Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Deep Thought

I never thought Helicopter Ben would need such a big helicopter.

The economics profession is totally in the tank to the financial industry. You should know that, American taxpayer.

Update: In fairness to the profession, here is a letter from economists opposing the bailout.

Friday, September 19, 2008

On this ROC we have built... (Bibilical themes in contemporary English Canadian nationalism)

I'm not sure that the rhetoric of national covenant (based on the original precedent at Sinai) played a huge role in the development of English Canadian identity. Sure, Protestants everywhere talk like that when they are being irritable, and we all know how irritable the original Canadian Protestants could be. But the over-arching original conception was of Britishness expressing itself in a non-British space. It probably owed more to Rome than to Jerusalem.

If we then look at the post-WWII need to reconceive Canadianism (provoked by the termination of the British Empire, the extreme power of the US, and the threat of Quebec nationalism), the key biblical rhetoric comes from the Babylonian captivity, not the establishment of the covenant. Grant laments for an ideal that he insists was impossible from the outset.

Our lamentation, unlike Jeremiah's, is not caused by disaster and ruin, but by uncertainty and loss of purpose. It is more comfortable, and therefore harder to take seriously. But with an ironic inflection, we arrive at a deutero-Isiahian synthesis. Our god, like Israel's in the captivity, can no longer be located in his home. But, as with Israel in the captivity, this homelessness makes our god all the more powerful. Our uncertainty becomes our weapon against the Americans and against the Quebec nationalists: they can never truly be liberals because they have identified themselves with too concrete a substantial liberalism. We can be faithful to liberal modernity because our loyalties are negative (not-American not-Quebec).

Of course, our anxiety does not solve the fact that someone (albeit someone invisible) must continue to negotiate an accommodation with all the substantial nationalisms -- American, Quebecois, aboriginal and new Canadian. Just as a corporation is a placeholder for all the contracts it negotiates with others, so too the ROC ("Rest of Canada").

Upon this ROC, though, someone built something. We will have to explore what at a future time.

Whither Socialism?

In his first term, George Woodrow Bush made the world safe for democracy. As a lame duck (and to bipartisan support, again), Clement W. Attlee has nationalized the commanding heights of the economy.

Big financial firms going bankrupt isn't scary. Somebody can pick up those assets and do better with them -- and greed must be leavened occasionally with fear.

Big financial firms not being allowed go bankrupt -- that should induce fear.

While McCain is still more sensible on economics than Obama, his response of supporting the ban on short selling is troubling.

There's a lot of ruin in a nation, and no nation has more ruin in it than the United States. The financial crisis itself will be no big deal. But the response is disturbing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Who Should Win the Election?

I am a bit on the fence. (My actual voting behaviour is already determined, since I think my local MP, who is a Liberal, is a mensch and ought to be re-elected.)

Harper is right on Afghanistan. He probably ultimately has good impulses on economics, although I have seen scant evidence of it in the last 3 years. Arguably, the Liberals would grow government more. Certainly, there is a risk of a unionized, one-size-fits-all universal daycare program, which is immeasurably worse than Harper's baby bonus. Harper should also get credit for selling a symetrically decentralized federation to the soft nationalists in Quebec.

On the other hand, Dion's plans are actually broadly economically sound. He wants to shift taxation to negative externalities which is good both for Pigovian reasons and because the long-run elasticity of demand means it will shrink the tax take. Harper's GST cut was unwise.

Finally, the election call itself is such a cynical breach-of-promise that I can't help but hope it backfires.

But while I hope that the Liberals win a plurality, I don't expect it. My prediction is the Conservatives back with an increased plurality, based primarily on gains in Quebec, but no majority. The Liberals will collapse in Quebec, and lose some ground to the NDP in their urban Anglo strongholds.

Was Justice Cromwell Appointed to the SCC or Not?

The process for replacing Justice Michel Bastarache for what is widely regarded as the Court’s “Atlantic” spot, has been contentious. Initially, a Supreme Court Selection Panel made up of two MPs from the government and one from each of the opposition parties was to come up with a shortlist. However, the Opposition objected to the government’s nominees being cabinet ministers and, according to the government, refused to “consider substantive business”. The Prime Minister unilaterally nominated Justice Thomas Cromwell of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, subject to questioning before another ad hoc committee after the federal election.

Harper’s actions are a bit constitutionally presumptuous – if the appointment is conditional on Justice Cromwell’s appearance before the ad hoc committee, then it has not been made. But if it has not been made, then Harper can only “announce” that Justice Cromwell will be the one on the assumption he will be Prime Minister after October 14 – an assumption one would think a politician facing the electorate should be cautious about.

As I write, a few days into the 2008 election campaign, it remains to be seen whether any of this will be an election issue. Newfoundland and Labrador’s Justice Minister has angrily announced that Harper treated his province with “disrespect” by not considering a judge from his province – suggesting a punitive motive arising out of Harper’s conflict with Premier Danny Williams. Ideological, as opposed to regionalist, attacks seem less likely, since Justice Cromwell is widely-respected within the liberal legal elite, and was appointed a Court of Appeal judge by Jean Chr├ętien.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

What Should the Governor General Do?

It is now universally acknowledged that Prime Minister Harper will soon ask the Governor General for a dissolution of Parliament. Patrick Monahan argued in the Globe on Saturday that when he does, she has no choice but to give it to him. I think this is wrong. She should accept his resignation, but she should not dissolve Parliament until M. Dion has been offered a chance to form a Ministry and meet Parliament and has either (a) refused the Governor General's invitation or (b) accepted, and then lost the confidence of the House or been denied supply.


The dissolution of Parliament is a Crown prerogative, vested in the Governor General by Letters Patent of George VI in 1947 ((reproduced in R.S.C. 1985, App. II, No. 31). Legally, she can dissolve Parliament or not at her wish. This power was retained by Bill C-16, which created fixed election dates, and indeed it was confirmed that the dissolution of Parliament was 'at the Governor General's discretion."


Of course, responsible government implies the convention that -- in general -- she will only exercise her powers at the "advice" of the Prime Minister. The extensive legal powers of an appointed Governor General are only acceptable in a democracy because she almost never uses them.


However, as the King-Byng and Whitlam-Kerr crises show, and as the Supreme Court of Canada recognized in the Patriation Reference, the general rule that the Governor General must do what the Prime Minister says (whether or not she agrees) is subject to limits. Democratic legitimacy and responsible government are the basis for the rule, but they are also the basis for exceptions. It is only because the Prime Minister presumably enjoys the confidence of the House that the Governor General should listen to her, rather than to someone else.


If Mr. Harper tells Mme. Jean that Parliament is "unworkable", then that amounts to saying that he can't work it. He does not think he enjoys its confidence, at least if he wants to do what he feels he must. She has no business in going behind this statement. If the electorate think he is really motivated by a desire for a tactically-favourable election date, it is up to them to punish him.


However, by saying that he can't work with this Parliament, Harper also ceases to have the legitimacy of responsible government behind his "advice." If there is even a remote possibility that someone else can form a Ministry, then that person should be invited to do so. There are innumerable examples from before the modern party system calcified of Parliaments long outliving Ministries.


Before the fixed date amendments to the Elections Act, it could be argued that whether the failure of a Ministry implied the failure of Parliament was a matter of political judgment. Therefore, it was said, the Governor General should only disregard the Prime Minister's advice when it was clearly abusive (for instance, if it occurred very soon after the election). However, it seems to me that the fixed election date changes that. Parliaments are presumed not to fail until their time expires -- it is only if the Governor General has exhausted potential ministries that she should go to the people.


The Liberals have never had a chance to try to make this Parliament work. They could decide that it isn't in their interest to do so -- and if they did it would be harder for them to slam Harper politically for going sooner than Bill C-16 suggests is normal. Or they could bring forward a budget and legislation based on their green tax proposals and dare the (now) opposition to bring them down. But they should get the chance.