Monday, July 9, 2012

July 9: Our aristocracy

The first section of today's Moncton Times and Transcript will be a treat for those who just love close-up pictures of rubber boots in the mud at a rock concert - or a picture of a copy of the Mona Lisa propped beside a chair at a flea market. That, seriously, with ads, pretty well sums up the first section - with one exception.

There is an important news story on p. A2. It's an interview with Professor Tom Buckley at University of New Brunswick, a specialist in the sort of public consultations we've been having lately on shale gas. Such consultations can be very useful - if the appropriate ministers are there. They are the ones people want answers from, not a collection of appointees. And it is the ministers who have to be reminded that they, not the appointees, are the ones responsible to the public.

Professor Becker cited cases in which public consultation was very effective - precisely because the cabinet minister was there. But when ministers aren't there, it is easy for them simply to distance themselves from the whole thing.  ( And that, of course, is why they came up with the bright idea of a appointing a committees to run the consultation. It's quite possible, even likely, that the appointees got their jobs because they will produce on 'helpful' recommendations.  And it's also close to a certainly that the government doesn't intend to pay any attention to the recommendations, anyway. It's a snow job.)

Professor Abelson of McMaster University added another caution. Discussions that come late in the policy making process are pretty ineffective because by then so many options and alternatives have been closed. (And thirteen years after the beginning of shale gas operations is more than a little late.)

Professor Abelson had more to say on the question of timing - but the story suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence. Perhaps the editor needed the space for that photo of a copy of the Mona Lisa.

Still, this news story is a must read.

There's also a reasonable sort of editoral, not a great one, but reasonable. And that's it.

There's not even a funny story in today's copy.. For example, it missed the news that the US government will spend 54 million dollars in a year for ads to discourage smoking. But it spends 200 million a year to subsidize tobacco farmers.

The Business Page is just a collection of scattered items from no place in particular; and picked, seemingly at random, from whatever Reuters has for sale. Most of it, as always, will be of interest to very few readers.

With nothing much in the paper, maybe this is good day to talk about the upper levels of our business world, and the attitudes that develop at such levels.  I mentioned not long ago the Halifax woman who mixed in such circles; and how she was so upset that "Bob" Stanfield, the underwear king, lost a federal election to Pierre Trudeau. "After all, it was Bob's turn."

Of course. it was Bob's turn.  Bob was rich. Came from an 'old' family (which means it had been rich for at least two generations.) Bob was not just a common person. And so it really was his turn to be prime minister.

The world has been there, done that, many times.

In ancient Rome, those with money and influence were able to become leaders by heredity. One daddy would become rich on the grain trade - and then his eldest son and his son and his son would be senators forever. Another daddy would make his mark as a great general; and on that would claim the throne for himself and then his son and then his grandson (allowing for assassinations along the way).

Some odd things would happen to these leaders through the generations. Absolute power encouraged absolute greed. The emperors and senators lived in a splendour we can only imagine. The dining areas of the rich included a vomiting room, with a supply of feathers to tickle the inside of the throat so that the diner could get rid of the larks' tongues and wine he had just enjoyed, and could go back for more.

But most of the Romans lived in wretched poverty. The 'wage gap' was best reflected in burial practices. Caesars and Senators received magnificent monuments. The rest were simply tossed into vast pits -garbage dumps, really. A friend who did archaeological work near one of them said its soil resembled molasses.

And, in their arrogance and greed and self-worship, many of the leaders, especially the caesars became quite potty. One emperor, for example, got seasick so, when the boat docked, he sent his whole army into the water to beat the waves with whips, pierce them with spears, and slash them with swords.

Caligula believed he was a God - and felt he needed to look more like a God. So he had his chin pierced to accept curly, gold wires as his beard.  Hadrian's  phantasies were less painful. He liked to stand in his pool, naked, while little boys dressed as fish swam around him.

The inheritance process was repeated in medieval Europe. This time, it began with warriors who were able to subdue large numbers of people to be their slaves. The early castles were not so much to protect them from foreign invaders, but to protect the lord and his soldiers from their own people.

Over the centuries, the most powerful lords were able to establish their authority over other lords, and name themselves kings. Once again, the arrogance, greed and self-indulgence became extreme, and the 'wage gap' unspeakable.

And once again, the rulers were heirs with all the power and wealth of their ancestors - whatevet their brain capacity might be. By the 1600s, Louis XIV found his aristocracy so utterly brainless and incompetent that he turned to the middle class to recruit people with enough intelligence and ability to become what we now call the civil service. Business would later model itself on the civil service.

Britain, though more slowly, went through the same process. In a first step, an aristocratic family would send the eldest son to the House of Lords. That's why the House of Lords has always been a bit of a potluck supper so far as brains are concerned.

Other sons, if they showed signs of normal intelligence became diplomats, colonial officials or, with their connections, MPs.. And the slack-jawed sons became officers in the army. (That remained standard practice in the British army well into the twentieth century. There were, of course, exceptions who turned out to be brighter than expected, like Wolfe and Wellington. But they were exceptions. And even Wellington, a brilliant commander, proved a disaster as a prime minister. Winston Churchill, a similar case, was a brilliant prime minister for a time of war; but he was a disaster whenever he put a hand to military affairs.)

And now, especially for the last 25 years or so, it's been happening to us as the children of the very, very rich become our rulers. It has been happening for several centuries, of course; but it has really taken off with the changes made by President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher.

The very rich were given free reign to do whatever they liked. Controls were slashed. Political funding was so loosened that most of our  political parties are up for sale to the highest bidder. Education, which should be fully available to anyone of ability is now and increasingly only for the rich. In the US, any child whose parents cannot afford a private and partially private school doesn't have a chance.  University is even worse.

No-one has taken advantage of the power of money combined with newspapers and TV more than Rupert Murdoch, the Australian news king who distributes (wildly biased and lying) news in Australia, Britain, and the US. In Britian, he is so powerful that he has full access to cabinet ministers and the prime minister on a regular basis. And prime ministers, like Tony Blair, who cooperate with him become very, very wealthy men. Nobody knows how widely And and how illegally his tentacles stretch. But it's very far, indeed. And there can be no doubt about the illegality of it.

The gambling, irresponsibility, and extravagant pay -  and criminality - of bankers all over the world is what has caused our world economic crisis. But nobody has been prosecuted for it. Indeed, the people who did it were given bonuses; while the taxpayers were plunged into debt that will never be repaid.

Most of the corporation world has gone in the same direction. While we lock out bus drivers in a quarrel over a tiny percentage of a raise, corporate bosses can expect bonusses in the millions. In fact, they can get that just for being incompetent and getting fired. Imagine what the pay and bonusses are like for the ones who actually know their jobs.

And, increasingly, it's by inheritance. Of course. Those who are born rich and connected have an immeasurable advantage over everyone else.

(Imagine a man who, in his twenties, was a drunk, a druggie, had never had a job, had such low marks on his BA he was not eligible for graduate school, and was dodging the draft. Who could imagine that within a few years he would get his first job - as president of an oil company - which went broke- and then become Governor of Texas and then President of the US. His name was George Bush. And, yes, his daddy was rich.)

And, of course, they become arrogant in their power. (Remember Mr. Irving's announcement of a year and a half ago that He was in coalition with the government, that He had appointed a committee to advise the government on future economic development of the province. And there is now a committee of his boys officially advising the government on how high our taxes whould be - and how low his should be.  We can only hope we stop short of the gold beard and the little boys dressed like fish. As for the waves, though, we won't whip them.  The plan is to poison them.)

Meanwhile, everybody else has been getting poorer. Of course. Greed and arrogance create wealth - for the wealthy. They create deepening poverty for everybody else. You are watching that all around the world right now.

Combine that with the fact that business ability - how can I put this kindly - is not quite the same thing as governing ability or wisdom. Nor is it necessarily genetic. In fact, any system based on heredity is bound to produce more than a few droolers. And when you combine that with power and arrogance, then the wheels pretty quickly fall of your society.

We've been there. Done that. We should have learned by now. Government by an aristocracy does not work.

Capitalism can work. But we don't have capitalism. We just have greedy and irresponsible people with enormous power. That's not capitalism. That's aristocracy.


  1. e few words, perhaps on this TPP? the pacific partnership? seems off the rails. i can't believe an agreement will pass in the form I have been hearing about

  2. I'm just wondering: if anyone has done on an environmental assessment on the land that we seem to be "on the hook for" that the city has decided to put a coliseum on? It sure would be a shame if we get stung for clean-up costs too? (it being bad enough that we need another white elephant building around here so the rich can get richer and the rest of us get taxed to death for) Being adjacent to CN property at the very least I would be surprised if there wasn't some nasty stuff in the ground there.

    1. Wow! I should have thought of that. My ancestral farm (in montreal ca. 1660) became a railway yard about 1870. about ten years ago, the land was bought to build a hospital. I was invited to the site to do a TV commenntary on the basement of the old Decarie house which they had uncovered. I was astonished to find the site so polluted they had to dig up the top ten feet or so, then truck it many hundreds of miles where they could pay somebody to accept the pollution. At that, the hospital needed some redesigning. I have no idea how many millions that must have cost - but certainly very many.

      Have they done an environmental assessment? I'll be calling city hall. Everybody should be calling.

      I have to learn more about the TPP.