If the USA really did go insane, what would happen to Canada?

Feb 24th, 2011 | By | Category: USA Today

Could this really be the next basketball-playing President of the USA?

One of world history’s future cunning passages might marvel at how the “fourth wave of democratization” in North Africa and the Middle East was ironically accompanied by a North American wave in the opposite direction.

So you might think, at any rate, when you set the news that “Canadians fleeing strife-torn Libya …” (or more optimistically: “Tunisia on track to democracy …” and “Egypt gets its mojo back”) beside Paul Krugman’s recent argument:  “What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.”

In Canada we like to think we are immune to the worst diseases which rage intermittently across the Dionysian USA. But, down deep, we know a lot of this is just wishful provincial thinking.

If Governor Walker’s plot to dismantle public sector unions in Wisconsin signals the advent of some new age of anti-democratic corporate barbarism (“Billionaire Brothers’ Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Budget Dispute,” “The end of unions?,” “Wisconsin governor falls for fake phone call”) then, eg, what are those of us who currently reside in the Greater Toronto Area to make of such late February 2011 local headlines as “Liberals to back Ford’s push to make TTC an essential service,” “Province to table bill on making TTC an essential service,”  or “Banning transit strikes is a bad idea” (by Marcus Gee, who used to seem so much more right-wing?)

However you finally sort your head out on the “end of unions?” issue, you may find yourself warming towards an allied stream of current North American political thought.  I think Martin Regg Cohn at the Toronto Star, eg, makes some sense when he urges that Toronto’s new right-wing and alleged crypto-populist mayor Rob Ford “has probably read the public mood correctly by demanding an end to the transit union’s perennial war on transit riders.”

Robert Freeman, Los Altos High School Teacher of the Year, talks about “his creative fund-raising program called One Dollar for Life,” at a meeting of the Los Altos Rotary Club in California, February 5, 2009.

But I have also been almost seminally impressed this week by Robert Freeman, a California high-school teacher who tells at least one side of democracy in America today like it is, in a blogosphere gem called “When a Country Goes Insane.” Mr. Freeman argues, among other things: “Let’s be clear. It was the Republicans who wrecked the economy. Both their people and their policies drove the economy into the ditch. They wrecked the economy not once, but twice in the last eighty years … So Republicans condescending to instruct Americans about how to fix the economy is like the captain of the Titanic lecturing shipping operators about safe procedures for navigating the north Atlantic. No sane society would tolerate it. But this one does.”

Robert Freeman at Los Altos High School in California

The mere fact that Robert Freeman manages to say such things in public while remaining employed as a high-school teacher is, all by itself, welcome news about the comparative sanity of at least some parts of the American republic in 2011.

To start with, California is one of the current “Top 10 States, Obama Job Approval,” according to the Gallup polling organization. (The full list, from very top down and in round numbers, runs: District of Columbia, 84%;  Hawaii, 66%; Maryland 58%; New York, 57%; Delaware, 56%; Massachusetts, 55%; Rhode Island, 55%; California, 54%; Connecticut, 54%; and Illinois, 53%.) And that no doubt helps explian Mr. Freeman’s professional survival.

His thumbnail biography takes the explanation a little further: “Robert Freeman writes on economics, history and education. He teaches history and economics at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, CA and is the founder of One Dollar For Life, a national non-profit that helps American students build schools in the developing world through contributions of one dollar.”

“Music in the Park” at Los Gatos, where the money from Silicon Valley almost does seem to grow on the trees — even today.

The Wikipedia first paragraph on Mr. Freeman’s employer adds a few further explanatory details: “Los Altos High School, established in 1954, is located in suburban Los Altos, California, which is situated between the cities of San Francisco and San Jose in the northwest corner of Silicon Valley within four miles of Stanford University. Due to its placement within a rich, yet small community, Los Altos High School is able to achieve at a very high level. The student-teacher ratios at Los Altos High School are considerably lower than the state average.”

I can insert some very slight personal testimony at this juncture, based on a woodland interior drive several years ago, from Santa Cruz to San Francisco — through Los Gatos (where we stopped for an old-style dance band concert in the park ), then on to Mountain View, Los Altos, Palo Alto, and beyond. This is the Silicon Valley heartland, where (even today) the money still almost does seem to grow on the trees (despite my father’s ancient Canadian advice that such things never happen in the real world).

Steve Jobs’ parents’ house at 2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos, California. Apple Computers, legend has it, was born in this garage.

According to legend, Apple Computers began in the garage at Steve Jobs’ parents’ house — an only moderate (albeit pleasant enough) middle-class suburban residence at 2066 Crist Drive in Los Altos. (Or should that be “lower-upper-middle-class,” sort of — as George Orwell once described his own social background in another distant place, way back east?) Los Altos High School serves what remains one of the most dynamic, innovative, and prosperous economic regions in the USA today. Whatever else, it is at least vaguely encouraging that it also sees fit to employ (and even celebrate) a public high-school teacher like Robert Freeman.

The ideological attack on the public sector … in the USA today (and ironically in Canada too?)

Another of Mr. Freeman’s key themes in “When a Country Goes Insane” is the wild (if currently all-too-effective) irrationality behind “decades of relentless Republican hate-mongering against the government.”

Los Altos High School Marching Band, November 2008.

He goes on: “Never mind that it was government that pulled off the greatest feat of social engineering in history. In 1900, only 4% of Americans graduated from high school. By 2000, more than 80% did. It was this mass educated public that made possible the most technically sophisticated economy in the history of the world.

“It was government that won both World War I and World War II, leaving the US economy astride the world like a colossus, able to harvest the fruits for decades. It was the government GI Bill program that educated a generation of young people to ultimately defeat the Soviet Union.

“It was the government that wired every house in the country for electricity during the Great Depression, setting up the largest household consumer-goods market in the world in the 1950s: home appliances. And it was government guarantees for home loans that set off the greatest building boom in the history of the world: suburbia.

Almond Elementary School in Los Altos, California became the first school in California using the innovative and successful Freiker "Frequent Biker" program that uses incentives and electronic tracking to encourage school children to ride their bikes.

“It was government that paved more than 3 million miles of road between 1930 and 1960, making possible the massive economic boom associated with automobiles, mass mobility, and more. It was government research that invented the graphical user interface and the Internet.”

Again, if you think we are somehow immune to this particular disease in Canada, consider such recent (in this case Ontario provincial) headlines as “McGuinty aims to axe 1,400 public-service jobs.” (In this, as in other respects it seems, the Liberal Premier McGuinty has been paying some modest symbolic attention to the recent  “stop the gravy train” campaign of Mayor Ford in Toronto.)

The rhetoric from Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal minority government typically tries much harder to match the “decades of relentless Republican hate-mongering” in the USA, on this as on other fronts. It is yet another great (and no doubt wise) irony of “Harperland,” however, that it has depended much less on right-wing rhetoric in its practical economic policy.

Public sector employment in Canada, 2008-2010.

According to a Globe and Mail headline this past Tuesday: “‘Superstar’ status in global economic poll strengthens Harper’s hand.” Yet the Statistics Canada Daily from the very same day made clear enough that whatever reality this media hyperbole may lightly hint at has not leaned seriously on the kinds of economic policy prescriptions Governor Walker has in mind for Wisconsin.

There is the question of further corporate tax cuts, of course (which only the Conservatives support in Canada at the moment). But since the global breakdown in 2008 — when Robert Freeman’s Republicans “drove the economy into the ditch” yet again in the USA — public sector employment in Canada has risen quite steadily. And most recently it has been at Mr. Harper’s federal rather than the provincial and local levels that this rising trend has carried on. (See the Statistics Canada Daily reference above.) Rising public sector employment is one of the important enough reasons we have a lower unemployment rate in Canada than in the United States today.

Even rhetorically, the Conservative Party of Canada has also departed somewhat from “relentless Republican hate-mongering” in its current TV attack ads against its Liberal and New Democrat rivals. Apart from shots of Mr. Harper working long into the night at his desk in Ottawa (which not everyone will see as a good idea), the most positive sides of these ads have been their talk about “Canada’s Economic Action Plan.” (An essentially “socialist” concept: and certainly not part of Governor Walker’s Republican recipe for Wisconsin?)

1099 Parma Way, Los Altos, California.

Yet all this, still others will nervously urge, is just window dressing, designed to lull the traditional centre-left political culture in most  of Canada into a quiescent state — so that Stephen Harper can somehow sneak in a majority of seats in Parliament with nothing remotely like a majority of the popular vote, and then at last unleash the same irrational Republican hate-mongering policies that Governor Walker is trying to foist upon the people of Wisconsin as we speak.

Two recent polls have suggested that the Canadian people remain in (or at least are once again returning to) a mildly less quiescent state than Stephen Harper’s current plans apparently call for. (See: “Voters cool to a Harper majority government, poll finds” and “Tory lead shrinks in face of Bev Oda furor, Harper’s flirtation with majority.”) And that too is vaguely encouraging news — because it does seem important to remain vigilant in these matters in North America in the year 2011.

Los Altos High School, Faculty and Staff, 2010.

Whatever else, Robert Freeman has put his finger on something real about trends in the USA today in “When a Country Goes Insane” (allowing of course that the Yankees to the south of us are not really going insane — well,  hopefully at any rate). And it is clear enough that, even more than the Michael Ignatieff who once taught at Harvard, and lived in the Massachusetts which currently gives President Obama a 55% approval rating, Stephen Harper is more open and susceptible to these irrational trends than any other Canadian federal political party leader currently extant.

(And that still is, or ought to be, at least somewhat scary when we go to bed at night!)

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