Friday, August 28, 2009

Some Men See Things As They Are

The Romans had a rule for those who would comment on departed foes: “Speak nothing but good about the dead.” So with the passing of US Senator Ted Kennedy, a man whose politics and personal life pressed the boundaries of that ubiquitous and respectful euphemism, “imperfect,” what to say?

Must we overlook his excesses in remembering one of the most significant American politicians of the last half-century? While he is celebrated as the “Lion of the Senate” by those who admired him, as well as opponents who are being polite, perhaps it is fitting to consider Kennedy’s career more fully.

Since Kennedy’s death, we have been reminded that on July 18, 1969, Mary Jo Kopechne died when the senator drove a car carrying the two of them off a bridge and into a tidal channel at Chappaquiddick, in his home state of Massachusetts. Rather than report the incident at once, Kennedy spent precious hours doing damage control with consultants as Mary Jo fought for air in the submerged vehicle. In the wake of Kennedy’s own demise, some say it is in poor taste to mention her – but why? What makes her life less valuable than his?

Mary Jo would be 69 today, had Kennedy evinced nobler priorities. Instead, she died in that river while he went on to be “lionized” in the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest deliberative body.” Perhaps, as his defenders suggest, the incident at Chappaquiddick did not define Kennedy’s life – but it certainly defined hers.

In the political arena, Kennedy’s career is often conflated with the Camelot mystique of his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. In reality, their policies were very different. While Ted was an unrepentant advocate of government intervention and income redistribution, JFK’s tax cuts exceeded even those of Republican White House successors like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

In foreign policy, JFK was a strong anti-communist who understood and articulated America’s unique responsibility to defend freedom in the world. Ted, meanwhile, adopted every tenet of the isolationist Left, from supporting the “Nuclear Freeze” that would have given the Soviet Union permanent military supremacy, to opposing the 1991 Gulf War.

As to communism, Ted’s campaign to de-fund the government of South Vietnam in the 1970s was the most significant move, in human terms, of his career. Millions were murdered in the aftermath. To his credit, Ted sought to help Vietnamese refugees, known as “boat people,” who after years of bombing and war only took to the seas as the Northern communists approached. But with a little foresight, this tragedy could have been prevented.

When a third brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1968, Ted eulogized him in words adapted from another unapologetic leftist, George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘why not?’” It was a magnificent, timeless address, suggesting a talent and intellect that one mourns in contemplation of what this man could have been.

Different as they were, I hope Jack, Bobby and Ted are happily reunited in Heaven. Brothers are brothers and anyway, politics, like life, is one big best guess.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What is Political and What is Important

The challenge for any elected official, especially one with a key portfolio, is separating what is political from what is important. Last week, Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty welcomed an eclectic group of Canadians to Meech Lake to help him do just that. Investment professionals, policy experts and entrepreneurs prioritized the nation’s problems and opportunities, from budget deficits to trade and beyond. Flaherty hoped to consult with Canada’s best and brightest, but one of them must have declined because I was invited, too.

Some issues that came in for discussion would seem beyond the purview of the Finance Department. But as other ministers inevitably request budget dollars to fund their priorities, Flaherty, or any Finance Minister, must exercise judgment on a plethora of concerns. Information and opinions abound. The trick is to determine what is germane and actionable. Two examples of matters that encroached on talk of dollars and cents were the environment and health care.

In the former case, there is an exhausting tendency in policy circles to couch every topic in terms of environmentalist dogma, no matter how tenuous the connection. Anyone familiar with this tic will appreciate that an otherwise cogent debate on Canadian pensions can quickly devolve to whether raising RRSP contribution limits will anger Gaia the Earth Mother. But issues like climate change do, in fact, hold real and immediate ramifications for the nation’s finances, especially in the area of trade.

The growing trend of “Green Protectionism” sees countries that enact environmental regulation adding duties to imports from nations that do not have the same Earth-centric standards. Owing to free trade agreements and economic reality, organized labour and other traditional tariff proponents cannot attain trade barriers overtly but, if they are able to achieve similar ends while wrapping themselves in the mantle of climate sanctimony, more the better. Such provisions are evident in America’s erstwhile “cap-and-trade” legislation which, though it may go no farther than the House of Representatives, provides a case study in this coupling of protectionism and piety.

Sagely, Flaherty sought insight on the state of this issue. Expanding Canada’s trade markets, while preserving the free trade relationships we have, is crucial to maintaining Canada’s economic strength, and understanding environmental policy is part of that task.

With an aging population, health care expenditures, particularly in the form of federal transfer payments to fund this provincial mandate, must factor into the Finance Minister’s calculus. Health care is perhaps Canada’s most contentious political issue, but with an unsustainable cost structure looming as baby-boomers enter their dotage, sober discussion cannot be delayed much longer. There was debate as to whether transfer payments should be increased, cut or eliminated to make room for private sector solutions. Folks could agree, however, that Flaherty will not be the last Finance Minister confronted by these questions. Over imminent years, political will and courage must be summoned and sustained to face this challenge.

In the field of finance proper, budget deficits can be both political and important. Oftentimes, when a government runs a deficit, its chief function is as a hobbyhorse for the opposition. “We left you nincompoops with balanced books and now look!” screams the finance critic of an ousted party anytime expenditures exceed revenues, no matter how marginally. This is the political factor. The important aspects to a budget deficit are the reasons it exists, the length of time it is sustained, and its size as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product. At 3.3% of the nation’s GDP, Canada’s deficit is relatively small (despite its ominous $50 billion appearance), especially when contrasted with the 13% of GDP shortfall currently hobbling the United States.

Even so, Flaherty understands the importance of getting the nation out of deficit and, in case he harboured any doubts, this priority was reinforced in the strongest terms by his invited interlocutors. The Finance Minister has announced a plan to return to surplus by 2014 and he was urged not to neglect that goal. As budget items are entrenched and spending is less discretionary, a deficit can become inescapable and structural. To wit, once a government begins running deficits, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop. Conservative and Liberal governments have reduced Canada’s debt in recent years, and no one wants to see that progress reversed by habitually spending more than we make.

But Flaherty remains fretful for the goliath and growing budget deficit south of the border. Projected at $9 trillion over the next decade, it seems a matter of time before America’s spending overruns call the country’s creditworthiness into question. And the Finance Minister is not the only one who’s noticed. On his recent trip to China, a major creditor to the United States, Flaherty was gratified to learn that the Asian nation wishes to take its relationship with Canada to a higher level. It is unfortunate, though, that these overtures are partially prompted by Chinese concerns about our neighbour. The Canada-US trade relationship is the largest in the world, and no ancillary benefit of new markets can eclipse its importance. America must get its books in order, though there is precious little Flaherty can do about it. In this way, the matter is important without being especially political.

Flaherty thanked his guests in words of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, appropriate to a great nation in a challenging time: “Look a little ahead, my friends.”

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Wisdom Store

It is said that when the Royal Library at Alexandria was burned down, perhaps by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. or by the Bishop Theophilus or Caliph Omar sometime later (depending on which version of events you choose to believe), the progress of human knowledge was delayed by centuries.

The library was the vision of Egypt’s King Ptolemy, who wanted to possess all the literature of the world, encompassing history, astronomy, mathematics and medicine.

Nowadays, the notion of keeping the canon of the planet in one location and in tangible form seems quaint. With our technology, we can access the learning of the ages from almost anyplace.

For example, if you are reading this column anytime after August 2009 or anywhere besides a Canadian city, chances are you are seeing it on some lighted screen, rather than on paper. If a century or more has passed since these words were written and cross-time communication has been mastered, please email to let me know if the Leafs have won the Stanley Cup.

Newspapers have been especially affected by the advent of the electronic age, in terms of relevance and revenue. With the egalitarian influence of the Internet, a respected reporter who has won several Frowning Beaver Awards for Serious Canadian Journalism may have less readership than some crank at a keyboard in his mother’s basement in Chatham, Ontario. And from a business perspective, how can they coax folks to pay for what is freely available?

News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch recently announced that the company would begin charging for all its online reporting, but this has already been attempted by publications large and small, without success. Many have supposed, therefore, that newspapers as we know them are doomed. What of books, though?

My own book, Finn the half-Great, is juvenile fiction (which is also how some critics describe my newspaper columns). Books of this genre tend to sell moderately over time, rather than in large numbers when first released. As young people become increasingly inclined toward items that are electronic, rather than tactile, and making the massive assumption of at least a modicum of public interest in my tome, will it be more commonly read in print or on displays like Kindle and Sony Reader? While “E-book” sales represent maybe 4 percent of the total market today, convenience is a cousin to exponential growth.

But is our information any safer now than it was at Alexandria? For all environmentalists’ insistence that we rely on windmills and hamster wheels to power our computers and gizmos, are these energy sources reliable? Or suppose some malefactor nation or group succeeds in detonating an Electro-Magnetic Pulse, which could permanently disable all electronic devices and communications over a continent-wide area. What then? How much of our accumulated millennia of learning could we recall and preserve through oral tradition, passing the Talking Stick from generation to generation as we re-build from scratch?

With today’s technology, one can hold Ptolemy’s dream in a device. But information is not knowledge, and wisdom trumps them both. However we express ourselves and catalogue facts in years to come, let’s hope we hold on to timeless truths.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Walled Garden

In the syllabus to his fictitious Fundamental Astronomy class, Woody Allen wrote, “The sun, which is made of gas, can explode at any moment, sending our entire planetary system hurtling to destruction; students are advised what the average citizen can do in such a case.”

A reminder of just how small and vulnerable we are – or, at least, of how humungous and dangerous the rest of the universe can be – came in recent days as a meteor hundreds of metres wide hit Jupiter, leaving a hole the size of the Pacific Ocean in the massive planet’s atmosphere. Jupiter is about 318 times the size of Earth, so if that collision had happened here, it’s safe to say the Canadian National Exhibition wouldn’t open on time this summer.

An enormous outer space smash-up puts into context some of the trifling issues that come in for wide-eyed seriousness and spittle-flecked rage here on Earth, from bike lanes to recycle bins and, especially, politics (as the saying goes, all maniacs are local). Moreover, it reminds us how little we can control, or even predict, in the darkness that surrounds us.

A similar incident occurred in 1994, when pieces of the Shoemaker-Levy IX comet hit Jupiter, and astronomers supposed that such collisions only happened every few thousand years. It seems one of those Poindexters forgot to carry the remainder because a blink of an eye later, here we are again.

This is, incidentally, what Jupiter does – it takes the hit for the rest of us. Its immense gravity pulls in debris left over from the creation of the solar system (whether it’s called a “comet” or an “asteroid,” the upshot is it’s a great big rock that can ruin your lunch plans), keeping other planets safe – usually.

Columnist Jonah Goldberg notes that there are 1,000 near-Earth meteors more than a kilometre wide, adding, “Those are the ones that really leave a mark. Just ask the dinosaurs.”

If we missed one of these coming, it might be similar to how Obi-Wan Kenobi described the destruction of Alderon in Star Wars: Millions of voices screaming in terror and one nerd at a telescope saying, “Oops.”

Perhaps it’s just as well we have no sway over the solar system. The smartest person you’ve ever heard of cannot tell you with certainty what the weather will be like a week from Tuesday or who will win the Stanley Cup next year. People are idiots, even the geniuses. Just as William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather have been governed by the first 400 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard, I’d rather take my chances in a cosmic shooting gallery than surrender control of the universe to the most brilliant man who ever lived.

But there is comfort to be taken in the symphony of the cosmos. Jupiter plays its role as giant protector of smaller planets, giving us the luxury of eons to grow and learn, creating civilizations, countries, Pilates and fondue. In a dangerous galaxy, Earth is an oasis of existence, a walled garden, guarded by the heavens’ design – and that is an encouraging thought.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.