Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Campaign by Proxy0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday April 18, 2007 at 2:06 pm)

Attacking your opponent with unfavorable comparisons is a long-standing tradition. Why is it so popular? Simple — having to prove that what someone does is wrong takes far more time and effort than alleging that they act like others with reputations for doing things that are wrong.

The Liberals had a policy, for some time now of anti-Americanism as campaign fodder, especially concentrated on painting the Conservatives as pro-US lackeys in the 2006 campaign, as Canadians deepened their antipathy for the US government. Moderately successful as a last-minute tactic in June of 2004, it was significantly less successful in January of 2006.

But merely alleging a parallel and parallel action are two different things, as the Liberals have now realized. Taking the lead from their purported southern siblings, the Democratic Party, the Liberals will present a motion to require the government to serve NATO allies with Canadian plans for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The political value of which rests on two foundations:

  • The average Canadian likely has trouble distinguishing between the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (and some who can would not separate the two) . As a result, outrage over the situation in Iraq bleeds effortlessly over into Canadians’ impressions of the Afghan mission, particularly considering the dominant amount of airtime the former receives. Every report of Canadian casualties is measured in the context of the conflict they’re not engaged in. Small wonder that, absent any convincing explanation of Canadians’ purpose there (humanitarianism being no less vague than security), the public is closely split on whether the sacrifices are worthwhile.

    In that context, a motion to get out of Afghanistan is pretty much like a motion to get out of Iraq, and the Liberals hope to capitalize on that sentiment. The difference between this motion and earlier efforts is simple: this isn’t about saying no to being there, it’s about ending being there. The latter doesn’t look as negative, and isn’t an instance of saying “no” to foreign allies or badmouthing the mission the Liberals previously approved. Hence, no charges of hypocrisy.

  • Just as importantly, the motion is reminiscent of the Democrats’ bill down south. Not only does that give it the anti-Bush sheen the Liberals have loved to portray, it also rides on the coattails of coverage of that bill. Free publicity is free publicity, and there’s no reason to turn it down.

Just how the government will respond to the motion isn’t quite clear as yet. There’s every chance the motion will be backed by the other parties in the House, so defeating it isn’t likely to be a real option.

But, these more obvious points aside, it’s welcome to see that the Liberals are at last finding common ground with Canada’s largest economic partner and nearest ally.

Learning from the Lost0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, The Elephant (Monday January 22, 2007 at 2:48 pm)

Michael Ignatieff’s recent campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada had one important echo of his opponent, Gerard Kennedy’s campaign for Ontario’s Liberal leadership a decade earlier: hyperconfidence.

Overconfidence is a serious problem for people — it makes mistakes more likely. But hyperconfidence is a far more severe problem. It’s when you keep telling other people how confident you are.

The campaigns of these two men had one major feature in common: they were both frontrunners, so dubbed by press, poll, and party alike. Seizing on that strength, the men and their staff never failed to remind potential voters, party members, and the press of just how strong they were.

Every announcement of support from Ignatieff’s rivals drew his team’s hyperconfidence out: “We’ve got more than them, no matter what they say! You’ll see! You haven’t even seen what we’ve got yet!”

Which behaviour, in both cases, served only to harden the undeclared masses against them. Hyperconfidence looks to others like a strange combination of arrogance and boorishness; and few people are swayed by the prospect of following either recruiters who display it or the leaders whom they represent.

And the failure of these men’s campaigns, both starting from a base of over forty percent of the electorate, should be a signal to Hillary Clinton.

Having just announced her candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, and with early public polls showing her holding a substantial lead over her nearest rivals, Senator has some reason to be confident of her chances at taking the Democratic nomination.

But just like the men before her, a campaign which constantly reminds those outside her body of supporters of her strength is the surest way to ensure their alienation. In this respect her opening salvo, “I’m in to win,” is a dangerous beginning for her approach.

Polls that show her barely ahead of her chief rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards, demonstrate how insubstantial such a lead can be. Moreso when one considers that candidates aren’t nominated nationwide, but by state. A commanding lead in New York and Florida may give her a strong showing in national polls, but when she moves from state to state, it won’t necessarily translate into the votes she needs to capture delegates.

That’s why Underdog should be her model, not Ubermensch.

Great Arguments — The Tyrant’s Tirade0

The Frosty Wonk’s primary line of work is political analysis, not rhetoric. But the cut-and-thrust of modern debate demands some effort at unraveling its arguments.

Today’s guest, Rock Samson, has coached prizewinning fighters in twelve disciplines since his discharge from an undisclosed paramilitary group. This makes him uniquely qualified to discuss questions of conflict; and he has agreed to offer his valuable services as a regular commentator on debating technique and argumentation.

Today, we’ll be discussing this piece, in which Gary Kamiya, Salon editor, recycles his own work from 2005 on the conflict in Iraq.

Rock: Wonk, Kamiya’s angry. The war’s ragin’ and he’s mad as a bear in a trap that nobody’s bitchin’ about it.

Wonk: But Rock, people are complaining. He’s complaining, isn’t he? There are protests all the time.

Rock: Not enough, Wonk. A few thousand protesters can’t gum up the works the way Kamiya wants. He’s lookin’ for an all-out brawl with the big boys — streets choked with men and women until the President cracks.

Wonk: Why does he think that’s likely to happen?

Rock: It’s gotta. Kamiya knows that any sane person wants to fight against the war with everything it takes.

Wonk: So why don’t they?

Rock: They don’t know what’s good for ‘em. If they were payin’ attention and had all the facts, they’d all agree with him.

Wonk: Is that what he means when he writes that:

It is too late to stop the fatal endgame of Bush’s war. But at least we can honor those who have died in that war, Iraqis and Americans alike, by refusing to look away from their deaths.

Rock: Right on. He knows that if you’re payin’ attention to the deaths, you’re against the war.

Wonk: But isn’t it possible for people to come to different conclusions based on the same facts?

Rock: Not if they’re usin’ their brains. That’s what rational thinkin’s for! There’s only one answer to any question. If you plug the right facts in, you’ll get the right answer. There’s just no other way.

Wonk: But reason doesn’t work that way. It’s not the same thing as logic — reasonable people can differ over the same things.

Rock: Kamiya’s not buyin’ that. Reason only has one answer — his; and he’s goin’ to the wall for it.

Wonk: So why does he bother to assume that people are reasonable?

Rock: Flatters ‘em. Check out Aristotle some time, Wonk, he explains why that matters.

Wonk: And if he claimed that people were incapable of coming to the right conclusion, he’d effectively be pointing to a problem with democracy, wouldn’t he? If people aren’t capable of coming to the right notion, then there’s a strong justification for excluding them from most kinds of decision-making.

Rock: Hold on there, ’cause you’ll love the rest. If everybody’s reasonable, and reason always gives the same answer on the same facts, then he’s got dynamite proof that folks don’t know the facts — they disagree with him! That makes his claim righter.

Wonk: I don’t think you can use that word that way.

Rock: ‘Proof’? Sure you can.

Wonk: Alright. So Kamiya’s argument says that people would complain if they knew what was going on, and that we know they don’t know what’s going on because they aren’t complaining.

Rock: You got it.

Wonk: How does he know that he’s the one who’s right? Isn’t everyone going to come to the same conclusion and justify it the same way?

Rock: Sure they could, but he knows his argument against the war’s right. So now, he’s got to explain why other folks don’t agree.

Wonk: So this is really a frustrated outburst? A temper tantrum?

Rock: Right.

Wonk: But if he thinks he’s right, why is he bothered by the fact that others disagree?

Rock: It’s a serious issue, Wonk. He’s sure that if enough people agreed, they’d be able to end the war!

Wonk: So the fact that he wants this to happen by convincing the public demonstrates his commitment to democratic principles?

Rock: Probably.

Wonk: But the idea that there can be only one right answer for any reasonable person is profoundly undemocratic! It’s authoritarianism applied to thinking! It’s tyranny!

Rock: Not no more it ain’t, Wonk. Not no more it ain’t.

Nothing Doing0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday January 10, 2007 at 7:36 pm)

And the Democrats’ strategy to win in Iraq is off, with an unsurprising play!

Senator Kennedy (you know the one) is set to block President Bush’s plan to send an additional 20,000 US troops to Iraq. Notwithstanding that this comes at least three years after more troops were needed, the first move of the new Congressional leadership will ironically be to keep the President from changing things in Iraq.

Ironic, because that’s what we call “staying the course”, a strategy championed by President Bush barely three years ago; but one since abandoned in the face of a profound attack of common sense.

So why would the Democrats want to “stay the course”? Simple.

Let’s assume, just for a moment, that there is no real solution to the US’s problems in Iraq which can be implemented between now and the next Presidential inauguration (January 2009).

If so, then whether the Democrats have such a solution or not, implementing it now won’t help them win the next set of elections (one with a Presidential race and everything!) Moreover, fixing things now just might help the President look better, which eliminates the anti-Republican fervour they’re hoping will help carry Middle America over to their side.

Better by far, then, to stop him from doing much of anything, especially when it’s something as unpopular as the possibility of more American troops exposed to dangerous conditions. The longer he stays the course, the better they look as an alternative; and if they can keep passing laws to make that happen, they look like they’re actually doing something at the same time. Not half bad.

Stay the course, Big Teddy, stay the course.

Crystal Gazing 20070

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, The Elephant, A House Divided, Trillium, Crossroads of Culture (Sunday December 31, 2006 at 6:06 pm)

The Flash-Frozen Wonk isn’t really in the prediction racket. This is a house of analysis, not divination. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to think about it.

What that means is watching stories; and there are a few big ones in the coming year:

Tack to the Middle
Will Prime Minister Stephen Harper shift to dealing with middle-class ambitions in the coming year? Will that be enough to contain the opposition in a ring of suburban Tory strongholds?
Middle East
Does the US Democratic party have any way to impact the Iraqi situation? Will they bother to try, given the possibility that any improvement could still be claimed as a victory by the Republican administration?
East of Ontario
Will Quebec’s Premier get something worthwhile out of a federal government eager to secure its inroads in La Belle Province? Will the recent boost in Liberal fortunes prove as temporary as the economic boost from their convention?
Ontario at the Hustings
A government whose blunders (Health Premium) are long-behind them is headed to the polls. Will any issue large enough to rile Ontarians crop up to ruin Premier Dalton McGuinty’s hopes of a second majority?

That’s more than enough for one year, and far too much for one night. Here’s looking to the future, and a great New Year.

Only the Beginning0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, The Elephant (Thursday November 9, 2006 at 10:43 pm)

Once the euphoria dies down, American Democrats will have some serious thinking to do. Joe Lieberman isn’t why, but his story does hint at it.

The Connecticut Senator lost a bitter primary election against Ned Lamont, who entered the race in anger over Lieberman’s support for the Iraq War. Denied the party standard, Lieberman ran his own campaign. The Democrats weren’t pleased by the prospect:

At this point Lieberman cannot expect to just keep his seniority,” said [an] aide. “He can’t run against a Democrat and expect to waltz back to the caucus with the same seniority as before. It would give the view that the Senate is a country club rather than representative of a political party and political movement.

Well, ahoy-hoy, gentlemen — the corker’s still here!

The victory comes from a combination of name recognition, filched Republican support, and some Democratic hangers-on. But, most importantly, it demonstrates that the anti-war coalition isn’t enough to put things over the top by itself. Support for the war, it seems, isn’t an insurmountable obstacle.

Consider further: four of the Democrats’ new seats came with narrow margins, two with extremely narrow margins. That even with a series of unaccountable scandals and gaffes. Thirteen of the twenty-eight new Representatives won by fewer than ten thousand votes.

When the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, they did so with a concise description of their objectives, an approach neatly lifted for the Canadian Conservatives’ 2006 election run. That victory provided them with a considerable run of the place.

The Democrats agenda is unfocused by contrast, particularly because it identifies issues without specifying any particulars apart, possibly, from removing bars to stem cell research. That might be a critical issue for Michael J. Fox, but it’s not for voters, who placed the Iraq conflict, terrorism, and ethics at the top of the list.

No one has a monopoly on scandal. Given time, the cleanest closets offer skeletons. The real problem is that little of their agenda offers anything of substance on the top issues. In that respect, the election, as characterised, stands largely as a referendum on the Iraqi conflict.

But if voters weren’t responding to the content of the Democrats’ position, it’s hard to see how they’ll keep their gains without making them respond. That demands a serious effort to grasp public attention with responses to the issues; and, just as crucially, a solid plan to both pace their responses and deny the President any bragging rights.

Seeing how they do that will be far more interesting than anything this election had to offer. That’s why it’s not a time to expel sighs of relief. It’s a moment to bate breath in anticipation.

Fact is Stranger to Fiction0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, The Elephant, Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday July 26, 2006 at 8:01 am)

Those who think President Bush doesn’t devote enough time to studying the problems he faces are wrong. He doesn’t devote enough time to watching TV.

A few more hours might give him an even chance of catching reruns of “Yes, (Prime) Minister”, whose politically-minded, policy-light title character might give him pause. Or at least might make him reconsider the likes of the following remark:

“Obviously, the violence in Baghdad is still terrible, and therefore there needs to be more troops,” Mr. Bush said at the news conference, held in the East Room after a morning meeting with Mr. Maliki in the Oval Office. “Our military commanders tell me that this deployment will better reflect the current conditions on the ground in Iraq.”

And as much as facile comparisons to Vietnam should be treated with the scornful physical comedy they so richly deserve, the offering of no solution but “more troops” was one contributing factor to the removal of General Westmoreland from command of that operation. Facile solutions are just as deserving.

But physical comedy is no substitute for a word fitly spoken; and those are Sir Humphrey’s sole legacy. Just imagine how much more sound the President’s decision might have been, had he arrived before his generals bearing in mind the Cabinet Secretary’s eminently diplomatic rejoinder:

Her Majesty’s government is not convinced that having more men with guns in London would make it a safer place.

Veto 01

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check, The Elephant (Tuesday July 25, 2006 at 9:10 pm)

Those who worry greatly about these folks’ opinions might recall a bit of controversy over the correct party date some years back. Seems that, while counting up the years, no one seemed to realise that there was never a year numbered “0″. Fortunately, this affected few people’s plans.

A more recent counting error isn’t quite so benign. Much ado (in the form of long-bated column text) was unleashed by US President Bush’s long-anticipated veto of a bill to promote stem-cell research. Some suggested that this veto represents a revealing change in his Presidency — he no longer has even enough power to control a Congress controlled by his own party.

But what might be made out to be the first real proof of Presidential contempt for the legislative branch isn’t. It’s not even the end for American stem-cell research, which will benefit from State-by-State funding in response to Federal limitations. What it points to are two more troubling trends: bad reporting and long-standing contempt.

While it’s technically true that the current President hasn’t vetoed any Acts before this one, he has produced a whole lot of signing statements — simple documents by which he indicates his intended implementation (or not) of part of an Act. By stating that he believes a certain provision (like, say, the treatment of military prisoners) to be beyond Congress’s powers, the President doesn’t have to implement it; and, barring subsequent Court action, the provision just gets ignored.

What’s the difference between that and a line-item veto? Well, the line-item veto isn’t allowed in the US. Their Supreme Court seems to think that letting the President selectively alter legislation isn’t much different from letting him legislate.

And the effect of signing statements is about the same (or likely will be found so once challenged). Sure, you could argue that there’s a slight difference in the strength of the vires argument to be raised in each case, but you’d sound not so different than someone belittling partygoers on December 31st 2000.

How different? Well, the math geek who’s worried about counting years is passionately trying to shed light on something of no earthly significance — that’s merely sad. The commentator who decries the use of the so-called veto and fails to keep track of the countless effective vetoes is missing something of tremendous political consequence — that’s pathetic.

Principal Principle0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Golden Tacks (Saturday May 27, 2006 at 5:11 pm)

There’s trouble abrewin’ down t’the ACLU.

That formidable force for freedoms is known for defending the seemingly indefensible in the name of their cause: that rights and liberties must be freely enjoyed.

But they’re not trouble-free. Board members have been critical of some recent undertakings, including the use of data-mining (which some regard as an invasion of privacy) and terrorism checks on members (a practice which was later ended). This criticism has led to a draft proposal that:

. . .a director may publicly disagree with an A.C.L.U. policy position, but may not criticize the A.C.L.U. board or staff.

As an “obligation” for directors, it would make it possible for the organization to take punitive action against those who violate it.

What’s the big deal?

It privileges efficacy over rights — the organization’s effective action over the directors’ rights to free speech. Surely if matters come to a head in the form of a public fracas, something truly controversial is at stake which the ACLU has not been able to address internally. It’s not as though they invite childish whiners to join the board — unless this is just a preparatory step for precisely that.

Now that might not be a big deal in general, but for the ACLU, it’s the biggest deal going. Their entire existence is premised on the privileging of rights over efficacy — it’s their core principle. That’s why they fight for the rights of registered sex offenders to frequent public parks against the efficacy of banning them from the parks. That’s why they fight for capital punishment against the politically expedient (and popular) execution of criminals. That’s why they fight for so very many controversial causes — because rights are so fundamental to their vision of our society that they genuinely believe that nothing can be more important than their safekeeping.

If this were an isolated incident, it might be of less concern, but it isn’t. Another directorial complaint stemmed from an incident evidencing the same mistake:

Last month, she was quoted in The New York Sun as criticizing the group’s endorsement of legislation to regulate advertising done by counseling centers run by anti-abortion groups. The bill would prohibit such centers from running advertisements suggesting that they provide abortion services when they actually try to persuade women to continue their pregnancies.

While the group must be in favor of women’s rights, it must also be in favor of others’ rights to free speech, however much what they say may go against the grain of ACLU members’ beliefs. Giving people the right to speak freely means precisely that you must endure whatever they say. Or, to paraphrase a mad Frenchman, the defence of liberty must sometimes mean helping your opponents.

Endorsing a bill to punish protesters who physically obstruct or assault those who give or seek abortions clearly falls within the ACLU’s mandate — someone is clearly curtailing another’s liberty. Endorsing a bill restricting people’s ability to persuade by speech or press is quite another. It doesn’t matter what kind of speech it is — going against it is going against a liberty, and to prefer one person’s to another’s is something that the concept of freedom itself can’t do.

The latter is a policy choice; and that, unfortunately, is what’s really going on. A particular instance of freedom for pregnant women — the right to procure an abortion — is being used to make the choice, rather than the general principle of freedom, which would permit both activities. Policy is being preferred to principle. What this means is that simple, clear answers to specific questions are held up as more important than broad, fundamental statements of purpose.

It’s easy to see why that’s the case.

Policy is easier to grasp and looks more realistic. We live in an age of cynics, not of dreamers, and under the circumstances, vague, sweeping visions just aren’t popular. Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do to improve the plight of the disabled in aboriginal communities.

But the Frigid Wonk isn’t cold to the idea of policy (heaven forfend). It’s a welcome change from vague (mis)representations, which is why the Canadian government’s “five priorities” plan, derided as simplistic, resonates well with voters (a simplistic point, but forgive a Cold Wonk for a brief shortcut — he’ll make it up later). It’s about time that politics addressed serious problems head-on, rather than by way of mission statements (is the land strong?)

What a focus on policy neglects, though, is precisely the problem with an idea like “five priorities” — while you paint the boards, swab the deck, mend the sails, flush the bilge and mind the beam, no one’s got any idea where you’re going or why. You’re likely, without a guiding principal (sorry, principle), to wind up crashing back into your own port, just like the ACLU butting heads with its own raison d’etre. It’s simply a matter of time.

It’s sad to see an organisation of such strength and quality gripped with controversy from such a simple mistake; but it’s good to be reminded of this simple truth: principles matter, no matter how vague. And that’s why they should be privileged over policy, no matter how effective it is.

Nothing to Add0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Golden Tacks, A House Divided (Sunday January 8, 2006 at 11:05 am)

This, sadly, is too long to be a daily feature.

Fortunately, it’s been published.

Just Don’t Look0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk, The Elephant (Wednesday December 14, 2005 at 11:35 pm)

Yes, the business with teasing the US is still going on in the Canadian election.

The CBC’s temporary radio show, Spin-Off got it right. Is Paul Martin’s playing up of animosity with the US any different from George Bush’s repeated use of the spectre of 9/11?

Yes. 9/11 was more serious.

As the CBC reported:

Martin has been critical of U.S. policy, not only in trade disputes, but also on global warming. He denies he is raising these things now as election fodder.

“Those issues predate the election campaign,” he said. “But if those issues arise, then I will deal with them as they arise.”

If the issues predated the campaign, then surely they’ve already arisen. Isn’t it about time the Prime Minister shut his mouth and dealt with them? The issue he started with was greenhouse gases, and as is becoming clear, Canada wasn’t just lagging the US in controlling emissions, it’s steadily getting worse. Paul Martin might want to remove the log from his own lungs before he complains about the mote in President Bush’s again; but then, it didn’t stop him before, did it?

Remember: he just wants attention, like any child throwing a tantrum. Ignore him, and he’ll have to offer something other than straw men in the way of campaigning.

Values for Nothing, Politics for Free0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk, Strategic Planning, The Elephant (Saturday December 10, 2005 at 1:18 am)

Apparently, the US government does pay attention to what Canadian politicians say.

A recent meeting between Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna was scheduled to compare the Prime Minister’s recent international grandstanding to Former German Chancellor Schroeder’s campaign remark that the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina was the result of America’s failure to follow Germany’s big government model (the kind which, naturally, he proposed to continue).

Former Chancellor Schroeder, mark. He lost the recent election (by the same kind of slender margin that would likely mark a Liberal loss), and earned himself a nifty moniker. Of course, in Canada there’s always Tupper to fall back on if a worse Prime Minister is needed (no one seems to know who he is).

But Martin wants it to be clear that he is a man of principle:

I don’t make it a habit of commenting on any discussions a Canadian ambassador would have with a foreign country

Certainly not. He only makes a habit of undermining whatever work an ambassador might do. Better by far for Canada to advance his narrow-minded pursuit of electoral victory. What has come of the promise Paul Martin made to repair relations with the United States? Why appoint a skilled and experienced politician (former NB Premier McKenna) as ambassador if his work is continually undermined by cheap political games? Oh, yes. To keep him happy and far away from Ottawa, lest what befell Chretien befalls Martin. He who troubleth his own house. . .

But Martin maintains that this isn’t about politics. Does he really beleive that his prodding will have an effect on the China or the United States? If so, shouldn’t that illusion be dispelled by the obvious reaction? No, it’s simply an expression of honest Canadian values:

I believe the position that has been taken by Canada at this conference reflects Canadian interests and Canadian values and, let me tell you as the prime minister of Canada, I am going to speak for Canadian interests and Canadian values.

The problem, of course, is that he’s been speaking of values for quite long enough. Isn’t it about time to do something about them? Wasn’t he Minister of Finance between 2000 and 2003 when $3.7 Billion in expenditures on emissions did nothing to bring Canada closer to Kyoto targets? Hasn’t he had a year and a half to work at it, with nothing more to say than “these are our values”?

Values aren’t things you hold onto. They’re things you use to guide your actions. No matter how deeply they run, if you don’t do anything with them, they are worthless. The sad truth is that despite its participation in Kyoto, Canada has a far worse track record since 1990 than the United States on greenhouse gas emissions.

When Bono badmouths governments (no, not bono), he has the advantage of having no track record on African aid to make him look like an ass on a global stage. Canada doesn’t have such an advantage — it actually participates in these problems.

Which reveals what the only possible purpose of this nonsense is: presenting Martin as the defender of values. An easy thing to protect. When you flee a burning building, you rarely have to bother much to take your values with you.

And this is a case of arson. Since Canadian values aren’t threatened (although Canadians of narrow opinions generally claim theirs always are), we need to manufacture a problem. If Martin can get the Bush administration (”boo,” children, remember your pantomime) to complain, he can claim, as he does, that he must stand up for values against such evil threats (”Look, look! I saved you from the fire I just started!”). He’s looking for heroic kudos. Last I checked, though, arson earns you a criminal conviction, not a parade.

Is Schroeder’s campaign hyperbole and slender loss an indication of what the future holds for Martin? If this is an indication of his dedication to the national interest, he doesn’t deserve anything that good.

Softening on Softwood0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Hats Off, Gentlemen (Thursday November 24, 2005 at 11:58 am)

There’s been a lot of movement on the softwood lumber issue of late. As the Icy Wonk reported recently, the issue is getting a fair bit of play.

And at last, good signs for Canadian producers:

United States Says it Will Cut Wood Duties

Just what’s going on?

According to the US Department of Commerce, the countervailing duties on imports of softwood lumber will likely be cut from their current level of 16% to 0.8%.

A few notes to clarify what’s going on:

  • This decision has been in the works for a little while, being the result of an administrative review within the Department of Commerce
  • A committee will review the decision in between 25 and 45 days’ time. Until then there will be no change in the duties levied
  • The change in the level of countervailing duties will not affect the imposition of anti-dumping duties of 4% on the same products

This is a great step forward, so long as it actually goes into effect. The review committee has the authority to change the decision and impose a different rate.

For now, good news for producers.

Ruckus from Caracas0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, The Elephant, The Other America (Sunday November 20, 2005 at 2:45 pm)

And the Globe strikes again, giving us the latest:

Chavez Lashes Out at Bush

That’s not news, folks, it’s status quo, like “Elderly attain greater age than the young” or “Man expresses personal opinion”. Are they just trying to remind their occasional readers of the international political situation? Are people paying so little attention that they miss a story with some 40,000 Google hits (1.7 Million if you search for “attacks” rather than “lashes out”).

Is there nothing more to this story? Ah, but there is. The “lashing out” is taking a few forms:

  • The expulsion of a group of Christian missionaries
  • The claim that the US has already made full preparations for an attack against Venezuela
  • The order of 100,000 Kalishnikov rifles
  • A mass call for volunteers for the army reserve

But of course, it really boils down to a criticism of Bush, doesn’t it. I suppose that sells papers to Canadians unconcerned by a third-world populist, flush with oil revenue, whose preferred technique for governing involves terrorizing his own citizens with the prospect of a powerful and hated enemy.

The last round of expulsions involved accusations of colonialism and vague mentions of a plot to overthrow the much beloved, much criticized President, Hugo Chavez. By expelling that group, the government asserted, it was protecting indigenous groups both from cultural imperialism, and from the sight of the overly-luxurious accommodations which the missionaries built for themselves.

President Chavez has held himself out as a campaigner for indigenous rights, and has granted a number of Venezuelan indigenous groups portions of the lands which they believe their ancestors occupied. These grants do not include mineral or oil rights.

Making personal attacks against Bush is merely another political move on Chavez’s part. It’s well-designed to play both nationally and internationally. It may even win him a few points with opponents of Bush in the US. But is it really the meat of the issue?

It’s not clear that Chavez will be bad or good for Venezuela and the world, and less clear by far when we draw attention to the most irrelevant facts in that determination: a litany of personal attacks on the US President.

Is that really what Globe readers want? Hopefully not. Hopefully, they expect a bit more.

Going soft?0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, The Elephant (Saturday November 19, 2005 at 11:39 pm)

Has the American will to violate Canadian softwood exports begun to bend?

To the delight of the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the US House of Representatives has voted to repeal the Byrd Amendment, properly known as the Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act (search within the page for “dumping” to reach the Byrd Amendment at Title X.)

Passed in 2000, the Byrd Amendment was designed to assist American industries coping with the effects of subsidized foreign imports. Where the US imposes countervailing duties against imports from a given country which it believes subsidizes its producers, the revenue from those duties can be distributed to American companies competing with the subsidized foreign producers.

Essentially, it adds a second kind of protection for American industries which the US government determines to be threatened by foreign imports. Duties are meant to raise the price of imports to the level of local products, to make them less attractive. By diverting the proceeds of these duties to American companies, the companies are both protected from competition and offered a cash bonus on their competitors’ sales. Business becomes a win-win proposition.

In a nutshell, this is why the amendment isn’t regarded as fair trading, even though countervailing duties can be. The WTO ruled that the amendment was a violation of international trade obligations, and therefore an unfair trade practice on the part of the United States.

So is there something for Canadians to cheer at? Just what does this vote mean? The House of Representatives is just one of two powerful Houses in the US Congress. The mere fact that the bill to repeal the amendment got through the lower House doesn’t ensure its passage through what is certain to be a serious debate in the Senate.

But more importantly, the repeal is hardly a blow against protectionism. As it happens, the main impetus behind the repeal is trimming the budget. After all, if duties are coming in, it hardly helps things to have to pay them back out again. By repealing the amendment, the government keeps $3.5 Billion dollars a year in its own pockets.

Which means, of course, that the repeal of the amendment does not indicate an imminent reversal in the US government’s attitude towards softwood imports. Consider:

  • The amendment was first introduced in 2000, while Canada and the US still had a trade agreement on softwood lumber. It had nothing to do with the softwood dispute in the first place.
  • The amendment had been ruled a violation of international trade obligations. The reverse is true of the American duties on Canadian softwood lumber.
  • The decision to repeal the amendment will disappoint American producers. The maintenance of now-legitimated countervailing duties will probably be politically expedient, if not more important than before.

While motive isn’t always important, thinking that this change bodes well for Canada on the softwood issue would rely heavily on it. We’d have to believe that the repeal comes from a desire to end protectionist policies.

But if that’s what Congress wanted to do, why would it be done so partially and as an integral part of a cost-cutting measure? No one was tricked into voting for the proposition — it wasn’t a rider. It was in the meat of a bill coming out of committee — the most considered form a legislative proposal takes. Why wouldn’t the House simply legislate against the practice of countervailing duties?

Because this isn’t about ending protectionism. The celebration is premature, to say the least. Canadians will continue to feel violated by American hardball for the foreseeable future.

Petrified wood. . .0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant (Friday November 18, 2005 at 2:24 pm)

Isn’t it about time that we did something about softwood lumber?

It’s an important issue with a lengthy history. Most recently, the United States has placed a countervailing duty on imports of Canadian softwood lumber, levied to counter the effect of unfair subsidies. Since the US has been a growing market for Canadian softwood lumber, the effect on Canadian industry is significant.

The agreement which expired in 2001 was beneficial for Canadian producers and exporters, but there has been no replacement agreement since. The WTO has recently ruled that the new regime of duties levied by the US government meet international requirements. Canadian producers aren’t pleased with the prospect of losing the $4.25 Billion (and counting) recaptured through duties on US goods which the WTO would otherwise have endorsed. Not that such funds would necessarily have gone to the producers.

Naturally, the industry isn’t happy, and bad trading relations are like an open wound for a haemophilliac — they don’t heal themselves.

Which is why the government is taking action. The Prime Minister reports that he has spoken with President Bush this week, suggesting that the government is getting tough.

But I have a strange sense of deja vu. Haven’t I heard this story before?

A few weeks ago, at the Summit of the Americas, the two men spoke on the same subject.

The same scathing attack was part of the Prime Minister’s speech to the New York Economic Club in October.

The two leaders spoke by phone on the issue in September.

Why am I hearing the same story again and again? Maybe because the government has chosen to do so. According to the Minister, Canada intends to stay the course on this issue.

I’m sure diplomatic pressure requires a constant stream; but you’d think Canadians would be less than impressed at hearing this story repeatedly without word of progress. Isn’t anything actually happening that they can speak of? If not, why insult our intelligence with a show of irrelevant bravado or by suggesting that the leaders’ meetings are where the real work is being done on the issue?

And it’s not as though this is a recent effort by the government. This very approach was first reported last November. If harrassment remains a major part of their strategy, they’re starting to look more like the dweeb who hits on the cheerleader every day than the bold defenders of Canada they hope to.

Or maybe they just want to look like they’re standing up to Bush. Has the Canadian government decided to start taking political tips from Venezuela? The tax cuts just announced fit right in with the Chavez method. So does an oil-based economy. Hopefully, the Latin influence won’t extend to the coming election.

It would be nice for the government to report some progress on the issue, instead of pandering to our traditional insecure yearning to get one over on the Americans and our fashionable and irrelevant disapproval of the current President. So far, the government seems content to report that they’re still speaking. That is, frankly, not an accomplishment — it’s the expected minimal maintenance of relations. In the absence of further evidence of progress, this isn’t reassuring. The government’s professed strategy sounds interesting, but will it work? Staying the course is fine, so long as you’re not stuck in port.