Saturday, 26 November 2011

Michael Hlinka (business commentator) – CBC Radio One, Ottawa Morning (November 15, 2011)

Michael Hlinka really should be writing for the Ottawa Sun.  His regular business commentaries fall into that same overly-simplistic and entirely predictable vein.  Business = good.  Anything that impedes business = bad.   So it was not a surprise to recently hear him decry the delay in the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  Hlinka put the blame firmly on political activists, the financers of the Democratic Party and those ever-so-pesky environmentalists.   The problem is not only that Canada, as a nation, has been insulted, but that the decision to delay the project will cost jobs on both sides of the border.  According to Hlinka, and hinted at by our Finance Minister, if the Americans can’t get their act together we should be looking to China to sell our oil. 

Early in his commentary, Hlinka states, “You would think that given the current state of economic affairs there would be widespread political support for the project on both sides of the 49th parallel.”   One wonders if this means jobs should be the sole consideration with respect to any such project.  And what does it say about the nature of our economy if so much hope is being pinned on a short-term highly-regional initiative.  Even the number of jobs linked to the project is uncertain and contestable.  One number Hlinka is definite about – he claims that this delay will cost TransCanada Pipelines one billion dollars.  If this figure is correct, that a single entity can sustain such losses is in itself worth addressing and commenting on.  Although I’m not sure how the delay of a projected tentative deal can ‘cost’ anything.  Did it cost me ten thousand dollars when my boss failed to give me a raise this year?  Maybe.

Hlinka also makes the case that Canadians should take the delay as an insult.  He spoke of how “the decision should be understood as a slap in the face to the Canadian people.”   My question is: which Canadians?  Even those who opposed the pipeline?  Should I feel affronted that the President of the United States made a decision which may, or may not, alter the lives of a relatively small number of Canadians?  And should I always feel personally insulted when a political decision is made which may, or may not, alter jobs.  The reality is that such decisions are made – rightly or wrongly – on a daily basis in both Canada and the United States.  And what might be even more shocking to Hlinka is that a lot of decisions don’t place the interests of workers first.   One gets the sense that ‘jobs’ is code for profits and that the latter is much more important than the former. 

Although he does acknowledge that the environmental organizers in Nebraska are ‘grassroots’ one gets the impression that these folks, and their ‘claims’, are not taken seriously by Hlinka.  Somehow activists are suspect while high-profile lobbyists represent business as usual.  In Hlinka’s mind all of the forces opposing the pipeline are forms of protest.   There is a right way to do politics and a wrong way.  And if this is part of Obama’s reelection bid, and the President feels more voters are opposed to the project than support it, this would suggest that the democratic process is both intact and working.  If Obama has made a serious judgment error in this case it will be addressed in next year’s election.  Imagine a process which is attentive and responsive to voters.  That can’t be right!  Hlinka and others must paint these would be anti-business forces in a negative light and suggest there is something deceptive and malicious about their motives.  Lobbying is fine so long as it is a certain type of corporate lobbying.   And, as with critiques of the so-called anti-globalization forces, I’ve never met a single person opposed to either business or trade.  So what is really at stake is how, and in whose interest, such activities are conducted.  These debates are much more nuanced than the easy-answers right-wing media (yes, even the CBC has them!) would have us believe. 

One also has to question where the voices for ‘ethical oil’ are in this whole debate.  Yes, there are plenty of commentaries about how Canadian oil is more ethically suitable than the oil from several other countries around the world, but what about this focus on selling oil to China?   It’s funny how the anti-communists seem to be silent all of a sudden – even when they are often the same folks making the ‘ethical oil’ argument.  I guess this resembles the methods (by some clever slight-of-hand) pro-business/anti-communist forces in the United States are able to keep the focus on Cuba rather than China.  Perhaps this has become a requirement as China is holding a huge portion of US government debt.  I’m not making an argument for or against China, I’m just trying to figure out how this all squares in the minds of business commentators and politicians.  

My argument isn’t so much that Hlinka is wrong – or even that some of the alternatives to the pipeline are preferable.  The point is that such issues are complex and by nature reflect a multiplicity of competing interests.   Like it or not that is politics.  Why it is assumed, as our Prime Ministers does, that such questions are ‘no-brainers’?  Why is the environment not an ethical issue?   Why is the whole ‘ethical oil’ argument confined to producers rather than consumers?  I guess even when completion is the ideal state in business it is not always appreciated and welcomed in the realm of politics.  

Saturday, 12 November 2011

John Robson – ‘Occupiers’ hollow outrage truly obnoxious’ (Ottawa Sun, November 6, 2011)

John Robson has recently made the argument that the ‘Occupy’ movement is full of folks who do not know how to wash (yes, yes, yes, we get your lame on-running joke about how failing to shower is not a form of political activism) and who don’t understand the fundamentals of human nature.  The movement ‘conspicuously despises ideas’.  Imagine a movement without leaders and overt rules!  Robson sure can’t.  He does however argue that compassion is an individual choice and as such is not something which can be transformed into a political ideology.  Imagine the nerve and gullibility of a group of (mostly) young people suggesting we can make things better!   

When I recently visited Occupy Ottawa I came across three folks who had studied university-level political science and a professor.  Clearly none of these people are empty-headed or mistakenly think there are easy answers to complex problems.  Unlike our Sun editorialist, there seemed to be an inherent understanding that nuance and complexity are key components to any political equation.  And, of course, without offering evidence, Robson is quick to make the supposition that the ‘Occupy’ movement is strictly a left-wing affair.  A pretty big assumption – especially when one considers the potential political overlaps with the Tea Party movement (nobody likes ‘big government’ until they need something).  As he is intent on documenting the ills of the left, Robson is more than willing to brush aside the role laissez-faire economics has had in the current economic crisis.   The neo-liberal/neoconservative twin notions that open markets and free trade will be our saviors look more utopian than most of the ideas I’ve seen from ‘Occupy’. 

But what is most troubling about Robson’s piece can be found in his statement: “And I deplore the impulse to transform human nature through politics.”  There is an elitist assumption that he knows and understands ‘human nature’ and that it is something clear and unalterable.  One can take away from this position that all politics is folly as our true natures are set in stone.  There is to be a clear divide between politics and caring.  According to Robson, “The problem is that political remedies for life’s fundamental injustice cannot work.”  Yet one can’t help but recall that many of the arguments against the abolition of slavery and extending rights for women were made on the basis of some imagined ‘human nature’.  Robson is merely offering the same old exhausted one-dimensional right-wing argument: what I have is human nature and common sense and what the left offers is ideology.  After all who can argue with ‘nature’?     

Still, the Sun itself is not above making overt pleas for more ideology in politics.   In a recent editorial (November 9, 2011) there is a rebuke of Jim Flaherty.   Apparently our Finance Minister had the nerve to state that the government would ‘not be bound to ideology’ when it came to economic decisions.  The editorial wonders why this is the case as obviously Canadians had recently elected a conservative government.  To me this line of thought resembles the ‘hollow outrage’ Robson was speaking of. 

Any voter who had done even the smallest amount of research on the subject would know that the Prime Minister, and Flaherty by extension, supports the idea of changing economic policy to suit current circumstances and using government revenues to stimulate job growth.  In other words, Harper and his Finance Minister are textbook Keynesians.  So the real issue is about living up to pre-election commitments.   When such transgressions take place at the provincial (read: liberal) level the Premier is a devilish liar.  At the federal (read: conservative) level, Stephen Harper is merely not living up to ideological expectations.  Perhaps the ‘willful obtuseness’ and ‘deliberate vacuity’ Robson speaks of resides at the Sun as well.  Why wouldn’t Mr. Robson be as demanding of the paper he writes for as he is of the ‘Occupy’ movement?