When the same person cuts and serves the cake

A story out of Britain’s Daily Telegraph reveals not only that public servants there receive higher wages and higher pensions, but that a government plan to reform the pensions that was sharply criticized by unions may actually have raised them for many government employees. MSNBC reports on a new American government study that while public servants there get slightly higher wages, generous pensions make their total compensation considerably higher. And in Canada, public sector unions are forming a circle and growling at suggestions the government might try to do something about their lavish and badly underfunded pensions. Just coincidence?

No. It reflects an important and, you’d think, fairly obvious principle of political economy that if you let the same people cut the cake and then hand out the slices they’re quite likely to give themselves one of the big ones. And another, that if you’re spending other people’s money (as those who negotiate with public sector unions are) you’re more likely to try to buy your way out of trouble than if you have to reach into your own pocket.

To acknowledge these and other home truths does not eliminate all room for debate about where our policy problems come from or how to fix them. But if we do not get general assent to this sort of generalization, we have enormous difficulty having any sort of rational conversation about what’s happening to us and why.

So I ask you: Among those now sitting in Parliament, how many would assent to those two propositions? Moreover, how many would not only assent to them in principle, but would agree that between them they explain why public servants, and legislators, get such generous pensions?


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Gov’s budget book not a budget, but it should be

Once Parliament returns next week, its main business should be scrutinizing the budget expected by early March. It’s going to be a mess: way too much spending, borrowing and handouts through tax loopholes. But they won’t scrutinize it unless we make them. And by accident or design Canadian government budgets are almost impossible for citizens to understand.

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Sex-selective abortion

This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 20:

Does the topic of abortion make you uncomfortable? It should. Abortion is wrong.

I don’t write or talk about it much, though I hope I’ve done a sufficient job of bearing witness from my privileged public platform. It’s not that I lack passion or the courage of my convictions. But I speak and write to persuade and when I cannot see a way to reason with people I try not to shout at them.

That does not mean I accept the description of abortion as the World War I of policy debates, where participants despairing of a breakthrough resort to attrition. I believe with J. Budziszewski that people are logical, though slowly, and on abortion, as on slavery, they will sooner or later be forced to abandon untenable positions.

Thus I saw hope in the now-famous editorial by the interim editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal saying, because in some cultural communities it is common to abort girls, doctors should not reveal the sex of a foetus until so late in the pregnancy that abortion is almost impossible.

While a handful of thoughtful commentators said his solution was not practical because there are too many other ways to determine the sex of a foetus, the reaction of defenders of our modern “peculiar institution” (which, like slavery, dare not speak its name) was revealing in its unreason. This choice, they said, might be wrong, being anti-woman, but was still right.

Precisely the same point was made during the only other significant dispute thus far, in an otherwise free society, over whether something that seemed human really was and how to handle the question legally and politically. That’s why, in the run-up to the American Civil War, public attention unexpectedly fixed on series of debates between rising Whig star Abraham Lincoln and Democratic heavyweight Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Ostensibly they were contesting Douglas’s Illinois Senate seat, and neither man wanted to make slavery his main issue or take an extreme position on it. Lincoln was too canny a politician to tie his future to an issue that divided people and relegated purists to the fringes. And Douglas was no “fire-eater” pledged to defend slavery to the death; indeed after losing the 1860 presidential election to Lincoln on the northern Democrats’ ticket he denounced secession vehemently before his premature death in June 1861. But questions thrown out the front door have a way of climbing back in the window.

Thus while the 1858 debates have their share of tedious partisan bickering over long-forgotten trivia there are also moments of tremendous moral and rhetorical clarity, especially for Lincoln. In the unexpected moral crisis of those debates, on dusty stages in small Illinois towns, he choose to move toward the intellectual and moral light instead of away from it, and begin his ascent to the Gettysburg Address, his 2nd Inaugural and the statesman’s monument on the Washington Mall.

Douglas, who retained his Senate seat but visibly dwindled as he sought to fudge his way to the middle ground, repeatedly insisted that states and communities should simply choose for themselves whether to have slavery.

Not so, Lincoln thundered in their final encounter: “No man can say that he does not care if a wrong is voted up or down… [Douglas] says that whatever community desires slavery has a right to it. He can say so logically if it is not a wrong, but if he admits that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.”

Ditto sex-selective abortion. The Ottawa Citizen, relegating the matter to a 2nd editorial, said “If there is a problem in some Canadian ethnic communities, the better approach is for doctors to counsel parents against aborting a fetus based on gender. In Canada, women have a right to choose abortion. In some cases, the reason for doing so might be regarded as deplorable, but that is still a woman’s choice.” Behind all the ifs and mights, piling a passive voice on a conditional, their fundamental position is that it’s wrong but you have a right to do it. But you don’t. You can’t.

Our “fire-eaters” are at least consistent: If you can abort the handicapped, sacrifice a child to your career, or give no reason at all, it cannot be wrong to abort a girl. Indeed, by their logic it is not even possible to “abort a girl” because there’s no person in there, just a clump of cells, and no causal or moral link between sex-selective abortion and a later shortage of female children. But most people can’t swallow that. They know the point of sex-selective abortions is to kill women before they are even born. Which is horrible.

That’s why this question won’t go away. Because abortion is wrong, and in their hearts everyone knows it.


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They really want to hear their opinion on the budget

This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 19:

Well, isn’t this nice? The government really really wants to know what we think should be in the federal budget. In fact, they can’t stop talking about all the consultations they’re holding in which we totally agree with them.

Last Tuesday they told me “Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty will be available to the media prior to holding pre-budget consultations on Wednesday… at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce… A photo opportunity will follow.”

By the way, is it just me or didn’t politicians use to try to arrange photo ops while pretending they were something else? Now they brazenly offer four or five a day without even a flimsy face-saving pretence that they’re saying something important, we’re covering it, and it just happens to result in a flattering published photo of the politician. And don’t get me started on the ones where the “photo op” is all you get: You may gaze upon the king but do not presume to intrude upon his contemplations.

No, my topic here is the barrage of fake budget consultation press releases. Another the same day said: “Jobs and Growth the Priorities as Minister Flaherty Hosts Pre Budget Consultations at Roundtable in Vancouver” and in that one, while claiming to solicit your opinion Flaherty not only admits his mind is already made up, he blurts out that in his version you will end up having said he was right. “Budget 2012 will maintain our focus on jobs and economic growth while reducing the deficit and returning to balance in the medium term,” said Minister Flaherty. “Today and in coming weeks, I want to hear from Canadians on how we can advance the next phase of our Economic Action Plan to continue to deliver results on these priorities.”

On Wednesday the 11th it was “Minister of Finance to Host Pre-Budget Town Hall in Whitby, Ontario” on Thursday and “Jobs and Growth the Priorities as Minister Flaherty Hosts Pre-Budget Consultations at Roundtable in Calgary”. On Friday, “Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister of Heath will taking part in pre-budget roundtable discussions in Nunavut. Media are invited for a brief question and answer session and photo opportunity.”

On Monday she emerged to recite “Our Government remains focused on jobs and economic growth while reducing the deficit and returning to balance in the medium term,” which you’ll note parrots Flaherty word-for-word, almost exactly as though some junior staffer had cut and pasted the release. Still, by all means show up; you’ll make a useful prop. And if Iqaluit sounds too cold “the Harper Government has also launched online pre-Budget consultations.” Either way, you support their jobs and growth agenda. I assure you.

It doesn’t matter whether you actually say their overspending is killing the economy, or they’re heartlessly gutting vital public services. Modern budgets are so vast, complicated and tangled up that this year’s is already well under way within the bowels of the Finance Department and no great wind from our mouths can blow it off course.

I don’t like the fact that government is now so huge and unwieldy that public servants largely run the country and Parliament can’t do any more about it than ministers. But I really hate ministers fanning out to pretend it’s not so, cupping their hands to their ears exactly as though they were listening to us, then announcing that, gosh, we said exactly what they were already thinking.

This Monday “The Honourable Alice Wong, Minister of State (Seniors), will host a round table with stakeholders to discuss the economic and social priorities in advance of Budget 2012 and beyond, as well as local or regional challenges” on Tuesday and “Minister Wong will be available for a photo op…” It’s so bad the blasted “photo op” is the only honest thing in the whole release.

Two days later, déjà vu. “Jobs and Growth the Priorities as Minister Flaherty Hosts Multi-Site Pre-Budget Consultations via Video Conference” with “business, academic and sectoral leaders in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver.” And guess what? “Budget 2012 will maintain our focus on jobs and economic growth while reducing the deficit and returning to balance in the medium term,” said Minister Flaherty. Which you’ll note is lifted verbatim from his own release eight days earlier. As was the next sentence.

I suppose it’s not a very well kept secret that people don’t actually say the things press releases say they say. But are we really meant to believe, even in this age of relentless messaging, that the finance minister spews talking points verbatim? Or does cutting and pasting this crudely mean you’re not even trying to hide your contempt for us?

Heck, why even bother with the photo ops? Just hand out the same picture over and over to accompany the press release boilerplate, monotonously fake consultations and doctored audio of us all going “jobs and growth the priorities… continue to deliver results… returning to balance in the medium term”.

Oh yeah, and thanks for listening. Thanks a lot.


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Share destructive secrets for the greater good

Terrorists with weapons of mass destruction are the stuff of nightmares, obliterating millions with nuclear, chemical or, perhaps most horrifying, biological attack. So what sort of reckless idiot would consider publishing the recipe for a devastating man-made flu? The surprising answer is, a wise and responsible one.

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