Sobering Thoughts

Comments on politics, the culture, economics, and sports by Paul Tuns. I am editor-in-chief of "The Interim," Canada's life and family newspaper, and author of "Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal" (2004) and "The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau" (2015). I am some combination of conservative/libertarian, standing athwart history yelling "bullshit!" You can follow me on Twitter (@ptuns).

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Sunday, June 17, 2018
 
Trump's endgame
There is plenty of sensationalism in this Global News report on the network's interviews about the Canada-US trade tiff with a Liberal cabinet minister and a former Liberal cabinet minister who heads up a business group. What is important is buried. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says he doesn't know what President Donald Trump's endgame is. My theory is that Trump's trade musings aren't entirely about trade. Too many pundits think the President is a blowhard and an idiot and leave it at that. But what if he knows what he's doing. Most of the trade comments focus on jobs and investing in America. I think that's a mistake, but there could be a method to the supposed madness. More about this in a moment.
I think Trump is doing two things. The first is challenging the post-WWII global order, or at least, western order. The Establishment certainly thinks that order should continue (forever) except for the changes at the margins that it engineers. But there is no reason that liberal democracy, multilateralism, and globalization should continue as it has progresses over the last 70 years. They are policy choices, even if it is just a matter of most countries choosing to accept the inertia of the status quo. Trump seems willing to challenge the status quo (as did Brexit and the rise of populist parties on the Right and Left in Europe). The Establishment is not countering Trump, Brexit, and the populist parties, it is just freaking out about these threats to existing order. This might increase the chances of a successful challenge to the status quo. It's too early to tell. Likewise, it's too early to know whether Trump can be successful in upending the established order or whether it is just bluster.
Secondly, Trump might be encouraging investment in America and thus jobs, by fomenting instability. Historically, when there is economic and political instability, investors park their money in the United States (so-called flight to safety). By creating uncertainty not just about the Canada-US trade relationship or the ease with which goods and raw resources can be sold to the US from the EU or China, but the existing international economic order, Trump might be incentivizing a new (and grander) flight to safety. It's too early to tell if this investment happens. Maybe it no longer makes sense for the flight to safety to be the United States. Maybe Trump makes the US a less safe destination for investment, at least in the short-term. But he won't view himself as an impediment to investment, so he might very well be actively encouraging the flight to safety for investors.
I'm not offering these theories to defend the US President or to suggest they are good ideas. But they suggest that the US President is not entirely mad.


Friday, June 15, 2018
 
Downsizing Oxfam
The Guardian reports:
Oxfam has warned staff it needs to urgently find £16m of savings and radically reduce the number of its poverty-relieving programmes as the charity copes with the ongoing fallout from the Haiti sex scandal, the Guardian can reveal.
An internal document circulated last week by Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, says the charity will “have to save substantial amounts of money to put [us] on a more stable and sustainable footing”.
The seven-page document, which is marked confidential, states: “It is clear ... that the size of our programmes will be substantially reduced for this year and next ... this means making tough choices.”
It says job losses are “inevitable”. Selling off high-street shops and reducing the number of countries in which Oxfam operates are both proposals under consideration.
I assume this document was leaked in order to get a little sympathetic coverage: pay up Brits or we'll stop helping the poor. That would be shameful and shameless. This is essentially blackmail. In light of exploiting vulnerable women and adolescents in poverty-wracked Haiti, it appears the aid agency is exploiting feelings of white guilt to maintain their status quo. I hope Brits don't fall for it.
Instead of scaling back help for the poor, as Oxfam is threatening to do, perhaps they should cease with the political campaigns they undertake, including their egregious annual report on inequality, reports that have been regularly debunked (see for example the Adam Smith Institute or the Institute of Economics Affairs). These reports garner annual media coverage but do little to help the plight of the impoverished.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018
 
Brooks on the new politics
David Brooks had a very good column in the New York Times yesterday on the "steady collapse of the postwar order and the way power structures are being reorganized and renegotiated across societies and across the world." This is the new politics, what populism is about. I highly recommend reading it for yourself, but two points are worth highlighting.
Brooks says there is plenty of blame to go around for the fall of the established order:
European elites were so afraid of nationalism that they fell for the illusory dream of convergence — the dream that nations could effortlessly merge into a cosmopolitan Pan-European community. Conservatives across the Western world became so besotted with the power of the market that they forgot what capitalism is like when it’s not balanced by strong communities.
Progressives were so besotted with their own educated-class expertise that they concentrated power upward and away from the people at the same time that technology was pushing power downward and toward the people. Elites of all stripes were so detached they didn’t see how untrammeled meritocracy divides societies between the “fittest” and the rest.
And this is the template for challenges to the status quo:
It begins with 1, some monumental sense of historic betrayal. This leads to 2, a general outlook that says the world is a nasty place, and 3, a scarcity mind-set that says politics is a zero-sum game in which groups must viciously scramble to survive. This causes 4, a pervasive sense of distrust and suspicion, and 5, the rupture of any relationship built on friendship or affection, and finally 6, the loss of any sense that there is such a thing as the common good.
Brooks says that the low-trust, wolf-mentality politics is not good for society or the polity. The challenge is to restore trust in our institutions. Channeling Jonathan Sacks, Brooks says that we need to build things together. We need to focus on what we have in common and understand there is such a thing as the common good. There can be win-win scenarios, not (only) win and punish-the-other-side moves. The problem is that the the cycle Brooks describes above is very powerful and becomes self-sustaining. Restoring trust in institutions is no easy task because reaching out to others is difficult.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018
 
Trump-Kim
Tyler Cowen can be ... eccentric on international issues. His take on Donald Trump's meeting with the NORKs is charitable and insightful. (It could be argued that it is insightful because it is charitable to the administration, whereas most "analysis" is merely tribal reaction.) There are a number of points, but this is an important observation:
I am reading so much yelping about how Trump “legitimized” Kim. The status quo ex ante simply was terrible, and there is no reason to think this change is for the worse. Trump’s great “virtue” in this regard was simply to be some mix of ignorant/disrespectful of the prior “expert consensus” and approach the problem afresh with a rather direct transactional and person-centered, personality-centered mentality ...
The goal is to show the North Korean leadership there is a better way than playing the Nuclear Hermit Kingdom game. We won’t know for some time whether this has succeeded.


Monday, June 11, 2018
 
June Interim
A couple of the articles from the June edition of The Interim worth highlighting.
Me on Phillip Roth:
Like Roth’s other literary offerings, the protagonist was a Jew (Alexander Portnoy) and it is essentially the story of how the middle aged man tells tales of sexual woe to his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel. In brief, it’s the story of a man who was a chronic masturbator in his adolescence and early adulthood and who – I would argue consequently – could never find a satisfactory relationship with a woman later in life despite numerous attempts to find the right person with which to settle down.
There are endless stories, relayed in famously graphic detail, of Portnoy’s masturbation: into a bottle, onto a sock, with a piece of liver (that the protagonist returns to the refrigerator). Indeed, there is no more famous book about masturbation. And yet, I’m not convinced that the lesson Roth provides is the one he intended.
I’m convinced that the facts of life are conservative, as the saying goes, and it is difficult to get away from the truth in true art (as opposed to propaganda). It was certainly never Roth’s intention to suggest masturbation was self-destructive, to tease out the consequences of obsessive sexual self-pleasuring. Like most of of his other stories, Roth wants Portnoy’s Complaintto expose the stultifying effects of family, religion, and tradition. Roth obviously views society’s hang-ups about men being sexual omnivores as the root of Portnoy’s lack of satisfaction in life, particularly in the romantic encounters he attempts as an adult desperately looking for companionship (albeit to merely satisfy his voracious sexual appetite). Guilt imposed by his Jewish mother – there’s that triumvirate of family, religion, and tradition wrapped in the personification of this woman he despises – is the culprit in Portnoy’s unhappiness.
Rick McGinnis on Tom Wolfe:
Status, ultimately, was the subject Wolfe understood better than anyone else, and he arrived on the scene just when the markers of status had broken free from the old benchmarks dictated by birth and class and began roaming freely all over the cultural, political and social maps. He began his career when the sober “facts only, sir” period of journalism (a remarkably short period, on the whole) began giving way to a more expressive, literary, subjective mode that was called “new journalism” and found a home in magazines like Esquire, Rolling Stone and New York magazine.
No, The Interim has not become a literary magazine.


 
Twitter boss in trouble for eat Chick-Fil-A in month of June
Everything from the fact Jack Dorsey publicized his Boost savings at a fast food restaurant to "former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien" responding to it, from members of the public weighing in on the "controversy" to the media reporting on it all rather fatuous. Sometimes a chicken sandwich is just a chicken sandwich.


 
Chrystia Freeland in the New York Times
Chrystia Freeland is the subject of a blow jobby piece in the New York Times, where her husband works as a culture reporter. I want to highlight two points.
First, it should be pointed out that Canada's Foreign Minister implicitly compared the United States President to Adolf Hitler:
The optimism Freeland displayed only weeks earlier was now mostly gone. With the United States imposing tariffs and threatening the legally binding Nafta treaty, Freeland believed much larger and more troubling issues had been raised. She was worried that Western nations were forgetting the lessons of history from the 20th century and taking for granted the institutions of a rules-based global order constructed over decades under the leadership of the United States. America’s closest friend and ally and a country that might see America more clearly than it sees itself now offered a dire warning about the perils to liberal democracy in this “fraught” era. Freeland said she had recently come across a “terrifying” quote from Adolf Hitler, explaining his rise to power in Germany in a time of economic uncertainty and grievance. “I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached,” Hitler had said. “Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them. ... I, on the other hand ... reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me.”
She leaned forward, a look of concern in her eyes. “How do you attract voters and public support compared with the flashiness of exciting, chaotic, fact-ignoring populism?” she asked. “The reason Hitler won was because all of the other politicians were giving complicated and difficult explanations about difficult things. Hitler just told people simple things that they wanted to hear.”
FFS.
The Times "reports":
Freeland was uniquely qualified to take the lead in Canada’s attempt to sway the president and the United States to respect its longstanding alliance with Canada. Trump was busily selecting plutocrats to populate his cabinet, and Freeland had written a best-selling nonfiction book titled “Plutocrats,” a close study of the excesses of the superrich in the age of growing inequality. As trade minister, she successfully concluded a new free-trade pact with the European Union in 2016, a rare instance of openness prevailing in recent times. From her time as a highly connected expat business journalist in New York City, Freeland was at home in the wealthy real estate and media circles of Manhattan. (Freeland’s husband is a reporter for The Times.) She brought a level of sophistication and familiarity with the American elite at the absolute highest level that was unparalleled in the Canadian government. And so, suddenly, the political neophyte was a geopolitical asset.
FFS, again. This is the conventional wisdom, but the few people I've talked to in the U.S. administration laugh at the suggestion that Freeland has any credibility. Chrystia Freeland has the sort of resume that impresses many pundits, but it is not taken seriously by those Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was trying to win over when he picked her to replace Stephane Dion in the foreign affairs portfolio.


Sunday, June 10, 2018
 
Dog parks and rape culture
Helen Wilson of the Portland Ungendering Research Initiative -- what a ridiculous group -- has released a paper, "Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon," examines the "emerging themes in human and canine interactive behavioral patterns in urban dog parks" to better understand "emergent assumptions around gender, race, and sexuality." Wilson writes:
They offer a very public view into the ways human companions foster and perpetuate masculinist systems of communal oppression across species and in public spaces. The cultural norms operating within and upon these spaces form microcultures where acceptable and unacceptable behavior in human communities may be reflected in the way human companions construct their interactions with dogs, particularly in regard to rape culture and queering, and a-/moral interpretations of such behaviors and their human analogues under the assumptions of rape culture ...
The College Fix notes Wilson found:
What is particularly interesting is that on Taylor’s definition, raped female dogs were not oppressed because rape was normative at dog parks. This raises interesting and highly problematic issues as to the agency of female dogs in particular spaces as well as with intrinsic victim blaming in female dogs which obviously extends into the analogous circumstance under (human) rape cultures within rape-condoning spaces.
Never mind that dogs don't have agency.
Thank God for PhDs in feminist studies.


Thursday, June 07, 2018
 
The Ontario election campaign: what happened and didn't
There has been a lot of conventional wisdom peddled this election. I'm not saying it's all untrue, but I do wonder it if is all correct. Chances are, it ain't. A few housekeeping items: I have seen a lot of polls, including private and internal party polls, and that data has informed a lot of what is written below. Also, I didn't double-check my writing because of time constraints. I apologize for any errors or confusion. I posted my prediction earlier today, but I'm convinced by the late polls that suggest a slight uptick for the Tories so it wouldn't surprise me if they knock on the door of 80 seats.
A common bit of conventional wisdom is that the Tories almost blew a lead. In many polls, they were nearly 20 points ahead when Patrick Brown was leader and Doug Ford came in and nearly lost. But this story is an over-simplification and not-quite factual. First, according to some polls, Brown had a 20-point lead, but in the aggregate, it was a only healthy double-digit lead. 20 points sound huge. Sounds insurmountable -- or unloseable. But there the PCs never had a sustained 20-point lead. Ford continued to hold this 12-16 point lead from the time he won the leadership until the beginning of the election campaign. That lead in the polls shrunk and briefly disappeared once the campaign started. It's still not great to lose a double-digit lead, but I'm not sure it was ever that meaningful, ever that real. It is possible that the PCs were capturing the change vote, the anti-Wynne/anti-Liberal animus out there. Most of the time, most Ontario voters consider provincial elections a two-horse race between the Tories and Liberals. So if you don't like the Liberals, you vote PC, and vice versa. If you don't like the Liberals, you signal your disgust with them by registering your support with the PCs (and vice versa). The change vote was strong. It is often around 50% -- about the number of partisans in the other two parties who want to see the government change. Polls showed that "time for a change" was registering in the high 60s and lows 70s before the campaign started. That's a lot of potential voters. A lot of potential new voters. If the PC base is in the low 30s, it would be easy to scoop up a large number of disaffected Liberals and coast to victory. The problem for the Tories is that the "time for change" response rose to the high 70s and in a few polls, even 80%. When eight in ten voters want change, it creates opportunities for other parties, too. There was never any way the Tories could win the approximately 30% of people who wanted change that were not PC or NDP partisans. That was up for grabs. The NDP began to grab the lion's share of it when the campaign began. Pollsters that ask if the campaign is a two-horse race found that fewer people considered it so than usual. For whatever reason, the NDP were a legitimate consideration. Some of that is progressive voters abandoning the Liberals for the superficially similar NDP. According to the demographics of some polling, it would also seem to be a migration of some typical Tories moving to the other change party (some older white non-Evangelical Protestants who might have liked elder care or pharmacare, married women with children in their 30s who want childcare or hate Doug Ford). My thesis is that for more than a year, the anti-Liberal vote was parked with the PCs, but once the campaign started and more people began to think about their choices, the NDP were noticed and PC support fell. This is only marginally a story about people not liking Doug Ford and abandoning the PCs, and mostly a story about how little many voters think about politics until they are forced to.
A quick word about the Tory vote and Ford nation. It looks like there is moderate growth for the PCs from the low 30s to the high 30s. Pundits and pollsters may not understand what is happening here. I don’t think this is just a matter of Doug Ford brining in Ford Nation and some disaffected voters backing the Tories. A look at the demographics finds that some traditional PC voters have abandoned the party. If one in ten traditional supporters left the Tories (about 3% of the electorate), it means the gains of Ford Nation and others wanting change is larger than the ostensible five-point bump the party has received. It’s closer to 8%. This could mask a long-term problem for the PCs if the migration represents more a segment of their base being turned off of the leader. We don’t have great data here in Canada, but this seems to be the continuation of a trend some of the smarter strategists understand is occurring across Canada (and indeed, the western world): the shifting nature of the political coalitions that had existed. If married women and older Protestants are leaving the Tories for good, the party will need to find new voters just to hold onto their percentage of the votes. That’s something to consider another time, but it is hardly unique to the Tories in Ontario or Canada.
Another bit of conventional wisdom from this campaign is the death of the political center as the Doug Ford Progressive Conservatives moved right from Patrick Brown's People's Guarantee and the lurch to the left by Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government with their cynical, last-minute, vote-buying caring agenda -- child care, more pharmacare, new elder care – outlined in their 2018 budget. Superficially, Doug Ford is a significantly more conservative leader than Patrick Brown. But he seems extreme because of his intemperate tone, his bold statements, and the media’s lazy but inaccurate comparisons to Donald Trump. However, Doug Ford is an advocate of public housing and has repeatedly vowed to do better for those living in such arrangements. He has also promised PC versions of almost everything the NDP and Liberals have offered, although sometimes not with a program (childcare) but rather a tax cut to help families pay for their own childcare arrangements. I'm not sure the far right position on childcare is indirectly subsidizing daycare. Ford's promiscuous promising of new programs, funding announcements, and tax cuts and tax breaks, would blow a giant hole in the budget, producing deficits larger than those outlined in the NDP and Liberal platforms. Ford promised to find efficiencies but also vowed not to cut public sector jobs. Is that far right? He seems enthusiastic for public transit spending. Is that extreme right? Ford's right-wing agenda is limited to scuttling the tax-grab cap-and-trade system and repealing Kathleen Wynne's sex-ed curriculum. There are large, non-extreme constituencies for these policies, and he has been mostly silent about the latter after the election writ was drawn. It is more accurate to say that the political center has moved leftward, and while Ford offers a more pro-private enterprise, lower-tax vision for Ontario, he is hardly a hard right-wing alternative to the NDP and Liberals, and that if movement conservatives were honest, they wouldn’t be pleased with how much the Tories are vowing to spend and its effect on the deficit. Wynne began the campaign on the far-left alongside the NDP, but as their socialist brethren zoomed ahead in the polls and the Liberals looked like they were fighting for survival, Wynne discovered the historic moderate tone, middle-of-the-road appeal of the Liberal Party as she attacked the NDP’s ideological commitment to unionized labour and even mounted a stirring defense of privately provided daycare during one of the debates. This tone and talking points reinforce the story Liberals like to tell of themselves that they are moderates, eschewing the extremes of the NDP and PCs. Policy-wise, the Liberals are very close to the NDP, but Wynne may have helped save her party from obliteration with her last minute tactical Hail Marys and, probably more importantly, her change of tone. The election post-mortems will focus on her debate sorry/not sorry and her pre-election day concession, but her change of tone might be more consequential. Rhetorically, it restored some semblance of the so-called loss of the political center – a story which was already exaggerated. I thought Wynne’s sorry/not sorry speech at the final debate and her concession the weekend before the election were brilliant. Saying sorry acknowledged the obvious: people were upset with the Liberals. The not-sorry portion was her fighting for the policies she believed in, trying to make the election about those ideas rather than the discredited brand or her own popularity. It is hard to tell if it arrested the freefall the Liberals were in or the party experienced the inevitable dead cat bounce. As for the concession, at that point they certainly knew how many of their identified supporters had participated in early voting and I assume turnout wasn’t good. The Liberals were fighting for party status – or perhaps even a seat – and they needed another Hail Mary. I don’t think it hurt morale, because morale was already low. I don’t know what a winning strategy would have been, and they pulled one of the few remaining tricks in the hat: give the people what they want, which was a future without Kathleen Wynne. I think it helped, but we won’t know until the ballots are counted. My guess if the Liberals win official party status (eight seats), Wynne will be credited with saving them with her bold concession. If the Liberals win 0-4 seats, the concession will get some of the blame, never mind that is what most projections had them getting anyway. If the Liberals win 5-7 seats, I’m not sure what the conventional wisdom will become, but I’d credit Wynne’s desperate move.
I’ve had enough with complaints that the Tories don’t have a fully costed platform because they are misleading. The Liberals and NDP have platforms with estimated costs attached. The PCs have announcements with estimated costs attached. The Liberals and NDP seem more credible because they are in a formal document. Journalists complain the PC platform, as it is, doesn’t state how the party’s promises will be paid for. It is implied: the same way as the NDP and Liberals, through deficit financing. Doug Ford says he’ll balance the budget, but it’s pretty clear he can’t. He has promised a lot of new costs for the government in the forms of programs and tax breaks, and finding efficiencies of 4% without laying off employees on the public payroll will be hard. It’s not four cents of every dollar that needs to be saved, but four cents out of every 88 cents because interest payments can’t be on the table for efficiencies. Good luck with that. When people hear fully costed platform, I think they hear “it’s balanced” or “paid for.” They are not. A fully costed platform that runs massive deficits is every bit as fiscally irresponsible as an insufficiently costed series of campaign promises. That, after all, is what a fully costed platform is: a campaign promise. And we all know what happens with campaign promises: they get broken. Does having a fully costed platform matter? It probably helps. It’s not that voters read them, but they want to know you have one. It doesn’t help to grant the media this talking point against a party. It does seem that the PCs were sliding a bit and NDP getting a boost when the chatter about the Tories lacking one was at its loudest. If you didn’t think Doug Ford was up to the job, his not having a credible plan in PDF form on a website probably reinforced that. It hurts at the margins, and in a close election that might count for something.
That’s about it. I’m sure I’m missing something. The point of this post is to counter several popular narratives which are by definition simplifications. But elections are complex. They are the result of millions of people making millions of independent decisions for all kinds of reasons. No poll and no story can account for all that complexity. I think pollsters and pundits and strategists need to do a better job understanding what is really happening. Journalism is about telling the story in a manageable fashion, but in doing so they obstruct the truth, and at times even ignore it (not usually deliberately). That process will continue tonight as the results come in. I’m hoping that this post goes some way in countering the incorrect and incomplete stories the punditocracy will peddle as the first draft of this portion of Ontario’s political history.


 
Ontario election prediction
On Monday, I predicted today's Ontario election would result in 74 PCs, 50 NDP, 1 Liberal. I want to move the NDP down a tick or two, the Liberals up a few seats, but I'll stick with Monday's prediction. I will predict the PCs win the popular vote by at least a full percentage point.
I hope to write something before noon about what the pundits/conventional wisdom got wrong about the Ontario election campaign, if I get some time.


 
On why people matter
In his interview with Tyler Cowen, David Brooks, a self-described religious bisexual, talks about souls:
The central claim of religion is that, as a friend of mine, Jerry Root, puts it, is that reality is iconoclastic. There’s something weird extra there. The way I would say it is that we all have souls. There’s all a piece of each of us, which has no weight and has no color and has no size and shape, but is in us, and it gives us infinite dignity, and it causes us to want to lead good lives. And that slavery is wrong because each person has a soul, and slavery is an obliteration of a soul. And that rape is wrong because rape is not just an assault on a bunch of physical molecules, but it’s an obliteration of another human being’s soul.
If I don’t have that concept of soul, it’s very hard for me to do reporting. It’s very hard for me to understand how human beings are and why atrocity is wrong. So I’d say that’s a very empirical . . . I would find it very hard if I’m out covering a story — something that outrages me or something that delights me — if I didn’t see the people I was covering as essentially spiritually driven natures, I just think the whole story would fall to pieces. I find it, not empirically in a statistical way, but empirically helpful, as a way to see reality.
Brooks is a tad too cute and ignores the idea that human beings are made in the Image of God, but this is a decent secular description of a soul-infused mankind.