Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Rule of Thumb

Before I get started on 2007, I thought I should clear the last remnants of 2006 out of the draft folder cupboards so here is a post which was mostly written a few months ago...

In a post a while back, I asserted that, "The simplest summary of our current Conservative government's agenda is that they want Canada to be more like the U.S."

In response, Andrew commented that my assertion was, "not grounded in reality" and a "silly meme".

But I'd thought about it for a while before making that assertion and I think that is pretty well grounded in reality. What I was trying to get at was, what is the best way to concisely summarize the Conservatives likely position or action on any given issue. i.e. What rule of thumb could we use to predict their behavior.

For example, if someone was a Christian, you might try and predict their behavior based on the rule of thumb, 'what would Jesus do', and for genuine Christians, this rule would work fairly well. Jesus spoke of compassion for the poor, and the church is a leader in fundraising for the poor and in calling for debt relief for poor nations. Jesus spoke against violently attacking your enemies, and the Pope was a strong opponent to the war in Iraq.

For an environmentalist, the rule of thumb might be 'what is best for the planet?'; For a socialist, it might be, 'how can government action solve this problem?', for a libertarian it might be, 'how can we minimize the role/power of government?' - you get the idea.

So let's take the rule of thumb, 'What is the U.S. like?' and see how it does at predicting the Conservative government's stance on the issues.

There is a whole separate point about whether the Conservatives are adopting U.S. style (and in particular Republican-style) politics, but I'm not going to get into that stuff in this post. Instead, let's look at the issues where it should be possible to tell with reasonable objetivity (at least for most issues) whether the Conservative position is to make Canada more or less like the United States. And so you don't think I'm just cherry-picking the issues which make my case, I'll use the list of issues I generated (in a completely different context) prior to the last Federal election.

The list is long so I'm only going to comment on a few of them, but if there are any calls you disagree with (as I'm sure there will be), that's what the comments are for. In many cases where I didn't have sufficient knowledge to make a proper decision, I just stated 'not enough information.' Some points are a little tricky. For example, if Conservative bilateral policy is favourable to the U.S. at the expense of domestic interests and U.S. bilateral policy is favourable to the U.S. at the expense of foreign (Canadian) interests, does that make Conservative policy more or less like U.S. policy? Anyway.

Fiscal management - Fiscal Balance / Debt Reduction
More American
"The days of these big surprise surplus budgets which the Liberals were creating for over 13 years here are over, and we're budgeting much closer to what budgeting is about -- that is closer to the line."

Global Issues - Peak Oil
More American - admittedly evidence is thin here, but the only relevant action so far has been to (marginally) reduce the tax on gas so that seems more American to me.

Environment - Global Warming / Climate Change
More American - certainly the Conservative rhetoric and action so far has been anti-Kyoto and downplaying the seriouness of global warming to date. We'll see what ends up happening in terms of policy.

Global Issues - Debt Relief
Not enough information

Global Issues - Use of Military
More American

- Less emphasis on peacekeeping, more focus on aggression.
- Less emphasis on multi-lateral action, working with the UN.
- One sided appraoch favouring Israel vs. more balanced approach
- Increased military spending, especially spending on military hardware
- Increased emphasis on preserving territorial sovereignty

Social Issues - Health Care (enforcement of Canada Health Act, Size of
Health Transfer)
More American
It seems reasonable to think that the Conservative government would prefer a
system more similar to the U.S. then what we have currently

Domestic Security (War on Terror)
More American

Global Issues - Aids
Not enough information


Economic Issues - Inequality (poverty, gini coefficient, social
mobility, etc.)
More American

More American

Crime - War on Drugs vs. Harm Reduction
More American

Global Issues - Amount/Nature of Foreign Aid
Less American

Aboriginal Affairs - Social Issues
More American

Fiscal management - Taxation Policy (not how much taxation, what kinds
of taxation)
More American
(higher percentage of taxes paid by poor, middle class, lower sales tax, proliferation of deductions)

Bilateral Issues - Trade: NAFTA, Chapter 11, Softwood Lumber Dispute,
Border Crossing Infrastructure, etc.


Aboriginal Affairs - Governance Issues
Not Enough Information

Environment - Air/Water Pollution
More American (good, in this case)

Environment - Other (sustainability, genetically modified food, dumping
of oil in shipping lanes, etc.)

Not enough information

Aboriginal Affairs - Spending Issues

More American

Bilateral Issues - Security (Coordination, Rendition, Passport
Requirements, etc.)

More American

Democratic Reform - Electoral Reform
No Change (Our electoral system is already quite similar to the U.S. one)

Crime - White Collar (national securities regulator, money laundering,
tax shelters etc.)

Not enough information

Social Issues - Child Care
Mixed - On the one hand, the introduction of more funding for children makes Canada less like the U.S. On the other hand, a number of Conservatives support raising Canada's birth rate to be more like the American one, so a baby bonus like the one the Conservatives brought in could be seen as a way to help make that happen. Many also consider this a grudging action which went against what the Conservatives really wanted to do, which was nothing.

Democratic Reform - General (anti-corruption policies, whistleblower
legislation etc.)

Less American - at least at first. There's seems to be much less emphasis on accountability by the Conservatives now that they are in power.

Intergovernmental Relations - Equalization
Not Enough Information

Social Issues - Gay marriage
More American

Environment - Toxic Site Cleanup
Not enough information

Global Issues - International Organization(s)
More American

Spending Programs - Granting Councils
More American

Global Issues - Trade Agreements
More American

Spending Programs - EI
More American

Crime - Violent (mandatory sentences, etc.)
More American`(if only 'crime' didn't rhyme with 'time')

Cultural Issues - Communication (CRTC, media concentration, etc.)
More American

Spending Programs - Infrastructure
More American

Economic Issues - Size of Government
More American

Environment - Health Issues (trans-fats, recreation, food supply
safety, etc.)

Not enough information

National Unity
Not Enough Information - Not really an issue in the U.S.

Intergovernmental Relations - Division of Powers, Federal vs.

Less American - Not sure about this one, because I'm not sure how powerful individual states are, but my impression is that provinces are already stronger than states vis-a-vis the federal government, so it seems like the Conservative plan to make the federal government weaker and the provinces stronger would make us less American.

Spending Programs - OAS
Not Enough Information. I don't even know if the U.S. has a comparable program.

Spending Programs - CPP/Social Security
No Change - while there are parts of the right wing in both countries that want to do away with public pension plans, policy change seems unlikely at the moment.

Intergovernmental Issues - Municipal Affairs
Not Enough Information

Economic Issues - Corporate Subsidies
No Change - Both Canada and the U.S. give out a significant amount of corporate subsidies. The Conservatives don't seem keen to change this.

Cultural Issues - CBC
More American - Based on their rhetoric, it appears that the Conservatives would prefer a weaker public broadcaster which receives less public funding, as in the U.S.

Education - Postsecondary
Not Enough Information

Social Issues - Animal Rights / Cruelty to Animals
Not Enough Information

Economic Issues - Intellectual Property
More American - I'd be surprised if copyright-industry funded Minister of Heritage Bev Oda wasn't intending to make Canada's intellectual property laws more favourable to large corporations, as they are in the States.

Social Issues - Abortion
More American - Not that they are likely to act on it, but I think most Conservatives would prefer that it be more difficult to get an abortion in Canada, as in much of the U.S.

Spending Programs - Regional Development Programs
Not enough information

Economic Issues - Housing Policy (affordable housing, role of CMHC,

Not enough information

Economic Issues - Fisheries
Mixed - So far the biggest Conservative action on fisheries has been to oppose a ban on bottom trawling in international waters, a ban which the U.S. supported.

Economic Issues - Productivity
Not enough information

Economic Issues - Labour Relations
More American - haven't seen any policy evidence on this, but I've never seen or heard anything to make me think the Conservatives are any friend of labour or unions. The attempted dismantling of the Wheat Board probably speaks to this point somewhat.

Democratic Reform - Senate
More American. The U.S. Senate is equal, elected and effective. The Conservatives want to change the Canadian Senate to be equal, elected and effective.

Education - Elementary and Secondary
Not enough information

So out of (by my rough count) 56 issues, there are 29 where the Conservatives want to change Canada to be more like the U.S., 24 with not enough information for me to judge or a mixed record, and 3 where they want Canada to be less like the U.S. The assessment that making Canada more like the U.S. is a main goal of the Conservatives seems pretty solid to me. Can anyone suggest a better rule of thumb we could use?

'Make government smaller' would do OK, but then what about the military, the courts, gay marriage, the war on drugs, the tax laws, etc?

Perhaps we could use, 'In cases where government is inflicting physical punishment or passing (Christian) moral judgement, make government larger and in cases where government is trying to help people, make government smaller' but that's a bit long for a campaign slogan. Besides, doesn't 'make Canada more like the U.S.' pretty much mean the same thing?

As a post-script, here's a great post by Ian Welsh which may answer anyone whose reaction to this post is 'So? Why not make Canada more like the U.S.?'.


  • Hmm. I won't argue with your facts, but I would still object to your phrasing on the grounds that it's misleading as to intent.

    In other words, to say "our current Conservative government's agenda is that they want Canada to be more like the U.S." makes it sound like there is a conscious effort to resemble the U.S., to look up to the U.S., and to more or less pray at the altar of the U.S. I'm not at all convinced that that's what's going on. Instead, the intent seems to be to make Canada more conservative--hardly unexpected for the Conservative Party of Canada!

    Since the U.S. is a more conservative country than Canada, it follows that making Canada more conservative would also move it closer, policy-wise, to the U.S., but the intent really does seem to be the former, not the latter.

    By Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist, at 11:57 AM  

  • If I read your comment right, what you mean is that 'make Canada more conservative' would be a better rule of thumb to use. But 'conservative' is a pretty fuzzy concept and I think that, using what I understand as 'conservative', it is not as good as a rule of thumb.

    Radical changes to the Senate aren't conservative. An environmental policy of taking action on air pollution but not global warming is not conservative.

    Adding piles of special credits to the tax system is not conservative.

    Trying to impose new governments on countries halfway around the world which pose only a minor threat to us is not conservative.

    It may not be a conscious thing, but I really do think that 'make Canada more like the U.S.' is closer to the intent of our government than 'make Canada more conservative' is.

    By Blogger Declan, at 1:29 PM  

  • Perhaps you should say the CPC want Canada to be more Republican.

    By Blogger Greg, at 4:06 AM  

  • Maybe Greg, but I think that might be overstating the case. The Republican are pretty nuts.

    By Blogger Declan, at 8:45 AM  

  • I don't know where to start, not because you're necessarily wrong in your overall conclusions, but that you actually perceive becoming more like America in certain areas to be a bad thing.
    I've lived in both countries for a significant amount of time, and the US is frankly better in many ways. There's a reason that the US stands head and shoulders above the world in business, science, medicine and personal liberties (ie free speech, lower taxes).
    In scientific research, (I'm doing a PhD in Molecular Biology) the US is so far ahead of every other country that it's stunning. Only a few countries (UK, Japan) are remotely close. The US funds science at a ten-fold greater rate per-capita than does Canada.
    Look, if you want us to be a one party state like Mexico with the Liberals at the helm, great, but at least be honest about it. The GOP in the US has nothing on the dismantling of checks and balances and power centralization that the LPC caused over the past 40 years.
    As for some of your analysis, I found some of it naive ie) Mideast Policy- "Pro-Israel vs. a balanced approach". Did you know that Arafat was feted at the White House more than any other "Head of State" under Clinton? Bush supports a self-governing State of Palestine. Would you have Harper advocate for supporting the avowed terrorists Hamas?
    I think its fair to presume that if you did a similar analysis for the Chretien government, you'd find that their policies made Canada more like continental Europe (UK and Ireland excluded).
    Look folks, the experiment of the Nanny State has been done in Europe. The results are in, and they don't look good: low birthrate, high unemployment, high taxes, sluggish (read: lazy) workforce, low GDP growth, exceedingly poor integration of immigrants into society.
    I posit that if you honestly and dispassionately choose between the US and EU societal models, there's really no comparison- the US wins every single time. It won't hurt Canada to move in the US' direction in some areas, just as the CPC is doing.

    By Blogger Albertagael, at 11:45 PM  

  • Well the point of this particular post was just to make the case that the CPC wants to make us more like the U.S.

    I felt it necessary because so many deny that this is a motive, rather than candidly defending it, as you have done (thank you for your comment).

    As for your case that we would be better off to be more like the U.S., I disagree.

    I don't really associate lower taxes with higher liberties. In many ways, Canada's higher taxes permit more liberty because one can take more chances knowing that, say, you won't go bankrupt if you are self-employed and run into serious health problems. Also, a discussion of liberty should consider which country locks up more prisoners (per capita) than any other country in the world, and denies many more people the vote, has a leader who has pretty much declared himself above the law, with the right to open people's mail and detain them indefinitely without charges, and has effectively declared a permanent state of war.

    I don't really agree that the LPC has centralized more power and eroded more checks and balances than the GOP, but that could be a topic for a whole other discussion.

    You are right that the U.S. had a more balanced (and successful) approach to the middle east when Clinton was in charge. But those days seem to be gone.

    I do think that the CPC should have recognized Hamas as the legitimately elected government of Palestine. Sending the message that we will only support democracy if the people we like are elected is unwise, in my opinion.

    I don't really think the Chretien government made us more like continental Europe (depends which part of the continent we're talking about, of course). They privatized any number of things from airports to railways to oil companies, they reduced spending as a % of GDP significantly, they pursued trade and economic integration with the U.S., they lowered taxes, they stabilized our public pension plan, brought the government's books from deep deficit to surplus, and I could go on and on.

    I agree that objectively choosing between the European model and the U.S. there is no comparison - I think that Europe wins every time.

    In a world as overpopulated as ours, a low birth rate is a good thing. Unemployment isn't that high in most of Europe, and taxes are only a burden if you don't get your money's worth and I prefer the places that European countries spend tax dollars to where the U.S. spends theirs (primarily paying interest on the debt, supporting a massive military and funding an incredibly inefficient medical system).

    I don't really see the European workforce as lazy either. And the U.S. being a place where workers who prefer to actually take the (probably 2 weeks) of vacation their employers give them are characterized as lazy doesn't strike me as a plus. Europe strikes a much better balance between working and living, in my view.

    Also GDP growth in Europe seems pretty similar to the U.S., allowing for different rates of population growth. Any advantage the U.S. has is pretty much absorbed by the top 0.1% of the population so, unless one is a billionaire, there is a little effective difference. The fact that there may be some pockets of super-wealthy people here and there doesn't really strike me as much of a factor in choosing where I personally would rather live.

    I do agree that the U.S. does a better job integrating immigrants than Europe, but Canada does a better job again. Naturally it is easier for a country where the only folks who can claim the land as having been originally theirs are completely marginalized to integrate newcomers. In Europe you are dealing with ancestral homelands of various cultures with their own languages and so forth, so integration will always be tougher.

    When you consider lower crime rates, less poverty, better transit, better environmental management, less responsibility for endless military intereference in foreign countries, a government on a sustainable financial footing, more vacation time, better social safety net, better educational systems, and better health care, I'd rather be in Europe for sure.

    But I'd rather be in Canada above either. And I prefer a Canadian model which tries to combine the best of Europe with the best of the U.S., not one which dogmatically picks either one as a model to mindlessly emulate.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:11 AM  

  • Declan, it seems that we just fundamentally disagree. I think that individuals are best suited to make their own choices in the pursuit of their own happiness, while you think those decisions are best left to governments. Because of this difference in perspective, it's not surprising that you prefer Europe to the US. In certain areas, however, you overstate your case.
    For example, you said that Europe and the US have comparable GFP growth rates. This simply isn't true: the average European country has a very sluggish GDP. I'm not going to provide a full country listing (see the World Bank for such data), but my point is driven across by comparing the US's 2005 GDP growth rate (3.20) to the two largest EU economies- France and Germany, which reported per capita growth rates of 1.2 and 0.9. For mature economies this is a vast and significant difference.
    As I mentioned previously, I'm a scientist, but my best friend works for Ernst and Young on Bay Street and spends a lot of his time in Europe. The labour laws are so restrictive, he says, that employers are reticent to hire anyone because it's so difficult to fire them if they don't work out with the firm. Moreover, France has a mandatory 35 hour work week, which on its face is restrictive and undemocratic.
    Also, birth rates do matter, especially in a Welfate State. As I'm sure you're aware, the demographic bulge of the Baby Boom is now reaching (or has reached retirement). Unfortunately, there aren't enough workers in Europe to replace them, and the low birth rates (1.3 children per woman, far below the replacement rate of 2.1), mean that taxes will invariably be increased to support the generous social benefits the retirees demand. So even if you feel that the US and Europe have comparable tax rates (I disagree- the EU seems to be ~10-15% greater in the relevant bracket for individual taxes), Europe's tax rates are trending higher unless tough decisions are made to reduce social benefits (unlikely).
    I know the US has its problems, as every country does, and I would be happy to discuss these. However, recapitulating failed European-style economic and social policies in Canada isn't wise, given the unsustainable nature of their standard of living. Pro-growth policies are what Canada needs, as Ireland has done to much success and acclaim.
    To explore the geopolitical and economic ramifications of Europe's low birthrates, I suggest you read "America Alone" by Canadian author Mark Steyn.

    By Blogger Albertagael, at 12:13 PM  

  • One more thing:
    I'd like to take exception to your assertion that Europe has "better educational systems" than the US. Are you kidding? I don't know where you got this notion- perhaps a Michael Moore flick or the Guardian. Please provide support for this assertion. The US public university system (UC-Berkley, UNC, Michigan, Illinois, etc) remains the envy of the world, and when you add in the exceptional private institutions like Stanford, Northwestern, Harvard and Yale the contest becomes lopsided. For example, Franch universities (with the exception of the Grandes écoles) are underfunded and are crumbling as we speak.

    By Blogger Albertagael, at 1:49 PM  

  • There's a lot more to education than the University system!

    See here for a look at the dismal performance of the U.S. system at teaching math, science and literacy to it's youth.

    BTW: Mark Steyn is a nutcase (in my opinion, of course), who has zero credibility with me. I imagine his analysis of Europe's impending demographic doom will work out about as well as his analysis on the war in Iraq.

    Anyway, as you say, we are in fundamental disagreement on a number of points.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:45 PM  

  • I didn't think you'd like Mark Steyn, but its no less surprising that, like the few liberals who reviewed his book, you failed to actually engage the basis of his (or my) arguments. One liberal writer on the same page as him is Chris Hitchens.
    Educational surveys like this are passed around amongst liberals and other assorted anti-Americans to try to advance the argument that the US has a poor educational system. If the educational system is so poor, why does the US continue to lead the world in science, R&D, entrepreneurship, Health Care and the arts? We need to train more engineers, but it seems that countless bright engineers from India, China and Japan are more than willing to move here to enter the workforce, start families and become US citizens.
    Based on these facts, as well as the point that the US University system is the world finest (which you appeared to concede), the reports of the US having a poor educational system appear to be as accurate as the environmental books we read in elementary school that predicted we'd be out of oil by 1998, gold by 1995, lumber by 2003 etc.

    I looked at your points from the original post again, and you're incorrect in several more places.
    1) Military. Where to start? The Liberal Gov't got us into Afganistan, and Harper continues to have us carry out that mission. Aggression? Should we let the Taliban take over? As for peacekeeping, it's a little discussed truth that we haven't done a whole lot of peacekeeping for 15-20 years. Right now we are 31st in the world (right behind, ahem, Bangladesh) in this area. I haven't lost a whole lot of sleep over this. Personally, I'd prefer our brave soldiers fight to defend our freedom than hang out in a place that doesn't advance our geopolitical interests.
    2) Abortion: In fact, it's currently more difficult to get an abortion in Canada than the US, thanks to Roe v Wade in the US (most restrictions on abortion have been summarily struck down). In Canada, physicians are bound by the CMA guidelines, which effectively limits third-trimester abortions. Some providers will perform D&Es (partial birth abortions), but it's generally more difficult to find these.

    Overall, your original conclusion was correct, but you are fast and loose with facts in some of the analyses, mostly to portray the US in a negative light.

    I'd challenge you elsewhere (ie of what benefit is the CRTC?), but I have a proposal to finish.

    By Blogger Albertagael, at 7:22 AM  

  • What's wrong with being more American? We live on the same continent and Canada is a poorer country economically, more politically and constitutionally fractured, and even the social indicators are improving in the US while they are declining in Canada.

    Sounds like we're finally headed in the right direction under the Conservatives.

    Ok, you people will whine about culture - but gimme a break - all our favorite rock bands, comedians, better beer, fantastic open spaces, and boundless opportunities will still be there at the end of the day in increased vigour.

    By Anonymous Ace, at 1:16 AM  

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