Tag Archives: State of the Union 2014

The political issues that dare not speak their names


They were, until recently, sleeper issues – incipient tempests snoozing away until their moments in prime time arrived which, as it happens, was just the other day.

Greet the two cri de coeur of the common era: income inequality in one protest line and privacy rights in the other. Both are getting a lot of ink – both figurative and literal – these days.

Google “income” and “wage” and “inequality” and “gap” in any combination you like and 144 million references become available within a fraction of a second. Most recently from the mosh pit of opinion on the subject is a USA Today piece about Americans who “grapple with income inequality” even as they debate the “government’s role in the economy.”

There’s Bloomberg’s Income Inequality News, replete with “Income Inequality Photos” and “Income Inequality Videos” and a piece that chastises President Barack Obama for supporting fairer income distribution while pushing for international trade deals, such as NAFTA, that many economists blame for the wage gap.

And there’s this of local interest from the web pages of Statistics Canada , courtesy of the Huffington Post last week:

“StatsCan’s data shows some large differences in the degree of income inequality between provinces, with the Maritime provinces registering the lowest concentrations of income among high earners, while the country’s economic powerhouses – Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia – registered the highest. . .The share of income going to the top one per cent in Alberta was nearly 17 per cent, compared to around 12 per cent in Ontario and around five per cent in the Maritime provinces.”

Meanwhile, Canada’s Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier has added her voice to the roaring multitude’s on the increasingly sophisticated, increasingly unaccountable, cohorts of spies, spooks and creeps who are steadily eroding any

reasonable expectation of privacy among the world’s citizenry.

“Revelations surfacing over the past months have raised questions among many Canadians about privacy in the context of national security,” she wrote in her report to Parliament last week. “While a certain level of secrecy is necessary within intelligence activities, so is accountability within a democracy. Given our mission to protect and promote privacy, and our responsibility to provide advice to Parliament, we are putting forward some recommendations and ideas for Parliamentarians to consider on these important issues.”

One of these ideas is to require Communication Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) to “make public more detailed, current, statistical information about its operations regarding privacy protection, and submit an annual report on its work to Parliament, as does the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).”

Of course, to hardcore conspiracists, that’s like taking a convicted fraud’s unaudited financial statements at face value.

Still, Ms. Bernier remained undeterred. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, she insisted her report was a rallying cry for clarity and accountability. What’s more, she said, “When you look at our recommendations, quite a few are low-hanging fruit. Quite a few could be implemented immediately.”

Which is why quite a few of them probably won’t. The same goes for any meaningful government response on income inequality.

The respective issues are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Each boils down to rough conceptions of fairness and justice. Each posits villains and victims. Each’s mythology depends on the noble travails of the plucky little guy who must endure the hob-nailed boots of the powerful elite’s henchmen.

Those are marvelous messages for governments with pretensions of  progressivism to exploit. Indeed, Barack Obama and his quasi-crusading band of faint-hearted social democrats are all over the income-disparity and big-brother issues in the U.S., alternately making the former the subject of the 2014 state of the union address and the latter the handmaiden for stinging rebukes of the National Security Agency.

Not so for the Government of Canada. Late last year, one of its committees quietly shelved an extensive report that measured income inequality across the country. At the same time, Ottawa continued to support the work of its spy agencies despite a gathering lobby of both expert and public opinion against many of their practices.

True reform, of course, is a messy business. And few governments, despite their pretensions to high-minded purpose, are temperamentally inclined and logistically equipped to render the society they temporarily govern any fairer or more just than it was before they rode into power.

Still, the sleepers have awoken, and soon political leaders may have no other choice than to share the spotlight with them in the prime time of the world’s attention.

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How to build a just society in no easy lessons


Unless we surrender to the increasingly strong suspicion that our North American democracies are shams – that the institutions we support to protect our rights and freedoms in Canada and the United States are hopelessly compromised by money and power – we must believe, somewhere in our souls, that the right men and women can still change the states of our respective unions for the better.

For me, and millions of others, one of those men was once Barack Obama, the 44th president of the stars and stripes. In fact, flickers of his former greatness were on display during his annual address earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

“What I believe unites the people of this nation,” he said, “regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”

Candor, thy name was Barack:

“Let’s face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.”

Meanwhile, he continued, “after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.  But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

Finally, he said, “our job is to reverse these trends. . .But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still  – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Bully for him. Now, if we could only believe him. And not just him; if we could only believe every messenger of prosperity and ambassador of hope who comes along in a great while to lift the polity’s flagging spirit.

Still, if we really think about it we must concede that, ultimately, the

the failure is not in them, but in us. After all, if we don’t expect excellence in ourselves, how can we expect it in our elected officials or even recognize it when we see it?

What we do expect, of course, is voluminous: our appetite for material things to be sated; our thirst for comfort and ease to be slaked; our opinions to be revered; our attitudes to be certified; our privacy to be protected even as our personal lives are publicly acknowledged as utterly, absorbingly fascinating.

That’s us in the peanut galleries of the continent: John and Jane Q. Public both having and eating their cakes

We demand a clean environment, but not if it means leaving the car in the driveway once in a while.

We require good health and long life, but not if it means laying off the sugar and  taking a little exercise from time to time.

If successful politicians pander to us, it’s only because, despite growing joblessness and social inequities, we in the new west remain eminently, adorably pander-able. (So do the Europeans, though their triggers are different).

On the other, if we are are genuinely interested in improving the condition of our respective democracies then we should begin by admitting that we are addicted to the short-term habits of mind bequeathed to us by several generations of rampant consumerism and disposable values, fungible for cash in any money market.

Fair and just societies endure when their citizens take the long view and embrace  qualities and virtues common to most, if not always all: compassion, courage, honesty, intelligence, discipline, and even erudition.

In every election we designate certain people to reflect our values in the public square. But more than this, we select a specific culture of service to democracy. In this respect, the right men and women do change our systems of government, for better or worse, every day.

And they are us.

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