Jeffry Simpson had an interesting column in today’s Globe and Mail regarding the Harper Governments’ newly introduced Omnibus Crime bill. As you may know, this bill consolidates a number of previously un-passed crime and punishment proposals into one massive piece of legislation. It calls for a huge increase in prisons, creates a bunch of new criminal offences, institutes mandatory minimum sentences (including provisions that make rape a less serious offence than growing marijuana plants) and opens the floodgates to allow unrestricted wiretapping and warrant-less detentions. What the column zeroed in on was the statement by the Minister that there legislation was not based on statistics but on what they thought was right. And he warned that this was just the beginning of their (unpublished) program.
Now I don’t know about most people, but I have an expectation that our leaders at whatever level are making reality-based decisions on behalf of the crown and the electorate. After all, measurements of the world around us guide our actions in everyday things, assist in understanding the past and shaping our plans for the future. And for most of us, the experience of others helps us to avoid the same mistakes ourselves. But in the world of senior level politics this does not appear to be the case. Perhaps a few modest examples might suffice:
My favorite example is the US experiment with Prohibition, partially because I am currently reading ‘Last Call’, a history of this experiment in social control. Imposition of the 18th amendment and the Volstead Act generated an explosion in alcohol consumption – suddenly it was fashionable to be drunk. Supplying this demand for alcohol fostered the development of organized crime at an unprecedented scale and established a number of major personal fortunes here in Canada. My reading last night mentioned that in 1926 the sale of illegal alcohol was a 3.5 billion dollar business, larger than the budget for the entire US military. When it was finally repealed the changes it wrought persisted to the present day. It would not seem unreasonable to think that the damage it did has never been erased.
This can be paired with the current ‘War on Drugs’ that has been going on for the last forty years in the US and elsewhere. The demand has fueled the rise of increasingly violent gangs in the producing areas – Central and South America, Afghanistan and elsewhere. A cynic might say that all the government work to suppress the trade has fostered its development and provided much appreciated price support. While there has been a lot of sober discussion outside of government circles, no doubt reflecting on the experience of Prohibition, of legalizing drugs and taxing them, our leaders seem quite oblivious. Interestingly, the experiment by Portugal of legalization produced the almost predictable decline in usage – and the government had decided to put the money previously spent on control into treatment.
I am also inclined to include the Ontario electrical system in my catalog of dubious programs. Let us not forget that the model of an open market for electricity was developed by Enron – in a sense the ultimate expression of raw capitalism and free market ideology. But its underlying principle was to increase the profits of Enron by playing on popular mythologies and manipulating its availability rather than increase the supply and reducing the cost. As I understand it, the prosperity of Ontario was for a long time driven in part by its inexpensive and reliable electricity system. But Ontario Hydro got a case of bureaucratic bloat over time – and a political cure was applied. The once monolithic company was split into a number of independent crown corporations, each taking a piece of the pie. To be sure, executive positions (with diamond studded lifetime pensions beyond the dreams of most people) have multiplied – we now need multiple senior executives (some of who’s abuses have been newsworthy). But electricity rates have soared and there is always the talk of restricting supplies through price and availability controls. And taxpayer money is being thrown at alternative energy sources in a dubious attempt to create industries that cannot sustain themselves economically without continuous government life support. And the European experience with large scale wind shows clearly that this technology is not an unmixed blessing. And we will ignore the tendency to build wind farms in bird sanctuaries and along migratory flyways – despite the wildlife protection treaties that the US and Canada have signed over the last century.
As a friend of ours recently said – inside the halls of government the outside world just fades away and it all becomes an endless search for means and justifications to stay in power. Doing good for the populace and having a vision of the future are just not part of the equations. In the US it is all too obvious that inside the beltway similar dynamics are in play. The country struggles with a deep recession (dare we say Great Depression II?) with wide-spread joblessness. Local politicians have begun openly wondering how long this can continue before there is urban unrest. But no one inside the Beltway seems to be aware of this – they are obsessed with cutting taxes for the rich and reducing government deficits caused in part by their unilateral foreign wars and expenses for bailing out their buddies in institutional finance. And the programs they want to cut are precisely those that help the already hard hit middle and lower classes.
So I wonder how this is all going to end? Are we living in a ‘those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad’ era? I would welcome any evidence of reality-based public policy, but clearly that is not going to happen. Instead, our unresponsive leaders appear to be digging ever deeper into a surreal world of their own imagining, intoxicated no doubt, on their own self-importance.