11.18.2011 09:17 AM

Ignatieff in the Financial Times: a populist is born, too late


“For the moment, it is a good sign that Mr Monti is being called “the professor”. It’s an indication that the people want him to succeed. Having been a professor myself and having done my time in politics, I would offer only one piece of advice: convince your people that you are doing this not for the banks, not for Europe, not for the bond market, but for them, your fellow countrymen and women. Remember they, not the bond market or the European Union, have the ultimate power. If they believe you are on their side, you can succeed. If they believe you are not on their side, you will fail and they can make your country ungovernable.”

The rest of his Financial Times essay is seemingly aimed at academics-cum-politicians in Greece and Italy, and it’s there if you want to read it.  The above paragraph is the only part that references those of us toiling in the colonies.

The bit about the banks was interesting.  I recall talking to him, during the 2009 global recession, and suggesting that we go after the banks – they, after all, were the ones who caused the mess in the first place, aided and abetted by laissez-faire conservative governments.  Seemed pretty straightforward to me, and the likes of Trudeau and Chretien wouldn’t have hesitated a moment.  Ignatieff, however, abjectly refused.  His refusal wasn’t ever explained, but a refusal it certainly was.

That’s why the florid prose at the centre, there – “you are doing this not for the banks, not for Europe, not for the bond market, but for them, your fellow countrymen and women” – is a bit of a surprise.  I don’t remember calls for that sort of stirring populism ever echoing through the hallways at 409-S, however much Bolsheviks like Ian Davey and I tried.  Main Street always trumps Bay/Wall Street, I told him once, while he regarded me as if I was E.T.

Anyway, it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, I suppose.  You live and learn.  Sometimes you learn way too late.


  1. Marc L says:

    Ha! Just finished reading it and ws about to send you an e-mail to point it out to you.
    Very good article and agree 100%.
    The main problem with the Eurozone is that it exists in the first place. The economic rational for its existence is, in my view, extremely weak and always has been. I was never a proponent of the Euro precisely because the Euro-zone is so far from what us economists call an “optimal currency area” that it was clear that the economic differences between the core and peripheral countries would eventually come back to bite them. My concern was that the whole project would blow up once a serious recession hit the area and the competitiveness issues that plage the periphery — which over time would have led to currency depreciations had they had flexible exchange rates — would come home to roost. Now, what would have been achieved by currency depreciation over a number of years will need to be correcteed by internal deflation — rapidly falling wages and a lower standard of living. Obviously, Europe`s politicians are going to have to be able to convince the population that austerity is the only way forward. That`s the hard part, and frankly, I`m not sure they will be successful. Few realize how painful it is going to be to restore fiscal sustainability …

    • Marc L says:

      What???? You think Canada is like Europe? Canada’s federal debt-to-GDP ratio is only 34% of GDP! Even with the provinces, you’re still looking at something on the order of about 85% of GDP if my memory is correct. None of the provinces have unsustainable fiscal situations although some — like Ontario for example — will have some work to do. As for the common currency…Canada has a fiscal transfer mechanism and labour mobility is much higher than Europe. Canada is perhaps the G-20 country that has the LEAST fiscal problems.

      • Marc L says:

        You can’t just combine Quebec provincial plus federal. Ontario’s net debt will be around 40% of GDP. Italy’s is 120%. The effect of the inequality between provinces is in part ironed out through federal fiscal transfers, which is exactly what Europe lacks. On top of it, the federal government is an implicit guarantor of provincial debt — nobody would expect the Feds to just let a province default. See Saskatchewan in the 1990s. That is why the eastern provinces are paying lower rates than if they went it alone. Nothing unusual there. Again, peripheral Europe does not have that luck. I’m not arguing that Ontario and Quebec are not in serious fiscal straits and that they will not be able to take this seriously. But their situation is not unsustainable. Finally, Canada does not suffer from Europe’s deep structural problems, which is what got them there in the first place. So, Some provinces may have their fiscal challenges, but you can’t just replace Europe with Canada in my comment above. Canada is not Europe.

      • Marc L says:

        Gord, I’m well aware of the numbers. However, Ontario and Quebec are not responsible for their share of the Federal government’s debt. Financial markets will price their bonds based on their finances, their ability to service their debt, not their debt plus their estimated share of what the Federal government owes. That’s why adding the two and attributing the sum to either Ontario and Quebec is incorrect.

        About Europe, there is no mechanism to ensure that all countries have similar fiscal capacities. Nor are there Eurobonds to essentially pool the risk (which is what Federal government borrowing does). There is no Federal state in Europe with economic powers similar to the Canadian government. That is a big problem in an area that has a single currency, is not an optimal currency area, and has very limited labour mobility. The current crisis was baked in the cake from the beginning. In contrast, if any of Canada’s provincial governments run into trouble with their public finances, it has nothing to do with the structural failings of Canada’s federation. It has everything to do with the simple inability to control spending.

  2. Michael Erskine says:

    Hindsight, unlike the cliche, is rarely actually 20/20, but reflection outside of the maelstrom is often insightful…

  3. Pat says:

    Wait… who would you suggest runs these countries? Politicians? They’ve screwed up pretty bad – no matter how much people like Stevie Harper want to tell you that they understand crime and criminal justice, or Tony Clement will tell you that he understands the importance of collecting meaningful statistical data, they don’t. It is morons like those guys who make stupid mistakes.

    As long as the non-elected executive of the Italian government is held in check by a majority of the elected government, I don’t have a problem with it. I mean, they actually have people who know what they are doing running the government – people who are subject-matter experts doing the job they trained for.

    I can’t see how that will be worse that an idiot government in Ottawa spending untold (literally, untold) billions on a crime bill that every expert in the field says is stupid.

    You must be an idiot to not realize that elected representation has not actually disappeared from much of Europe – if duly elected members of Italy’s government disagreed with any of his decisions, they could get rid of him in a heart-beat. And if they try to get rid of him for doing something the people actually want him to do, then the politicians will suffer. This might be a MORE accountable way of running government, or at least more effective. Let the experts run the government using facts and experience, and let the politicians do what they are supposed to do – represent the opinions and perspectives and best interests of the people.

    Studying government for much of my life, the one thing I never understood but never really questioned is how we could let people who have no expertise on a subject make the decisions. Like I said, Stevie may be an economist, but what the hell does he know about crime? NOTHING.

    • Ted H says:

      Based on his policy decisions so far, he doesn’t even know much about economics. He likes to call himself an economist but he has never worked as one.

      I will give him credit for a rare moment of dry wit when he said he chose economics because he didn’t have enough personality to be an accountant.

      • Pat says:

        I wasn’t really going to go there, because I thought I’d have a fight on my hands from conservative nutbars who wouldn’t like me attacking their fearless leader. I thought I’d have enough of a fight on my hands by saying that I was okay with unelected government leaders. I think my reasoning is pretty sound though – the power is still in the hands of the elected, they have just admitted that they don’t have the ability or political will to put the right policies in place.

        I should also note that, while I slammed the Tories for being stupid, stupidity is hardly the only reason they act the way they do. It’s politics. They can’t make a decision that will alienate their base, and if anything, they want to build on their base – even if it is not in the best interests of Canada. Of course they are going to ignore all the evidence that their crime policy is idiotic – they want the conservative faction of Canada’s population to support them. The Liberals would do/did do the same thing. That is what happens in reality. In Italy they now have an unelected person/people making the decisions, which removes the political pressure to do stupid stuff to placate the base. If the unelected people do something really stupid that loses the confidence of the politicians or the public, they can be removed. It is actually a really interesting set-up that might work pretty good – you have experts making decisions, and politicians supporting the experts until the experts screw up.

        I can see how Gord wouldn’t like the idea of experts helping govern because he supports the Harper Tories, who have slandered experts at every turn.

    • Pat says:

      That is in no way what you said in your first post.

  4. AP says:

    Michael Ignatieff sticks his head out of the faculty lounge every once and while and says something that he thinks is clever and deep. Usually it all sounds very nice. I am however always left thinking two things:

    1. That’s nice
    2. I really don’t give a shit what Michael Ignatieff thinks.

    Reading one of Michael Ignatieff’s articles feels like bumping into an ex-girfriend on the street. She prattles on about how much she’s learned about herself since breaking up and you just stare at her and think, “I can’t believe I used to date her — what the fuck was I thinking?”

  5. steve says:

    Goldman Sachs now officially runs Italy, no haircuts, no haircuts.

  6. Dan says:

    The problem with Michael Ignatieff is he’s devoid of principle. He spent so many years trying to kiss ass at Harvard, he arrived in Canada the equivalent of John McCain. Now he’s late to the bandwagon. Again.

    And that’s the problem with the Liberal party. It’s being run by the tacticians and the careerists. Which means they never want to piss off the suit and tie crowd, let alone the donors.

    What happened to the party of Trudeau?

    Yeah, Trudeau was kicked flat out on his ass at the end of it. But he had an epic run of nearly 20 years.

    And at the end of it all, they didn’t kick him out for waffling left and right. They kicked him out because he spent all his political capital on the things he believed in.

    A *few* Liberal strategists seem to understand that you can’t have a brand without principles. And principles are something you have to live for years before they break through. (Ask Jack Layton.)

    Sadly, what most Liberal strategists will get from this is that we need to nominate Justin Trudeau.

    • Ken says:

      Trudeau got kicked out? When?

      • The Doctor says:

        I second Ken’s sentiment. It’s true that Canada at large may have been tired of Trudeau in early 1984, but he wasn’t kicked out, he resigned. The general sentiment in the LPC and the punditocracy at the time was that Trudeau would likely lose the next election. The LPC was languishing in the polls when he resigned.

        It’s sort of like when you get a really sh*tty review at work, but they don’t fire you. They just wish you’d leave.

        • Dan says:

          Point is that Trudeau tanked in the polls. Whether he quit before he got slammed is a non-issue. The point is he tanked in the polls, but not before he spent 20 years doing what he believed in and fighting some tough battles. That’s the right way to end a career, and it shows why his career was so successful in the first place.

      • Dan says:

        He quit before he was slammed. But that’s neither here nor there.

  7. allegra fortissima says:

    Mr. Tulk knows it all – again. Well Gord, you might be sad that Harper’s friend Silvio has vanished into thin air, the Italians see their Prime Minister, yes: il professore, in a positive light:

    “It wasn’t actually Monti’s desire to have a cabinet devoid of politicians who recently held high government or party offices. In the end it was the parties themselves that demanded that his cabinet be made of ‘technocrats’, or economic experts. By choosing promising experts, Monti has made the best out of the situation. He also sees the absence of politicians as his governments’ greatest opportunity: It will likely be able to work more efficiently without tortuous battles that characterized the Berlusconi years. A recent survey found that 59 percent of Italians think it unimportant whether Monti’s political leanings are to the right or to the left. The only direction Italians are now interested in is forward.” (Sueddeutsche Zeitung)

    “The problem with Michael Ignatieff… He spent so many years trying to kiss ass at Harvard.” That must be joke. If there is anything “the professor” did not have to do, then it was “to kiss ass”. I think Harvard was darn proud to call an intellectual like Michael Ignatieff “one of theirs”. Michael Ignatieff’s political problem was the “elitism” trap the Conservatives set up, and Canadians fell for it. Whether a “blue” Liberal or not, I can tell you one thing: In Europe, a politician like Ignatieff would have won elections in a landside – from Finland to Italy, from Portugal to Poland. But that’s Europe, and this is Canada.

    • The Doctor says:

      “Michael Ignatieff’s political problem was the “elitism” trap the Conservatives set up, and Canadians fell for it.”

      I think Ignatieff had a lot more political problems than just that. To me, your statement seems like a very narrow account of what went on. And I say that as someone who voted for him. I would have been quite comfortable with Iggy as PM.

      But Ignatieff faced a number of problems, e.g., a party that still has considerable divisions and considerable confusion about where it fundamentally wants to go in terms of policy, a party that has IMO been too reactive to what the Conservatives are doing and not proactive enough in articulating to Canadians what the LPC wants to do differently, and a party that has huge regional weaknesses along with organizational and funding issues. I also think the dynamic of the last minority government put Iggy in an almost impossible situation, I really felt sorry for him in that role. It was like the classic no-win, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. And he also got sh*tty advice re: bringing down the government when the LPC was WAY down in the polls, IMO.

    • Dan says:

      Ignatieff went to America and came back pro wall-street and pro-war.

      If that’s not ass kissing, then he’s just plain stupid. Because it sure didn’t help him when he got back here.

  8. Sean says:

    classic academic… write lots of provocative stuff when there is absolutely no consequence… then, when you have your big chance, run away and do nothing.

    • JStanton says:

      … true that. This I learned in grad school, and why I’m adverse to academics in any realm of consequence.

      As Kissinger has said, the reason university politics are so viscous is because the consequences are so small.

      Conversely, if the consequences are significant, academics turn into lambs. Mr. Ignatieff, alas, was one of these.


  9. Woody says:

    Answer Me A Question I Can’t Itemize
    I Can’t Think Clearly, Look To Me For Reason
    It’s Not There, I Can’t Even Rhyme In The Begin

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