Ian Brodie offers a candid case study in politics and policy

Harper’s former chief of staff delivers a frank explanation on why the Tories cut the GST


Ian Brodie offers a candid case study in politics and policyIan Brodie, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, delivered an astonishingly frank explanation today for why the Conservative government cut the Goods and Services Tax, and why he’s glad they did, even though just about every economist and tax expert said it was a terrible bit of public policy.

“Despite economic evidence to the contrary, in my view the GST cut worked,” Brodie said in Montreal at the annual conference of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. “It worked in the sense that by the end of the ’05-’06 campaign, voters identified the Conservative party as the party of lower taxes. It worked in the sense that it helped us to win.”

It’s not really surprising, of course, that campaign calculations lay behind the GST cuts, which have cost the federal government about $12 billion a year at the worst possible time. That’s been obvious all along.

What’s noteworthy is that Brodie, who is now a visiting fellow at the McGill institute, doesn’t shrink from publicly asserting that such a major public policy decision can still be deemed a success—even in the face of “evidence to the contrary”—if that move paid the desired political dividends.

It’s important to note that Brodie expanded his justification beyond simply saying that the policy was a success because it helped get Tories elected. He went on to argue that making good on their promise to cut the GST was, somehow, the move that allowed the Harper government to proceed later with the sorts of corporate and personal income tax cuts that most economists and tax-policy specialists believe make much more sense.

In other words, he sees a trade-off. Cutting the GST was in itself dubious policy, since taxing consumption is better for the economy than the taxing income that turns into investment that generates prosperity. But that bad tax cut was, in fact, good because it allowed a government willing to embark on more sensible tax cuts to stay in power.

But that only makes sense if you ignore the recent history of tax reductions. The argument that only a government that had cut the hated GST could politically afford to do the other sorts of tax reform doesn’t hold up. After all, the Liberal government, in then finance-minister Paul Martin’s fall 2000 mini-budget and the 2001 budget the followed, brought in sweeping, across-the-board tax cuts, all without worrying about the GST.

Beyond the narrow debate about the history of the GST cuts, there was something unsettling about Brodie’s candid presentation.

He made it in a panel discussion meant to try to address the question “Does Evidence Matter in Policy-Making?” To some of the other panelists, and I would guess to most of those in the roomful of academics and bureaucrats listening, the assumed premise was that evidence—facts, objective analysis, expertise—should matter a great deal more in policy than it does now.

But Brodie painted a picture of politics where that would appear to be a hopeless aspiration.

He ruefully recounted how the Conservatives tried to run in the 2004 election on a comprehensive tax-reduction platform based on solid policy thinking. But that meant they had to explain, he joked, “multi-year this, multi-year that.” Canadian voters tuned out the details and defeated Harper’s Tories.

Brodie said the party’s campaign researchers then explored public opinion. They discovered that Canadians tend to forget or discount past income tax cuts. Ontario voters don’t remember that Mike Harris reduced them, Alberta voters don’t think Ralph Klein cut theirs. “We found no one,” he said, “who believed they had ever had a tax cut from Jean Chretien or Paul Martin.”

Lesson learned. Deliver a tax cut so simple nobody could misunderstand it or forget it. And so the Tories promised, and delivered, their GST cuts, a point off in the spring of 2006, and another in the fall of 2007. That second reduction came just in time for the beginning of the subprime meltdown, which would soon usher in an era when the Canadian government, like governments everywhere, would need every dime they could get.

Brodie talked mostly about the GST, but he suggested the same sort of clash between policy expertise and political necessity is common. He mentioned the way “sociologists, criminologists, and defence lawyers” attack just about every aspect of the Harper government’s tough-on-crime policy package.

Rather than actually rebut any of the arguments those opponents raise, however, Brodie noted that such experts are “all held in lower repute than Conservative politicians.”

“Politically it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition,” he said. “So we never really had to engage in the question of what the evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime.”

Needless to say, there were voices in the room that tried to defend the uses of evidence in policy making. I found Wendy Thomson, now a McGill social policy professor, but previously in the political thick of things as former British prime minister Tony Blair’s chief adviser on public service reform, especially engaging.

Thomson spoke of the need for “brave politicians” to rise above the exigencies of party politics, and when a policy direction was clearly misguided, stand up and say, “It can’t go on like this.”

One intriguing possibility raised in the discussion was that this sort of political bravery, married to sound policy, might happen more often in times of crisis than in easier days. So the Tories cut the GST when they were swimming in surpluses, but would they do something so obviously unsupportable, at least in pure policy terms, in these more challenging days?

But that raises yet another question. In truly testing times, are governments actually capable of gathering evidence and developing policy based on it? Kevin Lynch, Ottawa’s top mandarin as Clerk of the Privy Council, also spoke at McGill today, and he left me worried on this score.

“There’s always an urgent search for knowledge to better understand the nature of the crisis, so as to better shape the policy response to the crisis. And this takes time and it takes expertise,” he said. “This is always in tension, and fairly great tension at times, with the understandable desire for action, to do something, and to be seen to do something.”

He means, of course, desire on the part of politicians to be seen to be busily solving problems. In the current economic mess there is ample evidence of a rush to seem to be shoveling stimulus billions out the door, against urging, from among others David Dodge, for a more measured response.

So I’m left with two unsatisfactory impressions of the link between evidence and policy. In good times, politicians might feel they have the luxury of ignoring evidence, and so design and implement expedient policy; in bad times, politicians might feel they don’t have the luxury of gathering evidence, and so design and implement expedient policy.

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Ian Brodie offers a candid case study in politics and policy

  1. Truly horrifying.

  2. I’m just glad the Canadian people see through the nefarious schemes of those f$%*ing sociologists.

    • Don’t worry – the McGuinty government is doing his best to deal with them: fund to expand graduate programs all across Ontario, but don’t fund universities to hire more faculty, or even replace old faculty! It’s brilliant. We’ll have hundred of unemployed PhDs in sociology… and political science, economics, public policy, etc. etc. etc. Pure genius.

      • Damn good thing we have no private universities.

    • There must, somewhere, be a sociological study of how sociologists are perceived by the public at large, and how that perception is inevitably conditioned by the very act of sociological study.

      • No doubt it’s all tied to sociological “constructs”.

        • Studies show that the “nefarious sociologist” (esp. Type 2B) is one of the most abiding constructs, though it has undergone a continuous evolution.

          • Ah, yes. Type 2B. In the most recent evolution, a closet Marxist who blows his generous taxpayer-funded professorial salary on expensive cheese, lattes, Vivaldi records, and socialist fanzines. After a hard day’s work indoctrinating the students in his “gender theory” classes, he returns to his office where he conducts his taxpayer-funded research into the “Transformative Hermeneutics of Gun Control”, in which he postulates that the long-barreled rifle is in fact a phallic symbol for regressive conservatives.

          • (Disclaimer: the preceding comment was a parody of Limbaugh-esque perceptions of sociologists. I was not trying to impugn sociologists’ valuable contributions to public discourse.)

          • I’ll gladly impugn sociologists as long as they continue to call what they do “science”.

    • LMAO.

  3. Yep, evidence rarely trumps that basic, gutteral instinct which can be summed up in a brief, saleable clip — Tory times are tough times indeed.

  4. First of all, we are a democracy, not a technocracy, so we are going to be ruled by pols who pander. All pols/parties ignore evidence when it suits them to win elections and I might not like the pandering but it is better than alternatives.

    Secondly, you talk about these experts and their ideas like there is some kind of consensus. There is rarely unanimity in academia about anything so to make it sound like there are policy ideas, that everyone agrees on, that would solve the world’s problems if they were just implemented is laughable.

    And finally, the GST cut saved Canadians $12 billion. It did not cost the government anything because it is not their money in the first place.

    • Except that unfunded $12B tax cut will be borrowed against our childrens’ future because the Cons didn’t take responsibility for their tax cut and propose corresponding spending cuts.

      Borrow-and spend conservatives. Seems to be the only kind.

      • “Cons didn’t take responsibility for their tax cut and propose corresponding spending cuts.”

        Agree 100%. I don’t know what it is about Cons/Repubs over the past decade or so because It’s been all about tax cuts while spending like drunken sailors. It seems like they are pandering to two bases: tax cuts for the cons and increased spending/programs for the libs.

        • Check the April Harper’s for an excellent answer to this question in Garret Keizer’s editorial. (Unfortunately you need a subscription to view online, but it’s well worth the money to buy a print copy). I was particularly struck by this:

          “The role of a conservative, as I understand it, is to challenge the yes-we-can progressivism of people like me, which is why I have always valued a conservative when I could manage to find one. Cheapskates and chauvinists I’ve found aplenty, but conservatives are a rarer breed.”

        • I don’t think they are pandering to the cons on tax cuts and libs on spending. I think they are pandering to the electorate in general, telling them (fully knowing it isn’t true) that they can have their cake and eat it too; it kinda works, too!

          • Good point. I wonder if it makes sense to even talk about liberals and conservatives (small-l, small-c) when talking about the big public. As people interested in politics, we naturally think everyone must have an unconscious political philosophy, but in general I doubt that’s the case. Most people do not notice politics except at election time, and even then they find it rather obscure.

      • It’s not the tax cut that cost future taxpayers $12 billion, and not even a lack of corresponding spending cuts. It’s the extra spending. Corresponding spending cuts weren’t required at the time the tax was cut, they just needed to rein in spending, particularly in the most recent budget. At any rate, a GST cut would have likely been part of a short-term stimulus budget had it not already been cut.

  5. So – for liberals, political expediency is a factor. For conservatives, it’s the goal. Seems to line up with our experiences north and south of the border for the last 30 years.

    No wonder it’s said that conservatives know how to get elected, but liberals know how to govern.

    • I assume this is said…. by liberals.

    • “No wonder it’s said that conservatives know how to get elected, but liberals know how to govern.”

      I’ve never heard or read anyone saying that, and I certainly would never say that myself, I would say the opposite.

  6. And people wonder why I argue for smaller government and less influence for politicians.

    • Yes, we have all been wondering

    • Do you think these problem don’t exist in the business world? Success in the business world is even more about branding and perception rather then evidence supported choices.

      • A business is about making profit and we all know it is about making profit. Some of the sales may be result from marketing, but the marketing is very targetted and driven by detailed market analysis. If they don’t base their decisions on facts they will fail, the owners will lose some money and then go and start a new business. Plus as a consumer I can choose not to buy from one company or another.

        A government is representing its constituency and we don’t have an option to go get ourselves another government and the government gets to tell us how much we have to spend after we’ve “bought” it and can change what we bought after the fact. And then if the policies fail, or screw up, it is other people who lose money.

        • When did we stop having elections? Where do I sign up for the revolution (That’s the only alternative I guess)

        • Thank you for that fine analysis of 18th century capitalism. Allow me to introduce you to the 21st century:

          Business is about making profit for its shareholders – unless it is merely about moving money around in a way that gives the appearance of making a profit. Sales (if the business still indulges in such a quaint practise as selling things to people) result from maximizing the market share, usually by undercutting competitors through integrating the supply chain and cutting costs by any means necessary, then absorbing and thereby eliminating their competitors before jacking up the prices.

          If they don’t base their decisions on facts they will fail, but it will not be called ‘failure’. It will be called ‘restructuring’, or ‘divestment of assets’. Or maybe ‘Iceland’. In any case, by the time such a failure is recognized, everyone involved in the decision-making process will have cashed out and moved to a tax-sheltered island somewhere. And someone will blame the government, but for all the wrong reasons.

          As a consumer, I can choose to time travel back to the 18th century, when there was still legitimate competition between locally owned businesses whose owners were accountable to their customers and not solely to the value of their stock options.

          The problem with governments is they have convinced us that we are their customers, when in fact we are their shareholders.

          • greenjenny wrote: “… if the business still indulges in such a quaint practise (sic) as selling things to people) result from maximizing the market share, usually by undercutting competitors through integrating the supply chain and cutting costs by any means necessary, then absorbing and thereby eliminating their competitors before jacking up the prices.”

            How about listing some such companies to prove your case? For example, I don’t see the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, jacking up their prices. Should they try, the competition is always waiting to come back. If you hate big business so much, you’re free to grow all your own food, make all your own clothes, and buy a horse for transportation. Who’s stopping you?

          • (can’t seem to reply to J.D. Lees’ response, so…)

            I wasn’t thinking of Wal-Mart so much as Blockbuster and certain cell phone companies. I’m sure others can come up with their own examples.

            As for growing my own food, making my own clothes and buying a horse – believe it or not, I was going to suggest that as an alternative. But then I realized that the horse would be a zoning violation and the vegetable seeds would be owned by Monsanto. But the clothes thing isn’t a bad idea. Now I just need a sheep…

  7. The thing that gets me on this is that we all knew the GST cut was just a gimmick with no economic foundation.

    Even Flaherty opposed GST cuts as stimulus. As Minister of Finance he said, on Nov 5, 2001 (http://hansardindex.ontla.on.ca/hansardespeaker/37-2/l062a-521.html):

    “Hon Mr Flaherty: The member opposite again raises the question of reducing the sales tax. I must say that with respect to tax cuts, I agree with Paul Martin. With respect to reducing the GST federally and the RST provincially, I also agree with the federal minister, and we’ve talked about this. All you get is a short-term hit, quite frankly. You accelerate spending. You pull it ahead by a month or two. It has no long-term positive gain for the economy.

    On this side of the House — and I say this with respect to the member opposite — we’re interested in long-term, sustainable economic growth and the creation of permanent jobs in Ontario. That’s what grows the economy. That’s what helps people. That’s what helps retailers in Ontario, not short-term, knee-jerk actions.

    And yet knowing that, the Conservatives backed this policy plank to the hilt. And knowing that, Canadians voted for them and put them into office. Sadly, proving Brodie right.

    • Somehow the last part of that quotation from Flaherty was cut off: “That’s what helps retailers in Ontario, not short-term, knee-jerk actions.”

      • Short jerks aren’t any help to retailers in Ontario? They should have thought of that before they elected him.

  8. Poppycock.

  9. A friend of mine who works for a nameless science -based government department told me that no one is allowed to use the word research; but, instead must choose from a set of prescribed buzz words that suggest that whatever is being funded is ‘saving tax payers’ money and getting things done’. Even if the thing being set in motion is research it must never be referred to as such.

    Another reaction I have to your posting is one that reinforces the idea that C/conservative supporters tend to react emotionally rather than rationally to problems and their solutions. Brodie seems to suggest that Conservatives will rely on pushing emotional buttons to achieve public policy. Shades of demagoguery!

    • It’s true, and hilarious. Even if you’re building a research lab, don’t dare suggest that it will be used for research.

  10. “voters identified the Conservative party as the party of lower taxes.”

    They didn’t do that before? The real problem for cons is that tax cuts aren’t really popular outside of their echo chamber.

  11. …the kind of government we deserve…

  12. There is another reason to cut GST – one which you rarely hear about but none the less is a fact = every 1 cent drop in the GST results in 100,000 jobs in around 3 – 5 years. Interesting nes pas?

    • How? I’d be interested in the basis for that.

    • According to Jim Flaherty, and every economist I’ve read on the matter, that is absolutely untrue. It doesn’t even make any common sense. Even if you want to say spending will increase, that will just mean prices will rise soon enough.

      So I’m curious Wayne, what evidence do you have to support such a precise claim?

    • Flaherty: “With respect to reducing the GST federally and the RST provincially, […] all you get is a short-term hit, quite frankly. You accelerate spending. You pull it ahead by a month or two. It has no long-term positive gain for the economy.”

  13. So, are you arguing that the consensus view of economists is that, if government revenues were $12B higher today, our economy would be just swimming along? Its hard to see how that proposition could possibly be true, given that the argument against the GST cut at the time was that it would stimulate the economy (note that England has also reduced its VAT). If the argument is that government revenues would be higher, and deficit smaller, we’d still be poorer for it and the economy would be hurting nonetheless.

    There are several reasons for supporting a GST cut:

    First, there is no appropriate point for a value-added tax…it is arbitrarily set by a government that needs revenues (recall that it was originally proposed at 9%). By any definition, the GST exceeded expectations as a revenue generator.

    Second, why should the government not reduce its revenues when they exceed needs? Note that the value added taxes affect low income earners proportionally more than high income earners. Hence, the rebate gymnastics to keep the poor happy. Imagine the outcry about the effects on the poor if the rate was increased (note current Ont NDP stance on harmonizing PST with GST).

    Third, a reduction of GST is the simplest way to transfer a revenue source to provincial coffers (if provinces wish to take up the room). Ontario government revenues would be nearly $6B higher if it raised its PST 2 points. Now imagine, one point of that revenue transferred to the municipalities that generated it. For Toronto that would add up to approximately an additional $1.5B per year for infrastructur, transit, and reducing property taxes. Although this would reduce any stimulatory effects of GST reduction, one can make the argument that jurisdictions responsible for raising revenues spend more wisely than those who receive them as transfers from other levels of government.

  14. “Politically it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition,” he said. “So we never really had to engage in the question of what the evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime.””

    Yup; that, right there, is why Gilles Duceppe will miss you.

  15. Ian Brodie’s look baaddd.

  16. Look at Harper’s various economic declarations and reversals in the last 6 months and you realize that the Conservatives lack substance and direction. This is governing by the seat of your pants and it isn’t going to end well for Canadians.

  17. Well, kudos to Brodie for telling it like it is.

    What I find particularly interesting is that the Universal Voice of pundits, critics, economists, et al. had no effect at all on the public’s interpretation of the GST cut. Jeff Simpson wrote a dozen columns remarking on what bad policy it was and how cynical, and (present company excepted) he’s our most influential columnist. Yet it had no effect at all. It makes you wonder what the point of discussing anything really is, in academe, in the media, on comment boards, or in rhyming couplets. On some level I know that discussion & debate is just a substitute for the real politics of violence and civil war (I’ve been watching HBO’s “Rome”), an outlet for our Will; but it’s depressing to be reminded how fruitless it all is. Perhaps in the end one discusses & debates not so as to affect the external world, but for oneself; just as prayer cannot itself turn the mind of Jupiter, but provides us with some consolation.

    • Oh God, I hope you don’t take that series as being an accurate depiction of Roman culture and society. The set design and costuming are first rate though.

      • Heh, not to worry, I know they were getting the juiciest stuff, i.e. all Clodia > Atia. Couldn’t agree more about the sets & costumes. Out of curiosity, what did you find particularly off about the portrait of 1st C BC Rome? (Not a loaded question.)

        • I am perhaps being a bit harsh. In all the small details they obviously consulted the right people. They did a good job with the patronage system, while Roman religion was both right and wrong but it was very right in the places when they did get it right. I think that as long as it wasn’t the main thrust of the dramatic plot of the characters they did all right. However, anything to do with Atia is pretty much wrong, and the way the Romans would have seen themselves and acted (in public anyway) is wrong as well.

          They invent a lot of stuff whole cloth that doesn’t exist in the histories simply for the purpose of being scandalous (particularly the private lives of the nobility), change a lot of the actual events in the civil war, and ignore/make up/change anything they want to make everyone look act like… well, wealthy entertainment industry people from Los Angeles.

          If you’d like, I can give you a list of resources to get from your local library that would gives the best picture we can have of Rome in the late republican period. I think it goes without saying that you should mistrust pretty much everything from your local Chapters bookstore on any historical topic.

          • Yes, I tend to agree with you. You didn’t like Atia, eh? She doesn’t remind you of Clodia, sister of Clodius Pulcher? I mean, for sheer vindictiveness, etc. I got the feeling they were taking all Clodia’s sexual vices and compounding them with Livia’s ruthlessness. But perhaps you mean the tone of her dialogue, i.e. the contemporary tone? Judging from Catullus, Cicero’s invectives, and (for a later period) Suetonius I can’t say I thought there was more sex than one might suppose; I mean, dressing up as a women, as Clodius did, in order to infiltrate the Bona Dea rites to make love to Caesar’s wife is pretty out there, I’d say.

            Re: made-up stuff, I got the feeling the civil war was a bit compressed, i.e. no Dyrrhachium. But, I mean, they managed to explain Mutina, which I’d never understood before.

            Thanks for the offer of books on Rome, but I’m pretty well stocked (I’ve been writing about the period for a few years). The book I use for daily life stuff is Jerome Carpocino’s “Daily Life in Ancient Rome”; do you know of a better / more recent one? Carpocino is from the 50’s.

          • See, but Clodia and Clodius got into a lot of trouble for the sexual crimes they were accused of. Largely the Romans had a very strong sense of sexual propriety, and the sheer amount of sexual deviance in the series from what would have been accepted as the norm broke the suspension of disbelief. Octavia having sex with both Servillia the mother of Brutus and her brother Octavius for example.

            There was other things that were just too over the top to be enjoyable as well. I could buy Lucius Vorenus being promoted to being a magistrate, but he would have never been raised up to the Senate. Roman social mobility was a very slow and painful process.

          • Not to be too pedantic, but Vorenus’ promotion to the Senate fits with what Suetonius says about the compalints of Caesar’s assassins: that Caesar had promoted lowly men and even semi-civilised Gauls, i.e. bucked the normal cursus honorum to get his people in.

            I think there were two sides to Roman sexual morality at the time, the ancestral version (chastity, etc.) and the reality. The populace endorsed the former (at least for the nobles) and so the nobles had to present a chaste facade; but I think there was a lot of casual sex behind closed doors (certainly with slaves). Octavia (historically chaste) having sex with Servilia wasn’t such a stretch, I thought: lesbian relationships are pretty common in aristocratic society, e.g. France under the ancien régime. It’s a bit much to have her sleep with Octavian, but I took that as foreshadowing of the Empire.

          • With all the fornicating and the leaded wine, I’m sure the Romans enjoyed life to its fullest.

          • Well there was nothing wrong with sleeping around with slaves if you weren’t a Roman girl or matron, heck there wasn’t anything wrong with sleeping with anyone besides beasts and relations. Being the passive partner in a homosexual encounter would be problematic too because it interfered with the roman virtue of manliness. I fully expect there was a lot of deviance from sexual norms in private, and in Roman politics just like today, the easiest way to slander someone as scummy is to paint them as a sexual deviant.

            However, it is the sheer amount of deviance from the norm that bothers me. There are only so many taboos you would break when the social cost of doing so was so high. Atia would literally be risking her son’s very legitimacy by her actions in that series. A little bit of moderation in the sexual taboo breaking and scandal would have made the view of domestic life a little more believable.

            As for Vorenus, Ceasar raised up members of the Equestrian Order, or fabulously wealthy people who were aristocrats. The Gauls he raised to the Senate were Cisalpine Gauls who had been under Roman rule for at least 70 years, and also of Equestrian rank. There was nothing “semi-civilized” about them (especially since the Gauls weren’t particularly uncivilized and were actually fairly wealthy).

          • Re: lead, there’s a great line somewhere in the series (forgive me, I just devoured them; my POV is a bit too defensive, owing to my immersion!) in which a girl (IIRC, Vorena the Elder — or Octavia?) is applying makeup and her mother says, “More arsenic”! I.e. some arsenic-laden metallic colour. They also used mercury a lot, I think.

            Just another note on Roman sexual mores — this is, after all, a post on Ian Brodie — but what struck me most of all was their general comfort with the naked body. Not just the loose clothes, but the way that Pullo, for example, bathes in the courtyard of Vorenus’ insula stark naked! And nobody particularly cares. There were a lot of horrible things about Roman life, but their lack of prudery was a major bonus. Likewise, when they aren’t deliberately lying, their candour comes across as very refreshing, almost — Brodiesque.

          • Re: Arsenic makeup: Yeah, that’s the little stuff that series did very well. All the stuff that is pretty much throwaway “flavour text” was often amusing and accurate.

          • @ Terry — Excellent point about legitimacy. Yes, Atia was really rolling the dice, eh? I think they had pretty good contraceptives, though, so the key thing was the potential for scandal. Ah, you are right; cf. “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” And even if we know that Atia might be based on some women like Clodia, the ordinary audience would have got the wrong impression. Early in the first series there was one good moment when Atia and Servilia were needling each other and Calpurnia, portrait of the Roman Matron, said something like, “I perceive you are attempting levity.” I thought that was great, the true grim power of the aristocratic Roman woman; too bad we didn’t see more of that, as a contrast to Atia. Servilia provided one titanic flash of that again with her suicide, I thought.

            They did nail the paterfamilias role, though, eh? I mean, here you have Vorenus behaving like a bloodstained tyrant with his family, and everybody around him takes it as his prerogative, which I thought did a good job of conveying the power of the paterfamilias to viewers, including his insistence on his wife’s chastity, his comment to the alleged debaucher of his daughter that “I could kill you,” etc. Again, I wish more time had been spent on exploring that world, instead of the post-Niobe hijinks.

            Gad, I sound like I’m posting on an HBO fansite. Ah well, Brodie would understand.

            Re: Vorenus in the Senate, you’re right, there’s no mention of mere quaestors (is that what Vorenus is? I don’t remember what his office was) being elevated. He does say, though,

            Assuming the same licence (licentia), and regardless of the customs of his country (spreto patrio more), he appointed magistrates to hold their offices for terms of years. He granted the insignia of the consular dignity to ten persons of praetorian rank. He admitted into the senate some men who had made free of the city, and even natives of Gaul, who were semi-barbarians (quosdam e semibarbaris Gallorum). He likewise appointed to the management of the mint, and the public revenue of the state, some servants of his own household; and entrusted the command of three legions, which he left at Alexandria, to an old catamite of his (exoleto suo), the son of his freed-man Rufinus.

            That’s pretty revolutionary, I’d say; though the series hardly highlights how strange it would be for Vorenus to suddenly become a Senator. (Also, why is he not a Senator thereafter, i.e. in Season 2?) They do mention the line between patricians and plebeians several times, though, e.g. when Niobe goes to Atia’s party and is nervous beforehand and uncomfortable at the party itself.

        • What about the Roman orgies? Nobody talks about the Roman orgies anymore. Was it the debauched wine-soaked copulation that was popularized in various films in the 1970’s, or was it a more orderly affair, hidden behind a facade of prudery, with arsenic-decorated slaves yielding to the whims of their noble masters?

          • I think you’re confusing ancient Rome with the Tory caucus.

      • It isn’t even factually accurate.

        • Guess I was a bit late with that. I wrote it before the 2 previous had appeared.

          • but, Jack, you might find this interesting:

            As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History by J. Shelton (Oxford 1998).

            From the horse’s mouth, as ’twere.

          • Ah, many thanks, Wotcher, I’d heard of it but haven’t looked at it.

          • “As the Romans Did” is one of the best books out there for sure.

            I also like:

            The Roman Soldier by G.R. Watson (Cornell, 1969)
            Women in the Classical World (Oxford, 1994)
            Religions of Rome: Volumes 1-2 (Cambridge, 1998) – Volume 2 is a collection of primary sources.

        • How so? I enjoyed the series as entertainment, but I don’t know enough about ancient Rome to comment on its factual accuracy.

          • Pretty much as Terry points out, they invent quite a bit that has no historical basis, exaggerate, conflate, put people in the wrong places at the wrong time for dramatic effect.

            I get the impression that some of it, at least, is based on writers like Suetonius, who was a terrible gossip and scandalmonger. He would have done well in Hollywood.

  18. There is a whiff of, what? Sulphur? In the air.

    Excerpt from:


    October 17, 2004
    Without a Doubt

    The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    See also: Truthiness.

  19. As an ordinary joe six-pack Canadian – i’ve been a blue collar guy my whole life, with no poli-sci training – i can tell you i’m sickened by this confirmation of expediency trumping good policy decisions. I’m aware this goes on of course – but to hear an ex- official brag openly about implementing bad policy, essentially identfying the public interest as being indivisable with his parties fortunes, leaves cold. I seriouly believe this is nothing more than contempt for the electorate, and democracy itself. Utterly pathetic!!!
    And they actually have the gall to ask why people have stopped voting – honestly, why the hell should we???

    • kc, you’ve nailed it. It seems like all four parties have allowed political expediency to trump policymaking in the past decade or so, and it really is sickening. The end does not always justify the means.

      • yeah, even more, the means affect the ends. Look no further than this article for almost universal cynicism and contempt for the political class!

    • If you stop voting do you really think things will get better? And if so, how?

      • No, i don’t really advocate that. But is it any wonder our best and brightest, not to mention idealistic, young people are flocking to ngos! Leaving the the rest of us with either the dross or the unprincipled – a la Brodie!

    • Alrighty then, let’s replay the tape:

      SCRAP DA TAX helps get p’tit gars elected and da tax not get scrapped. And they get re-elected anyways. Which just proves that the proof is a good proof because it’s proven, I guess.

      IN OUR NEXT MANDATE WE WILL PROGRESSIVELY LOWER THE GST BY TWO POINTS helps get the Tories get elected and… in their next mandate they progressively lowered the GST by two points. And, despite the various epithets hurled at them here for actually living up to their election promise, they get re-elected anyways.

      But, hey, go ahead an get all galled up about political expediency if it floats your boat…

      • myl is the type of neighbour who played David Bowie’s Suffragette city full blast when you were camping, and when you complained that it was too loud, and past normal hours, suggested it was his right, and told you to get ear plugs if you didn’t like it.

        • …?

          • He/She (most likely he) is criticizing you for being the kind of freedom-lover who prioritizes his own freedoms at the expense of others’ (e.g. the freedom to enjoy loud rock music at the expense of others’ freedom to sleep in peace.) No doubt Dot had a negative experience at a campground somewhere.

          • And this has to do with commentary on federal tax policy… how?

          • I have no idea.

          • I was pre-empting. myl, your arguments always eventually boil down to the same issue – minimize taxes, let the individual decide. Was just shortening the thread, well, at least trying to.

      • myl
        So i guess you don’t give a damn about good vs bad policy either. So they did what they said they would do – yipee ky ya! The policy was stupid and yet myl admires the consistency of their expedient policy. And all because you never saw a tax you couldn’t wind yrself up into a force 9 snit over!

        • Actually, I have acknowledged repeatedly that the GST cut was unfortunate “retail politics” just like the stupid assortment of minicredits on bus passes and kids’ tiddlywinks registrations.

          But they promised it, they got elected, and they delivered it. So you’re quite right, the force 9 snit stays in the shed next to the category 4 brouhaha for another day. You want to use up your force 9 snit on this? Be my guest — re-read my last line, pasted here for your pleasure:

          But, hey, go ahead an get all galled up about political expediency if it floats your boat…


          • Hmmm, yes i must confess i have heard you criticize those policies – for what it’s worth to you i apologize. As you say ethics, or rather the lack of them, galls me. I guess i’m a moralist at heart – i don’t expect perfection, but pure unadulterated cynicism corrodes everything it touches.

    • You are clearly lying. Every ‘average’ Canadian loves Stephen Harper and thinks he’s just like them. They love everything the Tories do and realize that anyone who disagrees is probably a Taliban supporter. The doubt you are expressing in the PM’s policy decisions means you must be an ivory tower NDP staffer from Toronto ;)

  20. Many thanks, John, for your thoughtful comments on this talk and that of Kevin Lynch. This is exactly the kind of informative and insightful blog enty I come to Macleans.ca to find.

  21. Cutting the GST was probably the only promise that Harper kept. So, we really can’t blame him for it.

  22. Reminds me of a bit of a speech Wherry reported recently that Brodie would appreciate:
    “Michael Ignatieff talks in Kamloops: “We took the carbon tax to the public and the public didn’t think it was such a good idea,” he said. ”I’m trying to get myself elected here and if the public, after mature consideration think that’s the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard then I’ve got to listen.””

  23. Best line in the whole article: “multi-year this, multi-year that.” Sums up populism in politics.

  24. “He ruefully recounted how the Conservatives tried to run in the 2004 election on a comprehensive tax-reduction platform based on solid policy thinking. But that meant they had to explain, he joked, “multi-year this, multi-year that.” Canadian voters tuned out the details and defeated Harper’s Tories”

    Just how damn cynical is that. Spoon feed the public, they’re just too damn simple minded to grasp anything else.

  25. It seems a lot of the people on this thread are saying Harper should, after getting elected, have said, “Our GST promise was actually bad policy, so we only made it to get elected. Now that we are elected, we’re not going to through with it.”

    The alternative would have been to run on a more sensible platform (again) and get beaten.

    There’s no point in running on a losing platform, and the GST cut was the one promise Harper couldn’t possibly have gotten away with breaking, after they pilloried the Libs for doing exactly the same thing.

    What do you think the chances are that the electorate will ever become sufficiently engaged in public policy to make wise and considered decisions? I think they are very slim. Everyone is too busy with more important stuff, like watching American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Those are the type of people who elect the people who are trying to run my life. That’s why I want them to leave me alone so I can run my own life. Is that asking so much?

    • Great arguement for raising the bar on policy issues. People don’t care, and stupid works, so what’s the problem here. Let’s quit sending kids to school because they don’t want to be there anyway – sure that’ll work. And you’re probably one of those guys who argue for getting the elitism out of public broadcasting [ like glak below] because people should be free to be as ignorant as they damn well please. What the hell, when a society willingly decides to switch their collective brains off they deserve everything that’s coming down the pike.

      • Be careful what you wish for. Canadians had long wished for GST cuts and we got them. We can’t blame the government for not listening to us nor can we really ask for the tax to be raised again.
        As much as I hate to say it but governing by the masses is likely what will kill democracy. Still, if sound policy is hard to make comprehensive in tv sound bites then parties need better writers, not gimmicky flawed policies.

    • So they lowered it and they’ll lose the next election, because they blew the wad before a recession. Smart short term thinking.

    • J. D. Lees: No, It Isn’t asking too much. I too feel the sam way. However, I do wonder if Harper , in hindsight, ever thinks he might have made a wrong move Oh, I don’t suppose.

  26. Minor tax cuts are merely symbolic, it’s spending cuts that reveal true direction. Shaving the CBC is a good start.

  27. I would like to point out that cutting the GST is sub-optimal policy, not bad policy. Incidentally, the Liberal alternative – cutting the basic rate – is bad policy for much the same reason that cutting the GST is. Corporate tax cuts (which the Liberals and Conservatives support) and cuts to the top marginal rate (which neither party supports) are the best bang for our buck.

    At least we live in a country where deficits are considered bad (or well, noteworthy), so there is an actual limit to how much politicians can waste our money (stimulus packages aside).

    • Corporate tax cuts – I’m with you.

      Top marginal rate – I don’t see this as the best policy to stimulate / grow the economy. Top payers are more likely to save, invest globally, travel etc. etc. etc. vs. lower income earners who will spend the money in the Canadian economy.

    • Sub-optimal? What’s that, a euphemism for bad policy?
      Cuts to the top marginal rate – that worked well for W, didn’t it? I’m not necessarilly opposed to those cuts if there’re incentives to reinvest some of that money inside this country – perhaps something like the endowment schemes in the US [ although i dont see anything wrong with the principle – the more you make, the more you’re expected to contribute to the general good – endowments seem like a realistic appeal to the self-interest of the wealthy. ]

      • Has anyone toyed with an incremental sales taxes?

  28. Joining the discussion late – so hope I don’t repeat too many arguments…
    Walmart – jwl or someone back at the beginning – made some point about – if they didn’t keep their prices low the competion will gobble them up. Duh! What competition? Walmart’s business model is to insert themselves into a marketplace already well serviced by local retailers – bleed them for a year – eliminate the competition – and then – poof – no competition! As for supplies – I’m not sure what the percentage of Chinese products fills Walmart’s shelves – but the jobs that shifted overseas to build those widgets or cheap shirts – did so at the price of millions of North American jobs – and a balance of trade in the trillions – in favour of the Chinese…so don’t lecture us about Walmart – it’s about the equivalent of Gary Goodyear talkng about Mendelian Theory and Darwinianism…and science generally!

  29. Then there is this Brodie gem to justify Harper breaking of his income trust promise from the 2006 election

    From: Brodie, Ian [mailto:ibrodie@pmo-cpm.gc.ca]
    Sent: Monday, November 13, 2006 1:56 PM;
    Subject: RE: column

    This would be a more compelling analysis if the government weren’t already in the midst
    of a steady program of cutting tax rates, including corporate taxes, across the board. The
    alternative to breaking the election promise and taxing trusts was to abandon all other
    tax cut plans as the corporate tax base quickly disappeared. Instead, Flaherty acted
    quickly, in the face of rapidly changing conditions, to break the trusts promise and save
    the rest of the government’s promises. Not a pretty choice, to be sure, but hardly an epic
    betrayal either.

    Ian Brodie
    Chief of Staff / Chef de cabinet
    Office of the Prime Minister / Cabinet du Premier ministre
    Ottawa, Canada, K1A 0A2
    Office / bureau : 613.992.4211
    Email / courriel : ibrodie@pmo-cpm.gc.ca

    • I am totaly naive about the politics of our nation. I thought that our elected officials were there to do what was “right” for Canada. Since when do we concider a move to win an election “a successful political decision” if it is well known to be a “bad economic decision”.
      The Spin Doctors and manipulators must go!

  30. “That second reduction came just in time for the beginning of the subprime meltdown, which would soon usher in an era when the Canadian government, like governments everywhere, would need every dime they could get.”

    A non-partisan would make the obvious remark that this is the perfect stimulus, rather than just another jab at the Conservatives.

    • The amount of stimulus the 2% GST cut will produce will in no way cover the loss in revenue it was creating. Most economists are saying the GST cuts were unwise at this time. That’s not partisan that’s just economics.

      • “The amount of stimulus the 2% GST cut will produce will in no way cover the loss in revenue it was creating”

        Your statement is meaningless. The amount of stimulus is exactly equal to the loss of revenue! Either the money was stimulus or revenue! And there was no need to cover the revenue, because the revenue was surplus at the time. If the government wishes to raise taxes again, they are free to do so.

        “Most economists are saying the GST cuts were unwise at this time”

        Completely false. Most honest economists would admit that stimulus should arrive at the exact moment when a economy goes south, and that most stimulus programs come too late. So your statement is false.

        • “The amount of stimulus is exactly equal to the loss of revenue! Either the money was stimulus or revenue!”

          Actually, you are wrong. Money only stimulates the economy if a) it is spent on something and b) the money spent ends up in the hands of Canadians. In the case of tax cuts, a significant percentage of the money is saved or used to pay down debt, and a good chunk of what is spent is bled away on imported products.

          Here’s a relatively balanced article on the subject:

          • Actually, you are wrong,
            -If we pay people to dig holes and fill them afterwards, that is not a stimulus, and secondly,
            -even if people save their tax cut money, the money goes into the bank (or an investment) at which point it is lent to someone else. Nobody sticks their money under the mattress anymore.

            So, I prefer to avoid the Dr. Suess approach to economics and focus on reality.

  31. To summarize: Stupid policies often work, because most Canadians are stupid.

    Sadly, I completely agree.
    Make a stupid policy that people can understand in 1 second and they will like it (CUT THE GST!)
    Make a great policy that people will not understand until the read for 10 minutes (no tv, they actually have to READ) like harmonize PST with GST, and they will hate it.

    Ah well, that’s democracy.

  32. There was another more powerful political benefit of the GST cuts. Them provinces wot wuz bellyaching about a fiscal imbalance? Can anyone tell us how many of ’em upped their own sales taxes by one or two percent as the GST got cut? Anyone?

    To this taxpayer it was an elegant demonstration of the spinelessness of provinces willing to take actual fund raising responsibility for all their sugar daddy promises to their voters.

  33. It makes no difference to this stupid Canadian if the GST is 5 or 7 percent. What I am looking for is stability in the taxing system,

    What I am concerned with is the dedication by those currently in power to change the political direction of this Country from middle of the road, to extreme right, Steamroller over anyone in the way, spend whatever it takes to accomplish their goals – just so long as the political ideology is achieved. That’s what should worry all of we Canadians. I love my country the way it was.

  34. Brodie is basically staying that Canadians are too stupid to understand public policy, so they implement these really simple, stupid policies in order to pander to them. As a former Conservative, i find this sickening.

    • Me thinks he should have said: Canadians are too smart to understand stupid public policy. They are applying the stupid way….believing stupidity breeds stupidity. Witness the last episode of the Minister rambling and ranting about the Toronto airport being a security risk??? They really believe we are that stupid, and I suppose some of us are?

  35. Was Ian Brodie, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, at the Bilderburg meeting in the USA last year, as he appears on the list of attendees?

  36. http://www.cbc.ca/national/blog/video/at_issue/the_truth_about_the_tax_cut.html

    The at issue discussion of this helped clarify a few things for me, and why other Harper policies make so little economic sense, eg. the attack on pay equity, and the termination of day care funding on his first day in office despite real world programs showing high returns. Harper cut the very thing Obama has identified as a cornerstone of economic recovery.

    I had even wondered if the lack of economic reason meant his motivation in these cases was faith based (with so many of the cabinet and Harper being evangelicals) Instead now I hear they were playing politics? And to a much smaller group of constituents than is usually the case.

    I think Harper has miscalculated. Canadians are smarter and more informed than ever before despite the likes of Foxsnews and its attempt to eliminate journalism and dumb down the media.

  37. When you combine this with what Tom Flanagan, a former Harper adviser, said about the Harper attack ads on Ignatieff rebuilding the coalition after an election,

    “It doesn't have to be true. It just has to be plausible …”

    what do you get . . . The current government.

    Is this really what Canada is all about.

    Lets just give Harper the boot.

    Lloyd MacIlquham cicblog.com/comments.html

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