The Age Of Idiocy Is Upon Us

One of the most famous opening lines from a novel is from Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

I often feel that if Dickens were alive, he would certainly find foolishness and despair, but he would shorten this quote to “It was the most idiotic of times”.

When I post on X/Twitter, one of the most frequent words I use is idiotic, or variations like idiocy – though I am unlikely to be blunt and say: “You’re a total idiot”. I still have a minor degree of civility left.

Though most of my life I considered myself to be a political moderate, or really a redial centrist. I never fell for the ideological extremes of communism/socialism on the left, or neoliberalism/libertarianism on the right. I read Ayn Rand, but two books were enough to get her point. I do believe in free speech and human rights, and sometimes can be a contrarian to conventional wisdom, but I try to be pragmatic.

In the 1990s, communism was dead, and it seemed like the future was bright – though Francis Fukuyama seemed to think that nationalism and religion would be but minor challengers to liberal democracy. Boy, was he wrong.

I recently finished reading “The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. It is an excellent book that seeks to explain why liberal democracy is so fragile and rare. Liberal democracy is the narrow corridor between powerful authoritarian dictatorships on one side (China, Russia, etc.), and on the other side states where government is weak but religion, corruption, and social orthodoxies entail a lack of human rights and democracy (Afghanistan and countries with Sharia law are the best example). Liberal democracy is hard to maintain, and requires that citizens actively work to stay in this sweet spot (the book uses a concept called the “Red Queen” as shorthand for the need to work hard to just stand still).

It is an excellent book that zips around the world to use this model to analyze current states, as well as looking back at history. The book does seem to underestimate the role of corporations and wealth as a force against democracy. Regardless, we are lucky to have maintained liberal democracy as long as we have.

Meanwhile, the US seems in danger of its politics leading it away from liberal democracy if Trump wins. Alternatively, there could be another January 6th type of effort that succeeds after this fall’s election.

American politics is certainly the most idiotic thing we Canadians are exposed to – huge swathes of the US population ignore the results of the 2020 election, and have come to ignore facts more generally.

QAnon? Pizza-gate? But the right also exploits the idiocies of the political left, which used to champion free speech but now suppresses it – particularly on college campuses. Canada has imported milder versions of the idiocies of the US left and right.

There is the idiocy of the reactions to the crisis in Gaza and the Middle East. I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of the crisis or suffering, and the fears and pain on both sides. However, it seems impossible to discuss the subject without offending one or both sides – about a problem half a planet away, where Canada has little influence, and few Canadians are directly affected. Saying anything on this topic is like stepping into quicksand, no matter how moderate or innocuous someone thinks their comment is. I cannot even escape the issue when I go for a drive, as there are protesters on bridges over the Don Valley Parkway waving flags.

Canadian politics is also pretty depressing.

I’ve generally been a Liberal, but quit the federal party in 2017. This was because Trudeau seemed to govern irrationally and without any real public debate or consultation on major policies – including immigration, the Senate, and buying a financial sinkhole of a pipeline in the hope of appeasing Alberta (which of course it didn’t). The federal government managed to get us through the pandemic and get people vaccinated, though massive amounts of money were wasted on programs that gave aid to businesses that just made their shareholders richer.

Voters in both Canada and the US seem unhappy with the range of political options available. If the Liberals are unpopular, the alternative of the Conservatives worries many people too. Poilievre has won support by attacking the Liberals, but nobody is really sure what he will actually do should he win – other than that he opposes most Liberal policies. Frankly, compared to Poilievre, former CPC leader Erin O’Toole looks like a sensible leadership choice in retrospect – but now he is claiming that Chinese influence doomed his party leadership.

I live in Ontario, and Doug Ford is one of the most unpopular Premiers. He occasionally says or does things that I agree with (looser policies on liquor, cutting some fees that benefit me) but overall, I view him as a disaster.

Where I find the worst idiocy is in Canada’s immigration policies – which worked fine under Pierre Trudeau, were made worse under Mulroney, but have gone totally off the rails under Justin Trudeau since 2015. But what is worse is that provincial governments (excluding Quebec) went along with such high immigration levels, and on student visas, were actually a driving force in the idiocy. Letting universities and colleges milk foreign students for cash let the provincial governments keep a lid on tuitions and reduce the money most provinces had to pay to fund post secondary education for domestic students.

The idiocy of our immigration policy started with Brian Mulroney in 1990. Mulroney’s government changed the policy from one that fluctuated depending on economic conditions and our ability to absorb immigrants, to a policy of constant high or increasing immigration. This move was mainly to please big business and to take the “ethnic” vote from the Liberals. Chretien, Martin and Harper left this policy intact, mainly just tinkering with the points system.

Trudeau bought into the idea of doubling permanent immigration – without campaigning on it – thanks to the influence of the bank and corporate funded Century Initiative coming up with a policy of tripling Canada’s population to 100 million in 2100. Century Initiative co-founder Dominic Barton was appointed to a key committee recommending immigration increases.

Economists can often be wrong and rarely agree, but there is a consensus that what matters most as a measure of progress and prosperity for the people of a country is increasing GDP per capita – not higher total GDP. Yet since 2015, the “immigration consensus” has been focused on total GDP – which is how business lobby groups prefer to see things.

Yet even now, while some bank economists have been raising red flags about a “population trap” and warning that Canada has been growing too quickly, rarely are there calls by economists working for the banks or think tanks to go beyond the minimal cuts to temporary immigration that the Liberal government is doing as part of its damage control efforts.

Since around 2015 in California, the YIMBY movement has gained prominence by claiming that high housing costs are mainly supply-side factors that limit new home construction, particularly zoning or local government restrictions. Their solution is effectively neoliberalism – cutting government regulation and having state or provincial governments apply top-down solutions that bypass local democracy. Many YIMBYs in the US were funded by developers. Left-wing groups wanting more government subsidized/affordable housing often join YIMBYs despite having fundamentally different ideologies.

It seems like every day I look at a newspaper or the internet, I see more of the idiocy of massive efforts by Canadian federal and provincial governments that are essentially replacing local democracy with top-down micromanaging of housing. This usually comes in the form of neoliberal deregulation, combined with massive amounts of subsidies or loans for housing. The actual cause of high house prices and rents is never identified as being high population growth from immigration.

We are told we need to build millions of homes over the next few years or next decade – at least 50% above the recent 40-year record levels of housing, with no mention of slowing down population growth. The number of homes we need is a moving target – the more people we have, the more homes we need – but some even suggest bringing in even more immigrant construction workers to solve the problem!

Even environmental groups seem to ignore population growth as a major factor in adding to sprawl, habitat loss, and higher GHGs. Unions say nothing (though of course some construction related unions obviously are big winners from home construction). But in general, the left sees any mention of cuts to immigration as being racist or xenophobic. Compassion for people who want to immigrate seems to trump concern for people already here who might face underemployment or feel they can never afford a home.

Another idiocy stepping into this picture are the people claiming that lack of housing affordability and lack of action on global warming are issues of “generational unfairness”. Instead of it being an issue of the interests of rich shareholders and corporations against the interests of working people, it is the Baby Boomers who are the enemy. This despite the fact that Boomers themselves faced high unemployment and higher inflation and mortgage rates – even higher than what we have seen even at the height of the pandemic.

“Magicians” Penn & Teller often like to show how “magic tricks” are done. A key part of any magic trick is misdirection – getting people to look away from what is actually being done towards something else that is essentially irrelevant and of no consequence.

In effect, the biggest winners from high population growth and from zoning deregulation are developers, large corporations and the big banks. Despite the increasing number of people who have recognized the “misdirection” being done to make voters and citizens buy into high immigration and YIMBYism, the idiocy of these policies is hard to overcome.

The big banks are the main funders of the Century Initiative, and the role of the Century Initiative has now been reported on in the media, but opponents such as myself have had limited progress in spreading the word to reverse the Century Initiative’s policy successes. 

In effect, the big banks are laughing all the way to the bank.

Canada and the US are in the “narrow corridor” of liberal democracy, at least for the time being. But it seems that in the US, a lot of people believe lies from the right or seem out of touch with reality. The blame for this situation is assinged to the rise of social media and the decline in mainstream news sources. Social media also has a huge influence in Canada. However, even though polls show over 60% of voters want immigration cut, the mainstream media seem to be on the same side as government, banks and big business in supporting high immigration. At the same time, the mainstream media misdirects public opinion towards neoliberal supply side/YIMBY solutions, with only a few lone voices going against the conventional wisdom.

There is the famous quote, attributed to Mark Twain but of uncertain origin, which claims that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.  Idiocy seems to have the same advantage over the truth. It seems like there is no clear path to avoiding idiocy when it comes to public opinion or government policy; idiocy usually seems to win if it has strong enough advocates who stand to benefit from it.

Thomas Paine wrote of “The Age of Reason”, and Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote of the “Age of Uncertainty”. The “Age of Idiocy” we are in now doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon, but we can only hope.

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