Canada Returns

They don’t make locomotives in London anymore – at least not in the London in Ontario, about halfway between Detroit and Toronto – but General Motors was doing just that in the last two years of the last century. Those were the two years when the job was rebuilding the systems shop there. Someone had to do it.

These things happen. The folks who built those locomotives were a bit quirky. The other parts of General Motors could do what they liked – they built cars and trucks – but the locomotive guys decided to dump Ross Perot’s EDS (Electronic Data Systems) for their computer work and brought in Computer Sciences Corporation. They thought we could run things better, or at least no worse – but their manufacturing resource planning system was a COBOL-based monster running on an IBM mainframe in suburban Toronto, that EDS owned and operated. That was difficult enough, but there was no making that antique hum along happily, no matter who scheduled things. The mid-range Oracle-based ancillary systems, running on a local HP-3000, were as old as the hills too. It was a mess – but we brought in every clever CSC person we could find from Tucson to Maine to sort it all out. We’d send each of them home when we found a likely Canadian who could do this special thing or that. It took two years to sort it all out. Then it was time to leave.

But that allowed two years to get to know Canada, which seemed so much like the United States, but wasn’t. They had strong labor unions – the Canadian Auto Workers at the plant where they built those locomotives – and they weren’t the enemy of all that was good and right. No politicians screamed about them. They were just part of the mix, looking out for their people – and of course those unions didn’t have to demand reasonable healthcare benefits. Those were a provided by the government, by mutual agreement of all the Canadian people. They had established a universal healthcare system, a sort of Medicare-for-all system, long ago. It seemed a reasonable use of tax money – everyone is covered, no one has to worry about getting sick ruining them financially, and labor costs were obviously lower without employers having to cover employees’ medical costs, so General Motors and Chrysler and Ford had assembly plants all across southern Ontario. It was good for business. It assured jobs and growth. It was depressingly sensible. It was hard to explain why our market-based pay-up-or-die system, where your employer would decide what sort of coverage they could afford to offer you that year, was morally superior, or even pragmatically superior.

That puzzled them, but they didn’t laugh at you. They were Canadians – polite and courteous and warm and open, and funny in their own ironic way. Insult humor, a staple down here, is considered gauche up there. You don’t get points for making fun of people. Bullies aren’t heroes. Decency and tolerance are not considered dangerous up there, so of course they really didn’t get our problem with minorities and immigrants. Canada has always welcomed everyone – the place is huge, and still pretty empty, and they need anyone who wants to come build a life there to do just that – and all those other cultures are kind of fun and interesting anyway. The best midrange programmer at the locomotive plant was a proud Turkish woman, and a fine Canadian. Everyone loved her. It was also hard to explain why everyone down here wanted to keep everyone else out.

It was an odd two years. Richmond Street, which runs north to south in the middle of London, is to London what the Sunset Strip is to Hollywood – the happening place, even if nothing much happens in that small Canadian city in the middle of nowhere. We’d talk endlessly at the bars and restaurants there, but we really didn’t talk politics. They didn’t see the point. That’s not a blood-sport up there. They have a parliamentary system. You vote for the candidate in your riding that makes the most sense to you, who belongs to a party that makes the same sort of sense, and if that party wins enough seats, the party will choose a prime minister to run things in the country. If, over time, he and his party screw up, there’ll be a vote of no confidence and a new national election to start over. There’s no fixed schedule to any of this, and the system precludes big personalities – it’s too fluid and diffuse. Name a famous Canadian prime minister. No one could on those evenings on Richmond Street.

Actually, they didn’t see the point. American presidents have a full eight years, or at least four, to change the world, and no matter what they do, no one can do a damned thing about it. There’s impeachment. We tried that twice, but both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton beat the rap and stayed in office. Nixon resigned, but he was an extraordinarily strange man. Our presidents have extraordinary power for eight full years, so we elect big personalities – we understand how dynamic the office is. Canadians indirectly elect reasonable men with small personalities, who remain in office until they start getting big and stupid ideas. They’re quite boring actually. They’re simply functionaries in a larger system.

There was one exception to that – Pierre Trudeau – the Canadian prime minister from 1968 to 1974 – all the guys on Richmond Street remembered him. He was young, single, smart as a whip and dashingly handsome, and as liberal as they come:

As Minister of Justice, Trudeau was responsible for introducing the landmark Criminal Law Amendment Act, an omnibus bill whose provisions included, among other things, the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults, the legalization of contraception, abortion and lotteries, new gun ownership restrictions as well as the authorization of breathalyzer tests on suspected drunk drivers. Trudeau famously defended the segment of the bill decriminalizing homosexual acts by telling reporters that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”, adding that “what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code”.

And then his party said that if they won enough seats in the next election they would make him prime minister. They won enough seats and he was prime minister. He was liberal and he was hot stuff. Trudeau dated Barbra Streisand in 1969 and 1970 and might have married her, but he married sensibly in 1971 and had three kids – but after the divorce, in 1984, he was having a whole lot of fun with Margot Kidder, that Canadian actress who was Lois Lane in that first Superman movie. Trudeau was a bit larger than life, and all Canadian – polite and courteous and warm and open, and funny in his own ironic way, and militantly on the side of decency and tolerance. He was also a bit of a hero down here in the States. It was the late sixties after all. The guys on Richmond Street remembered him.

Those days are gone. Since 2006, it’s been Stephen Harper – a big-business-forget-the-little-guy conservative. George Bush loved the guy. Harper loathes Obama. Harper doesn’t like immigrants much either. He also unilaterally lifted all of the Trudeau gun ownership restrictions. Our NRA admires him from afar, and he just got tossed. This week the Canadians had another election. The new prime minster will be Justin Trudeau – the young son of Pierre Trudeau and just as dashing and just as militantly on the side of decency and tolerance.

It was also a landslide:

The Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau won 184 seats, allowing it to form a majority government with Trudeau becoming the Prime Minister-designate of Canada. … The Conservative Party led by incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper won 99 seats, becoming the Official Opposition after nine years in Government. … The Liberal Party’s increase of 148 seats from the previous election was the largest-ever numerical increase by a party in a Canadian election. The Liberals’ success came at the expense of 60 seats from the Conservative Party and 51 seats from the New Democratic Party, and was the largest total number of seats won by a single party since the 1984 election.

The Canadians went back to being Canadians, although Fareed Zakaria sees more:

Justin Trudeau’s sweeping victory in Canada could be read as one more indication that voters in the Western world are moving left – and toward populism. The past year has seen the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party. In the United States, Bernie Sanders, a self-professed “democratic socialist,” has shaken up the Democratic primaries.

Sure, but Zakaria says it’s not that simple:

First, Trudeau benefited from the 10-year itch. After politicians have been in power for about a decade, voters usually want a change, no matter how popular the leader – think of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Canada’s Conservatives had held office for nine years, and their leader, Stephen Harper, was no Tony Blair – being widely perceived as intelligent but reserved and uncharismatic.

But why did Trudeau win? After all, his party was in third place only months ago. Some of the momentum has to do with his name and personal charisma… But much of it has to do with the kind of campaign he ran, which was neither very left-wing nor populist.

Justin Trudeau promised to respond to Canada’s economic slowdown by running modest deficits and building infrastructure. (That’s something that most mainstream economists would support.) He has refused to raise Canada’s corporate tax rate, although he wants a slightly higher income tax for the top 1 percent to fund a middle-class tax cut. He has been noncommittal on the new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, placing him to the right of Hillary Clinton. He wants to legalize marijuana. And he has promised, vaguely, that Canada will have a more progressive climate change policy. This would put him squarely at the center-left in any Western country.

The guy seems to be a sensible moderate, really. He just isn’t angry enough:

The hallmark of populism is anger, but Trudeau was resolutely cheerful. In his acceptance speech this week, he spoke of the power of “positive politics” and “sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways.” When Harper tried to stir up fear about Canada’s Muslim population, Trudeau loudly rejected it. He talks of consensus politics and said this week, “Conservatives are not our enemies; they’re our neighbors.”

Yes, but why is Zakaria surprised by this? The guy is Canadian. You don’t get points for making fun of people. Bullies aren’t heroes. Decency and tolerance are not considered dangerous up there. That’s for down here, and we don’t seem to understand that angry populism is foolish:

If you want to hear angry rhetoric in the United States, you can get it from Sanders, but also, in its right-wing variation, from most of the Republican presidential candidates. Left-wing populism is mostly about economics. Right-wing populism is mostly about culture. Both hate the big-city elites who, in their view, run the country and the world.

Populism makes noise, gets attention, and even forces issues onto the table. But it rarely wins. In a perceptive essay in the American Prospect, written 13 years ago, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz noted that although Democratic populists often see themselves as embracing the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, in fact they misread history. The real Democratic populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were agrarian reformers, anti-immigration activists, advocates of prohibition and ardent believers in the moral superiority of farms and small towns. And they were wiped out at the polls for decades, with their favored presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, losing in three bids for the White House.

Roosevelt, by contrast, embraced the modern industrial economy and built his coalition in the industrial states and big Northern cities, with Catholics, Jews and recent immigrants playing major roles. Far from being suspicious of elites, FDR had his “brain trust” and relied on the ideas and service of prominent economists and experts throughout his administration. While the Democrats of the 1930s and 1940s sometimes used populist rhetoric, Wilentz noted, “In everything that mattered they repudiated populism.”

The new kid isn’t that:

The Democratic Party, when it has been successful, has never been about populism. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and Obama are all part of a movement that embraces free trade, immigration, regulated capitalism and cultural diversity. Above all, this movement has been optimistic and forward-looking. One could imagine FDR, in the depths of the Depression, cocking his head up, with his cigarette holder jutting skyward, saying, “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways.”

So, as an organizing political principle, anger gets you nowhere. Someone tell Donald Trump. Someone tell Ted Cruz – he was born in Canada. He should know better. And if anger gets you nowhere, the Tea Party disappeared four years ago. Maybe these things only apply in Canada.

Well, Canada is unusual, but Paul Krugman has a different reason for thinking so:

Canada has a reputation for dullness. Back in the 1980s The New Republic famously declared “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” the world’s most boring headline. Yet when it comes to economic policy the reputation is undeserved: Canada has surprisingly often been the place where the future happens first.

And it’s happening again. On Monday, Canadian voters swept the ruling Conservatives out of power, delivering a stunning victory to the center-left Liberals. And while there are many interesting things about the Liberal platform, what strikes me most is its clear rejection of the deficit-obsessed austerity orthodoxy that has dominated political discourse across the Western world. The Liberals ran on a frankly, openly Keynesian vision, and won big.

Refusing to be angry wasn’t the issue here; it was Canada refusing to be like everyone else, as usual:

In the 1950s, everyone considered it essential to peg their currency to the U.S. dollar, at whatever cost – everyone except Canada, which let its own dollar fluctuate, and discovered that a floating exchange rate actually worked pretty well. Later, when European nations were scrambling to join the euro – amid predictions that any country refusing to adopt the common currency would pay a severe price – Canada showed that it’s feasible to keep your own money despite close economic ties to a giant neighbor.

Oh, and Canadians were less caught up than the rest of us in the ideology of bank deregulation. As a result, Canada was spared the worst of the 2008 financial crisis.

Then there are deficits and public investment:

Here’s what the Liberal Party of Canada platform had to say on the subject: “Interest rates are at historic lows, our current infrastructure is aging rapidly, and our economy is stuck in neutral. Now is the time to invest.”

Does that sound reasonable? It should, because it is. We’re living in a world awash with savings that the private sector doesn’t want to invest, and is eager to lend to governments at very low interest rates. It’s obviously a good idea to borrow at those low, low rates, putting those excess savings, not to mention the workers unemployed due to weak demand, to use building things that will improve our future.

No one seemed to get it:

Across the advanced world, the modest-size fiscal stimulus programs introduced in 2009 have long since faded away. Since 2010 public investment has been falling as a share of GDP in both Europe and the United States, and it’s now well below pre-crisis levels. Why?

The answer is that in 2010 elite opinion somehow coalesced around the view that deficits, not high unemployment and weak growth, were the great problem facing policy makers. There was never any evidence for this view; after all, those low interest rates showed that markets weren’t at all worried about debt. But never mind – it was what all the important people were saying, and all that you read in much of the financial press. And few politicians were willing to challenge this orthodoxy.

Most notably, those who should have stood up for public spending suffered a striking failure of nerve. Britain’s Labour Party, in particular, essentially accepted Conservative claims that the nation was facing a fiscal crisis, and was reduced to arguing at the margin about what form austerity should take. Even President Obama temporarily began echoing Republican rhetoric about the need to tighten the government’s belt.

This was a trap:

Austerity rhetoric comes naturally to right-wing politicians, who are always arguing that we can’t afford to help the poor and unlucky (although somehow we’re able to afford tax cuts for the rich). Center-left politicians who endorse austerity, however, find themselves reduced to arguing that they won’t inflict quite as much pain. It’s a losing proposition, politically as well as economically.

And then it wasn’t:

Now we have Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, who are finally willing to say what sensible economists (even at places like the International Monetary Fund) have been saying all along. And they weren’t punished politically – on the contrary, they won a stunning victory.

This is hopeful:

Let’s hope, then, that Mr. Trudeau stays with the program. He has an opportunity to show the world what truly responsible fiscal policy looks like.

That’s an economist speaking. Heather Mallick, a staff columnist for The Toronto Star, sees only this:

It’s too simple to say that Mr. Harper was trying to Americanize Canada. That is rather insulting to Americans, and anyway Mr. Harper, no internationalist, seemed bored by Americans, although he tagged along with them on their pointless bombing wars.

In the United States, divisions between, say, regions or parties seem reasonably matched. Mr. Harper was doing something different. He was enabling bullying on a national scale. He won three elections because he relied on his full right-wing base but also pressed buttons Canadians don’t like to admit they have: lowering taxes, deploring immigrants, sidelining women and hyping militarism.

Ultimately Mr. Harper’s problem in this election was that he couldn’t win nationally with just an older, white male, rural base. He had to extend his reach, was weirdly unwilling to do that and ended up holding tiny rallies of Conservative voters, while Mr. Trudeau was meeting everyone, anyone. Two days before the election, a desperate Mr. Harper was reduced to appearing in public with Rob Ford, the notorious ex-mayor of Toronto. The photos were excruciating.

Mr. Harper’s bullying was extreme, and it was high schoolish. In 2011, his government barred women from wearing niqabs, the face-covering scarves, during citizenship ceremonies. The problem was that there appeared to be only one or two women trying to do this. The one giving interviews seemed quite nice. Then, more recently, women in niqabs began to be tormented on the streets. This shocked us.

The scroll of what Mr. Harper didn’t like grew longer as the years passed. It comprised scientists, environmentalists, returning veterans, urbanites, immigrants, and then immigrants with accents, refugee claimants, and then claimants needing health care, and so on. Bubbles of despised people began popping up. At some point the bubbles would have joined up and made Canada a vast blister for Mr. Harper to target. It was becoming absurd.

That sounds familiar, as does this:

Mr. Harper fatally referred to “old-stock Canadians,” which was taken to mean “white” in a young country that has been peopled by immigrants, with many more being welcomed to come here. In his victory speech, Mr. Trudeau said definitively “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” a charming contrast to Mr. Harper’s classifications of lesser citizens.

And Harper lost, big time, and Canadians got back to being Canadians. But we aren’t Canadians, are we? This sort of thing could never happen here, except it sort of did in 2008 – but that only means that Obama wasn’t born in Kenya after all. He must have been born in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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