenditure, and infrastructure spending is a concept many people have embraced. One of the best things that can be said about this form of stimulus is that, at the end of it, there is actually something tangible and useful, like a bridge or a highway. Compare this with stimulus spending on interminable programs that help no one and never die. One is reminded of Milton Friedman’s maxim that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.

This is a risky proposition for the Prime Minister, make no mistake. Canada is only weeks removed from seeing opposition parties attempt to topple the government, ostensibly because of a lack of stimulus in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s November 27 fiscal update. Now, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the entire coalition imbroglio was about one man’s ambition (Bob Rae, call your office) that ended up costing another his leadership (Stephane Dion, call a cab). But if the lack of economic stimulus were really the cause of the inchoate coup, then Harper can address that issue and help the country simply by redefining the terms.

Politicians win or lose on contrasts. In deciding how to stimulate the economy, Stephen Harper has the chance to give Canadians a contrast like they’ve never seen.

Sell it, Prime Minister. There are plenty of overtaxed Canadians who believe in the concept and will be glad to help you.


Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Friday, December 12, 2008

We Wish You a Merry Euphemism

If you insist on saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” it doesn’t mean you’re a bigot – but it helps. Whether you’re a government type who declares that the arboreal splendour in the public square is, in fact, a “Holiday Tree” or a corporate whiz who calculates that “Season’s Greetings” will offend the fewest number of customers, you know who you are and what you’re doing. It’s Christmas and you know it. Clap your hands.

In this cold world, a kind word is always welcome, so if one person genuinely hopes for another to enjoy his or her holiday, or wishes to greet that person in the spirit of the season, far be it from me to cast a stone. But, in the weeks leading up to December 25, if you make a conscious choice to avoid saying “Merry Christmas,” there’s a good chance you have decided that a divine gift that was meant for all mankind, and in which billions of people rejoice each year, is too offensive a notion to cross your lips.

Yes, yes, I know – folks say “Happy Holidays” and other insipid nonsense because not everyone is Christian, so this is a way to be inclusive. But there is no inclusion to be had by euphemising the warmest wish of a particular religion, presuming it to be objectionable to non-believers.

Of course, there are many different religions and faiths in the world. This is something folks are taught by the age of, say, 4 or 5. So, if you are older than this, yet you eschew “Merry Christmas,” what you are putting forward is that one of the world’s religions is uniquely unsuitable for public acknowledgement.

No one frets about being ‘inclusive’ during Passover or Ramadan, nor should they. Ironically, the purported inclusiveness of the “Season’s Greetings” Stasi is actually about exclusion. To wit, it’s about excluding just one religion, Christianity, from any rightful place in modern society.

Showerless know-nothings of the Left have long since extrapolated their vague, fashionable notions of history – from the horrors of the Crusades to the dull intolerance of the 1950s – to name Christianity the culprit for all the world’s evil. This is the stupidest concept to achieve mass acceptance since acid-wash jeans, but here we are.

And so, budding iconoclasts can tee off on the faith, or inflict their petty “Holiday Tree” policies with impunity. And well they might, for it is a riskless proposition. The worst that will happen is they may stumble across a column like this one, calling courage-free conformity by its name. Indeed, those politically correct storm troopers who browbeat Christians in movies and television, classrooms and print, would be much more credible if, just once, they decided to try their censorious tactics on one of those religions where the practitioners react, shall we say, stringently to being muzzled or criticized.

Christians, their antagonists point out, are in the majority, and so their holidays do not merit the same exclusive attention and protection as those of other religions. The reasonable reply to this, of course, is “So bloody what?” Is tolerance a numbers game? Is courtesy quantifiable? Is the respect a religion merits inversely proportional to its number of believers? If so, how do we tally just how blessed rude we can be to the faithful? Is it calculated like a marginal tax rate, off the last adherent rather than the last dollar earned?

Folks may say that a contentious column like this one is inconsistent with the Christmas spirit, and so detracts from its purpose. But Christmas is not just about hand-holding and bad sweaters. I will gamble the false comity of a Sears catalogue photo to stick up for my religion. Too often, folks assume turning the other cheek means rolling over.

Christmas is about Jesus Christ, Son of God, coming down to Earth to show us how a proper life should be lived, then dying unpleasantly for our sins. Believe it or don’t. I am arguably the worst Christian in the world, but we do one another no favours by pretending this Happiest of Holidays is about anything but Him.


Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bloodless Coup at Disneyland

Canadian politicians aren’t making history, they’re taking up space. In other countries, particularly the United States, the decade preceding 9/11 is often referred to as a “holiday from history,” wherein the population was benighted to the realities and dangers of the outside world. In Canada, that halcyon respite can be measured not in years, but generations.

As just one example, while the powerful play of history unfolded over the last 30 years, Canada’s political class subjected us to repeated, lugubrious exercises – complete with tears and tape measures applied to French lettering on business signs – to determine whether one of the most blessed nations God gave to man should even stay together. If Canadians truly understood the misery of much of the rest of the world, and how lucky we really are, such nonsense would never even come up.

And now, weeks after spending $300 million on a pointless election, our sheltered and shallow Parliamentarians are creating a trumped-up “crisis” and have the gall to insist it’s “historic.”

There’s making history, and there’s making noise. For example, whether one agrees with the Afghanistan mission or not, 2,500 Canadians are in that dangerous country making history right now – in practical, not political terms – and putting their lives on the line to make the world a better place.

Meanwhile, back at home, our lightweight politicians refer to proposed spending cuts as an “attack on women.” Those who hold such hysterical views of Canadian government budgetary policy should consult with an Afghanistan war veteran, or a survivor of the Taliban’s regime, to find out what a real “attack on women” consists of.

This is less a question of policy than of culture. Yes, the prescriptions put forward by opposition leaders who are striving to force their governance on a population that did not elect them are probably wrong. Opinions vary as to whether it was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cuts to social spending, or the elimination of taxpayers’ subsidies of political parties, or his lack of an economic stimulus package, or good old-fashioned political manoeuvring that prompted the Liberals, Bloc and NDP to cobble together their proposed coalition government – but none of it matters. The real question is, with the nation at war and a global economic crisis ongoing, should we be focused on the constitutionality of a hackneyed power-grab?

As this country and the world face extraordinary challenges, the events of this week remind us that some political cultures are too slow to move beyond the Mickey Mouse, navel-gazing mentality of fatter days. This is a bloodless coup at Disneyland.

In any photo of international heads of government, Canada's prime ministers invariably wear hopeful smiles that go unrecognized. Our politicians are hangers-on. Monday’s display of three electoral also-rans – Stephane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe – holding forth as if they were the victors at Yalta goes a long way to explaining why this is. They have no idea what’s important.

Canada could and should be one of the most significant, powerful nations on Earth. With our resources, developed capital markets, rule of law and entrenched freedoms, we have the tools to create the world’s most attractive environment for investment and skill. But our politicians’ priorities are too puny. Small dreams stir no hearts. Think bigger, sirs, and history will take care of itself.


Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Monday, November 24, 2008

George W. Bush and the Legacy in Waiting

It is the easiest thing in the world to criticize President George W. Bush. So simple and widespread is condemnation of the man that, when one hears some concerned citizen spouting the usual lines about “lies,” “war for oil,” and the like, one wonders what that person thinks he or she is adding to the public discourse. It has all been said before, and it was dopey the first time.

What is far more difficult – harder, even, than finding someone to sing Bush’s praises – is to find intelligent analysis of Bush’s successes and failures as leader of the free world. His foreign policy forays, like the Iraq war, and his domestic policies, like the prescription drug benefit, bear serious scrutiny. But since folks start hyperventilating at the mere mention of Bush’s name, it seems sober discussion must wait until at least the end of his term.

It is often noted that while Presidents Lincoln and Truman were both reviled in their times, history has judged them to be among the strongest leaders in American history. This simply proves Fred Barnes’ formulation that in politics, as in life, the future is never a straight-line projection from the present. Also, it is fair to say that just because people hate you, that doesn’t make you Abraham Lincoln.

What, then, of Bush’s hordes of haters, who imagine him the cause of all the world’s evil? Bush’s legacy to them may be, “Get a life.” For eight years, Bush has been their Voldemort, and their antipathy toward him has defined their existence.

Moonbats have always been among us and their place in history is secure. The legacy of George W. Bush, meanwhile, is less certain. Angry mobs and conspiracy theorists have railed against leaders since time immemorial, and there is little to distinguish Bush's most venomous detractors from the wrathful wretches of centuries gone by. To wit, while his critics are not unique, perhaps Bush is.

Rarely, if ever, has a president left office with so much of his legacy up in the air. If, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan flourish into free and functioning nations, allies of the United States in difficult areas, Bush will rightly be remembered as the man who liberated over 50 million human beings while strengthening his own country in the process. Such success remains highly hypothetical, but it would be sufficient for future generations to relieve Bush of his contemporary moniker of History’s Greatest Monster.

Conversely, if these enterprises fail, or if Bush’s apparent coziness with Russia’s Vladimir Putin leads to a renewed twilight struggle with that increasingly aggressive nation, this president’s foreign policy must be judged a failure.

Domestically, while Bush’s growth-inducing tax cuts added hundreds of billions of dollars to the Treasury and increased the share of taxes paid by the highest earners, the nation is in the grips of its worst financial crisis in decades. In truth, the current debacle finds its roots in the misbegotten mortgages mandated by President Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, if not President Roosevelt’s creation of Fannie Mae as part of the New Deal. But as the man at the top when the bad news came down, Bush bears much of the burden.

Will this president be recognized for his better economic moves or will historians pass him the buck for today’s meltdown? Will his foreign policy look like wisdom or folly to future generations?

In short, is Bush evil and unintelligent, as his enemies claim, or is he the most visionary president in American history? Neither.

Politics isn't binary, nor are people. Leadership requires choices, and the consequences are often long-term.

Why then has Bush, whose policies cannot yet be assessed in total, become the object of so much scorn? In large measure, Bush Derangement Syndrome began before the man was inaugurated and has less to do with his actions in office than his detractors insist. The Left’s shorthand is that after 9/11, the country and the world were united and Bush squandered that goodwill by invading Iraq. This is bollocks on stilts.

In reality, the 2000 Florida recount divided the country. 9/11 reunited the nation briefly, but folks were soon back to obsessing over the rancour and result of the presidential race. Bush’s majority-vote victory over Sen. John Kerry in 2004 simply added insult to injury for those who felt he never should have been president.

However he got the job, the scope of his actions ensure there is room for George W. Bush in the roll call of the best, and worst, American presidents.

Theo Caldwell, president of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Good Luck, President Obama

Good luck, Mr. President. I am one of those Americans Barack Obama spoke to on election night, the ones who did not vote for him. He’s right – despite my loyal opposition, he will be my president.

Some other conservative commentators have said we should treat this new Democratic commander-in-chief with exactly the same respect they showed our outgoing Republican president. This is meant, of course, as a call to lambaste Obama from day one and never give the guy a break, as the Left has done to George W. Bush. I say no – our actions are not defined by those of our political adversaries.

I and others are fond of calling the GOP the party of grown-ups. Now, it’s time to act like it. We lost, fair and square. By all means, we should oppose ideas with which we disagree – this is a responsibility of citizenship. But it’s not personal – it’s just politics.

America is bigger than any election and the presidency is greater than any one man. After 16 years of anger (recall that Clinton Hatred preceded Bush Derangement Syndrome), it is time to differ as adults and let dissent end at the water’s edge.

Remember, also, that the presidency of the United States is often, and aptly, described as the toughest job in the world. Only the handful of fellows who have held the office can understand this fully. Mr. Obama, when they opened that massive file for your first intelligence briefing as president-elect, did its contents change your views? I have not read that file, nor have your breathless, face-painting supporters. Only you, sir, have the knowledge of its contents and the power to respond.

From your public pronouncements, I perceive weaknesses in your domestic and foreign policy agenda. But I am working with a bounded rationality and, to be a responsible citizen, I must give you some benefit of the doubt for the good of the nation. If you err, I will say so. Indeed, I have not been shy about criticising you before and, frankly, with all the rapturous adulation round about you, I should think you’d welcome some sober assessment. And sober it shall be, since I doubt any Republican touched a drop of Champagne on election night or since.

To be certain, most of the media will not only give Obama the benefit of the doubt, they will resist until the last possible moment the need to hold him responsible for his own mistakes – and even his most hysterical supporters must admit that he will make them. How long will President Bush be blamed for all that goes wrong? A year from now, a pipe could burst in the White House and the press will say, “See? Bush forgot to winterize the place.”

But, just as Republicans should not repay Democrats’ disrespect of our party’s president in kind, so responsible citizens are not beholden to the excesses of the news media. If NBC’s Chris Matthews wants to maintain his famous leg-thrill for four or eight years, so be it. The rest of us can keep our wits.

And so, President-Elect Obama, I wish you wisdom and Godspeed. If you falter in office, expect to hear about it but, if you outperform my expectations, I will be happy to say so.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Once More, Without Feeling

Now that the election is over, might we at last have some civility – and some answers? “Hope” springs eternal.

The contest between Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama for leadership of the free world was a visceral affair, wherein reason was often trumped by raw emotion. Obama’s supporters, in particular, were eager to overlook or suppress any inconvenient truth in their desperation to make history. The result was a hurricane of nonsense, with Democrats daring their fellow Americans to differ from destiny.

As just one example, author and noted silly person Erica Jong warned that Obama’s defeat would mean “blood in the streets” and precipitate “a second American Civil War.”

Tantrum is not policy. The terms are separated not only by several pages in the dictionary, but by the divide between sanity and madness. The expectation that a person will not throw a hairy fit if their candidate loses is one reason that voting is reserved for adults.

Since even before he secured the nomination, Obama’s supporters had the safety off and were ready to blast any critic of The One’s policies – no matter the substance – with the most scurrilous of charges.

To comprehend how objecting to a capital gains tax hike can make a person a bigot is to step inside the modern liberal mind. Conservatives and Republicans get used to this, sadly, since we know we cannot order a cheese sandwich without some open-minded agent of “hope” and “change” calling us racist.

But it was not just we misguided advocates of capitalism and clean coal who got smacked this time around. Ordinary citizens, journalists, plumbers and even liberal stalwarts were made to pay dearly for their insolence. One wonders where Geraldine Ferraro and Bill Clinton go to get their reputations back – that is, if they want them returned.

The same folks who tut-tutted that Obama’s 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright should be off-limits were eager to root through the tax, divorce, custody, employment and licensing records of Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher because when the man saw an apparition of Obama at the end of his driveway, he had the nerve to ask the Anointed a tough question.

There is a standing dare to call a Democrat "unpatriotic" and, wisely, Republicans usually avoid falling for that rhetorical trap (Republicans themselves, of course, can be called unpatriotic with impunity – Teresa Heinz Kerry, have your butler call your office). Usually, when challenged to knock that particular chip off a liberal's shoulder, a conservative demurs, saying "of course" the leftist loves his or her country, and the matter is dropped.

Obama may be patriotic, but his priority seems to be himself. Demonstrably, he can say the right things about helping others, but the path of his career and his lifelong choices of allies – Wright, domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, Michael Pfleger, Tony Rezko, Khalid Rhashidi, et al. – reveal the single-mindedness of a fellow who will do anything to win.

In the closing days of this presidential campaign, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger noted that McCain spent more years serving his country in a POW camp than Obama has spent serving in the United States Senate. Some saw this as irrelevant or improper to point out – rather than a crucial distinction between the lives and careers of the candidates – revealing how skewed some voters’ priorities have become.

Beyond the vicissitudes of this campaign, blank spots remain regarding Obama’s alliances, actions and policies. Barack Obama has emerged from the past two years as the most remarkably unexamined candidate for the presidency in modern history. Now that asking questions cannot possibly endanger the most important election since a caveman first asked for a show of hands, as columnist Jonah Goldberg quipped, can we finally get some answers? Or must the truth remain on hold until 2012?

Theo Caldwell, president of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Monday, November 3, 2008

How to Watch the Election

Ever since the Florida fiasco of 2000, every Tom, Dick and Hanging Chad is eager to point out that it is the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that determines the winner of the U.S. presidential election. These budding federalists often fail to note that unless the popular vote differential between the candidates is less than one percent, that total will reveal the victor, but they raise an important point.

Apart from the profound Constitutional significance of the Electoral College – to wit, each state is allotted votes equal to its number of Senators and Congressmen, plus 3 for D.C., for a total of 538, requiring 270 to win – it is extremely handy for those of us watching the election on television.

Since we cannot know the popular vote total until all ballots are counted nationwide, the state-by-state results, assuming proper restraint is used in projecting the winner (Tom Brokaw, call your office), can give us an early indication of who will be the next President of the United States. This year, we can divide states into three major categories.

First, there are “Go To Bed” states. That is, if Democratic Sen. Barack Obama wins any one of these, you can say goodnight to your loved ones (and perhaps to the North American Free Trade Agreement, but that’s another story) and get some sleep. This category includes Ohio, with 20 Electoral College votes, and Florida, with 27. These are points that Republican Sen. John McCain likely cannot make up elsewhere on his path to 270, so the loss of either state would signal the end of the election.

Also worthy of “GTB” status is Missouri. Although the Show-Me State has only 11 Electoral College votes, it is a bellwether, having backed the winner of every presidential election for the past 100 years, with the exception of 1956. And, not for nothing, if McCain cannot capture this mostly conservative state in the center of the country, it means he is having a really bad night.

Conversely, if McCain wins Pennsylvania, make popcorn – we might be up for awhile. With 21 Electoral College votes, this Democratic stronghold has been inching toward the GOP this season, aided by unkind remarks about its citizens from Obama and Rep. John Murtha. Another “Make Popcorn” state is Iowa, with 7 Electoral College votes. The Hawkeye State was supposed to be safe for Obama, but he has felt the need to campaign there in the closing days. The unexpected pick-up of either of these states would buffer McCain against losses elsewhere in the country.

Finally, there are “Put On Your Pyjamas” states (if people wear pyjamas anymore). If McCain loses one of these, things look grim, but hang in for a bit. These include Virginia (13 EC votes), Georgia (15), and North Carolina (15) in the South. Out west, as later polls come in, look at Colorado (9). As for Nevada (5), if McCain loses there, put on your pyjamas and drink some warm milk. But by that time, we will likely know what happened in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, so we will either be snacking or snoring.

If the above analysis seems too tidy to be true, try this twist: Suppose McCain pulls an upset in Pennsylvania but loses Ohio? In that case, when you say your prayers before bed, thank the Good Lord that democracy can be so exciting.

Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Leader Must Know How to Seem

Although I and others have been critical of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s slow-going on conservative issues while in office, he remains the strongest choice among Canada’s party leaders to steer the country through the current economic crisis. Harper’s problem in recent days, however, has been one of style.

Harper has been pilloried for his lack of empathy (by Bob Rae of all people, who both feels and causes voters' pain). But on the numbers and the facts, much of what Harper has suggested – Canadian banks remain relatively solvent, there are bargains to be had in the stock market, etc. – is probably correct. So what if he lacks the ashes and sackcloth his rivals prefer? Leadership, however, is not solely quantifiable. A leader must know how to seem.

A remark can be truthful without being helpful. This is a rudiment of politics. Harper is a trained economist and, as a politician, he is a very fine economist. With all the bedside manner of a gout-ridden Scottish surgeon, he has told the country the facts in clinical terms. But what Canadians are looking for is heart. The country wants a leader who cares and, as polls shift away from Harper, voters are less in search of sober assessments than a hug.

As to that, Harper has famously packaged himself in casual, cozy vestments by the fireplace and, in the heat of this crisis, NDP Leader Jack Layton has said, "Now we'll finally see what's under the sweater." Indeed, on October 14, we will discover if a sweater-vest is to Stephen Harper as a wetsuit was to Stockwell Day. Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, meanwhile, has criticized Harper as "out of touch." But Dion is out where the buses don't run – and hybrid buses, at that. Carbon taxes and green shifts and environmental hocus-pocus are off the agenda for the moment. Canada is entering a difficult economic period. The country needs a leader with a serious, comprehensive approach. Stephen Harper is that fellow. Who cares if he can't cry?

Voting involves making imperfect choices. So, in order to assess Harper’s ability to address economic concerns, we must contrast his philosophy and track record with those of the other leaders on offer.

Displaying the scattershot indignation that has been a hallmark of the socialist movement since its inception, Layton is eager to be angry. He is like a heat-seeking missile with a moustache, screeching across the sky in search of a target, from bank regulations, to tax cuts, to corporations, to George Bush. But his economic policy merits the same criticism that physicist Wolfgang Pauli gave a muddled paper: “It isn’t even wrong.” Layton has blamed the market meltdown in the United States on Bush-style tax cuts – as though decades of bad mortgages bundled into shaky securities, which caused this mess, had the first thing to do with lower taxes.

As for Dion, until recently, the worst that could be said about him was that he is friendly and misguided. But his outbursts at opponents and reporters during the campaign have surrendered his ivory tower high ground as the befuddled professor. This is unhelpful, as the world has no shortage of angry environmentalists.

Incumbency can be both a blessing and a burden. For this reason, despite his opponents’ shortcomings, it is the Prime Minister’s lack of empathy that is driving the polls.

But practical prescriptions should matter more than personalities. As just one example of what a prime minister might do to alleviate the current crisis, he could reduce or eliminate the capital gains tax. 14 of 30 OECD countries have eliminated capital gains taxes altogether, and capital gains cuts have been shown to be self-financing. They increase tax revenue, as the money spent on preparing and paying taxes is instead invested into the economy. Despite Harper’s foot-dragging toward meaningful tax cuts, he is far more likely than Layton or Dion to take such a positive step. Such free-market thinking is what we need now.

Stephen Harper is not warm and cuddly, and his attempts to appear so may be unsettling, but he is the right leader for this difficult time.


Theo Caldwell, President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Two Tenets, Two Truths

The crisis that is affecting financial markets around the globe finds its basis in two tenets that have been fundamental to the American way of life since the dawn of the Republic. To wit, everyone has the right to own a home and everyone has the right, within the confines of the law, to make as much money as possible. These are not ignoble sentiments; indeed, America has become the world’s largest economy and most powerful nation – lifting much of the world from poverty in the process – through innovation and commerce that is made possible by private ownership and free markets.

But when these fundamental beliefs are stretched to absurdity, in defiance of common sense, the results can be dire. In this case, mortgages were for decades granted to people who could not afford them. Financial institutions, meanwhile, saw opportunities to make slightly more money than they could through other investments by bundling these ill-considered loans together into Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS). The rest is history.

First, to the matter of home ownership: In 1977, President Carter signed into law the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which stipulated that mortgage loans should be given to a broader base of Americans, including and especially those with lower incomes. The CRA was strengthened by President Clinton in 1995. Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo, was forceful in demanding that lenders, as well as the government-sponsored agencies that backed them, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, give mortgages to as many poor and minority applicants as possible. It was mandated that unemployment and welfare payments be included as legitimate income for mortgage eligibility. Lenders found themselves scrambling to ensure they had enough CRA mortgages on their books to avoid lawsuits or charges of discrimination. The priority was carried into the early part of this decade, with President Bush boasting that more Americans owned their own homes than ever before. The good intention, of course, was to let everyone own part of the American Dream, regardless of their socioeconomic status. The unfortunate result, however, has become a matter of global concern.

The way in which this national miscalculation became a worldwide phenomenon is that mortgage-backed securities were purchased en masse by banks and financial institutions in numerous countries. When the American real estate market declined, mortgages went into default and MBS notes lost their pricing. By purchasing MBS paper, financial institutions had been hoping for slightly higher returns than could be achieved through more conventional securities. Whoops.

Americans have always been protective of their property and rights. As others have observed, these are folks whose forefathers rioted because the British put a tax on their breakfast drink – and it wasn’t even coffee. But somewhere in that justifiable urge to acquire and own according to diligence and talent, some room must be left for caution.

The simple lessons are these: Do not lend or borrow what cannot be repaid, and do not risk your entire financial well-being for a slightly higher return.

America is a good and resilient country. Capitalism is, as Churchill described democracy, the worst system in the world, except for all the others. Difficult as the present crisis may seem, we will get through this. Let us hope that government and citizens alike have learned what they should.

Caldwell is President of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Tories' losing fight in T.O.

Every federal election season, citizens of Toronto are treated to a sight more hopeful than the first robin of spring. That is, Conservative candidates and their supporters suggesting that this time -- this time -- they will finally break through and win seats in the city.

"The Liberals and NDP are strong in our riding," they say, "so there is room for us to come up the middle if they split the vote." It is endearing to see such optimism, but it has little basis in reality.

How about no: You're not coming up the middle, or in from the side, or around the back. You are going to lose and like it.

But this does not mean Toronto's Conservative candidates do not have a valuable role to play. In fact, it can be liberating for these locals to know that they can speak their minds without endangering their Commons seat. Such candidates can be the most effective in exposing key members of the Opposition.

Consider former NDP Ontario premier Bob Rae, now the Liberal MP for Toronto-Centre. There are myriad reasons why Rae deserves a public talking-to from a Conservative opponent, but Sir John A. Macdonald himself could not unseat this once and future socialist.

If Rae is soundly defeated in debates or pushed into making intemperate remarks that gain national attention, however, that could prevent him from becoming prime minister and doing the same damage to Canada that he did to this province.
If Conservative candidate Chris Reid can accomplish this, even in defeat, he will have served his country well.

Likewise Deputy Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who will almost certainly be re-elected in his riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, can and should be exposed for his boundless personal ambition and retrograde positions. Whatever this man says and does in his local campaign -- especially if it is something egregious or all-too-truthful -- will catch the public eye and remain a matter of record for years.

In this way, the work of Ignatieff's Conservative opponent, Patrick Boyer, could come in handy if and when Ignatieff becomes Liberal leader.

The world over, urban centres are safe havens for left-wing politicians, and Toronto is no exception. If you hold right-of-centre views and wish to be elected to office in Canada, the adage is, "Go West, young man" (or perhaps to the Maritimes, or even some parts of Quebec).

The steadfastness and optimism of Toronto's Conservative candidates ought to be admired. They will not win, no matter the success of the national campaign, yet they press on in the face of this reality.

Certainly, some point to internal polls and pie graphs as proof that the glory days of the Mulroney sweeps can be repeated. But Toronto's ridings have been gerrymandered since then and, to borrow a phrase, Stephen Harper is no Brian Mulroney.

If local Tory campaigners can advance free-market, responsible policy ideas while forcing their opponents to make mistakes, they will have done well.

Congratulations to Toronto's Conservative candidates for their courage, and here's hoping that despite the odds, they can seize opportunity.

Monday, September 15, 2008

'Conservative' in name only

For Canadians who embrace environmentalism, confiscatory tax rates and comprehensive government programs, the October 14 federal election offers an embarrassment of riches. Folks who believe that meaningful tax cuts are overdue, however, and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has neglected his specific promises as well as conservatism in general, have fewer options. To wit, the former group has at least four parties to vote for; the latter, none.

Admittedly, Harper’s Conservative government has been in minority status since being elected in 2006, necessitating multi-party consensus to legislate. Indeed, perhaps this is Canada’s longest-standing minority government precisely because its movement toward conservative ideals has been glacial. But the fact remains that campaign pledges, such as leaving income trusts untouched and sticking to fixed election dates, as well as long-standing principles, like significant income tax cuts and reforming the CBC, have gone unfulfilled.

Lest we forget how this campaign started, it was the Harper government that opted to force an election, even after legislating the date of the next vote for October of 2009. Fixed election dates have been a tenet of the Conservative Party and its antecedents for at least a decade, but they abandoned that principle because they see a temporary advantage.

This government has moved to eliminate income trusts, which allow corporations to pay out earnings to unit-holders before paying taxes, despite repeatedly and explicitly promising to leave them intact.

Tax rates have yet to come down from the stratospheric range Canadians have endured for generations. A government cannot call itself conservative while citizens are still surrendering half their income in taxes.

And what about the CBC? Should Canadian taxpayers still be shelling out more than a billion dollars a year for a supposedly public broadcaster with a line-up that includes Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune? A true conservative would tell the CBC to buy its own vowel, but what is Harper’s plan?

In discussing these issues with several members of Harper’s cabinet and caucus, I have found their reactions range from apologies for the slow progress to outright denials that commitments were broken or that conservative ideals have not been served. It is this latter response that is particularly disconcerting.

On taxes, for instance, their talking points seem to be that the GST has been cut, as promised, reducing the federal government’s haul by billions of dollars, and Tax Freedom Day, that glorious dawn when Canadians stop working for the government and start working for themselves, comes earlier.

But the point of tax cuts is not to reduce government revenue. The idea is that giving folks the freedom to spend and invest their own money, rather than handing it over to the government, spurs economies and leads to higher tax revenues. Myriad examples, from North America to Europe to Asia, bear this out, but do Canada’s Conservatives believe in the concept? How can we know? Certainly not from their record.

On income trusts, they say that circumstances changed since they committed to leave them alone. But the point of making a promise is that you keep it even when it is difficult.

The issue isn’t even whether income trusts are good for the economy, or whether corporate taxes foregone would have been made up by personal income taxes and foreign investment. The point is, one thing was said and another was done. It is not the end of the world, but it’s a fact. More important, what does this say about the Harper government and how it would legislate with a majority?

On fixed election dates, they claim that pledge was only applicable to majority governments – such a by-the-book technicality might strike hockey-minded Canadians as a “chintzy call” – and, since the Liberals would probably have forced an election this fall anyway, this broken promise doesn’t count.

As to the CBC, they see it as a sensitive issue at election time, so they become refreshingly mute.

The question becomes, then, if those who hold conservative views cannot find much reason to support Stephen Harper’s party, where else can they take their votes?

Harper is helped by having opponents who would dissolve the fabled wall between church and state by making the religion of environmental druidism the law of the land. Beyond the Liberal and Green parties, Harper is facing straightforward separatists and unreconstructed socialists. Harper is probably the best leader on offer but, as comedian Dennis Miller might opine, that is like being the smartest kid in summer school.

For years, Harper’s handlers have been unsure as to just how to package him. They have fluctuated between having him glare out at voters from campaign posters to the most recent incarnation, which has him sitting by the fireplace in comfortable clothes, discussing what it’s like to be a dad. It’s a shift from scaring children to talking about them. But shooting a steel blue gaze straight into the camera is not leadership, nor does donning a sweater-vest evince character. For all the image-making, he remains an enigma.

Fundamentally, Canadians still don’t know what to make of the man who has been their Prime Minister for almost three years, or what to expect if he is re-elected. If Harper does have a Hidden Agenda, as his detractors claim, it is hidden even from those who would be his supporters.

On specific issues including income trusts and fixed election dates, Harper’s government has not been straight with the voters, and on bedrock conservative principles like meaningful tax cuts, it has been absent. These are not unforgiveable transgressions but, if the Conservatives are returned to power, they should start living up to their name.

theo@theocaldwell.com - Theo Caldwell, president of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Obama's joke hold

“I like a man who grins when he fights.” –Sir Winston Churchill
Now that Republicans have wrapped up their National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, nominating Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin for president and vice president, Democrats are wondering why their man, Sen. Barack Obama, has not opened up a wider lead in the polls. 2008, after all, is supposed to be a Democratic year. Perhaps the problem is the Obama campaign’s lack of humour.

After the 1996 presidential race, when defeated Republican candidate Sen. Bob Dole began to show flashes of his natural sense of humour in public, he was asked why he had spent the campaign acting like one of the angry apple trees from The Wizard of Oz, demanding of the American people, “How would you like it if someone picked something off of you?” Dole replied that voters do not want to elect a comedian to be their commander-in-chief, and he is correct. But a candidate’s sense of humour is less about being an unbearable yuckster than having the ability to laugh at one’s self. And the laughter, or lack of it, in a campaign is symbiotic between the person whose name is on the ticket and the folks who support him.

The impenetrable humourlessness of the Obama campaign is being noticed by the American people, even if they have not yet put it into words. But this serious, self-important tone did not begin when Obama first decided to stick his chin in the air like Mussolini while giving speeches (“Did you read THAT? He compared Obama to a dictator! The attack machine rolls on!”). Rather, the unbearable earnestness of his advocates was part of the project from the beginning.

In this topsy-turvy world, it is comforting to have some certainties. One of them is that, if you criticize Obama in the public square, no matter how substantively on any issue from taxes to trade, you WILL get letters. And they will not be notes of the “having a good time at camp” variety. You will be accused of racism, fascism, ignorance, ugliness, and poor grammar. The rage, you will find, is completely disproportional to questioning a capital gains tax hike or wondering aloud just what a “community organizer” might be. And there is no room in the indignation for some sense of humour about “The One.”

To the extent Obama does laugh at himself, it is that insufferable sort of Teacher's Pet faux-deprecation about how he is too doggone dedicated or, when he dares, some silliness about having big ears or "a funny name." But his unbecoming self-regard is not so much about cracking wise as a style of speaking that suggests someone should be copying down his words and dividing them into verses.

It is often said that when Americans elect a president, they are inviting him into their living rooms for the next four years. It would be irresponsible for folks to spend all that time watching comedies, since these are dangerous times in a dangerous world. But for Obama, a touch of humour, and humility, might not go amiss. Voters prefer candidates who can tackle serious issues without taking themselves too seriously.

Friday, September 5, 2008

From oilman to energy oracle

“You’ve got to think huge.”
This is T. Boone Pickens’ summary of his plan to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. The famed oilman spoke to a small number of Republican delegates and Congressmen gathered in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the GOP’s National Convention this week, and he laid out a massive proposal for the future of energy.

Pickens is worried that every year, the United States spends $700 billion on foreign oil and if current trends obtain, $10 trillion will leave the country in the next decade. This is both a big-picture economic crisis, and a daily dilemma for Americans trying to put fuel in their cars and heat their homes.

Pickens’ “think huge” philosophy is born of the fact that the situation is urgent and, practically speaking, no single solution can solve the problem. New battery technology will be great but, Pickens observes, a battery cannot move an 18-wheel truck. Nuclear power could provide more than the 20 percent of America’s energy that it does today, but approvals and logistics would delay the first new reactor coming online for at least a decade. Moreover, the inability of reactors to run much below full capacity means they would have to be supplemented by sources that can adapt to usage levels, such as clean coal.

So, Pickens says, America should do it all: drill for oil domestically, develop wind, solar and nuclear generators, build a new transmission network to move power where it’s needed, provide incentives for renewable energy production and alternative fuel vehicles, and use natural gas for transportation. This last step, Pickens believes, will start reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil immediately and will cut imports by 38 percent within ten years.

Every president since Richard Nixon has promised to move America toward energy independence, but the percentage of its oil that the U.S. imports has risen from 24 percent in 1970 to 70 percent today. Pickens has shared his ideas with Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, as well as his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Barack Obama, and he feels the federal government can take a leading role in the marketplace. “I would like the new president to say that any cars purchased by the government will be natural gas vehicles. That would send a message.”

Pickens is quick to draw a distinction between importing oil from Canada as opposed to the Middle East, saying, “From friends, it’s okay.” It is the 63 percent of America’s oil imports that come from non-North American sources, including unfriendly regimes, that have him concerned.

He believes Canada has larger reserves than Saudi Arabia, but notes that the expense of extracting from the oil sands means the price of crude needs to be at least $85 a barrel for producers to maintain a 15 percent profit margin. Costs notwithstanding, Pickens predicts Alberta oil sands production will shoot up from current levels to 5 million barrels a day.

As to his credentials, and the ups and downs of oil exploration, Pickens says, “I don’t care who you meet in the next ten years, you will not meet anybody who has drilled as many dry holes as I have. I know about looking for oil. I have looked for oil in Africa, the North Sea, Australia, Canada. I’ve been around the world and I’ve found a lot of oil.”

Asked how the United States could have gotten itself into this energy muddle, Pickens begins by pointing to elected officials who should have seen it coming: “It’s a lack of leadership. We didn’t have the leadership in Washington that said, ‘We have to develop alternatives. We have to do something different.’”

But he is circumspect in assigning culpability, recognizing that all citizens have a duty to foresee and address threats to their nation: “My wife said, ‘If you’re going to blame them, why wouldn’t you blame yourself? You understood it, and you didn’t do anything about it.’ And so I thought, well, that’s true. We’re all to blame – all of us.” So, Pickens is putting his money where his mouth is, harnessing his hard-earned wealth to make America a better place.

Since July, Pickens has been buying advertising time and taking to the Internet to introduce Americans to his ideas. Television commercials and websites tell some of the story, but when a fellow is proposing something as revolutionary and comprehensive as Pickens’ plan, you need to look him in the eye and hear him talk it out. Of initial reaction to his campaign, Pickens laughs, “There were three articles written, saying that I’d lost my mind.”

“I’m an American, I want the best plan for America."
But Pickens is sane and sensible, combining civic duty with a record of accomplishment to create a cogent and credible point of view. He is eager to hear what folks think and to defend his positions, and he has enthusiasm for other people’s ideas. Pickens admits that his might not be the best possible solution, and he welcomes improvements: “I’m an American, I want the best plan for America. If we have a better plan, I’ll go for it.”

He has critics on both sides of the aisle, including Democrats who bristle at his calls for more domestic drilling, and Republicans who resent his insistence that drilling alone cannot solve this problem. But to those who dismiss his plan, Pickens has a pithy reply: “What’s yours?”

theo@theocaldwell.com - Theo Caldwell, president of Caldwell Asset Management, Inc., is an investment advisor in the United States and Canada.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

GOP faithful energized by Sarah Palin

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain selected Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska to be his running mate, America took notice.
For Democrats and media pundits, Palin's experience and family life have been the source of consternation and obsession.

For Republicans gathered here in Minneapolis-St. Paul for their National Convention, however, Palin's addition to the ticket has given a jolt of energy to the campaign.

At 44, Palin is the youngest governor in Alaska's history and the first woman to hold that post. More particularly, she is the first woman to run on a Republican presidential ticket. But Palin's gender is only one of the reasons that the mere mention of her name generates rousing applause among the GOP faithful gathered here.

Having lost the confidence of their base -- and with it, control of Congress in 2006 -- Republicans have been on the lookout for leaders who can bring the party back to its stated principles: Low taxes and spending, accountability and responsible government.

As a governor who vetoed 13% of her state's budget, saying no to $234 million in pork-barrel and earmark spending in the last year alone, Palin is just such a Republican.

Critics point out Palin has served as governor for less than two years, and was previously a mayor and city councillor of a small town. Folks are fond of saying that a vice-presidential nominee needs to be a credible president, and it is true that the second-in-command needs to be ready to step in if the president becomes incapacitated.

But the fact is Palin is not running for president and America will be voting, or not voting, for John McCain to do that job.

If you really want to press the point, however, Palin was in her fifth year of elective office when Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama was elected for the first time to the Illinois State Legislature.

Moreover, as a former mayor and current governor, Palin is the only person on either party's ticket with executive experience.

She understands energy policy, having served as chairwoman of both the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact and Alaska Conservation Commissions. And from a foreign policy perspective, considering the events in the former Soviet Union of late, it matters at least a little that Palin oversees the only state that neighbours Russia.

Put another way, there is at least as much experience at the bottom of the Republicans' ticket as at the top of the Democrats'.

When this election is over, we will know whether McCain's pick of Palin was the masterstroke enthusiastic Republicans believe it to be, or the cosmic booting his critics claim.

Historically, vice-presidential nominees do not sway all that many votes. But, as we are so often reminded, this is an election like no other, and with a 72-year-old Republican presidential nominee facing a Democratic counterpart who has spent only three years in the Senate, vice presidential picks matter in 2008.

Some say this contest will be decided by the 18 million voters who supported Sen. Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries. How many of them will support the first female Republican nominee for vice president?

Will the GOP base and independent voters turn out to elect a revolutionary ticket with a message of reform, or will scrutiny of McCain's second-in-command find her wanting? One way or another, Sarah Palin is the checkmate.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hurricanes and Second Chances

By Theo Caldwell in Minneapolis

Michael Moore may be on to something. With Hurricane Gustav approaching America’s Gulf Coast just as the Republican National Convention begins here in Minneapolis, the left-wing filmmaker mused, “I was just thinking, this Gustav is proof that there is a God in heaven. To have it planned at the same time – that it would actually be on its way to New Orleans for day one of the Republican Convention, up in the Twin Cities – at the top of the Mississippi River.”

Moore’s sentiment was echoed by former National Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Don Fowler who, laughing about the timing of the storm and the RNC’s opening, said, “That just demonstrates God’s on our side. Everything’s cool.”

Now, I cannot tell you which party God supports, and I admire the supreme confidence of a fellow who thinks he can. But I believe God has a lot to do with redemption.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast region, devastating the city of New Orleans. Relief efforts were clumsy and ineffective, and remain the source of anger for many people across America.

Modern shorthand calls the federal government's response to Katrina a case study in Republican heartlessness. At the Democratic Party's national convention in Denver last week, Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden both reminisced about this ugly chapter, accusing the Bush administration of sitting on their hands while Americans were suffering. But the failure was caused less by indifference than by incompetence. Billions of dollars were spent, and are still being spent, to soften the blow of that storm. Massive spending is no substitute for good judgment, however.

The response to Katrina was, like a lot of government programs, an enterprise full of sound and fury, accomplishing nothing. Now, with Gustav touching land, the Republican Party is eager to show they have learned their lesson.

Wherever you go in this city, you cannot get far without being asked by some Republican outfit for a donation for the victims of the storm. It is fair to ask which victims they have in mind, or how the funds will be distributed, since the mass solicitations began before Gustav had made landfall. But the fact remains that these folks are genuinely concerned for their countrymen and they feel a responsibility to help in some way.

From a political perspective, the hurricane caused President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to cancel their scheduled appearances on the convention’s opening night. This relieves Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of the sticky quandary of having to give speaking time to a vastly unpopular president from his own party, with whom he must contrast himself if he hopes to win the election.

McCain’s campaign may see this as providential. One believes and hopes that the response to Gustav will be more effective than it was to Katrina, and prayers are being said for those in the storm’s path. Republicans from the top of the party to the rank and file have focused their efforts on helping those in need. Perhaps God has taken a hand in these events, but not in the way Moore and Fowler suppose.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Canada's choice: Historically, Canadians favour Democratic U.S. presidents, but wouldn't McCain embrace us?

Point Counterpoint

It's convention season. The Nov. 4 election is on the horizon. But will Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain be better for Canada? Sun Media columnists Lisa Van Dusen and Theo Caldwell debate that issue -- and David Hasselhoff.

Van Dusen: Hey, Theo. Just back from Washington, where heads are still shaking at the contrast between Obama's Berlin gig and McCain's scrum at the Columbus Fudge Haus. Shall we start with world view?

Caldwell: When Americans saw Obama applauded by the same folks who launched David Hasselhoff's singing career, they likely had second thoughts. Yes, in your political circles, whenever McCain is mentioned, people run away so fast their sandals fly off and they leave their hummus untouched. But that's no kind of argument.

Van Dusen: That's the funny thing ... the Republicans have come over all girlish, too -- Obamafest has mythologized the campaign among the junkies on both sides. He'd be better for Canada because after eight years of catastrophic anti-diplomacy, he talks about an America secure enough to stop swaggering. As the elephant's bedmate, Canada could only benefit from that.

Caldwell: Whether the president swaggers, skips or minces, it will do Canada no good if he pulls out of NAFTA, as Obama has contemplated. McCain walks with a manly gait and, more important, he prefers free trade to tariffs. That is the best diplomacy.

Van Dusen: Canadian diplomats who deal with the file aren't that concerned about what he's contemplated. They know two things: If he wins, economic pragmatism will prevail and they need to do a better job of leveraging it for the Democrats by selling the good side of NAFTA to the U.S. public.

Caldwell: Of course Canadian diplomats aren't concerned -- they get paid the same whether NAFTA gets killed or not. For Canadian manufacturers, exporters and workers, Obama's anti-trade attitude puts their livelihoods at risk. As to pragmatism, watch what happens when Obama hikes taxes on an already slow economy.

Van Dusen: Yes, far better for the economy to follow Bush, who turned a $236-billion surplus into a record $415-billion deficit in his first four years, with McCain, who said, "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should." Whose top economic adviser, Phil Gramm, described the cratering economy as a "mental recession" conjured by a "nation of whiners." Taxes will go up regardless when Bush's crackpot tax cuts expire.

Caldwell: Neither Bush nor Gramm is running for president this time, but if you think you bolster an economy by raising taxes, then Obama is definitely your guy. Canada needs a U.S. economy that has low taxes and spending, a strong dollar, and is open for business. That's McCain's policy.

Van Dusen: I think you bolster an economy by being responsible and far-sighted and by first correcting the mess you've been left with, which will be much easier for Obama to do, politically.

Caldwell: Yes, with a Democratic Congress, it will be politically easy for Obama to enact his plan of trade barriers, high taxes and massive government programs. None of these helps Canada. McCain, meanwhile, came to Canada to remind us he values our trade and friendship.

Van Dusen: Funny timing: Obama's new tax-cutting plan, announced recently, was praised by your friends at the Heritage Foundation.

Caldwell: Heritage denounced Obama's plan, except one facet pertaining to Congress' budget baseline. Either you know this, or you didn't read the report. I trust your integrity, if not your judgment, so I suspect the latter. If the criterion for helping Canada is getting the most cheering Germans together, Obama wins.

Van Dusen: Um ... from Aug. 15 piece by Russell Berman in righty New York Sun: "A senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Rea Hederman Jr., praised Obama for proposing a 20% tax rate on dividends and capital gains, lower than a 28% rate he had initially floated, though still more than the current 15% rate. 'That's a great step in the right direction,' Hederman said. 'It's a big change from what we thought the Obama tax plan would be at the beginning of the summer.' "

Caldwell: Like I said, you didn't read the report. You found a snippet in a newspaper. And that quotation doesn't praise "Obama's new tax-cutting plan," as you claimed, it says his capital gains hike isn't as bad as it was originally. Seems you've embraced the value of tax cuts, though. Progress.

Van Dusen: Heritage Foundation reports on Democratic candidates hold no surprises, whereas the praise was exceptional, which was why it was news. Obama polls higher than McCain on the economy because the last eight years have proven the adage if you want to live like a Republican, vote Democrat.

Caldwell: If scaling back his own tax hike proposal is your idea of "tax-cutting," then you're definitely a Democrat. Tax revenues are at all-time highs since the 2003 cuts. Spending is the problem. The fact remains Obama will raise taxes, spending and trade barriers. McCain won't, and that helps Canada.

Van Dusen: I was living in New York in 2001 when Bush's tax rebate came in the mail and, given I was making more than $100,000 a year, it struck me as ridiculous. Yes, spending has been the problem. More important, McCain has a view of America's relationship with the rest of the world that belongs to an era of hi-balls and hula hoops. That wouldn't help Canada.

Caldwell: Tax cuts increase revenue and spur economies. I know they don't teach this at Democrat School, swamped as they are with lessons about recycling and self-esteem, but it's a demonstrable fact. As to worldview, Obama seems more eager to meet with Chavez, Castro and Ahmadinejad than with Canada's leaders.

Van Dusen: I guess if tax cuts unfolded in a vacuum or even in a time of sane economic policy, that would have been an argument worth having. But as McCain said about the Bush tax cuts in 2001, "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans who need tax relief."

Caldwell: Again, Bush isn't running this year. So far, Obama's consideration of Canada consists of slapping tariffs on our exports. McCain came and expressed his appreciation for us in person. If you'd rather go with the guy the Germans love, be my guest, but McCain knows who America's real friends are.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Deplore the ideas, not the person

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I do not want Joe Biden to be vice president of the United States. Even before Sen. Barack Obama invited Biden to address the Democratic National Convention as his nominee for second-in-command, I found Biden’s liberal politics and blustering, loquacious style to be unpalatable.

But whenever I think of Biden as a person, I cannot eclipse from my mind the events of December 18, 1972. Biden was thirty years old and had just been elected to his first term in the Senate. His wife, Neilia, was driving home with a Christmas tree for the family. A tractor-trailer smashed into her car, killing Neilia and the Bidens’ one-year-old daughter, Naomi. Joe Biden was sworn in as a senator at the hospital bedside of one of his sons, who was badly injured in the crash.

There is much to dislike in what Obama and Biden represent. Their policy prescriptions and campaign rhetoric combine vague platitudes about the future with astounding self-regard. Together, they are Hope and Arrogance. But they are still human beings, with wants and fears and sorrows and joys no different from anyone reading this column.

While a person’s sad history may disarm us of hostility, however, it does not constitute a qualification for office.

For example, I do not want Sen. John McCain to be president just because he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam (although critics of his age may wish to spot the Senator 5½ years for the time he spent in the worst place on Earth). Rather, I believe he is the best person on offer to lead the free world.

When voters and politicians recognize in one another the suffering of a life lived, hatred and blind admiration are banished, and candidates rise or fall on the strength of their policies. This is as it should be.

Deplore the ideas, not the person. In general, this is more difficult for left-wingers, largely because so few of them have ever been on the other side of the ideological spectrum. The public square contains vastly more conservatives who were once liberals than the reverse. Churchill’s maxim that a person who is not a conservative by age 30 has no brain, while uncharitable, simply means that a right-of-center worldview is the natural result of a modicum of study.

It requires less learning to be left-wing. Political correctness is uncomplicated and its liturgies are easily memorized. So, simple hatreds are liberals’ playthings.

The most egregious recent case of this is the mass-hysterical hatred of George W. Bush. Dubbed Bush Derangement Syndrome by commentators, the condition causes folks to assign bloodthirsty motives and, paradoxically, monumental stupidity and otherworldly powers to the fellow whose present misfortune it is to reside in the White House. This is short-sighted and demonstrably ineffective.

Opponents of the Iraq war may not care, for example, that Bush watched his little sister, Robin, die of leukemia when she was three years old. But they might be more effective critics of Bush’s policies if they gave more thought to his humanity.

Obama and Biden are the wrong people to lead America. They are people, though, and that merits our respect.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

City Hall needs to park the frills and do its job

Toronto needs a new perspective. Those priorities that our current leadership takes for granted -- expensive environmental and arts programs, massive public works projects, the dream of a car-free city -- ought to be set aside in favour of more practical, helpful initiatives.

Prosaic as it may seem, the city's job is to clear your snow and trash, keep parks and streets usable and safe, and spend your tax dollars as efficiently as possible. Once these rudiments have been mastered, perhaps there will be time to discuss saving the planet but, given the state of Toronto today, city councillors can keep their capes in storage for a while yet.

It is not the job of city government to make you a better person by coaxing you from your car or diverting your tax dollars to mime troupes. If you want to make the world a greener place or support local theatre, those are worthy things. But those are individual choices, and city government ought to make it as easy as possible for you to act upon them.

The new perspective Toronto needs will recognize what is important -- that is, the basics -- and incorporate the political will to make it happen.

Toronto's citizens should not have to spend one second worrying that trash won't be picked up or transit will stop working because of labour unrest or spending cuts. Moreover, Torontonians should be able to walk along any stretch of, say, Bloor or Dundas at any hour of the day without being surrounded by litter and accosted by panhandlers. We need to be able to move about safely, and at will.

Basic as the need for movement may seem, City Council's current attitude toward transportation proves the adage that, "Socialists love mankind in groups of a million or more." To every problem, from gridlock to pollution, they present some mass solution, relying on public transit and funding and eliminating the element of personal choice.

But the way an economy or a city works is by millions of people making different choices. From the perspective of transportation, that means people need to go in different directions at different times, for millions of different reasons. To suppose that citizens of Canada's largest metropolis can be moved about solely by mass transit is to defy economic reality. Toronto needs to be an easy city in which to get around, however a person chooses to do so. That is, by bicycle, public transit or, saints protect us, by automobile.

Like most governments, Toronto's fiscal woes have nothing to do with revenue. The city takes in plenty of money. The problem is how it is spent.

Take trash collection, for just one example. We ought to be able to offer this contract to union and non-union suppliers alike and, if a non-union shop offers the best deal, we should not have to pay them inflated, union rates as the city's so-called "Fair Wage Policy" dictates. The city answers to taxpayers, not union leaders.

Once again, this is basic stuff.

Not one penny should go to politicians' pet projects until all children in Toronto, regardless of ability or economic status, have places to play, all four seasons of the year. I don't want to hear one word about recycling bins so long as there is a single kid in this city who does not have a place where he can go and have some fun.

Safe, clean streets, places to play, and a healthy respect for your employers' pocketbooks -- this is the stuff of a marvellous city.

Hang the rest until you get the rudiments right.

The politician who embraces this vision will make no friends among Toronto's labour leaders or political elites, and he may have to push past a protest placard or two. But so be it.

The basics are important, and Toronto needs a leader who believes in them.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Solzhenitsyn spoke for millions

“In every life there is one particular event that is decisive for the entire person – for his fate, his convictions, his passions.” –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

For the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died this week, the pivotal event of his life came when he was suddenly and unjustly pulled from freedom into captivity. Like millions of others, Solzhenitsyn was a victim of the Soviet Union’s political prison system, known by its notorious acronym: Gulag.

For writing politically unacceptable letters to a friend, Solzhenitsyn found himself stripped of rank, rights and liberty. He lamented that his tale was nowhere near unique. The Soviet Union spent decades locking up its own people in order to silence dissenters and terrorize those who were left.

But Solzhenitsyn’s gift for letters would prove to be his oppressors’ undoing. By chronicling the excesses of his communist captors, Solzhenitsyn exposed to the world the brutality of the Soviet Union. The truth and eloquence of his words could not be countered by communism’s elite apologists in the West and in 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A student hoping to learn from a Nobel laureate about the dangers of this world should set aside Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance and take up Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Better yet, read Solzhenitsyn first, then consider how the assault on liberty he describes may apply to today’s religion of environmentalism. Solzhenitsyn’s canon is a study of the vigilance freedom requires, and the misery that comes when it is lost.

Tragically, communism did not collapse with the Soviet Union, and one-fifth of the world’s population is still subject to that demented ideology.

As the Olympic Games begin today in the People’s Republic of China, there has already been discussion of that communist regime’s suppression of its own people and its neighbours. The Laogai, China’s version of the Gulag, is the most extensive system of forced labour camps on the planet. Likewise, in North Korea and Cuba, political prison networks hold countless human beings in bondage for crimes of thought, speech and religion. This is the essence of communism, and the practitioners of today’s inhumanities are the heirs of Solzhenitsyn’s jailers.

But for all that he suffered and saw, Solzhenitsyn’s inclination was always toward mercy and goodness. This was not some version of pacifistic protest, however, but an act of intellectual will. “For mercy,” he said, “one must have wisdom.” In upholding this creed, he proved that the human spirit can maintain its divine spark, even in the face of true evil.

Understandably, Solzhenitsyn developed a cynicism toward politics, noting that fine words and high-minded ideology can blot out basic humanity. Of his cruel countrymen, Solzhenitsyn mourned, “Where had all that Russian generosity gone? It had been replaced by political consciousness.”

Solzhenitsyn knew his task was to tell the story of those who were silenced. In his dedication of The Gulag Archipelago to those who did not survive the prison camps, he asks their forgiveness, “for not having seen it all nor remembered it all, for not having divined all of it.”

But despite his human imperfection, Solzhenitsyn shed light on one of the greatest crimes in all history, and his imprisonment was not in vain. When Soltzhenitsyn’s oppressors took away his freedom, they gave millions of others a voice.

Flawed, but still noble

Any noble notion that is implemented by human beings will inevitably fall short of its ideals. The Olympic Games are no exception. But the glory of the effort, the pursuit of excellence that the Olympics embody, make the exercise worthwhile.

The Olympics are among those well-intentioned international institutions that purport to represent humanity’s highest aims. Like the United Nations or Greenpeace, the Olympics stand for ideals that ought to be universal, while implementing them imperfectly.

In practical terms, the Olympics combine competition among the planet’s greatest athletes – this is the ideal aspect of the Games – with unmistakably human oversight, represented by the International Olympic Committee.

For decades, the IOC has been the object of criticism, accused of corruption and complicity with the world’s worst regimes. The IOC’s coddling of the repressive People’s Republic of China has been well-documented since the day the 2008 Games were awarded to Beijing. Until recently, the IOC had planned to ban the newly democratic Iraq from this year’s event, claiming the country had politicized its process by replacing members of its national committee. This is the same IOC that raised no objection when Saddam Hussein was imprisoning and torturing Iraqi Olympians who underperformed.

In this way, the Olympics, and the IOC in particular, have much in common with the U.N. Both are playgrounds for tyrants, where bureaucratic elites overlook genuine injustice while scrutinizing the shortcomings of free nations. But these undeniable weaknesses do not outweigh the nobility of their aims.

Like the U.N., if the Olympics did not exist, we would have to invent them. Certainly, the world’s leaders should have a forum to meet and discuss things, just as nations should periodically put their weapons and differences aside for the sake of athletic competition. These ideals may have been pursued imperfectly, but they are still worth pursuing.

Fear of imperfection should be no deterrent. If human beings attempted only what we know we can do right, the world would be nothing but gibberish and genocide. The Olympics aspire to something better.

Inevitably, when athletes compete under flags, folks assign national significance that obscures the simple nobility of the event. But the notion of sport as proxy for politics was always a flimsy one. During the Cold War, from the Summit Series to Rocky IV, audiences in the East and West imagined that the success or failure of their athletes would vindicate or discredit their ideology. Of course, this conflates two unrelated issues. An athlete may be strong of limb or fleet of foot at the same time his government is utterly wrong about freedom of speech or foreign affairs.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the quadrennial clash of ideology has been downgraded, but is not dead. Reports indicate that communist host-country China hopes to score a symbolic victory over its rival for superpower status, the United States, by topping the medal count in 2008. But now, as then, such notions are meaningless.

If China were to win every gold medal, it would not change the fact that communism is the most murderous, miserable ideology ever devised. And anyway, this is scorekeeping for politicians. The athlete’s lot is human competition, a universal language.

It is unlikely that the athlete in the arena, blessed with God-given talent and the discipline to develop it, is contemplating his voting choices – if he has the good fortune to represent a genuine democracy, that is – while performing.

One expects, rather, that he is focused on achieving his utmost at the moment that is likely the pinnacle of his life and career. The magnificence of such a spectacle is unique to the Olympics and deserves our attention. Unlike those whose best skills are, say, orthodontics or accounting, an athlete in top form is a thing of beauty to behold.

The Olympics could never be entirely apolitical. It is impossible to remove politics from even the most benign of human affairs. No one is suggesting that the Olympics require the comity of a global church picnic, with potato sack races contended at a world-class level. But it would behoove us to keep our eyes on the real prize. That is, the glory of sport.

The Olympics’ ideals are just that. While we live in an imperfect world, impurity will hold sway. But there is much to admire and enjoy in the Olympics’ pursuit of perfection. Let the Games begin.