Articles I'm digesting 6/2/2009

The Quiet Unravelling of Canadian Democracy by James Travers

This poignant piece by James Travers is long overdue. The concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office – which started with Trudeau and has continued with each successive Prime Minister – along with the decline of cabinet and of parliamentary committees, is corroding our governing institutions. Travers sums it all up succinctly and frighteningly.

My sense is that – while no one would articulate it this way – people may be disengaged from politics because we expect so little from our MPs, so little from the system itself. Our governing system has – I believe – been durable because it relies less on hard rules and more on conventions and norms. This has given it flexibility but also demands a certain degree of self-restraint and self-managed code of conduct among its participants.What makes the corrosion hard to point at specifically is that there is rarely a single, specific triggering event – no moment when a “rule” is broken, but rather a slow process where conventions and norms are abandoned. Take the recent Conservative Party tactic of engaging in personal attacks during member statements. No “rules” were broken, but another norm, one that tried to help elevate the level of discussion in the house, was weakened.

I’m less interested in radical changes – such as new ways to elect members – since it is unclear to me why or how these would change things (and the unanticipated consequences are more troubling still). Instead, there are small steps that could have dramatic results. Giving MPs real money for research and policy staff (like their counterparts in the US) would be one area where I think a small change could – over time – shift some (admittedly not all) power back to MPs. But in the mean time let us get better aware of the problem – so if you can, take a look at Travers piece.

Einstein, Franklin, and the Role of Creativity in Today’s World” (a lecture) by Walter Isaacson (via David B)

After listening to this beautiful lecture Saturday morning I realized that I’d read (or listened to, to be precise) Isaacson’s book Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. The lecture tries to tease out what made Einstein and Franklin great men – it wasn’t enough that they were intelligent (lots of people are intelligent) but what is it that made them creative? In short, it is to do what is important to you and to maintain the capacity to challenge – to be intolerant of assumptions, institutional inertia and lazy thinking – while remaining hyper-tolerant of others, their thinking and their perspectives.

If you don’t have the patience to listen to the whole talk (which is 44 minutes, there are 25 minutes of Q&A) then consider fast forwarding to the 37th minute of talk where he talks of both men’s final moments. The way they are at humble, aware of their sins and successes, inspiring to those around them but, most of all, consistently dedicated to the values and tasks they love, well, honestly, it left me teary. Consider Franklin’s funeral in 1790 where:

“All 35 Ministers, Preachers and Priests of Philadelphia link arms with the Rabbi of the Jews to march with him to the grave. It is that type of creativity of tolerance, of looking for new ways of doing things that they were fighting for back in Franklin’s time and I really do think that’s a struggle we are fighting for both at home and in the world today.”

The lecture reminded me of why Isaacson’s book transformed Franklin into a hero to me.

The Quiet Coup by Simon Johnson

This article has been circulating around for a couple of weeks now and it is the most damning admonition of both the financial collapse and both Bush’s and Obama’s response that I have read.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity [between the US and the financial collapses in South Korea, Malaysia, Russia and Argentina]: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

It gets worse.

But these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector’s profits—such as Brooksley Born’s now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998—were ignored or swept aside.

The biggest danger? The crises gets somewhat resolved… and nothing changes. This is why I’m such a big fan of Umair Haque’s blog.

Is Charest ready to pounce? by Rheal Seguin

A while back I predicted that, after the Conservatives bungled the budget and the coalition was struck that Layton, Dion and Harper would all lose their jobs before the end of 2009. I stand by the claim (and now have money riding on it with some good people out there). It would appear that the press is increasingly smelling blood in the water around Harper…

4 thoughts on “Articles I'm digesting 6/2/2009

  1. Stephen Hare

    Re. Travers, I'm glad you are blogging on this topic. Donald Savoie has written a couple of solid (in both senses!) books on the same theme from the perspective of the Public Service's relations with the elected government, and interestingly he shows how these trends connect to technological trends as well (such as the impact of 24 hour news channels and ten second sound bites on the way the PS has to function).

  2. Proper Historian

    “The crises gets somewhat resolved… and nothing changes. “Because people fundamentally misunderstand the problem: Bush's policy of increasing home ownership among minorities, encouraging and in some cases forcing institutions to make bad loans to minorities, worked. It just collapsed the economy. Minorities made out like bandits, all but the largest institutions did OK, a few top-of-pyramid institutions collapsed. The taxpayers, mostly white, pay the bill, and the rest is history, notwithstanding President Lulu of Brazil's revisionist and dangerous speculation that “white…blue eyed” people are to blame. This was a failure of race hustling, of allowing our institutions to be mau-mau'd by Marxists and Trotsyists and community organizers like the President and the First Lady and their unending demands for “equality” as it suits them.

  3. Jeremy Vernon

    I felt very much vindicated by Traver's piece when I read it. I might note that in the same issue of the TorStar there was a lengthy quotation of Dr. Ignatieff (why do professional titles disappear in public office?) responding to juvenile cat-calling and muck-raking that is the hallmark of the Stephen Harper Party.Al Gore's book “Assault On Reason” is not dissimilar in its basic thrust from Traver's article. Some systemic pathology is beginning to show itself – the question is whether we can sustain the existing equilibrium or be faced with a dramatic and traumatic phase-shift. Despite the fact that this article was printed in a mainstream newspaper, there is something to be said about the role of the news media in allowing this kind of thing to slide. Where is the fabled cantankerous sagacity of the fourth estate, that quality those institutions constantly harangue as facing extinction with the advent of the web?

  4. ALo

    I'm catching up on blogs and enjoyed your digest of what you're reading these days Dave – thanks for it! I missed the Traver's piece… but like small pieces loosely joined, I by coincidence just finished posting number of links to articles and speeches I've heard in the last few weeks on the game of mutual destruction played between media and parliaments. The links are here if anyone is interested: I mention above, I'd like to see a bit more on the responsibility we as citizens have as well – to read, watch, listen and work understand, to ask questions when we don't (including of our journalists and politicians) and to do our part to improve things, even in a small way – but maybe (likely) I'm missing them.

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