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Christopher Grier: Technocrats need fewer grand plans and much more humility

Commentary

A little while ago I came across a tweet with a quote from Mark Carney to a reception in Ottawa which he apparently told a crowd of the country’s political establishment: “You don’t shelter from the storm, you make the weather.”

On the one hand, this is a pretty standard cliché from an aspiring politician or senior public servant who understands how much his or her audience likes being told how important they are. In this sense, it reminds one of then-candidate Barack Obama’s similarly hubristic line, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”Barack Obama’s Feb. 5 Speech https://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/us/politics/05text-obama.html

Yet, on the other hand, it stuck in my mind because it offers what I think is a key to understanding how many of our leaders like Carney see the process of governing. In so doing, it brings expression to a set of competing visions about the role and capacity of the state to engineer economic and social outcomes. 

The first vision is the Carney weather-maker vision. It reflects the idea that policymakers are “shaping the weather” as they make the decisions that order our world. The second vision would say that governing is more properly understood as being like a ship captain sailing the seas and ending up in storms over which he or she has limited control. 

The weather-makers vision of government is unsurprisingly appealing to politicians and the much larger group of ambitious people who identify as part of the leadership class. It is the underlying philosophy of several different political theories that gained much popularity in the 20th century ranging from communism to neoliberal technocracy. There are of course tremendous conceptual and practical differences between these different political economy models but they ultimately share a faith that government is capable of shaping the world at will. 

It is not surprising that Carney is of this school coming from the world of central bankers which is often exhibit A in modern liberal democracies for the technocratic impulse. Of course, the bankers’ record in the last 25 years has not exactly been perfect, as seen with both the leadup to the financial crisis in 2008 and the current struggles with higher-than-targeted inflation.Why are Tories having a go at central bankers? https://thehub.ca/2022-07-25/mitch-heimpel-why-are-tories-having-a-go-at-central-bankers/ In both cases, the central banks were offering calm reassurances to critics that they had everything nicely under control right up until the point at which it became clear they did not. 

And this gets at the big problem of the weather-making paradigm. It overestimates the ability of policymakers and political institutions to shape outcomes in a complex world. The runup of government and household debt in the leadup to the 2008 crisis is another case in point. The underlying cause was in large part due to the understandable desire by American political leaders to boost homeownership and to keep the economy going in the face of shocks like the tech meltdown or the fallout of 9/11. Yet they failed to foresee the risk this posed until the entire financial system suddenly was in crisis. 

These examples raise the bigger question of whether the problem is that we just have bad central bankers and that better ones could have avoided such problems, or if the world is simply too complex for any institution to work out all eventualities. Or the fact that there is not always a “right choice” in the first place. What we rather face often is a series of trade-offs.

This understanding of the world places less emphasis on the role of the wise technocrats and more on a more limited conception of the role and capacity of government. This alternative approach necessarily elevates elected officials over non-elected technocrats to forge compromises that can secure wide democratic acceptance. It suggests having a sense of modesty about what can be achieved. 

These competing visions are reflected in part in the ongoing arguments about COVID-19 policy. On the one side, there are many people who are convinced that if we only had the right policy we could have achieved a COVID-zero outcome. For people who were much more skeptical of government’s ability to shape things, this confidence has often seemed delusional. The result though is that much of the debate over COVID-19 policies over the past two years has featured two sides just talking past each other and unable to grasp the basic assumptions the other was coming from. 

It is worth noting that if one looks at the actual (and often messy) policymaking process during the pandemic that most governments around the world followed, it offers much more evidence for the ship captain metaphor than the weather-making one. Governments frantically improvised and saw their attempts to create careful plans upended by the virus’s refusal to follow their attempt to impose order upon the pandemic. 

This is not at all to say that COVID-era policymaking ought to be viewed as a standard or even the norm. At the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, it should be emphasized that seeing government as a ship captain does not mean governing with no plan. After all, a ship captain who goes through the storm with no destination in mind is probably not someone whose ship you want to be on. Ostensibly you want a captain who can safely guide the ship to safe harbour while respecting the many things he or she does not control.  

This ultimately reflects why it is that the weather-maker metaphor is a dangerous guide to governing. It misleads policymakers into focusing on grand plans to remake the world often at the cost of those leaders paying attention to the smaller things that they actually can control. And this is ultimately a route to an ugly shipwreck. 

Rahim Mohamed: How Canada’s Conservatives can look more like Britain’s Tories

Commentary

The Conservative Party of Canada leadership race took a dramatic turn earlier this month when top-tier candidate Patrick Brown was disqualified over allegations that he broke party financing rules. Brown’s ejection from the contest has all but guaranteed that frontrunner Pierre Poilievre will become the party’s new leader on September 10th. It has also shone a light on the party’s continued struggles to attract and retain minority supporters since losing power nearly seven years ago.

Brown attracted a diverse crowd to the leadership contest as the incumbent mayor of Brampton, Ontario, Canada’s most heavily South Asian city. Prior to his untimely departure from the race, he recruited some 150,000 new members to the party, drawn disproportionately from immigrant and racialized communities. He also kept themes of inclusion and racial justice at the forefront of his now-defunct campaign; notably emerging as one of Canada’s loudest voices against Quebec’s anti-religious symbols Bill 21, which he has called “racist and discriminatory”. (As mayor of Brampton, Brown currently leads a group of 16 major Canadian cities that are funding a legal challenge to Bill 21). 

Brown’s controversial exit from the Conservative Party leadership race is yet another setback for a party that has never fully recovered from a racially charged 2015 federal election campaign, replete with accusations of Islamophobic dog-whistling, and has more recently alienated Chinese-Canadian voters with its rhetoric on COVID and the People’s Republic of China. If the Conservative Party were looking to sabotage its chances in the next election, it’s hard to imagine a more effective way of doing so than by giving a middle finger to 150,000 new members who are largely non-white and geographically concentrated in Canada’s most “must-win” suburban swing ridings.

The Conservative Party’s rather monochromatic frontbench hardly inspires confidence that things will change for the better anytime soon. The party’s shadow cabinet is, in fact, shockingly pale for a government-in-waiting in a country where over 20 percent of the population is non-whiteCensus Profile, 2016 Census https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=PR&Code1=01&Geo2=PR&Code2=01&Data=Count&SearchText=Canada&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=Visible%20minority&TABID=1 (a proportion that will only increase in the coming years). Dr. Leslyn Lewis, a Black woman and one of five remaining leadership contenders, was conspicuously snubbed of a critic portfolio after winning a seat in last fall’s federal election. This despite her impressive showing in the last leadership election (Lewis trailed eventual winner Erin O’Toole by a mere five percent in the second round of voting). Lewis’ omission from the shadow cabinet leaves just one person of colour, Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs Michael Chong, in a prominent critic role. The dearth of Black and brown faces in the Conservative Party’s inner circle only reinforces the message that minority communities aren’t welcome or valued within the party.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just across the Atlantic, Britain’s Tories are in the throes of the most ethnically diverse leadership race ever run by a major Western party. Over half of the 11 candidates who declared their intention to succeed Boris Johnson as the party’s next leader (and next prime minister of the United Kingdom) earlier this month were ethnic minorities—a haul that included Rishi Sunak, the son of Indian immigrants, Iraqi Kurd Nadhim Zahawi, and the Nigerian-raised Kemi Badenoch. Sunak, formerly Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, has since swept a series of caucus votes and is slated to go head-to-head with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in a poll of rank-and-file party members in September. Once the smoke clears, there’s a good chance that Sunak will become just the second ever non-white leader of a Western country (following in Barack Obama’s footsteps).

How can two parties that descend from the same ideological family, and even share the same nickname, look so different?  

Paradoxically, the changes within Britain’s Conservative Party can be pinned in part on the country’s stubborn cultural elitism. There’s a well-trodden path between the so-called “Oxbridge” network of elite British universities and prep schools and the Conservative Party’s frontbenches (Johnson and ex-prime minister David Cameron were famously part of the same all-male dining club in their Oxford days). As Britain’s most prestigious educational institutions have taken steps to diversify their respective student bodies over the years, one downstream effect has been a more diverse group of Conservatives in Westminster. Sunak, for example, is a graduate of Oxford’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program, a degree long seen as an entrée into Britain’s political establishment

While there is something of a pecking order among Canada’s colleges and universities (annual university rankings are just about the only thing keeping Maclean’s in print these days), our educational landscape is still nowhere near as hierarchical as Britain’s—which, to be clear, is probably a good thing. As such, tweaks to the respective admissions policies of McGill or U of T are unlikely to affect the composition of any party’s caucus (although cracking down on Greek Life at Western could greatly reduce the number of Canadian political scandals down the road).

Changes to party procedures for nominating candidates, implemented under former leader David Cameron, are another important part of the story. Shortly after becoming Conservative Party leader in 2005, Cameron introduced “A-lists” of prospective nominees, composed principally of women and minorities, for the consideration of electoral district associations (EDAs) in winnable ridings. The “A-list” system dramatically changed the composition of the Conservative caucus in a remarkably short period of time; by the time of Cameron’s departure in 2016, the number of Conservative MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds had increased six-fold.We were all white men — so I did something about diversity https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/david-cameron-we-were-all-white-men-so-i-did-something-about-diversity-xlnnq7szm

Unfortunately, A-lists would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Conservative Party of Canada to replicate. Canada is a much (geographically) larger country than the United Kingdom and its party system is far more decentralized. “Open nominations” are a longstanding sacred cow of the Reform/Alliance wing of the Conservative Party and it’s difficult to fathom EDAs in Western Canada allowing Party HQ in Ottawa to shove binders filled with women and minorities down their throats. Any attempt to further centralize nominations, as Cameron was able to do in Britain, would only antagonize the EDAs and could potentially plunge the party into yet another internal crisis. 

While structural reforms pursued by Britain’s Tories offer little guidance for Canada’s Conservatives, we can learn much from the party’s tone and messaging. One characteristic of the Tories that the Conservative Party of Canada can, and absolutely should, emulate is the party’s total embrace of civic nationalism: that is, an ethos of inclusive national pride built on shared admiration for a given country’s array of values an institutions.

Even as Britain’s Conservative Party has aggressively courted minorities, it has studiously avoided the sort of apologetic wokeness that now permeates the anti-racist left. Minorities within the party have been especially defiant of a left-of-centre metanarrative that casts them as helpless victims of structural racism. Minority Conservative MPs were, in fact, some of the party’s most fervent Brexiteers; today, they are among the loudest trumpeters of British exceptionalism. For instance, the aforementioned Kemi Badenoch was catapulted into political superstardom in the fall of 2020 when her speech to parliament excoriating critical race theory went viral. 

While white progressives churn out think-pieces about how Western countries like Canada and the United Kingdom are white-supremacist hellholes, the bulk of minorities carry a quieter gratitude for the myriad opportunities such societies provide—most of us having roots in countries where citizens do not enjoy the same political and economic freedoms. My own parents, who were forced to flee their birth country of Uganda in the early 1970s (along with the rest of Uganda’s Asians), have never allowed me to forget how fortunate I was to grow up in such a free and prosperous country.

Canada’s ethnic minorities may not wear poppies in early November, but we generally like Canada and are grateful for the quality of life we enjoy here. In fact, surveys show that visible minorities generally express greater national pride than other Canadians.General Social Survey – Social Identity, 2020: A snapshot of pride in Canadian achievements among designated groups https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210928/dq210928c-eng.htm By daring to embrace an inclusive and full-throated civic nationalism, the Conservative Party of Canada can follow the Tories’ lead and become Canada’s party of diversity.