Harper the role-model

Harper the role-model

Amid all the media hoopla surrounding this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, here’s a headline you probably missed: Stephen Harper was invited to speak but politely declined. Speaking to the National Post, an anonymous staffer later explained that the optics of Harper addressing a gang of Republicans would be just too scandalous for his delicate country to handle.

“Our whole careers, we’ve had to defend ourselves against charges of being lackeys of the American right,” he said. So why give the haters more ammo?

One really has to feel for the CPAC organizers. We all know the Republican Party isn’t exactly on the ascendancy these days, but what does it say about a group so desperate for American conservative success stories that they have to leave America altogether? Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was apparently another gentle rejection, though I imagine he was worried about optics of a different sort.

Not that the Harper invite was entirely without merit, mind you. From the perspective of an American righty, the PM offers no shortage of reasons for respect. He’s a strong intellectual conservative. He’s won three back-to-back terms in a centre-left nation. He seems poised to balance the Canadian budget in less than a decade without resorting to tax hikes. He’s been called the most pro-Israel leader on earth. He’s pretty good at winning the nonwhite/immigrant vote. In many ways, he’s everything Republicans want to be, but can’t.

More controversially, however, the Harper precedent also offers evidence supporting the moderate-or-die school of conservative electoral strategy. Take cherished right-wing social issues. Here, Harper runs the gamut from disinterested to agnostic.

Though a staunch critic of gay marriage while still in the political wilderness, as prime minister he inherited a country that had already legalized it, and in 2006, after a hopeless parliamentary vote on revisiting the matter, he officially declared the debate “closed.” That’s different than full-throated support, but practically speaking… not really.

On abortion, the story’s much the same. My friend Jonathan Van Maren, spokesman for one of this country’s more radical pro-life groups, recently wrote an bitter editorial in which he describes Harper as a cruelly indifferent politician who’s consistently failed to offer anti-abortionists “the slightest reason to support him.”

“I will not have legislation limiting a woman’s right to choose,” Jon quotes the prime minister stating repeatedly. Again, perhaps different from saying “I’m ecstatic about said right,” but even more different from threatening it.

Canadians partial to this sort of conservative pragmatism have done their best to hype their “good example” to audiences south of the border. Following President Obama’s reelection, the Canadian papers filled with editorials lecturing Republicans to heed the Harper case study, or else get used to feeling the Democrat boot on their backsides. David Frum in particular, the dual-citizen booster of binational conservatism/exiled Republican thought criminal has constantly written editorials praising Harper as a vindicating counterexample to Tea Party extremism.

And there’s evidence powerful voices in the Republican establishment are beginning to take Harperism to heart, too. As last week’s so-called 2012 “autopsy report” from GOP Chairman Reince Priebus vividly illustrated, the Republican Party’s highest-ranking muckity-mucks are painfully aware their contemporary troubles are almost entirely rooted in damning perceptions of party dogmatism, bigotry, and intolerance among the general public. We need to get away from “universal purity” and towards “a more welcoming conservatism,” says the report. “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too.” We must become “inclusive and welcoming on social issues.” And so on.

Now, I like Stephen Harper. I’ve voted for him repeatedly. I think he’s a better prime minister than any available alternative. But I’m also prepared to admit his success as an “electable conservative” are a product of the unique weirdness of the Canadian political system as much as anything else. His ability to provide lessons to the rest of the world have to be viewed first and foremost in this context.

In the last Canadian parliamentary election Harper’s party won 39.6% of the popular vote. That’s not a lot. Granted, every other party won considerably less, and it doesn’t logically follow — as much as the Stephane Dions and Elizabeth Mays of the world might wish — that some hybrid Frankenstein Liberal-NDP-Green coalition government would be more democratically legitimate. But the Conservative Party of Canada, even in this current epoch of outreach, still only commands only a narrow plurality of public support, and it’s a plurality smaller than the one John McCain won in 2008, or even Michael Dukakis in 1988.

But that’s good enough in a parliamentary system. In many ways, Harper’s success in Canada is really more analogous to John Boehner’s ability to remain speaker of the House of Representatives even though more overall voters wanted Nancy Pelosi. A party that’s unpopular nationally can still win legislative majorities without too much difficulty because the diverse voter, party, and issue dynamics in several hundred individual races offer vastly more strategic potential (particularly when gerrymandering is involved) than the unified judgement of the national populace.

Second, it’s not clear at all whether Stephen Harper’s calculated moderation has actually improved the party’s brand in any measurable way — or at least changed any minds. Ask your average young, urbanite Canadian (a demographic that overwhelmingly supports the NDP) why she doesn’t vote Tory, and her reasons will probably echo the non-Republicans in the Priebus report: the party is too white and religious, it hates gay people, it’s full of radical anti-abortion nuts, and so on. The Canadian left certainly hasn’t moderated their rhetoric in response to their increasingly pragmatic opponents, as last year’s completely insane liberal freak-out over a non-existent Harper conspiracy against gay marriage proved, a stereotype merely has to sound plausible to be politically powerful. How much time would have to pass before accusations of Republican bigotry — no matter how moderate the candidate — stop sounding plausible? How many election cycles did it take for southern conservatives to stop voting Democrat?

Lastly, demographics. I’ll expand on this one in more detail once I finally get around to writing a proper review of The Big Shift, an important and insightful book on the influence of immigration on modern Canadian politics, but for now, suffice it to say that Canadian minority voters (who more-or-less back conservatives) and American minority voters (who don’t) don’t actually have much in common beyond an off-white skin tone.

For reasons particular to its history and geography, the United States possesses an enormous population of men and women of African and Latino descent, many of whom inhabit a depressingly stable underclass marked by poverty, discrimination, and social dysfunction. Canada’s largest minority population, in contrast, consists of east and south Asians who voluntarily journeyed to North America after the Second World War and established comfortable middle-class lifestyles in ethnic suburban enclaves.

If American minorities are disproportionately disposed to the left, in short, it’s not because of some fundamental “minority” distrust of white conservatives (though that may surely exist) but rather their logical economic disposition to favor the party of welfare, medicare, and social assistance, while Canada’s comparably better-off minorities favor the Tories because there’s a sense that it’s the party of small business and general bourgeois sensibilities.

This is a crass overgeneralization, I realize, and its blunt simplicity does not explain some of the stranger divergences in North American voter demographics (why bourgeois Asian-Americans vote Democrat for example). But it’s still truer than not. A good Canadian thought exercise is to imagine a scenario in which aboriginals comprised 25% of the Canadian electorate. Would a Tory appeal to “shared conservative values” get them anywhere?

There’s an unavoidable possibility that conservatism, in the sense it’s presently understood and offered in North America, is simply not a winning pitch on either side of the 49th parallel. It can win a majority of seats in the Canadian legislature and a majority of members in the United States Congress, but it can’t command an outright majority of popular support in either nation. That matters less in Canada, where three-party races and a badly-designed parliamentary system allow a government to seize sweeping power on a relatively thin mandate, but it also says less about the viability of Canadian conservatism than Harper-boosters want to believe.

That’s the awkward hidden subtext to Harper’s no-show at CPAC: he doesn’t have much to teach.


  1. egad

    what is that thing hanging below the elephants mouth? and on its finger?
    i exist in a vague state between terrified and demanding for oncology

  2. uhhh

    i think its his ear, his terrifying- cancer looking ear

  3. Jake_Ackers

    Anyone who follows Canadian politics more closely might be able to answer this. Has Harper actually done that much in his 3 terms? Or is it he just has kept the boat steady kind of thing?

  4. drs

    "But that’s good enough in a parliamentary system"

    Well, good enough in Canada's parliamentary system, unused to coalitions, and with an electoral system that can hand a majority of seats to a plurality.

  5. Virgil

    Eh….lets not make the mistake of thinking that because a party has a moment of being behind matters its the end of the road. The Republicans won in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2010. They lost in 2006, 2008, and 2012. This is not exactly a horrid track record. A slight turn of fate, and they will be back and the Democrats will be soul searching in the same way they were in 2004. These things are in flux by nature. Now if the Republicans had lost by 60-40….oh wait that was Goldwater and they were back in 1968…..

    Frankly the Republicans have done better this side of 1995 than at any time since the period from 1896-1932.

    In Canada….well the Liberals melted down and the NDP is not a wholly acceptable alternative for a lot of people…at least not yet. Harper got lucky, but at the same time…it seems to be the mirror image of the Progressive Conservative meltdown in the early 1990's.

  6. J.J. McCullough

    But one of my points was not all elections are the same. The GOP can win the Congress, so 2002 and 2010 and even 2014 aren't really the issue. At the presidential level, the important stat is that Republicans have lost five of the last six popular votes. And electoral college weirdness notwithstanding, that's a very unsettling trend.

  7. @Cristiona

    Well, sure. But you can easily extend the window and make it that the GOP has won 5 of 9. Or narrow it and they 2 for 4. If they had lost five in a row, it'd be time to worry, but right now?

    The encumbant got re-elected. Hardly groundbreaking.

  8. Kaliwax

    They have won one of the past four presidential elections by the popular vote count, unless you have forgotten that minor controversy after the 2000 election. There is also the problem of having an incredibly motivated voting bloc in the most recent election yet they only gained one million votes compared to 2008 when they were feeling down on themselves. It shows that their base is shrinking at the same time they're having difficulty appealing to moderates.

    Combine this with other trends like their favorite strategy of labeling opponents as liberal to be a political weapon against them is no longer effective and growing support for ideas and proposals that are viewed as progressive (eg. gay marriage) it isn't very hard to see there is a shift going on. The Reagan era golden age for Republicans is ending and the old guards are sensing this as Tea Party golden boys, like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, attempt to wrestle control of the party when the stalwarts are in a weakened state. You could see an example of this when McCain and Graham lashed out against them following their recent filibuster.

  9. OldsVistaCruiser

    Down here below the 49th parallel, a third term by a president was outlawed in 1952 by the 22nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That term limit was imposed to keep another Franklin Delano Roosevelt from running multiple times.
    There is an exception, however. If a vice-president succeeds a president due to death, resignation or incapacitation after the former president's term is half over, the new president can run for two terms in his own right, resulting in a maximum 10 years in office.

  10. OldsVistaCruiser

    His/her own right* (I predict that there will be a female vice president or president in my lifetime)

  11. awnman

    There is another exception. You can run for multiple terms if your Harry Truman. (He was grandfathered in for reasons I don't entirely understand seeing as he was unpopular and not much liked by his own party at the time)

  12. Dryhad

    "How many election cycles did it take for southern conservatives to stop voting Democrat?" An interesting question. LBJ said he had lost the south for a generation by signing the civil rights act, and it's turned out to be even longer than that.

  13. Thornus

    That's not an easy question to answer. Take Alabama, for example. It hasn't voted for a Democrat for President since Carter in 1976. However, Republicans didn't fully take over the state government until 2010. Similarly, Georgia didn't elect a Republican as governor until 2002, and that was mainly out of anger over the state flag.

  14. Jake_Ackers

    Very true. Dems control local politics because the elderly are all Yellow Dog Democrats. They won't ever vote for another party. So you have a ton of conservative Democrats across the South and West. That is what is one of the causes of partisanship. The Dems run conservatives on a local level and refuse to let them run nationally cause they wouldn't win a primary. As a result all the conservatives end up staying locally or are part of the GOP nationally.

    Plus party bosses are still strong locally especially in the local Dem party structure. The GOP no matter where tends to have a divide over it's base whether its Lib/Mod Republicans, Social Conservatives or Civil Libertarians. While the Dems tend to be more homogenous on a local level whether its far left in San Francisco or very socially conservative in the deep South. That has allowed the Dems to maintain a tight control over their candidates and enabling victories.

  15. OldsVistaCruiser

    That could be one reason. I also heard it was because LBJ told white southerners to "get out of the Ku Klux Klan." White southerners switched from Democratic to Republican wholesale due to LBJ, who himself was a white southerner.

  16. OldsVistaCruiser

    Once upon a time, the southern U.S. was known as the "Solid South" for its support of Democratic candidates.

  17. Andrew

    Harper's nose is even longer than usual in this comic. Pinocchio reference?

  18. JonasB

    If people are willing to believe in the 'conservative hidden agenda' despite no practical evidence (hence the gay-marriage freakout last year), then there won't be much that can be done to change their minds that won't be dismissed as 'pandering'.

  19. Colin Minich

    I don't think it's even how much Harper would have to teach if only very little. It's more how much the GOP would be willing to listen. They're already subtly tearing at each other over the Frankenstein's monsters they created with the Tea Party, the Palinoscopy, and the Grover Norquist train. And even then, I really do not believe that the core of Canadian conservatism is mired with such deep-seeded prejudice as seen with the opponents of gay marriage and the fringe factions going on about race and the "loss of culture" as it is with the American conservatism. This is no attempt to deify the liberal side of American thought but what comes out of the mouths of GOP pundits and politicians can only have people scratching their heads wondering where the concept of logic originates behind the statements if logic even exists at all within.

    Call me extreme, but I truly believe the GOP will only evolve if the boomer generation running it eventually dies off. I see so very little contribution from them in the field of progress.

    Harper, while winning an impressive third term, as you said benefited from the fractured Canadian political system between alliances, parties, and voter blocs that makes it all the more damning for the underdog party that has the one shot at toppling the boss. There is nothing the GOP at this stage will learn from such a winner, especially with their mantra over debt management and Harper's own run-up of Canadian debt, if I recall correctly from a previous cartoon you made.

  20. Jake_Ackers

    The GOP pundits and politicians are being reactionaries and don't even realize what they are saying. They can't communicate and are fighting an argument of years ago. Once the libertarians move in you will being to see a big change. We can see it already with Rubio, Paul and Portman.

    Frankly, the Dems seem to be benefiting from a fractured GOP. The debt is going to get worst, which will favor the GOP. Americans hate taxes in general which favors the GOP. And once the libertarian Republicans roll in will naturally revert back to a non-interventionist policy. Which again the American people favor. Every party favors a war if its started by the President from their party, most recent example, Libya. It's only a matter of time before the Dems and Reps go back to a Clinton-Gingrich Bosnia positions over some other foreign policy mess.

  21. Colin Minich

    Let the record show that for the most part I HATE Libertarianism. I hate the objectivist thinking that goes with it. I hate the "every man for himself" mentality they have towards municipalities, education, opportunity, etc. I hate the thinly veiled isolationism of the Ron Paul crowd. I hate the insistence of some Libertarians to go back to a gold standard to which Bretton-Woods proved did not work. I hate the naive belief that deregulation is the only way to stir an economy up again when companies would gladly feed Americans to the wolves to boost their profit margins along with have such little concern for the environment. Libertarianism to me proves that money is what matters to them along with blind objectivist thought. Rand Paul is an absolute menace simply by being the son of the racist loon Ron Paul. These Libertarian Republicans will never touch the golden calf that is the defense budget and will more than likely leave South Korea to a harsher attack instead of dare help out a vital ally when needed most.

    I'll take a Jon Huntsman any day over any of them.

    And Libya is a very poor comparison to the mess that was Iraq. Libya was more French-led with American assistance with logistics.

  22. Trenacker

    "For reasons particular to its history and geography, the United States possesses an enormous population of men and women of African and Latino descent, many of whom inhabit a depressingly stable underclass marked by poverty, discrimination, and social dysfunction."

    That sentence, in my point of view, was the most interesting of the article because it prompted me to consider how many Republicans come at that problem.

    There is a marked reluctance, I think, on the part of Republicans, to acknowledge the role of history and variables-other-than-choice in explaining social outcomes. At times, their desire for a completely color-blind society seems to lead them off the rails, and over to the position that, because color shouldn't matter, it can't matter and hasn't mattered.

    In my personal opinion, some of Republicans' reluctance to even engage with the idea that racism is still pervasive and powerful arises out of the fact that so many Americans fetishize poverty, use stereotypes to help them understand other cultures, and engage in quiet, private racism. (I agree, too, with the related arguments that opposition to gay marriage and the proliferation of the Spanish language in this country are signs of a willingness by members of the majority culture to impose "petty aparthied" where they can still get away with it.)

    Accepting that race matters would mean acknowledging that Republican policy has in some way been lacking, and that our society is still broken. That, in turn, would seem to beg the question of what sacrifices ought to be made to bring about meaningful change. Those are questions that some whites, especially those who believe that black culture in particular is an "angry" culture, would rather not confront.

    The real problem with American conservatism is that there is great difference between stated and demonstrated preference. Many voters, especially those who really miss the money lost to taxes and suspect, rightly or wrongly, that they are not the greatest beneficiaries of redistributive policies, are very enthusiastic about the rhetoric of shrinking government, and reward politicians who pass legislation that purports to do that. They are helped along in their self-destructive choices by a conviction that reduction in taxes will lead to more private spending, which will lead in turn to a better economy, and also by the difficulty of figuring out exactly why the national economy has performed in a certain way. This obscures what I think is the demonstrated failure of "slash-and-burn" policies celebrated by the Tea Party movement. At the end of the day, however, these are also the people who most need the jobs in industries that do the greatest share of government contracting, and, as often as not, the people who benefit most from subsidy and pork barrel spending. They also defend Social Security and Medicare to the last. In other words, Republicans are unwilling, in the main, to take their own best advice, meaning that they are going nowhere very fast.

    In Canada, many of these hard choices have already led to more or less final outcomes. The debate about what kind of healthcare system to have is over. Canadians are focused on improving the outcomes of their system, not on what kind of system they should have in the first place. And Canadians are, I think, less convinced that private business is always right. Many Americans presume that regulation is always bad because the free market by definition yields a socially beneficial outcome.

    It is also clear that, whatever Harper's faith, he is mostly reconciled to the conclusion that it can't inform policy in Canada, even if only because the voters won't stand for it.

  23. Jake_Ackers

    Canada has a limited population and is not as diverse as the US. Sure they have many differences and are diverse but since the population is smaller it's not as pronounced. 1 million people complaining about something in the US seems like a lot of people even though its a percentage of a percentage of the population. When the same percentage in Canada would seem like what? A few thousand?

    Harper doesn't talk about his faith because he wouldn't get votes. Republicans do because it gets them votes. Same reason Dems always raging about some racial injustice. It's all politics. Once the color of your pen (red blue, black, green, etc). is deemed important, they all begin to talk and care about it. Although you do make a good point. More of Canadians issues are settled like healthcare. Again most likely due to it's population being a lot more homogenous than the US.

    I think the whole problem with race and gay marriages in this country is that the two sides talk past each other. You see it in the gun debate. Everyone stereotypes each other or just oppose an issue because it seems if they support A then B will surely follow. Like most people on the Left and Right support background checks. But the Left act like the Right doesn't. And the Right acts like if there are more background checks no one will get a gun ever again for the rest of their lives. Instead of finding the high ground we tend to continue to attack each other for what we THINK the others position is rather than asking what it truly is.

    TBH, though both sides have failed. Yes the GOP gets attacked for failing to address racial issues. Mostly because if they address it, they think it has to be from a legislative perspective (so more big gov't) and not a social one. However, when was the last time the Left actually wanted to cut spending? You can increase taxes but spending is still too much. They are complaining that the automatic cuts are going to hurt so much. If they are complaining about that little bit then imagine when it really has to be cut.

    The Dems never put up some real reform that actually slashes spending. You can destroy the entire military budget and we still would be overspending. That is in itself is way more the role of govt as outlined in the Constitution and than some social discussion.

  24. Trenacker

    We agree that Harper's faith is politically useless in Canada, which, along with the structure of the electoral system, helps to explain the strength of his party — or at least its preeminence over other, still weaker political contenders.

    I don't think that apparent Republican indifference to racial minorities, or Democrats' relative interested in social justice, are purely instrumental. With the exception of Michelle Bachmann, I find that most Republican politicians are true believers in conservative values — the same values that animate the voters who keep returning them to office. And those voters tend to believe that any and all redistributive policies are always to their disadvantage. They also tend to be jealous of apparent prerogatives sought out by groups that are not white, male, heterosexual, and Christian. What liberals call "rectification" or "leveling," conservatives usually see as "reverse" discrimination. Liberals believe that minorities are getting the same protections already enjoyed by the majority. Conservatives believe that minorities are seeking, and getting, additional privileges.

    I'm curious where you think the sides talk past eachother on race and gay marriage. I used to believe that there was a large reserve of Christians in the United States who are defending "traditional marriage" on the false belief that any change in law will lead directly to federal censorship of religious institutions. To churches being forced to marry gay couples on demand, and all that. Now, I'm not so sure. The more closely I look, the more it appears that the vast majority of those who oppose gay marriage do so because they believe it is one front where they can still legislate their personal morality. As I said, a startling number of Christians in this country appear to be completely comfortable with theocracy. They aren't quite convinced that the Constitution prohibits the state from making and enforcing laws based entirely on religious precepts.

    I find liberals to be more realistic than conservatives on the subject of spending, especially in a down economy. Conservatives keep insisting that the government spends in a way that no rational person ever would. That's fine, but it's also true that many businesses go into debt in order to finance necessary improvements that lead to financial solvency down the line. And, with interest low and our credit still good, now is the time to be doing some of that. That doesn't mean that we don't talk seriously about hard cutting, but it does mean that any attempt to avoid imposing new taxes, especially at a time when voters on either side of the aisle are demanding so many social services, is frankly unrealistic.

    Really, I think that one way to turn this economy around is to allow Medicare and insurance companies to negotiate better prices on drugs and medical equipment. It may also be that there need to be price controls put on health care, where the market is warped because of the nature of what is being bought and sold. Of course, that needs to be balanced carefully so that (A) the medical field still attracts the best and the brightest, in sufficient numbers, and (B) innovation is still worthwhile. This is sticky stuff. The outcomes aren't always worth celebrating. It would mean that the field of medical administration will become substantially less lucrative.

    Something should also be done about the creeping cost of college education, where the government keeps spending money on school loans that only encourage schools to raise their rates so that they can net more of that spending. There isn't a clear link to quality of product.

    Finally, it is my sense that the retirement age will need to be raised significantly, perhaps as high as 70.

    As you can see, my solutions are radically interventionist.

  25. Jake_Ackers

    I agree that cons and lib politicians believe what they believe. But the focus wouldn't be there if it didn't matter. For example, take Tony Blair massively Catholic and full of faith but kept his mouth shut because he felt he would of been viewed as crazy. Especially in the UK which is well… not Catholic to say the least.

    On the theocracy point. True but to a degree. There is enough of a split on (con versus libertarian) that you could get a majority to support "personal contracts" (same word, same rights for gays and straight) so as long as the word marriage isn't used in a legal setting. This way, gov't isn't legislating straight, gay or polygamist marriage (that last one might take a while.)

    When it comes down to it, I don't think its hate. If both sides are guaranteed what they want, they will stop stereotyping the other side on that issue (eventually or at least less). With true "Personal contracts." NOT civil unions/marriage, not "separate but equal." Libertarians are proposing personal contracts and it could work. I think the discussion would change. Socially it would take a while but politically it would be akin to healthcare in Canada. People will disagree but there would be equal rights. Anyone who complains is just discriminatory. In the end I think there are a lot less hateful people. People have way too many problems of their own to worry about what people do behind closed doors. Sure the people will hate but in a nation of 300 million that will become just a small percentage. Maybe I just believe in the good in America.

  26. Jake_Ackers

    What the sides look past is this. You said about forcing churches to marry gays and the sort. Kagan and Sotomayer asked, "Should gov't even be defining the word marriage?" Which seemed to open up a pathway for "personal contracts" – same word, same rights, gender neutral, exactly the same. While leaving the definition of the word marriage to churches, nonprofits, couples, everything else except gov't. Once that is overcome, then you pass laws to guarantee certain protects for religious groups.

    But the scare from both sides aren't unfounded. The Illinois Supreme Court has said that a moment of silence is a religious prayer. Which it isn't. And San Francisco wanted to legislate circumcision. California to their credit passed a law saying the gov't can't legislate it. A child in Missouri was ordered to stop singing "Jesus loves me" during recess. So Missouri passed a law to stop school officials from stopping kids from singing. In the San Fran example and Missouri, the state gov'ts addressed the issues and nullified the potential problem early on.

    More laws like Gov Brown did, it would stop quite a few people from going nuts (although a few still would) about gay marriage. After all, churches have lost federal funding because they OFFERED not demanded, but offered a prayer before eating. Wasn't it Obama who first ordered religious groups to offer contraception? Although I don't agree, I do see the fear many on the Right have. It's not like gov't hasn't discriminated against people before in this country.

  27. Trenacker

    I don't think that I follow your argument.

    A "marriage" is either a particular relationship emerging out of a ceremony in church, or it is a legal arrangement between two people, recognized by the federal government. That is to say, my parents are wed. So far as I know, they were wed at a courthouse. In my opinion, they are "married." I use that term to describe their relationship, not their religious situation. Either nobody wed outside a religious institution is married, or everybody is.

    Unfortunately, I don't think that the fight over gay marriage is actually about what would, in the end, really be dispute over the use of a particular word by people who don't share a specific religious tradition. Christians aren't mobilizing to get the government to stop using the word "marriage" for people who aren't married in a church; they're mobilizing because they want to keep government from taking a specific action (extending rights to gay people) that they believe is inconsistent with their religious doctrine.

    Regardless of whether the government defines the term marriage — although I would submit that it should, specifically for its own purposes, if there are laws on the books affecting marriage, just as it does for the concepts contained in every other law — the government does have an obligation to provide equal protection under the law. If gay couples cannot marry, then there is some concern that they are being denied equal protection under the law available to other consenting, heterosexual adults. Some assert that gay individuals have not lost equal protection because they are free to marry a partner of a different sex, just like heterosexuals. But often, that argument is made in a religious context. The question, in the end, is whether religion can be an acceptable basis for law in this country, or whether that violates the separation of church and state.

  28. Jake_Ackers

    You made my point though. Your parents are married. But on the piece of paper it would be labelled "personal contract."

    You know how businesses announce they have a "business partnership for marketing" or w/e they want to call it. At the end of the day, the legal name is a "business contract" regardless of what they wish to call it.

  29. Trenacker

    But that's all it ever was. All it always was. There's no distinction but semantics. And if this was semantics, there wouldn't be a fight. This isn't actually over "marriage." It's over whether the government will ever recognize, and implicitly endorse thereby, a union of two homosexuals. Opponents are concerned that, in extending the same benefits to gay couples that heterosexual couples now receive, the government is sending a message. That, in fact, was the crux of the argument made by their lawyer before the Supreme Court. Let me know if I have misunderstood you.

  30. Jake_Ackers

    I agree with what you are saying. But I'm just saying that if you use personal contracts the religious word is out which is what the libertarian base is disagreeing with. So now everyone opposed to equality is opposing it because of discrimination or that reason you stated. Those though would be a lot less than it is now if personal contracts is used. Resulting in enough people supporting equal rights to get it passed. I based that notion of the fact that most people support a combination and gay marriage plus civil unions. Those who actually opposed equal rights is not a majority as a result. Latest poll I saw with that was like over 60%. Almost 2/3.

  31. SES

    Terms like "civil union" were actually invented for the sole purpose of denigrating gay people, not to protect religious freedom; nobody ever talked about "civil unions" until they were looking for a term to use for legally-recognized same-sex marriages that demonstrated their inferiority. 30 years ago, there was no movement whatsoever to protect churches by stopping civil institutions from using the word "marriage."

  32. Jake_Ackers

    On spending. Certain things are needed but then the Left doesn't allow for any discussion on a reform. Adding in the point about healthcare. Buying insurance across state lines, it worked for car insurance. And we need tort reform (not payment limits but rather stop stupid law suits). Or why not use more experimental medicine?

    IIRC, it was in PA where a man was going to die and he needed an experimental procedure. He was going to die anyway so he did it. The procedure was very risky and he knew the risk. Long story short, he died anyway. Everyone complained and tried to ban the procedure along with who knows what else to the Doctor.Whyt not allow it in these circumstances. It would cut cost and save lives.

    A lot of our spending isn't so much the programs but how the law is structured and how it's administered. Overall it's not the programs, or the spending, but rather how it's done. Yes we are in a recession but spending keeps going up disproportionally to our population (before the recession). The problem with increasing cost in education and healthcare is because of the gov't. Ever since the gov't has got into it, it has gone up drastically.

    You mentioned college. Do schools need more money? Sure. But instead of spending it on books, its spent on sports and film festivals when that should all be from donated money not taxpayer money. And certainly not at the expense of books and classroom equipments. It's not just colleges either. We increase taxes, increase the debt, and yet the spending cuts never come.

  33. Trenacker

    I don't disagree that a variety of actions are needed to help the economy. I share your opinion that some significant spending cuts would be in order.

    I support tort reform, but doubt that it will save nearly as much money as is hoped. I support allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and giving those same rights to insurance companies. Obviously, that would eat into the profit margins of both Big Pharma and medical administration.

    We have also spent the last decade fighting two wars overseas. We've also entered a period in our history when the largest number of people ever are going to be expected government benefits. The next generation is going to get hosed.

    Where this leaves us, I think, is in a position to require some stimulus along with austerity. We don't just need to be tightening our belt; we need to be supplementing our diet with the correct investments.

  34. Jake_Ackers

    I don't think it would eat into the profit margins. Lower prices would create competition, more jobs, and lower cost would generate more money in the amount they sell. But Big Pharma operates like a cartel.

    We do we need regulation? Sure, like insurance companies should cover cancer treatment. If the Doctor thinks it will cure it. Yet companies are allowed to limit the treatment. Insurance companies should cover the overall treatment not just the immediate treatment. But price controls I don't like because companies will find ways around it like cutting things in other areas.

  35. Trenacker

    Of course it would. Markup is now so high because Medicare is required to pay a certain price for these drugs.

    According to Stephen Brill's investigative piece, "Bitter Pill," hospitals routinely charge patients two or three times for the same things and impose astronomical markups. They can do this because they operate in a captive market. People don't shop for healthcare, especially emergency healthcare, the way they do for melons or for soda pop. And their insurance providers, public and private, don't get to negotiate bulk discounts in the same way, either.

  36. Jake_Ackers

    Which is why we need to allow people to shop for healthcare like buying across statelines.

  37. drs

    You're totally missing the point. You can't shop for healthcare when you're sick and desperate and don't really know anything about a complex and vital field. You're also getting confused about your own argument; earlier you advocated letting people shop for insurance across state lines. But *that* would undermine state regulations on health insurance, which brings us to the question of what the federal regulations should be.

    Health care isn't cars. Health insurance isn't like car insurance. And health care is an intrinsically broken market, as Kenneth Arrow argued.

  38. Jake_Ackers

    Under Nixon, we had price controls, didn't work. People went around it. Medicare negotiate prices? Sure, free market at work. Taxes were raised but no spending cuts. Companies taxed, controlled, subsidized, regulated and prices still go up. Many keep saying the Right doesn't give in but look at the situation. We give student loans to every stupid college degree (mostly liberal arts, and I admit I have one). But we don't have enough engineers. We have the regulations on healthcare but no opening of the markets, no tort reform and prices still going up.

    Take Social Security. Put $50 in and years later expect it to magically turn into $250. Banks invest. The gov't doesn't. Where is the $200 coming from? Someone else's account. Whenever anyone tries to change it, everyone says its going to kill Social Security. The current model was dead on arrival. Harry Reid said he won't even touch SS until it goes belly up.

    Biz take loans and invest and grow. However, some fail. We only have ONE gov't. Gov't spending is different. Large projects don't generate economy growth quickly. We need bridges but we can't afford large long-term projects during a recession. On top of that, we aren't spending on a bridge between to Manhattan sized islands. We are spending money on bridges to nowhere.

    NJ/NY tunnel project. The Left said cancelling it would cost the millions spent already. Better that than tens of billions more needed to finish it. Gov. Christie complained and a new cheaper plan was made. IMO, it's still a waste. Why not finish and expand the NJ/NY ferry system. Or why not open it up to the private sector? Rail was done by the private sector. Is investing in more welfare the answer? Or is more job training and education better? What about free trade agreements versus subsidizing? Billions on battery plants, and solar panels. When the problem is oil and not the car. Why not have a Green Manhattan Project (like go with algae)? The problem isn't spending, its how its spent. Did we needed the New Deal and some spending during this recession? Yes, but not all the other "Deals" under FDR and not more and more spending now.

    Frankly, it boils down to this. I simply don't trust anyone in Washington (Dem or GOP) to spending billions of dollars wisely. Nor do I trust Wall Street with bailout money. But I do trust the individual in spending their own money.

  39. Trenacker

    The Bush tax cuts were a flop, in terms of stimulating spending. In a bad economy, the private sector has sat on huge amounts of the cash that it retained. It didn't buy. It didn't hire. It didn't even invest. Poorer people do spend the money they get, but wealthier folks sit on it just like businesses do.

    If you don't invest in the nation's infrastructure and services, how do you expect those services and infrastructure to perform over time? Your point about the need for close monitoring and careful adjustment is a good one, but it isn't a watertight conclusion that private spending is a panecea.

    The free market is destructive. It doesn't care about social consequence. Nor does the free market work as well as a lot of its strongest champions seem to believe. The market for medicine is a great case in point: it doesn't function the same way that the economics text-books would suggest. Regulation is only part of the reason why. You've also got a captive market. I'm not sure outsourcing certain functions is always a good idea. I can get behind the notion of private ferries; less so certain other things.

  40. Jake_Ackers

    Again it's not so much the spending. We need infrastructure but the problem is its done for political reasons and not economic ones. Gov't thinks if you spend enough money it will work. Rather its how and when and why you are spending it. A Green Manhattan Project would solve the oil problem yet we go around giving stupid subsidizes, loans, and tax loopholes. We need investments because the investment is needed. Not because we should hope it stimulus the economy.

    On the Bush tax cuts. The problem with them is the same problem with the Obama spending. The defense was it was done otherwise we would of went into a bad recession due to 9/11. Moreover, the first tax cuts were useless because it affected the were you fell in the tax bracket and not the actual tax rate. And I don't believe the biz have sat on the money. Look at Wall St. the stock market is growing. And when rich people save, they put it into banks. Which go out and loan. Problem is because of our tax system, people just smuggle money overseas into other bank accounts leaving other countries to grow instead of us.

    You can squeeze businesses with regulation, taxes, price controls and the sort. But in the end biz find ways around it or just leave. Why not work with the human incentive? If companies go overseas because of lower regulation and tax rates why not do the same? Now it doesn't have to be very low. After all because of our population size and economic power many companies will stay even if taxes in CA or NY is high. But there is a tipping point especially with manufacturing.

    Again I think you and I are falling into the trap I was talking about. Talking past each other. I bet if Americans from all sides made a honest list of things they would be willing to negotiate on there would be enough overlap to actually get the economy working again.

    For example, I've always said this. Anyone under $50k shouldn't pay an income tax. Anything above it should be 5%, 10% and 15%. (On average the wealthy pay give or take 15% income taxes). No tax cuts, no deductions except for charity. In the end more people would have to pay into the system because its leaner so the IRS could collect more. Simpler to file, so it saves man hours. And less companies and people would smuggle money overseas. Something similar could be done with the small biz/corporate tax.

    It brings both sides together. Left gets the cuts for the entire poor and lower middle class. And the Right gets a leaner, cleaner code that brings more revenue without increasing the actual rate. So the overall tax burden is less, yet it means increased revenue from more people paying it and less people go around the tax code.

  41. Trenacker

    I invite you to do a Google search under the terms "business not spending money" if you don't believe my argument. I'm looking at articles from Forbes and The New York Times that get exactly to my point. There are others by Huffington Post, Fortune, and NPR. We've entered a vicious circle: nobody's taking action to end the "bad times" because… well, times are bad.

    We agree that the tax code could be simplified. I'm not looking for price controls across the economy. I'm not even excited about the possibility of imposing price controls in the medical sector; I just see an enormous transfer of funds from sick people, insurance companies, or the government to medical providers that far outweigh the actual value of services rendered. If I pay a hospital $7.96 for a single pill that can be bought in hundred-lots for $1.50, then pay them $765 again for "emergency room preparation" that theoretically ought to cover certain drugs as well, that transaction is valid under the terms of our free market economy. The problem here is that it is also apparently very wasteful. I'm paying for a lot of imagined value. I'm paying because I'm captive, and because, if I have health insurance, I can depend on somebody else to shell out most of that money. I hate to sound the socialist, but I don't see how the common good is served by imbalances of that magnitude.

    People grouse a lot about "regulation" imposed by the government. In my experience, that regulation is always handed down by somebody else — by political lobbies, or else by the leaders in that sector, who can afford to pay out. Do you know who are the most ardent proponents of stringent regulations for private security providers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan? The big players: Triple Canopy, CACI, MPRI, and the like. That's because they have made a calculated bet that (A) bad publicity is bad for business, and (B) smaller outfits will be prevented from stealing market share because regulation will impose crippling start-up costs. A lot of the time, it seems to me, the level of deregulation that it would take to make American businesses "competitive" with the third world would go well beyond what any reasonable person would accept. Those regulations have to do with health and safety of people, as much as of the environment or animals. Really, the big problem is that we are no longer where we were vis-a-vis the rest of the world as compared to 1950. We are not the only market for virtually any good or service you can think of. Our workforce is among the best-educated, but it is also accustomed to a standard of living that costs it out of the ballpark for most kinds of basic manufacturing and service.

    Some jurisdictions in the United States have had luck extending special legal indemnity to folks like Airbus in return for building new production lines. Politically sticky. May have merit; I've yet to sell compelling arguments on either side. We do know that certain kinds of resource extraction are very problematic, however. The BP oil spill looks to vindicate the argument for strong regulation in that industry. Ditto the Massey Mines disaster.

    Don't know why agreement can't be reached on the tax code. Presumably, lobbyists have prevented Congress from eliminating or changing aspects of the system that they already like.

    One question to ask: how much is all of this bound up in the so-called "Cult of the CEO" and the general focus by Wall Street on quarterly balance sheets? Are the preference for short-term indicators and the focus on stockholders rather than customers doing bad things to our businesses, and, in turn, having a negative impact on our economy? Fortune has begun to dig into that question. It's absolutely fascinating.

  42. Jake_Ackers

    Again it's not the spending. I agree in a recession we need some but it's how.

    On the pill price thing. That's because we can't buy insurance across state-lines. We can't use trial medicine either. In addition to the fact we have tons of people using the emergency room and not paying. Which I know Obamacare has tried to address as did Romneycare. Which is why they raise prices on other people. IIRC most hospitals aren't even making money. They are just trying to stay afloat.

    I do agree though that most regulations are made by big business. Most because the big biz can afford it so they use it to squeeze out competition or to just benefit them.

    On the CEO thing. The quarterly balance sheet is a result of stockholders yes. Which that mentality resulted in the dotcom bubble. People invest for the sake of investing without looking if the company can actually make profit. Plus balance sheets are quarterly because of the tax code. It forces it to be quarterly. Big Biz and Big Gov't are in each others pockets.

  43. Trenacker

    Unfortunately, we aren't going to be able to have our cake and eat it, too. As you say, there will have to be some agreement to spend, notwithstanding some "solution" for the inefficiencies brought about by pork-barrel spending. (Indeed, those inefficiencies are not just entrenched, but actually enshrined in our system of government.)

    If there is doubts about the private sector actually spending the money it gets, then it falls to the government to do "pump-priming." With more orders coming in, businesses will be forced to expand to meet the new demand. Now while I agree that our infrastructure needs quite a lot of investment, I disagree that high-speed rail is anything but a solution looking for a problem. I don't know about you, but aside from the Washington-New York corridor, I don't know of many other places in the country where such a system would be especially lucrative. I do, however, see a military that is reeling from the after-effects of two wars and a forthcoming "strategic pivot." I see a military using a great number of legacy systems, and trying to refurbish or replace huge quantities of equipment lost to wear and tear in the Middle East.

    As for health care, I don't think that paying the cost of uninsured patients is the big drag, per se. Brill's article points out that part of the problem is what I can only call price-gouging. Medicare is designed to pay the cost of service. A few hundred dollars turn into fifteen thousand dollars for one patient. And non-profit hospitals earn profit margins of 26% on billions in revenue — hardly a struggling enterprise. If Brill's narrative leaves something to be desired, it is precisely because he spends such effort marshalling case after case to make just this point: these cases, each unique in their own right, constitute a pattern that is general and typical.

    One of Brill's biggest complaints is that what he calls the "medical-industrial complex" allegedly "dwarfs" the military-industrial complex. Defense and aerospace lobby at the cost of $1.53 billion a year, he writes. For healthcare providers, that rate is $5.36 billion annually.

    The ability to charge different customers in certain ways also incentivizes excessive testing. Consider also the Diagnostic Imaging Services Access Protection Act. As Brill explains it, that's an act to "block efforts by Medicare to discourage doctors from ordering multiple CT scans on the same patient by paying them less per test to read multiple tests of the same patient." CT scans, for which hospitals can charge in excess of $900, are now provided almost routinely. We tend to trust doctors who counsel "better safe than sorry," forgetting that medical care is still a commodity.

    Brill points out that the medical market is also fairly unique. "It's not as much about the verdicts or settlements (or considerable malpractice-insurance premiums) that hospitals and doctors pay as it is about what they do to avoid being sued. And some no doubt claim they are ordering more tests to avoid being sued when it is actually an excuse for hiking profits." Brill blames Democrats for blocking what are called "safe harbor" defense laws — legal standards of care that would shield doctors from blame if they did not "pull out all the stops," but instead administered care "within the bounds of what peers have established as reasonable under the circumstances."

    Brill also complains that medical institutions are more like public utilities than ordinary businesses: the commodity is also a necessity, and there is little opportunity for bargain-shopping, especially at the time of greatest requirement. Indeed, patients are subject to limitations on potential providers imposed by their insurance companies and general practitioners. Furthermore, medicine is a business as well as a trade, and many doctors are handsomely rewarded for prescribing specific courses of treatment involving drugs or devices that may not always be the least expensive.

  44. drs

    SF-LA-SD are perfect distances for high speed rail and very busy, especially Bay Area-LA. With not a lot of room for good airport expansion, either.

    Other areas I don't know about, though some people certainly see potential. One thing overlooked is that proper HSR with stops every 50 miles isn't just about connecting big dense cities, it's about the places along the way that planes would fly over. At 180 mph, 50 miles is 17 minutes away, 100 miles is 34 minutes. That gives you a much bigger radius for commuter communities on cheaper land, ideally something like the old streetcar suburbs, only HSR suburbs instead.

  45. drs

    "And I don't believe the biz have sat on the money."

    …corporations sitting on record piles of cash is all over the business news. So is their making record profits even while unemployment stays high.

  46. Jake_Ackers

    Even if they sit on it. It's put in bank accounts and the banks invest it. Unless it goes overseas which then that is a problem with our broken tax system.

  47. drs

    Wow, so much wrong.
    "$50 to $250". Gee, usually libertarians complain about SS having a terrible rate of return, and here you're claiming 5x return.
    Social Security isn't like investing in one's own retirement nest egg. Social Security is like being supported in your old age by your children, except you're being supported by everyone's children. Current workers pay to support current retirees, and later become future retirees, supported by future workers. "Investment" is an invalid concept and "I pay in X to get Y out" is simply politically friendly accounting.

    "We need bridges but we can't afford large long-term projects during a recession."

    That's totally backwards. A recession si the best time for large long-term projects, because we can borrow tons of money for practically free and there's lots of unemployed labor and capital so we don't have to worry about crowding-out private business or inflationary pressures.

    "Rail was done by the private sector." With a lot of government support and also wasteful overinvestment.

  48. Jake_Ackers

    The 5x return was the original plan but now you are making less money than you pay in.

    Btw how what you described is called a ponzi scheme. Eventually you reach a breaking point.

  49. drs

    Price controls don't work? Almost every other rich country has price controls on health care, health insurance (if there is any), or both; the one exception is Switzerland, which just requires non-profit high-quality mandatory health insurance, much like Obamacare (except for the non-profit bit.) They work. If your theory says they can't work, something's wrong with your theory.

    Price controls in general don't work? Probably. Health care isn't "in general".

  50. Jake_Ackers

    Almost every rich country has the gov't with a complete control over healthcare. Can price controls work? Yes, if you have a complete gov't control of it. or almost complete control I highly doubt we are going to go there.

  51. drs

    "Canada has a limited population and is not as diverse as the US. Sure they have many differences and are diverse but since the population is smaller it's not as pronounced."

    This doesn't make any sense. Diversity is percentage of the population, and Canada is right up there with the US.

    "1 million people complaining about something in the US seems like a lot of people even though its a percentage of a percentage of the population. When the same percentage in Canada would seem like what? A few thousand? "

    Dude, basic math. Canada has 10% the population of the US. So the same percentage would be 100,000 people.

    "You can increase taxes but spending is still too much"

    Too much according to what? Some arbitrary standard? If you're worried about deficits, that's almost entirely because of 30 years of GOP tax cuts (unpaid for; why should Democrats agree to spending cuts just to satisfy GOP tax cuts?), the recession, and higher benefits for all the people unemployed because of the recession. As I'm pretty sure I've explained to you before.

    And as Trenacker says, the one big threat to long-term budgets is rising health care costs, for which the only proven solutions are to the left of what elected Democrats dare talk about. (So I guess in a sense the Dems don't put up spending cuts, because they don't dare to, but the solution is more leftist Democrats.) Other rich countries spend half of what we do on health care, and get better results; the US has the most market-involved health care sector, and the most expensive.

  52. Jake_Ackers

    1 million people protesting is a lot of people. That gets a lot more attention than a few thousand. That's my point. Once the media reports that "MILLIONS" are protesting, that makes people go "Wow that's a lot." Million Man March?

    Tax revenue on average is 20% of GDP. It's under that right now because of our recession. Spending should be about that. Right now our spending is and has been higher for quite some time. As a result even without tax cuts you still have more spending. We need benefits yes, like I said before we need spending. It's how its done. We simply cannot keep spending the amount that we are.

    On your last point. We have different costs. There is no country in the world that is first world and our population size. Larger yes and 1st world but not both. India and China, Brazil and Russia (they all vary greatly) don't have universal healthcare like the Europeans do. Moreover, I highly doubt if the UK and or Aussie or Japan or South Korea became as large as the USA they would be able to sustain their healthcare system.

  53. Simon

    How does your theory of the difference between minority voters in the USA and Canada account for George Bush winning >70% of the Muslim-American vote in 2000?

  54. Guest

    Muslim Americans (aside from prison converts and the like) are typically fairly wealthy folks influenced by religious values and historically tended to vote conservatively, and thus Republican. That falls more or less in line with his description of Canadian immigrants, so I'm not really sure what you're trying to say.

    This has changed following 9/11. Some of the bigotry displayed by some prominent Republicans or their supporters has driven Muslim voters more to the Democrats.

    Of course, Muslims make up such a small fraction of the electorate that no one really bothers focusing on them.

  55. Simon

    So you're saying it's their distrust of white conservatives? That they might still vote Republican if they didn't perceive the party as being hostile to them? Well, JJ said he didn't think that was the case, so I am asking for his explanation. But if he agrees with you wrt Muslim Americans only, why wouldn't the same thing be true of South and East Asian Americans?

  56. drs

    One column claimed the Muslim vote went from 70% GOP in 2000 to 4% (four) in 2004…

  57. Jake_Ackers

    One thing we are missing here is that the elections in Canada favor the sitting party. While in the US it pretty much can just serve to piss off everyone as it's every two years. So midterm elections or off-year ones tend to look like a pretty nasty hit.

  58. vonCube

    Totally off topic JJ but in your new bio picture you look like a disaffected Austro-Hungarian intellectual. Not that that's a bad thing…

  59. J.J. McCullough

    I need a better pic, I know. But I don't like taking self-photos so I'm waiting for some friend to help me out.

  60. Yan

    "He seems poised to balance the budget"

    To do what now? Balance the budget?

    The same budget that was showing a surplus for 13 years before he took over?

    The same budget that he sent spiraling down into deficits (a year before the recession) to fund his ideologically-driven tax cuts?

    And now he's cutting into our services to make up for it – all the while pretending that he wants to "balance the budget".

    Dear gods, JJ.

  61. Shannon

    You had me right up until "I like Harper".

    I find little to like about Harper. He handles the country like a wanna-be dictator, resorting to omnibus bills and piroguing (hope I spelled that right) to avoid debate. He also does little to hide his disdain for any part of Canada not in his beloved Alberta.

    You also forget to mention that two out those three back-toback victories were minority governments – and it was because of this we've weathered the recession better than the Americans, thanks to the threat of a coalition government.

    In short, Harper will go down as a poor prime minister, who only avoided disaster because his opposition succeeded in holding him in check.

    "Canada seems content to remain a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status."

    Sound familiar? Harper said it in a National Post editorial in 2000.

    If you still like him now, you're as bad as he is.

  62. NVSmango

    Bill C-279 makes it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity. While the bill has passed and will become law, 137 MPs voted against it. If you don't know how your local MP voted, you can find their voting record and contact info here:

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