August 1st

One mistake Brit’s make when looking at politics in the US is to assume that the term “party” as in Democratic Party or Republican Part (GOP) might actually mean something. It means “Corporate Fund Raising on Behalf of Certain People”.

When I belonged to the Labour Party in the UK, we would meet in our constituency association and develop policy ideas which we would then take to the annual party conference. At the conference groups of us with similar policy ideas – like on education or climate change – would meet in smoke-filled and beery rooms and do what is known as “composites” – developing a coherent policy statement on a subject to take to the floor of the conference, where it was debated. Amendments were made and voted on and then we would vote on policies like climate change, the abolition of grammar schools and so on. Once passed these became the policy agenda of the party. When I left Labour to join Plaid Cymru, the process was the same (Plaid had better policies for Wales).

In elections for the leadership of the party, at least before Blair, it was not usual to hear significant new policy ideas (though occasionally it did happen – read Harold Wilson’s 1963 speech on technology and innovation and the need to think differently, which led to the founding of the Open University for one and the appointment of Tony Benn as a Minister responsible for innovation and technology development). The basic question in a leadership campaign was about which policies to give emphasis to and how to beat the Tory menace.

Once in power, the policy process didn’t stop and the party would push the government (assuming we’d won, but even if we hadn’t) to implement policies like equal rights for equal work, minium wage, right to unionize and so on. Government is held to account in parliament through select committees which, even though they may be chaired by a member of the Government party, often challenged government to do better.

In the US, the party is more of a vehicle for personality cults to develop – GOP is the Trump Cult and last time round the Democrats were for Hilary (to the point of ensuring the Bernie couldn’t become the candidate).

Some years ago, President Carter suggested that the US no longer had a functioning democracy. That the party machines were controlled by Oligarchs and big money (he was talking about both the GOP and the Democrats) and that expediency and money were the basis of policy, not commitments and what was right.

What we see now amongst Democrats is a debacle – a kind of Boston Marathon without the excitement. It is both excruciatingly dull and a gift to Donald Trump to see 20 otherwise smart people trying to work out what it means to be a democrat and doing so in an attempt to outflank, outwit and embarrass fellow democrats so as to “win”.

Take health care. Why does the party not have a policy for universal single payer health care to be paid for by reductions in out of control military spending? To become the chosen candidate, sign up to this policy or run as an independent.

Why doesn’t the party have a green new deal which isn’t the idea of a few, but a commitment by the party to take decisive action on climate change and the environment.

Why are we even looking at candidates who are clearly closet Republicans?

Well, this is America. America is different. America believes in individual freedoms above policy. America pursues the cult of personality above what is right for people. America wants its politicians to be owned by big money, not by ideas and commitments.

If you ask me – and you didn’t, I know – its a pretty strange way to make choices of policy, people and determine the direction of social change.

But then Britain is now a mess too. Maybe I am just getting old…

5th August

Let’s take a walk around the world and see what is happening..

In the US, it seems clear that “thoughts and prayers” is failing as a strategy to deal with gun violence. Over 250 mass shootings in a year (so far) and white racist terrorism is on the rise. Of course, as is obvious to all, what this requires (according to President Trump) is immigration reform. Clearly, gun control is out of the question. The NRA, funder of the Senate, is having financial difficulties and is closing its thought department to focus only on prayers.

Moscow Mitch, well known Russian asset in charge of the US Senate, fell at his home and fractured his shoulder. He was practicing his sabre dance routine for the summer BBQ season in Kentucky at the time. He has no plans to recall the senate since he cannot recall it himself. It no longer resembles the US senate we were all accustomed to before he took over.

Borish Johnson is getting ready for a snap election. He has bought a new set of playing cards, each with an image of other clowns from various circuses around the world. His brexit negotiations consist of shouting from a variety of locations around Britain in the hope that the EU will take his shouting seriously. So far, none of his ministers have resigned. William Rees Mogg, leader of the house and the only living member left from the Queen Victoria administration of Benjamin Disreali, is tipped to be the key voice in any brexit negotiation – his voice is so annoying that the EU might just cave in.

In Canada, as we gear up for an election in October, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Andrew Scheer, is hoping he doesn’t have to return to his old job as an insurance salesman. Some of us are rather hoping that he does, though (to save him time), I am very happy with my insurance bundle. Calls are starting to be made to ascertain the voting intentions of households. My standard reply “I will vote for the sensible, future-focused candidate”. Sadly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not running in my riding.

8th August

Engaging with those who support a different religious, political or philosophical position is hard work. When I was younger – just after the battle of Hastings – I was a very active member of the Labour Party (was in fact a constituency secretary at 16 and an election agent at 20) and had to debate Tories, Liberals and members of the Monster Raving Looney Party (look it up). But it was always a debate about the ideas – I had a few close friends with whom I seriously disagreed about politics, but we would drink together, go to concerts or public lectures.

Now you are either for or against, with or without, accepting or rejecting. No ability to put politics in one compartment and music, food, drink, walking in another.

In part this is the new tribalism. You are either a member of my tribe or you are not and if you are not, then our tribe rejects you. But it is also about, at least in my case, just exhaustion. I don’t have the energy or time or inclination to sit and explain to people why, for example, late stage capitalism turns into fascism and populism and that white supremacy in the US is just part of the stage late capitalism is going through. Nor do I have time to explain just how universal health care is a good thing and that private health insurance makes healthcare worse, not better. Nor do I have time to explain Warren Buffett’s point that if there were only public schools then they would dramatically improve. It’s just too much like climbing Everest in your underpants without shoes, sherpa’s or sausages.

So I have decided to just not bother. I cut someone off from FaceBook the other day – we share a passion for interesting and generally under-rated music – because I just didn’t have the energy either to deal with his views or those of others who objected to his views. (Facebook can do this to you). One of the people I follow on FaceBook – Kathleen Smith (a very smart lady and, by all accounts, an excellent cook) – does the same. Life is too short.

10th August

Film, music and television occupy a fair bit of my time. I work with music playing and listen to music in the car, especially on long journeys (or I listen to an audio book).

Recent films and television I have watched:

  • Keeping Faith (BBC – Series 2). Excellent, if intense, drama set in Wales (where I used to live). Involves serious crime, legal stuff and a real family drama. Eve Myles (who plays Faith) is terrrrrrific.
  • Tolkien (movie) focused on his early life. Solid and insightful.
  • Red Joan (movie) true story of an elderly lady (Judi Dench) who is arrested as a British spy. Dench is excellent.
  • Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC) – ancestry explorations with people who are kind of famous. What’s nice about this is that the story is told by the person through their eyes, with the help of historians and ancestry search specialists.
  • The Repair Shop (BBC) this will sound really corny, but I love it. People bring in broken treasures (pin-ball machines, swagger sticks, baby weigh scales) which need repair and the team do the work. My father was a carpenter (and a very good one) – he would have loved this show, given the quality of the work and the skills shown. I am just intrigued.
  • Fake or Fortune (BBC) – art investigations with Phillip Mould (whose gallery we popped into in London) and the ever lovely Fiona Bruce. They are in search of treasure and sometimes they find it, but not always. Fascinating stuff. Its like art ancestry.
  • Poldark (BBC) – this show is getting tired and the writing getting weaker. Time to end it.

One of the UK newspapers (Radio Times) recently explored the question “which TV shows do you miss most?”. Foyles War was the #1 and #3 was Count Arthur Strong – a comedy show I absolutely loved. Also on the list was Downton Abbey, The Bill, Spooks, The Detectorist (very funny show), Happy Valley and Phoenix Nights (written and starring Peter Carr – one of the funniest men on the planet). I would have added Last Tango in Halifax and At Home with the Braithwaites.

We can look forward to a new series of Gentleman Jack, Vera, The Crown, Line of Duty, McMafia and Strike (based on J K Rowling’s crime fiction). A nice glass of wine, some mellow food…

11th August

Signals are being sent by the UCP government in Alberta that austerity is on the way. These signals include a symbolic pay cut for MLA’s and the Premier – still the highest paid public representatives amongst all of the Provinces and statements that the provincial financial position is “worse” than we thought, even though the year-end deficit was $2.1 billion less than anticipated in the NDP’s last budget in 2018.

Alberta’s debt is modest. Using the government’s own fiscal data, net debt is $27.47 billion. This means that our net debt:GDP ratio is around 8% – the lowest of any government in Canada. It is also very low by comparison to any government anywhere in the world. To give context – Japan’s net debt to GDP is 153%, UK 78% and the US 82%.  Alberta does not really have a significant debt problem. The idea that governments should have balanced budgets makes little sense given their responsibilities. Few sensible businesses are debt free when interest rates are as low as they are right now. For example, Air Canada equity to debt ratio exceeds 100%. Cenovus has a debt to equity ratio of 52%. Debt is used to deliver services, value and meet expectations for business. It is the same for government.

We should also remember that Alberta is an incredibly wealthy place. If it were a country, it would be the 9th wealthiest in the world by GDP per capita. This is also a stable community with relatively low rates of crime and high levels of life-satisfaction.

Debt cannot be a problem since, within days of coming to office, Premier Kenney made decisions which will deliberately increase both the deficit and the debt. Reducing revenue by app. $4.5 billion through tax cuts for business and reducing income through the cancellation of the levy on carbon (except for large emitters).  

Kenney’s argument is that the tax cuts will, eventually, lead to more jobs and economic growth. There is no evidence to support the idea that giving tax breaks to wealthy corporations produces returns to the tax system through job growth or increased corporate tax revenues. In the US, where in late 2017 the Trump administration slashed corporate taxes from 35% to 21%, reduced the number of tax brackets, lowered the rate for many high wealth individuals and doubled the standard deduction, little impact of these were seen in 2018 and so far in 2019. Corporations got a $94 billion tax break. Most companies paid their executives more, bought back shares (the buy-back is valued at $1 trillion so far) and invested in labour reducing technology. In a range of studies since Ronald Raegan promoted this trickle-down idea “big time”, there is no evidence that trickle-down economics works.

If debt is not the big problem, what is?

Kenney suggests that we pay too much for our services. He has ordered a review of AHS on the grounds that “he understands” (we know not from where or whom) that management costs are high and this detracts from front line services. Yet the evidence is the opposite. Administration is 3.6% of AHS expenditure – the lowest of any province and amongst the lowest in North America. While AHS is working to continually improve services and outcomes and to engage in disruptive innovation, it does continuously evaluate outcomes and costs.

Kenney suggests that Alberta pays more for education than it needs to and uses BC as a comparison. His source here is the Fraser Institute, funded in part by Koch with US funds (which I thought he was opposed to – seeking to influence Alberta policy with foreign money). Their most recent report on education spending suggests that Alberta’s costs grew by 35.4% between 2006/7 and 2015/16, in part because of a 71% growth in capital expenditure and in part because of significant growth in salary, pension and fringe benefit costs. Costs in BC in this same time window grew just 12.2%. However, Premier Kenney needs to pay attention to another table within the Fraser Institute report that looks at spending adjusted for both inflation and enrollment growth which shows that, in this same time period, spending in Alberta was 2.1% lower at the end of the 2015/16 year than it was at the start of the 2006/7 year. More students, more new schools, more teachers better management.

Alberta’s real problem is called “thinking”. In particular, thinking that future will be a straight line from the past with a few bumps on the way. What the Premier needs to understand are these things:

  1. A recession is near at hand. A big one. Debt levels from all sources globally are at levels which the market cannot tolerate ($247 trillion plus a huge unfunded pension liability, which if it is not dealt with, will add $400 trillion by 2050 – just thirty years away). The yield curve (short term debt is worth more than long term debt) is the highest it has ever been and this signals a coming recession. By cutting public services and waiting for the oil and gas sector to rebound, Kenney will make Alberta much more vulnerable than it needs to be.
  2. Oil and gas will not return to its former glory for a variety of reasons. In part, it is because the transition to green energy is underway but more significantly it is because oil and gas companies are no longer throwing people and money at jobs, they are looking for smart technologies. Just looking at drilling. We used to drill one well at a time, now we can drill five or six. We used to have a crew of 14 to 16 to drill, now we have 4 or five drilling five or six at the same time. AI and smart technologies are enabling higher productivity with less labour.
  3. The emerging new economy will depend less on tangibles and more on intangibles – know how. Think what Amazon does. It is outstanding at managing supply chains. Apple is outstanding at design and managing supply chains. Smarter people is what an economy is now built on and therefore education is no longer an opportunity it is the life-blood of our economy. With 30-40% of all Alberta jobs being impacted by emerging technology – including white-collar and blue-collar jobs: education, training and retraining will be vital. Don’t see education in terms of costs. See education as a better investment as a tax break for firms. Right now, Alberta has 31,000+ vacancies we can’t fill because we don’t have the skills needed to fill them.
  4. We are too reliant on two markets – China and the US – and both are at war over trade and were caught in the middle. This trade war will get worse before it gets better. We have to start diversifying not just our product base, but our markets. Asia is fast growing and by Asia we should look not just at China but other fast-growing Asian nations like South Korea, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. This is the Asian century. Get used to it.
  5. We need to rethink our revenue model. Government has lived for too long on the boom and bust energy market and oil and gas royalties (which are, in any case, far too low). We need to diversify the revenue through a sales tax (as in BC) and through sensible levies on CO2 which we can then use to reinvest in the future. Until we look at revenue and expenditure together, we will not get to a different future.

Setting up a panel to look at reducing public spending without letting them look at public revenues at the same time is like trying to find a haystack through a blindfold with a needle. Kenney had already decided what he was going to do, he wanted excuses and a scapegoat. He’ll get one, because that is what he has paid for.

So we will wait now and see what the Premier and his band of myopians to come up with a plan. Don’t hold your breath.

19th August

I have been in Banff with the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) delegates at the 71st Summer Conference. I worked with 40+ teacher leaders and encouraged them to get serious about something very specific as a leadership challenge.

I also explored what the future looks like with them. Let’s remember:

So what do I see? I see a government hell-bent on cutting budgets for education and removing some of the related supports for such things as school lunch programs, mental health and literacy, early childhood education and daycare, supports for special needs as well as cuts to post-secondary education, which will impact teacher preparation. I also see the growth of:

  • High Stakes Testing (HST) – already, the government has made testing at Grade 3 mandatory (it was voluntary). Expect to see more testing and more emphasis on testing.
  • Curriculum chaos – the government has put the about to be rolled-out curriculum on hold, withdrawn from its collaborative agreement with the ATA and signaled a “return to basics” in mathematics and a focus on STEM. They also have indicated that they want to consult widely on the curriculum – this after one of the broadest consultations in the history of Alberta.
  • Marginalization of the ATA – the UCP official policy is to split the professional body (widely regarded as one of the leading professional associations in the world) into a union and a professional body. Then it will bring the profession into central control within Government and start to police professional standards. It will then seek to marginalize the union. This is not an urgent task for the government, but it will happen in the first or second term of the UCP.
  • Remove Principals from the ATA – in the eyes of the UCP, Principals and Assistant Principals are “management”. In the eyes of the profession, they are instructional leaders charged with the development of best practice and the support of collaborative professional development. Given that the government sees the ATA as a union, not a professional body, they will move to remove Principals from the ATA before they seek to split the ATA (see above).
  • More charter schools – the standard neo-liberal tactic is to so disrupt public education (and health) so that performance declines and then to push privatization. We already hear the promotion of “choice” of school, which is code for privatization. Remember, Premier Kenney’s family ran private schools.
  • Attempt to introduce performance pay for teachers – despite promoting austerity, the UCP will also try to revive Jeff Johnson (former Minister of Education) proposal to introduce performance pay for teachers. This despite a mass of evidence that it does not lead to any improvement in learning outcomes.
  • Reduce the number of school boards – this has been the policy of other conservative governments across Canada and it is difficult to justify the number of Boards (and superintendents) Alberta has.
  • Changing the role of Superintendent – this is a difficult role, as an interesting ATA study shows. Currently, a Superintendent is appointed by a School Board, subject to approval by the Minister. They have a role of ensuring compliance with government requirements while at the same time encouraging bottom up innovation and improvement. Some focus on enabling and empowering Principals and their staff, others focus on compliance and control. Over the next few years, compliance will become more dominant mode of operation.

I hope I am dead wrong on all of these items – time will tell. But you read it here first.