Category Archives: Government

Trump chump

It seems that Donald Trump will indeed win the Republican nomination for president. For months I have been predicting, at first blithely and more recently grimly, that it would not happen. And now I am eating crow. I got it badly wrong and I apologize.

I have no excuse. I don’t even have an explanation. I have great faith in Americans and a great deal more faith in Republicans than most commentators around the world and even, I often feel, in the United States. And perhaps I allowed wishful thinking to distort my sense of what was likely to happen.

The GOP has nominated candidates I did not approve of in the past. So have the Democrats. But normally I could find some sort of explanation, even for Hillary Clinton, who I think would make a pretty bad president. For Trump I just can’t. It makes no sense to want this man as your leader or your representative. You can’t admire his grasp of the issues, his consistent adherence to a philosophy, his suavity, his gravitas.

Sure, he annoys the right people. But so did Ted Cruz and any number of other potential nominees. Ronald Reagan drove them berserk, as did George W. Bush. You didn’t need Trump for that, and I have no idea what anyone does think they need him for. And annoying people may bring a certain sour private satisfaction. But it cannot drive political conduct anywhere you want to go.

I’m not abandoning my faith in the United States or in American conservatives. But I am saying this outcome, and with Ted Cruz suspending his campaign after his crushing defeat in Indiana it seems inevitable that Trump will be their nominee, reflects badly on both the nation and the movement.

It’s too early to risk a prediction about what will happen in the general election especially given how wrong I was about this nomination race. But I am certain that those who backed Trump will eventually be very sorry they did.

As for me, I’m already sorry. In both senses.

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A sleeper fiscal issue

Yet another warning in my inbox this morning from the C.D. Howe Institute (full disclosure: my brother runs the place and was co-author of the study) about how the federal government continues systematically and dramatically to understate the unfunded liability in its employee pension plans. It may seem like a sleeper. But one day it will wake up and it won’t be pleasant.

According to authors William Robson and Alexandre Laurin, the feds admit to roughly a $150 billion shortfall. But the real figure is $269 billion. And, they say, if the difference were added to the national debt (as the admitted amount already is) it would stand at $730 billion not $612 billion.

It goes without saying that you should not try this sort of thing at home. The government would not like it.

It’s a Three Fold Total Bad. In the first place, it’s deliberately dishonest. C.D. Howe has been warning about it for years and they are not some radical right-wing outfit prone to bungling or torqueing their calculations.

In the second, it’s fiscally reckless. Even the move to have federal employees fund their pensions more fully is undermined, that other Robson and Laurin note, because they calculate the amount required according to the understated figure. And all the blather about how debt is small and manageable as a share of GDP is also undermined by such jiggery pokery.

In the third, it’s yet another case of people in government cutting themselves a great big generous slice of pie while the rest of us tighten our belts in hard times and, when we look at them sidewise, go “What? What?” as though their cheeks were not bulging. Whatever happens, federal employees will collect generous pensions they have not paid for. Even if the rest of us have to be taxed within an inch of bankruptcy to make it happen.

Then they wonder why government is in disrepute nowadays. All the way to the bank.

Of course, they’re counting on us to sleep through the various alarms. But this is no time to hit the snooze button.

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Keynote address to the Real Estate Institute of Canada

Next month, I’m delighted to say, I’ll be taking part in the REIC annual meeting and conference in Ottawa. The topic of my address will be “Without Ethics, None of This Works”.

Institutions are vitally important. But even more fundamental is a political and commercial culture that values honesty and shuns and punishes deceit. Without honesty, formal rules mean nothing, in government, in real estate and commerce generally, and in our private lives.

Without ethics, none of this works.

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Be counted… or else

Today I got this envelope from Statistics Canada saying “2016 Census: Complete the census – it’s the law.” (Equally rude in French: “Recensement de 2016: Répondez au recensement – c’est la loi”.) I am told the government is the servant of the people. But this peremptory tone, giving orders without even a pretence at “please,” is not how a servant speaks to a master. Quite the reverse.

Remember how all the right people were shocked and appalled when the Harper Tories got rid of the long form census? Without accurate data, they complained, social scientists would find it hard to engineer satisfaction of the human units to a sufficient number of decimal places. Which I always found rather an odd conception of the proper role of government and of its abilities. And look how they talk to us now that it’s back.

The smart set make a lot of fuss about “evidence-based decision-making”. But a decision to trust the intelligence or benevolence of government doesn’t seem to me to be based on much sound evidence. Not even the personal stuff I have to provide or else, according to this envelope that just marched into my house, waved a pair of handcuffs at me and started shouting questions.

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I’ll drink to that

On Friday a Provincial Court judge in New Brunswick struck down a duly enacted law and I couldn’t be happier. It was a section of the provincial liquor act limiting the right to buy beer next door in Quebec and it was clearly unconstitutional.

Now it might seem that I like judicial activism when it goes my way. But it’s not that at all. It’s that properly designed constitutions are set up to keep government limited even when the ambitions of politicians or a temporary lapse in the good sense of the public push them to expand, and to guarantee that rights are respected even when expedience seems to argue for violating them. When courts strike down laws that infringe basic constitutional guarantees of liberty, it’s not activism. It’s proper checks and balances against legislative or executive activism.

There is in the end no paper defence against people genuinely heedless or contemptuous of their own liberties and those of others. But the American Constitution is famously an appeal “from the people drunk to the people sober” and so is ours even when the issue is the right to buy beer. As a Macdonald-Laurier Institute press release praising the judgement rightly notes, our Constitution deliberately forbade the provinces from engaging in petty internal protectionism.

The release links to a paper I had the privilege of coauthoring with Institute Executive Director Brian Lee Crowley and the late Robert Knox back in 2010 explaining what our Founders did and why and how, and how the federal government could and should act to make their vision a reality. It’s excellent that a court has taken the right view of this matter and I hope the ruling is not appealed or, if it is, that it is upheld.

I also hope the federal parliament will be emboldened to legislate and end to all such protectionism. It clearly has the power and not just the right but the duty.

Meanwhile our own draft constitution, part of our “True, Strong and Free” project, will not only reiterate but strengthen the constitutional provision against internal protectionism just to be safe. But here’s one case where a court has acted in the genuine spirit of the constitution and of upholding legitimate rights not inventing unworkable ones. And it deserves our applause.

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Judges please be nice

An odd piece in today’s National Post by former federal justice minister and attorney-general Peter Mackay laments that “Over the last decade, the Supreme Court has often seemed at odds with elected governments over legislation designed to emphasize enforcement of the rule of law and reflect the public demand for greater accountability.” The complaint is not odd given how often the Court was at odds with the ministry in which he served or given how often Courts do now make law. What is odd is that he offers no remedy.

In the piece, which I’m not linking to because I can’t find an online version, he complains that judge-made law seems not to meet the needs of the situation: “Lost in the activist celebration in some circles are the basic facts. Recidivism rates in some areas of our justice system are on the rise and public confidence in our system is waning and turning victims in particular away from reporting.” And he notes that judges increasingly go beyond their mandate to strike down blatantly unconstitutional law to override decisions made by legislators elected in campaigns in which those issues were thoroughly debated. But his argument seems to be mostly against the substance of what judges are doing, not the process.

To be sure, his concluding paragraph says “Today one branch encroaches on another over mandatory minimums or truth in sentencing. Let the next activist victory not be at the expense of society’s most vulnerable.” And the first part seems to point to rebalancing our constitution. But the second seems to me to be a plea to judges not to misuse their mighty new powers.

I say “activist” victories should not be at the expense of society’s elected representatives, and of the right of the rest of us to control government and set the terms under which it operates. All three branches of government, that is. Which is why, again, we launched our “True Strong and Free” project to fix the constitution, including restoring balance with respect to the judiciary rather than just begging judges to be nice to us.

 

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Been there, done that, got the debt

In my latest contribution to the Economic Education Association of Alberta’s “Been There, Done That – Shouldn’t Have” series I recall what happened last time governments started borrowing as if there was no tomorrow and then it came anyway.

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Johnson v Obama on Brexit

A nice piece in today’s Daily Telegraph advocating Brexit and criticizing Barack Obama’s intervention in the debate (on which I commented recently), by London mayor and long-time columnist Boris Johnson. He says that “to stay in the EU” is to consent “to the slow and insidious erosion of democracy in this country”. He’s exactly right. And if the pro-EU campaigners aren’t exactly aware of it, they certainly hold a worldview that categorizes genuine self-government as an irritating obstacle to progress rather than vital to preserving a decent society.

There is no European Magna Carta and it matters. And if we want to maintain the foundations of individual dignity and enterprise that have made Canada what it is, we need to recapture our own sense of the enduring importance of self government and an awareness that, to the extent that “progress” and liberty are antithetical, we should choose liberty.

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So close, and yet so far

A curious intervention by Barack Obama in Britain’s debate over leaving the EU. It’s not odd that he supports them staying in. He would. But it’s odd that for once he got the premise so right though as usual he got the conclusion so wrong.

After a ritual nod to Britons’ right to decide their destiny for themselves, the American president launched into a rightly derided and probably counterproductive attempt to cajole and bully them into submerging their sovereignty in the European Union, including threatening their access to American markets with a claim that a genuinely independent Britain would go to “the back of the queue” for a trade deal, well behind the EU. So much for the special relationship, I guess.

I find Obama’s performance more than usually curious because his effort to flatter the British drew on the shared values that underlie that special relationship: “As citizens of the United Kingdom take stock of their relationship with the EU, you should be proud that the EU has helped spread British values and practices – democracy, the rule of law, open markets – across the continent and to its periphery.”

He’s quite right about the first part. Those are British and subsequently American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand values. Government in the Anglosphere, as we argued in our Magna Carta documentary and will in the “True North and Free” project currently under way, is dramatically different even from government in the more politically pleasant parts of Europe, let alone the rest of the world. And Obama isn’t normally sensitive to such matters, to put it mildly. But he went on to say “The European Union doesn’t moderate British influence – it magnifies it.” And that’s completely wrong.

The EU isn’t democratic. It’s not tyrannical. But it is bureaucratic, centralized and unaccountable. It stands more for rule by law than of law, in the vital sense of fair, stable rules that arise from the people and protect their right to make their own choices. And it stands for government meddling not open markets. I do think the British example has made Europe better over time; even France, let alone Germany, has to some extent been embarrassed into creating more responsive and less repressive governments. But both also made impressive efforts to crush British liberty by force. And neither have embraced the common law system under which governments emanate from the people organically rather than standing majestically, or stodgily, above them.

Obama then claimed that “A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership. The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe.” Which is utter bosh.

Britain’s influence in the world has dwindled dramatically since it joined the European Economic Community, forerunner to the EU, back in 1973. Not only because it joined. But it was part and parcel of turning away from the glorious heritage of liberty that had made this damp, chilly foggy group of islands a hyperpower economically, culturally and militarily and also the “Mother of the Free” described in Land of Hope and Glory. Worse, Britain’s influence in Britain has dwindled, as law, regulation, and even jurisprudence come increasingly from the alien continental system.

For over a thousand years Britons decided their destiny for themselves, via a Parliament that controlled the executive in a way not even Europeans managed and nobody else really even tried. That is the system that spread to the United States as well as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And precisely because democracy in the desirable sense, rule of law in the desirable sense and open markets in the genuine sense are British values, they should leave the EU.

Europe is so close to Britain. And yet it is so far away. And so is Barack Obama.

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