It can’t happen here, eh

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [Photo by Alex Gulbord, Creative Commons]

by Tom Regan

When Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, a semi-satirical novel about a dictator defeating FDR and taking over the United States, it was generally assumed that he was writing about what would happen if Louisiana politician Huey Long became president of the United States. Fortunately for the United States, and unfortunately for Mr. Long, it didn’t happen. Long was assassinated in 1936.

An American political novel from the 30s about the threat of democratically elected dictatorship may not seem relevant to Canada today. Many Canadians, particularly those in the middle and on the left, clearly think that the kind of right-wing, populist, anti-governmental wave that swept Donald Trump into power in the United States could never happen in a liberal and progressive country like Canada.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but it certainly could.

Sobering evidence that this could indeed happen in the great White North was revealed yesterday. For the past 15 years, the international public relations firm Edelman has issued an international “trust index” that basically measures the amount of trust that citizens of a variety of countries have for institutions like the media, non-governmental organizations, business and the government. On Tuesday they released the latest information on Canada and what it showed was disturbing – that basically Canada is poised for the same kind of populist “eruption” that recently brought Donald Trump to power in the United States.

Edelman executives who released the report called its findings “dramatic” and said that the same kind of wave of ingredients that fueled populist uprisings in the United States and Britain are coalescing in Canada. Confidence in the government of Justin Trudeau for instance, has dropped dramatically. While some drop-off is to be anticipated after a year in government, it was much more than expected, from about 55% to 45%. Meanwhile, a staggering 80% of Canadians said they thought that the county’s “elites” were out of touch with ordinary citizens. Almost 2/3 said they didn’t have faith in the country’s leaders to effectively tackle the issues facing the nation. And 50% of Canadians said that they felt immigrants were damaging the country’s culture and economy.

On the one hand, it’s been quite the year in international politics and it would be foolish to assume that Canada would be totally passed over by the nativist wave that swept through the United States and much of Europe. On the surface a 45% approval rate is not disastrous for Trudeau. On the other hand, it would be sheer folly to ignore what this report demonstrates: That government is not connecting with ordinary Canadians, that the government is not doing its job in helping Canadians understand the benefits that immigrants bring to the country, and that the government has ignored the consequences of globalization on the lives of many of its citizens.

There is some evidence that Trudeau may understand what’s happening. His recent decision to skip the summit of world leaders in Davos and instead embark on a cross-country series of town hall meetings would seem to indicate that he senses the political peril of ignoring the common folk to hang out with global elites.

There is little doubt that Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch, however, sees the political opportunity of this populist moment. She has seized on the fact that many Canadians are unhappy with the status quo, and hopes to use that populist sentiment to capture the leadership of her party and ultimately 24 Sussex Dr.

Fortunately, Trudeau has at least two years before he has to call another federal general election. It is quite possible that the populist wave will ebb first. The tumultuous first few weeks of the Trump administration in the United States has already dampened the enthusiasm of many for that kind of government, including among a good number of those who voted in. But Donald Trump is an odd and unpredictable fish, and if you’re counting on his erratic behavior to make your argument for progressive policies, then you’re just throwing a Hail Mary pass and hoping for the best.

If Canada wants to avoid the same kind of populist eruption that’s happening in much of the rest of the world, there’s real, hard work to be done to repair the trust between Canadians and their government. And it needs to start right now. Slick, “sunny” PR opportunities are not going to change a thing.

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Technology real job-killer in US

by Tom Regan

As technology, like solar, continues to improve, employment in fossil fuel industries will become less viable. There will be many new jobs in these new technologically advanced industries, but only for those with the education and skills needed to develop, manufacture operate or repair their products. (Photo by Eneco, Creative Commons)

It’s not the greatest job in the world, but it’s a living. The money is good. It can be a bit boring sometimes however – you tend to do the same thing every day. But you’ve been doing it for a long time. And now that you’re in your late 40s, maybe early 50s, you can see yourself just riding this job into retirement.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there’s a very good chance that within the next 10 years, maybe even sooner, you’re going to lose your job. But what takes your job away won’t be that your company switched production to China or Mexico, it will be technology. Maybe something as simple as a piece of software, or as complex as a robot – regardless it will allow your employer to lower costs and improve productivity. And you’ll be out in the street.


Pres. Donald Trump loves to complain that China and Mexico have been stealing jobs from American workers and that he plans to bring those jobs back. And you can see why this campaign promise resonated with so many people – there are five million fewer manufacturing jobs in the United States now than there were in 2010. Bringing those jobs back is nice idea but it’s totally pie-in-the-sky and not doable. Because the truth is that even if you brought those manufacturing jobs back they would probably be taken by a machine and not a human.

There’s a lot of recent research to back this up. A study by two Ball State professors showed that between 2000 and 2010, 87% of manufacturing jobs were lost to technology and not to trade. If that’s not bad enough, a report from McKinsey showed that 49% of worker activities can be replaced by technology. And that number is only going to grow, particularly in jobs that require repetitive tasks. Jobs, for instance, like in accounting, food preparation, or even some aspects of journalism, will be replaced by machines or robots that can do the job faster and allow increases in productivity.

So why is more attention not paid to this? There are probably two answers: 1) American businesses like to make money and cut costs. Their concerns are for their shareholders and not for their employees. If making more profit means replacing humans with machines, then so be it. They just don’t like to talk about it a lot; 2) it’s much easier for unemployed 50 year-old white guys to blame foreigners or outsiders than to blame technology. The steelworker in Pennsylvania has a much easier time blaming his lost job on a worker earning less in China, then struggling with the fact that technology made his job redundant.

Yet there is a way to combat this problem. It’s called education. For instance, in late 2016 there were over 300,000 manufacturing jobs available in the United States, numbers similar to what were available before the 2008 recession. There is, however, another important factor. Most of these jobs require what are known as “high skill sets” which means that they require a level of education that will enable any worker to operate technologically advanced machinery. To go back to our steelworker in Pennsylvania, chances are he or she is not interested in returning to school to learn a whole new skill set. It’s just much easier to complain about China and Mexico.

Meanwhile, most other Americans are ignoring the writing on the wall. A study by the Pew Research Center show that 80% of Americans think that their job will existed in its current form in 50 years. It’s just whistling past the graveyard.

It boils down to this. American jobs are being lost to technology, not to trade. The answer is education and improved skills but that requires much more investment in education. And based on who Pres. Trump just named as his Secretary of Education, the befuddled Betty DeVos, there is a serious question whether that will happen or not. Pres. Trump can rant all he wants about China and Mexico but that won’t stop American jobs from disappearing. And unless he faces the real issue, it’s only going to get worse.

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Canada prepares for ‘war’ with US

By Tom Regan

Is Canada going to war with the United States? No, not really. But you might say that some elements of the Canadian government are being put on a political ‘wartime’ footing.

Montana/Canada USA Border boundary crossing north of Eureka on Highway 93. (Photo by Spend a Day Touring LLC, Creative Commons)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made some questionable decisions lately, including the sudden decision to drop the plan to change the way Canadians elect members of Parliament. While there are some good reasons for his decision to do so, his way of dealing with the matter shows that over a year into his term he still having some problems figuring out the right way to do things.
One of the things that he has figured out the right way to deal with, however, is the Canadian relationship with the United States. Canada’s relationship with the United States is, at the moment, the most important economic one it has. (Ask me which one is the most important 10 years from now and I might say China.) While that relationship has had its ups and downs, particularly over issues like softwood lumber and cultural issues, it has been dependable and stable for decades.

That was then. This is now.

And now comes in the form of Pres. Donald Trump, a man whose ideas on how to effectively govern the most powerful nation on the planet could be written down on the back of a matchbook cover. Perhaps the most accurate description to be seen so far of Mr. Trump’s governing style was put forward by former liberal staffer Warren Kinsella who described Mr. Trump as a “monkey with a machine gun.” Trump’s habit of tweeting out policy at 3 AM in the morning when he’s restless and bored means anyone dealing with his administration needs to be nimble and one step ahead of the game.

And this is where Canada has perhaps shown the way for other nations in how to deal with Mr. Trump by creating a “war room” in Mr. Trudeau’s riding office in Papineau Québec. The office, headed by liberal political veteran Brian Clow, is designed to help coordinate the Trudeau government’s response to Mr. Trump’s unpredictable whims and fancies. As described in The Hill, which covers government and political issues emanating from Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the office will seek to ensure “integrated outreach across government, so that any projects or talks already underway continue to be worked on.”

Perhaps the most accurate description to be seen so far of Mr. Trump’s governing style was put forward by former liberal staffer Warren Kinsella who described Mr. Trump as a “monkey with a machine gun.”

The genius in this idea is that it will prevent the Trudeau government from “fighting the last war” – in other words move it away from conducting negotiations and outreach in the bureaucratic ways that used to work in the past, but are quite irrelevant in the age of social media and Mr. Trump’s ‘in the moment’ bulldozer style of public policy. Making sure that all government departments are coordinated and singing from the same hymnbook in their dealings with the Trump administration is also key. If you want to see how chaotic mixed messages can be, take a look at what’s happening south of the border right now, where government departments are sometimes called upon to respond to initiatives they didn’t even know were happening.

Another smart thing the Trudeau government did is make former Lieut. Gen., now Liberal MP, Andrew Leslie (Orléans, Ont.), parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs minister, focused on Canada-U.S. relations. The Canadian-American military relationship is important one, and Mr. Leslie’s time working with the Americans, especially in Afghanistan, will serve him well. (There are already signs that the US military is not happy with Pres. Trump – witness the recent leak by three different officials at the Pentagon about how poorly planned the recent raid on Yemen was.) Considering the number of former military people now serving the Trump administration, having a solid relationship with them can only benefit Canada in the long run.

There will be pressure on Trudeau to not be too chummy with Trump, or face the kind of public backlash that greeted British Prime Minister Theresa Mays’ public relationship with The Donald. On the other hand, however, Trudeau cannot afford to be too standoffish or else he risks the wrath of a man known for his childish vengeful attacks on those he sees his opponents. Creating a war room to deal with the US and its new administration is one way of ensuring that Canada’s best interests will be looked after.

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The fight for facts

by Tom Regan

It’s been about 20 years since I had my first brush with the way people can twist or deny facts to suit their own political agendas.

I had accompanied a friend, an experienced reporter who had spent many years in the Middle East, to hear her give a talk to a group in Boston. My friend was articulate, balanced, and insightful in her presentation of what she had learned and seen during her many years covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues in the region.

But what then happened remains with me to this day. The group, who were particularly anti-Palestinian, basically took many of the things that she had said and turned them completely around in their meaning. It was like my friend had said the color was red and her audience repeated back to her ‘you said it was blue.’ My friend tried to correct this misunderstanding, but despite her efforts, this group was only hearing what it wanted to hear. Or to put it another way, they had already made up their minds what the facts were, rightly or wrongly, and they would not be convinced otherwise.

The label “fake news” is being tossed around whenever people read, see or hear a news report they disagree with. (photo by Zeptonn, Creative Commons)

This is a dangerous time for facts. Not only because it is often difficult to sort out meaningful ones from information that just might be background noise, but the political environment in this country has become so charged and divided that both sides want to ignore the veracity of events and words and create their own interpretation that suits their own agendas.

This is particularly the case right now with supporters of Donald Trump, but it is a problem that crosses the political spectrum.

The recent excellent piece by longtime Wisconsin conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes in the New York Times outlines how conservative media was too gung ho in undermining the legitimacy of mainstream modern media. The idea was, in his words, to challenge the interpretation of events as depicted in much of this media, which conservatives saw as too biased towards liberals, and add nuance and understanding to the interpretation of political events so that they didn’t seem so one-sided. What happened, however, was the conservative media just denounced everything that traditional media published or broadcast as lies, misinformation or, as we would say in current parlance, “fake news.”

The result, Sykes argues, is that many conservatives now won’t believe anything traditional media publishes and as a result ignored many of the legitimate warning signs about Donald Trump’s stability, temperament and truthfulness.

As I noted above, liberals can ignore facts as completely as conservatives. Many of the same liberals who would praise NASA scientists for their work on climate change, will denounce scientists who say that GMOs won’t not harm humans, regardless of the scientific evidence, or regardless of what group of scientists wrote the report. Even reports that say we need to be careful with GMOs, but say that overall, their benefits outweigh any harm, are still dismissed. Their belief that GMOs are harmful is more important to them than many studies that would say otherwise. As well, it seems that, like conservatives, the more evidence that is presented that GMOs are overall harmless, the stronger the belief becomes that they are dangerous. Holding their position is more important than changing their view.

The battle to restore legitimacy of facts will be a difficult one. In this postmodern world in which we live, subjectivity matters above all. And there is some validity to the idea that we should not accept facts at face value, but do our best to deconstruct them to find the real truth at their core. But that requires effort, effort I’m not sure that people are willing to make. It’s just so much easier to let your cultural or political beliefs dominate your life rather than question whether or not they are true. If this continues, facts will indeed become an endangered species.

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