Tag Archives: book review

Thoughts on Azzi’s Biography of Walter Gordon

Frankly, no one reads enough Canadian history… so I’m trying to do my part. I just hope Rudyard takes note.

For those who’ve never heard of Walter Gordon, he was Lester Pearson‘s first Finance Minister. Of course, he was also much, much more. For Liberals, Gordon was the man who organized the party back into fighting form while it served in opposition to Diefenbaker and, in doing so, won the Liberals the 1963 election. Perhaps more importantly however, Gordon was one Canada’s first nationalists who, among other things, founded the Committee for an Independent Canada the predecessor (or inspiration of least) for the Council of Canadians.

Azzi%20-%20Walter%20GordonWhat makes Gordon such an interesting study are not only his accomplishments, but the numerous, and often contradictory threads that made up his life. Here is a man who founded several firms, including one of the most successful private sector consulting firms in the history of Canada. As a consultant, he was thus able to keep one foot in the world of public policy and government – advising ministers and deputy ministers – while keeping other foot in the private sector, advising presidents and CEO’s. As head of these firms that he also helped broker the sale of large Canadian firms to American buyers. And yet, here is a man who was a strong Canadian nationalist, who sought to introduce structural limitations on foreign ownership in Canadian industry. He was also, on the one hand, a man with incredible organizational skills and yet, when given strategic control, had a modus operendi that was often problematic. According to Azzi he seemed to always identify problems, solve them hastily, and then apologize for the shortcomings — however dramatic — of his already implemented plan.

Azzi’s biography of Gordon was also illuminating in how it reminds one of the old adage “plus ca change…”

For example, Gordon’s first major postwar appointment was as chair of the Royal Commission on Administrative Classifications in the Public Service. In other words, Public Service Sector Reform. Needless to say this issue is once again a hot topic (one I happen to take great interest in and write on occasionally). Interestingly, this report had negligible impact – a fact Azzi attributes to poor research and analysis – but nonetheless hinting at the fact that public service sector reform may have been as difficult in 1947 as it is in 2007.

Ironically, Gordon inability to effectively draft and garner support for his Royal Commission Report may have contributed to some of the frustration he later experienced as Finance Minister. His frustration with the public service seems straight out of an episode “Yes Minister” or possibly the diary of our current Prime Minister. This passage sums it up beautifully:

When Gordon’s private secretary, Nancy Burpee, ordered a red typewriter, a high official in the treasury Board sent a long memorandum explaining why government issue typewriters had to be grey. Douglas Land summarized Gordon’s attitude: “If you can’t get a damn typewriter, how can you draft a municipal loan fund in a month?” Incidents like this led Gordon to doubt whether the bureaucracy could draft a bold budget… Despite these problems, he still wished to move swiftly to carry out his plans. After a few days in Ottawa, Gordon described the situation to Douglas Land: “I thought I was back at the Royal Commission with everybody explaining why no idea could work and why everything would take ten years to do. I have ordered some dynamite and hope to stir things up.”

The real focus of the book however – mirroring Walter Gordon’s life – is the rise of Canadian nationalism or, more specifically, Canadian economic nationalism. In many ways Gordon is the grandfather of the various forces that in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s would first oppose free trade and then, globalization. It was this topic that both ended Gordon’s political career – after his disastrous 1963 budget – but that also made him a folk hero among particularly left-wing nationalists. Interestingly, based on Azzi’s assessment, it is hard not to feel that Gordon was less of a nationalist then simply anti-American. Today we can see how these roots of Canadian nationalism have shape the tree’s growth. Even 30 and 40 years later many ardent nationalists on both the left and right cannot separate out anti-Americanism from their Canadian nationalism.

Azzi never passes judgment on Walter Gordon the man. However, he is clearly deeply uncomfortable with his essentially protectionist and nationalistic economic policies. And for good reason. Gordon’s construction of the problem was, at best, less than scientific. As he himself stated, his views “cannot be analyzed scientifically or proved absolutely. But the fact that judgment or belief is arrived at in part intuitively or through personal experience does not necessarily make it any less true.” It’s a somewhat shocking statement, analogous to saying “he felt it in his gut,” exactly the type of thing the Left would justly mock President Bush about today.

Azzi spends some time talking about some of Gordon’s true accomplishments, specifically helping transform the Liberal Party into a progressive, thinking institution. Sadly, he spends very little time talking about Gordon’s contribution in the ultimate implemention of this agenda, largely set out in the Kingston conference of 1960. The policies implemented by, or initiated by Pearson and Gordon, such as the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, Canada Assistance Plan, regional-development programs, unemployment insurance and a government student loan program, along with the foundation Gordon later created, are probably his real accomplishment. Indeed, many these institutions embody, in part, what it means to be Canadian. This alone should prompt one to overlook the book’s dry style and encourage you to get acquainted with a major influencer of Canadian history.

The Boomer Factor

I’m not sure what to make of The Boomer Factor. In some ways it’s a fascinating read, a snapshot of how Canadians view themselves at the beginning of the 21st century. But while reading it you can’t help but feel that all the author has done is list stat after stat and link them together with a few sentences. This assessment may be a little unfair, but it reads more like a play by play of the data than as a thought-provoking analysis. Maybe it’s just that there’s very little prose between the streams of stats that inundate the reader.

I should also warn you that I have no capacity to assess whether or not the methodology used to generate these steps is it all sound. If there are true statisticians reading this I’d love your thoughts. That said I did find some of the presentation of the statistics deeply troubling. A notable example is the graph to your right. It shows two bars – one more than twice as large as the other – suggesting an increase of 100 – 120%. And yet, a closer looks at the numbers indicate there’s only been a 12 point difference between the two data points. This visual representation is thus grossly misleading, visually suggesting the argument is much more dramatic than what the data supports.

But these problems aside the book’s author, Reginald Bibby, keys in on several trends that are of interest. Some chapters, like “From Deference to Discernment” have been well documented by others. Others however, such as “From Tomorrow to Today”, a chapter on our quest for more time and the rising expectations we have of one another, along with Chapter 6 “From Knowing too Little to Knowing too Much” on the implications of the Internet and are increasing access to knowledge, are interesting.

But what’s most intriguing about Bibby’s concluding thoughts in these chapters – and the book overall – is that it departs from the book’s title. Bibby seems sanguine about the baby boomers’ capacity to adapt to our changing world, but is exceedingly optimistic about post-boomers – Gen Y and Gen X. Indeed, he terms these emerging generations “Reflective Post-Boomers” and says this about them:

Perhaps to a greater extent than any previous Canadian generation, they (Post-Boomers) have been able to have the time to assess what kind of lives they want to live...

…As they have been assembling their lives, post-boomers have been able to take a good look at how their grandparents, and her parents, lived. They grew up in homes were dads and moms, frankly, were experimenting with how to combine education, careers, raising kids, and marriages. The Post-Boomers saw how things turned out.

Such a vantage point has provided the emerging adult generation a unique opportunity to learn from the pre-boomers and boomer cohorts and extract the best and delete the worst from both. The preliminary evidence suggests that many younger adults are doing just that. They, like the boomers, have moved away from the racist and sexist tendencies of many older Canadians, to an extent as readily exceeding that of boomers. They also have recovered and restored some valuable pre-boomer “files” the boomers had tended either to use infrequently or delete – what people want most, the importance of family life, stability, and religion.on a

They have drawn on the boomers strong emphasis on education, discernment, and information. But they are determined to do a better job of harmonizing such themes with their desire for relationships, time to focus on their children, social compassion, spiritual fulfillment, and the opportunity to simply enjoy life. And so far, at least, they are reporting levels of happiness and for film and that match those of pre-boomers and exceed those of boomers.

Promising developments indeed!

According to his research Bibby also reports that younger Canadians — post-boomers — are more likely to be politically active than their boomer parents. given all the talk about political apathy this conclusion was counterintuitive and interesting. Sadly there wasn’t much discussion before the next statistic was thrust before the reader and the text moved on.

The two places where I think Bibby falls down is in his assessment of how Canadians are associating with one another. He refers repeatedly to the notion of how we’ve shifted from a we to me, while at the same time many of his stats suggest that people are actually deeply interested and engaged in communities. I’m not sure there we’re shifting from a we to me in an absolute sense. What is true is that people are more selective and have more options about who they associate with. Does this mean that we are more “me” focused? Or is it that we can afford to be more “we” focused in ways that make us comfortable?

The other place where Bibby lost me was in his discussion about religion. He suggests that many baby boomers are returning to religion to fill a growing spiritual void in their lives. I confess I don’t know. But this chapter had more analysis and opinion than any other, and so it felt like the story didn’t flow and it was less clear the data supported his assertions. A religious man himself, and an expert on religious trends I couldn’t help but feel that Bibby was inflating this chapter out of personal and professional interest. This could be a gross misunderstanding on my part, but while the rest of the book resonated with my personal experience from what I’ve seen of the country this chapter felt out of place.

Is The Boomer Factor a must read? Not really. But it was nonetheless an enjoyable read. For those interested, it will give you some compelling statistics to reinforce a number of trends you observe, and live with, on a day-to-day basis.

Sicko – I laughed, I cried, but I didn't think

I saw Sicko on Sunday night. No doubt, Michael Moore makes a fun movie. Clearly the US health insurance system is broken. It is, in all honesty, an embarrassment – a fact Moore ruthlessly exploits to great effect. That said, I nonetheless left the theater vaguely unsatisfied. I think it is because there is virtually no analysis of why the US healthcare system is broken, beyond of course the old stand by of “corporations are evil.”

As the film repeatedly demonstrates, health insurance firms often behave appallingly. But it isn’t because they are staffed entirely by evil people. This is a structural problem. For some reason, these firms are incented to literally turn their clients into their enemies (which is never a sound business strategy).

The best explanation I’ve seen comes from 5 pages in The Undercover Economist (an excellent book) where the author – Tim Harford – talks about the problems created in markets where there are asymmetries in knowledge. It is so good, I’ve reprinted (in an edited and very condensed form) the relevant bits:

“Economists have known for a while that when one participant in a transaction has inside information, markets may not work. It makes intuitive sense. But it wasn’t until an economist named George Akerlof published a revolutionary paper in 1970 that economists realized quite how profound the problem might be.

Using the used car market as an example, Akerlof showed that even if the market is highly competitive, it simply cannot work if sellers know the quality of their cars and buyers do not. For example, let’s say that half the used cars on sale are “peaches,” and half are “lemons.” The peaches are worth more to prospective buyers than to sellers – otherwise the buyers wouldn’t be buyers – say, $5,000 to prospective buyers and $4000 to sellers. The lemons are worthless pieces of junk. Sellers know if the car they’re selling is a lemon or peach. Buyers have to guess.

A buyer who doesn’t mind taking a fair gamble might think that anything between $2000 and $2500 would be a reasonable price for a car that has a 50/50 chance of being a peach. The seller of course don’t have to gamble: they know for certain whether their car is a peach or lemon. The problem is that sellers with lemons would snatch up a $2500 offer while sellers with peaches would find it insulting. Wander around offering $2500 for a car and you’ll discover that only lemons are for sale at that price. Of course, if you offered $4001 you would also see the peaches on the market – but the lemons won’t go away, and $4001 is not an attractive price for a car that only has a 50% chance of running properly.

This isn’t just about a trivial problem around the fringes of the market. In this scenario there is no market. Sellers won’t sell a peach for less than $4000, but buyers won’t offer that much for a car that has a 50% chance of being a lemon. With buyers only offering $2500 the sellers won’t sell their peaches, so in the end the only cars that get traded are worthless lemons, which get passed around for next nothing. Less extreme assumptions about the problem lead to less extreme breakdowns of the market, but the conclusions are similar.

Now let’s look at health insurance in this lens:

Let’s say that people who are likely prone to sickness are “lemons”; people who are likely to stay healthy are “peaches.” If, I suspect myself to be a lemon, I’d be advised to buy all the medical insurance I can. If, on the other hand, you feel fine and all your ancestors lived to be a hundred, then you may only buy medical insurance if it is cheap. After all, you hardly expect to need it.

Thanks to Akerlof’s proof that markets whose players have asymmetrical information are doomed, we can see how the insurance market may disappear. You, whose body is a succulent peach, will not find a typical insurance package a good deal; while I, whose body is a bitter lemon, will embrace a typical insurance package with open arms. The result is that the insurance company only sells insurance to people who are confident they will use it. As a result, the insurer loses clients who are unlikely to make claims and acquires the clients who are likely to make costly claims. As a result the insurer has to cut back on benefits and raise premiums. People of middling health now find the insurance is too expensive and cancel it, eliminating even more marginal “peaches” from the insurance pool and forcing insurance coming to raise premiums even higher to stay in business. More and more people cancel their policies, and in the end only the most sickly of the lemons will buy insurance at a price that will be nearly impossible to afford.”

Admittedly, this hardly covers all the problems facing the US healthcare system, but it does give an assessment of why the market for health insurance creates firms who behave so poorly (and yes, criminally). It is, in my mind, the best explanation for why a single insurer system (like what we have here in Canada) can work more effectively. However, this a single insurer system also creates problematic incentives, but more on that later in the week… (is anyone left reading a post this long?)

Foundations for a Creative Economy

I just finished Max Wyman’s “The Defiant Imagination” and have reviewed it here.

The information age doesn’t give rise to an information economy… when we all have access to vast amounts of information it will be our capacity to use that information that will matter. Those who are creative, you can imagine something new and different, will prosper. Max Wyman articulated that when I met him and it struck me as critically important. His book explains how the arts, and particularly the arts in education, will be essential to equipping us with the skills of imagination we will need to prosper in the creative economy.

Research on the 1960 Kingston Conference… any leads?

I recently read John Beal’s 1964 book “The Pearson Phenomenon” I found this little gem in the library while looking for books that would have something to say about to Kingston conference that the liberal party held the week of September 6, 1960.

The book is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it is written by an American. (and I thought Americans didn’t care about Canadian politics, especially in 1960?) The second is that it was written in 1964, while Pearson was in office and so reflects the optimism and challenges of that time.

What drew me to the book was what it had to say about the Kingston conference – for which it had a reasonable blow-by-blow account, some transcripts and interviews with key player. Not a ton of material, but at least 15-20 pages worth.

I’ve been struck by how little has been written about the Kingston conference. For those who are also looking for accounts of the event, this book has some of the play-by-play but will almost certainly leave you wanting. If you found a good account of the conference, both of its organization and/or a description of the events, please let me know by e-mailing me or posting a comment. Would appreciate any thoughts ot help…

Stephen Clarkson's Big Red Machine

Not sure I’ll ever get around to writing a full review of this book but, I thought I’d share these thoughts.

Stephen Clarkson’s writes from an old school left perspective. At its best, this perspective can have some significant benefits, as it teases out certain types of conflicts that can be profoundly important. However, in this regard it is also a fairly blunt instrument. By focusing on certain data points and trends it can be helpful in analysing the past, but it locks one into the prism that prevents you from seeing the opportunity of future change (the very problem with this book – as it seems to predict an endless future of liberal victories). At its worst however, it is barely even an instrument of analysis. For example, Uncle Sam and Us : Globalization, Neoconservatism, and the Canadian State was very long on opinion and quite short on analysis. Moreover, data was carefully selected that would confirm his thesis, while contradictory data was summarily ignored.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But what interests me are perspectives that spark new insights and new debate. With Clarkson, one knows his conclusions before reading the book and as a result, I suspect the readership generally self-selects itself. Those who already agree with Clarkson pick up his books, those who don’t, don’t.

Big Red Machine is in keeping with this approach and so has its own hard to swallow statements, like this one of page 5:

“Surprisingly for a party that ultimately help build and manage the capitalist state, it (the Liberal Party) emerged to express the grievances and demands for social justice and economic freedom of those oppressed by the oligarchic power structure that prevailed in the British North American colonies drain the first half of the 19th century.”

Why are social justice and economic freedom incompatible with a capitalist state? From what I have seen social justice is no more at odds with capitalism then it is with every political economic system, be it authoritarian, communist, socialist, nationalist, etc… The real question is how do we manage our political economy to maximize its benefits and minimize social injustice. This was the goal of the progressive movement for much of the 20th century: applying the minimum rule set necessary to enable capitalism to sustain itself and ensure its compatibility with our democratic and social justice values.

In sum, Big Red Machine is an okay book (mind you, having never written a book myself I still have enourmous respect for those who’ve written one, not to mention five or more). But if you’ve must prioritize your time, I might skip it.

To be fair, I’m also bummed that this book displaced Free Culture on my “recently read” list. Now there’s a book that should be mandatory reading!

history and writings on progressive politics

I’m deep into reading on the evolution of the welfare state/social policy and the origins of progressive politics. If you are wondering why these haven’t appeared on the site’s book section… I haven’t thrown any of them up but hope to eventually. Too many books, too little time. That said, if anyone has suggested readings on those topics please, please, please post, or send me, your thoughts, titles, ISBN #s, rants, raves, etc… the more the merrier.

I also want to thank to Beltzner for suggesting that book reviews appear on a scale (e.g. “5 out of 10” as opposed to just “5”). I’ve edited the php code so that it now does this.

Speaking of book reviews, they’ve been getting a ton of hits so thought I’d put them front a centre for once. Below are some of the books I’ve read over the past few months that I have managed to write reviews for. To be fair most are positive, but then it’s hard to keep reading books that I find boring or uninteresting. Moreover, since I’m not being paid to finish the book and write a review, those that aren’t good tend to drop off the radar… it is, admittedly, a somewhat Darwinian process.

Oh yeah, and here are a couple of books I really liked, but didn’t write reviews for…

If you only read one book – make it Free Culture

If you haven’t read Free Culture… do. In summary, it outlines the already raging battle being fought over who controls the infrastructure that sustains creativity. Sound unimportant? Think again.

If we are moving from an information society to a creativity society (as argued by the likes of Max Wyman in Defiant Imagination and Richard Florida in Rise of the Creative Class) then determining who is allowed to be creative, and how they are allowed to be creative, is possible the most important question confronting us. It’s answer will determine not only the rules of our economy, but the shape and nature of our culture and communities.

Moreover, because this battle will shape our capacity to think about, and respond to, every other issue, it may be the most important fight of our day.

So to celebrate this book (and its author, Lawrence Lessig), I’ve written this review, and have planned for a week of “Free Culture, not Permission Culture” posts!

[tags] Lessig, Free Culture, Copyright[/tags]

Wikinomics: A book on the internet for your parents

Just finished reading wikinomics and have reviewed it here. My advice? Definitely wait for the paperback and consider skipping it altogether. I’m an open-source and wiki fan and I found the book wildly wide-eyed and optimistic. Moreover, it is filled with unsubstantiated claims about the future of the economy and corporations. Most frustratingly, for a book about mass collaboration, the authors never get granular about their definition of collaboration…

Read it all here if you are interested. Plus here are a couple of alternative books that are much, much better, especially this one, which I’ll be talking about more soon.

New Book Review: Robert Axelrod's "The Evolution of Cooperation"

About 6 weeks ago during a trip to Ottawa David Brock urged me (for a second time!) to pick up a copy of Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation.” As the title suggests it is a book about the conditions under which cooperation might emerge. While I’m willing to concede that this book may not be for everyone’s cup of tea, it is still a fine cup I belive many would enjoy. Indeed, given how frustrating and empty game theory felt while I was in grad school I wish I’d had this book at my desk.

I’ve written a review of the book you can find here. In short, I’m glad I moved it to the top of the batting order – it was completely worth it. Thanks D-Rock.