The existential threat of our lifetime is running, again, into the political realities of our democracy. That the clock is ticking to address climate change has been broadcast on repeat, with increasing intensity. But as those alarm bells ring, so do warnings about continued threats to the republic, nearly a year after rioters stormed the US Capitol, as well as threats to American pocketbooks in the thick of the holiday season, thanks to the ongoing pandemic that continues to disrupt so much of the global system and threaten public health. Every day is a dizzying onslaught of headlines drowning out the perpetual threat of climate change until a severe weather event like this weekend’s resurfaces the discussion.
“This is going to be the new normal,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told CNN’s Jake Tapper Sunday, talking about extreme weather in general. “The effects that we’re seeing from climate change are the crisis of our generation.”
To be clear, we don’t know that climate change was responsible for the tornadoes; research on the role that climate change is playing in the formation and intensity of tornadoes is not as robust as for other types of extreme weather like droughts, floods and even hurricanes. But extreme weather is here to stay.
It goes beyond the odd fact of snow in Hawaii this month, but little in Denver. Floods and wildfires are getting worse. The devastation in Kentucky suggests tornadoes could be in the mix.
The solution for the world is cutting down on carbon emissions. The solution for Biden, although he has little control over it, includes lower gas prices. It is an irony of crosscurrents when the President’s political fortunes rest on enabling something shown to affect the climate.
The limits of government
The coronavirus pandemic — the headline that has consumed Americans for much of the past nearly two years — shows just how difficult it is for government to compel behaviors that could alleviate the threat. Among fierce disagreement over vaccine mandates, Americans are going to have to learn to live with the coronavirus, in part because more people won’t get vaccinated on their own. Similarly, Americans may have to learn to live with a more unpredictable and dangerous climate because the wonky federal system is making it extremely difficult to deal with it in a big way.
Biden wants the Environmental Protection Agency to weigh in on the specifics of the climate and tornadoes.
“All that I know is that the intensity of the weather across the board has some impact as a consequence of the warming of the planet and the climate change,” Biden said at the White House Saturday. “The specific impact on these specific storms, I can’t say at this point. I’m going to be asking the EPA and others to take a look at that.”
As CNN’s climate team notes, the short and small scale of tornadoes, along with an extremely spotty and unreliable historical record for them, makes relationships to long-term, human-caused climate change very difficult to pinpoint.
Criswell said tornadoes do occur in December. What’s different in Kentucky is how the tornadoes behaved.
“At this magnitude I don’t think we’ve ever seen one this late in the year,” she said. “But it’s also historic — even the severity and the amount of time these tornadoes spent on the ground is unprecedented.”
A plan that does not yet have the votes
Many elements of Biden’s climate agenda are in the Build Back Better bill, which faces uncertainty on Capitol Hill.
It would spend billions more to subsidize Americans buying electric cars and bikes.
The climate portions, pared back to satisfy Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are wrapped in with unrelated social safety net elements he doesn’t yet support.
Democrats put all their proposals — climate and otherwise — into one single bill to make an end-run around filibustering Republicans and exploit budget rules. It’s a risky strategy that could leave the country without a new climate strategy if Manchin, who represents a state steeped in its history as a coal producer, doesn’t come on board. But in a 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris breaks ties, Democrats don’t have any votes to spare, the West Virginia senator has enormous clout.
While working with that narrow margin, Biden must fight the perception that his efforts to remake the social safety net are helping drive up costs. There are signs that supply chain kinks could be easing, and gas prices have already begun to fall, but those realities have not yet entered the public consciousness. The government report that tracks consumer prices registered a 39-year high for inflation when data for November was released Friday.
More than two-thirds of Americans — 69% — disapprove of Biden’s handling of inflation and 57% disapproves of his handling of the economic recovery, according to a new ABC/Ipsos poll.
The threat to democracy
The perceived squeeze on Americans’ pocketbooks already overshadows the climate, but there’s another distraction in the blinking-red threat to American democracy posed by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
The latest revelation: Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, said in an email that the National Guard would be on hand to “protect pro Trump people” in the leadup to the Capitol insurrection, according to a new contempt report released Sunday night by the House select committee investigating January 6.
The resolution comes after the panel informed Meadows last week that it had “no choice” but to advance criminal contempt proceedings against him given that he had decided to no longer cooperate.
The House earlier pursued a similar effort against Trump’s informal adviser, Steve Bannon. His trial will get under way this summer, putting the high-profile case front-and-center as the 2022 midterm campaign is full swing.
After earlier agreeing to cooperate with the committee, Meadows has clammed up, and sued House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and committee members, asking a federal court to block enforcement of the subpoena the committee issued him as well as the subpoena it issued to Verizon for his phone records.
But the former North Carolina congressman had already handed over about 6,000 pages of documents, including information from his personal email account and personal cell phone, to the committee. That also included a PowerPoint document detailing ways to undermine the count of the 2020 election. A lawyer for Meadows said the former White House chief of staff was the recipient of the 38-page document but did nothing with it, according to the New York Times on Friday. CNN has not independently verified the contents of the PowerPoint.
Getting around the Senate
Democrats want to cram their massive climate change and safety net bill into law using budget rules.
To control budget estimates, they push proposals on a temporary basis and then assume Americans won’t want to give up the new perk.
Republicans did that with their tax cuts for individuals, which are technically set to expire in 2025, but expected to be extended for most people. Democrats are following suit with their social spending bill. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said it would cost more than $3 trillion over 10 years if the programs were enacted permanently. Democrats say they will offset the programs in the future.
Wherever the evolving form of American government throws up roadblocks, politicians will ultimately find ways around, but whether it’s fast enough to address climate change is a question whose time has come.
In March of last year, Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu was pulled over in the province’s capital and issued a ticket for distracted driving in a school zone.
A couple of days later, he phoned Edmonton’s chief of police, Dale McFee, to discuss the $300 ticket, which he eventually paid.
The ticket, and the phone call, only recently came to light thanks to the CBC. Things moved quickly after that; Mr. Madu defended himself by saying he didn’t phone Mr. McFee to protest the ticket, but rather to discuss the issue of racial profiling. Mr. Madu is Black. He also wanted to be assured he wasn’t being “unlawfully surveilled,” which some police in the province have been accused of doing.
This week, Premier Jason Kenney expressed “profound disappointment” in Mr. Madu for making the phone call, and asked him to “step back from his ministerial duties” while an independent investigation into the matter is carried out.
Mr. Kenney should have fired Mr. Madu on the spot.
There is almost no circumstance in which Mr. Madu, who is also solicitor-general and responsible for law enforcement in Alberta, could be returned to his cabinet duties, such is the iron-clad rule in politics that elected officials (particularly cabinet ministers) don’t interfere in the administration of justice at any level. It’s an automatic termination offence.
Mr. McFee, for what it’s worth, has corroborated the justice minister’s version of events; that he wasn’t calling to get out of the ticket but to discuss carding, an issue he has championed. And while I may have some sympathy for Mr. Madu on this matter, you do not pick up the phone and call the chief of police to have a conversation about it after getting a ticket.
In a different scenario, maybe the police chief interprets the call as subtle pressure and gets the violation ripped up. The fact that didn’t happen in this case is irrelevant. Cabinet ministers can’t appear to be using their office to exert influence or put their finger on the scales of justice in any way. Especially if you are the justice minister.
So while some will say Mr. Madu’s intentions weren’t malicious or corrupt, it doesn’t matter. He violated a sacred tenet of government. He may have found other means, or avenues, to have this issue addressed that didn’t involve him picking up the phone and calling the city’s top cop.
There is, however, another disturbing aspect to this whole affair: The question of what Mr. Kenney knew, and when he knew it.
As mentioned, the incident and phone call happened 10 months ago. According to veteran Alberta columnist Don Braid, it was widely known among members of cabinet and discussed in “jocular” terms. It seems inconceivable that if members of cabinet knew about this, Mr. Kenney didn’t also.
The Premier should make clear when he found out about the matter; was it only when the CBC story made it public? If Mr. Madu discussed the issue with colleagues, would he not also have notified the Premier’s office of what happened? I would think that most justice ministers in this country would notify their bosses when they have a run-in with police, regardless of how insignificant it was.
At the very least, it’s inconceivable that Mr. Madu’s own chief of staff wouldn’t have been told about it and then passed it along to the Premier’s office. No head of government likes nasty surprises. That’s one of the core rules of being in government, and especially cabinet. If there is a potential for some damaging information to come to light, you alert the top person.
That is why I am highly skeptical that Mr. Kenney only found out about this recently. He’s renowned for his micromanaging tendencies and his insistence that he not be the victim of any unpleasant surprises. It’s virtually impossible to believe he wasn’t aware of this story long before now.
This is, of course, just another illustration of the shockingly poor judgment that members of Mr. Kenney’s cabinet – and the Premier himself – have demonstrated over the past couple of years. Mr. Kenney’s nearly three-year reign of error has been enveloped by melodrama and controversy. At various times his response to the pandemic was atrocious. His response to most internal problems has been to deny and delay until he’s boxed into a corner and is forced to do something. There have been calls for his resignation both inside and outside his party.
Mr. Kenney has become the Boris Johnson of Canadian politics. Like the British Prime Minister, he seems to have put a foot wrong at almost every turn, and come to be seen as a bumbling, incompetent leader. And his handling of this latest imbroglio will do nothing to diminish that image.
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In the last few years the hideous state of our politics has often kept me up at night, but until recently I thought I was an outlier. Even when I’ve written about political despair as a problem for Democrats, I assumed it was something that applied to activists and base voters, the sort of people who go through their days silently cursing Joe Manchin. But a striking new study from Kevin B. Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, suggests the universe of people who find our politics a torment might be much larger than I’d realized.
“Politics is a pervasive and largely unavoidable source of chronic stress that exacted significant health costs for large numbers of American adults between 2017 and 2020,” writes Smith in “Politics Is Making Us Sick: The Negative Impact of Political Engagement on Public Health During the Trump Administration.” “The 2020 election did little to alleviate those effects and quite likely exacerbated them.”
Around 40 percent of Americans, he found, “consistently identify politics as a significant source of stress in their lives.” Shockingly, about 5 percent have considered suicide in response to political developments. Smith told me he was skeptical of that figure when he first calculated it, and still isn’t wholly sure it isn’t a statistical fluke, but it’s remained fairly consistent in three surveys. (After publishing results from the first survey a few years ago, he said, he got a call from someone who worked at a suicide hotline who reported experiencing an uptick in calls after the 2016 election.)
I’m fascinated by Smith’s work for a couple of reasons. The first is partisan. People from both parties reported that political stress during the Trump years has damaged their health, but Democrats have, unsurprisingly, had it worse. While Donald Trump was in office, they were able to turn their rage and fear into fuel, but I’m not sure how sustainable this is. The more politics becomes a pageant of infuriating Democratic impotence in the face of relentless right-wing spite, the more I fear people will disengage as a means of self-protection.
But I’m also interested the role politics plays in the disastrous state of American mental health, which is one of the overarching stories in the country right now. For all our division, there’s a pretty broad consensus that the country is, psychologically, in an awful place. According to a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll, almost nine in 10 registered voters believe there’s a mental health crisis in the United States. The crisis expresses itself in all sorts of ways: in rising rates of youth suicide, record overdoses, random acts of street violence, monthslongwaiting lists for children’s therapists, mask meltdowns, QAnon.
I’ve long thought that widespread psychological distress — wildly intensified by the pandemic — contributes to the derangement of American politics. But maybe the causality works the other way, too, and the ugliness of American politics is taking a toll on the psyche of the citizenry.
Smith first surveyed a sample of around 800 people about politics and mental health in March 2017. As he wrote in a 2019 paper, he found fairly high levels of affliction: Besides the 40 percent who said they were stressed out about politics, a fifth or more reported “losing sleep, being fatigued, or suffering depression because of politics.” As many as a quarter of respondents reported self-destructive or compulsive behaviors, including “saying and writing things they later regret,” “making bad decisions” and “ignoring other priorities.”
At the time, he thought he might just be capturing the shock of Trump’s election. But his next two surveys, in October and November of 2020, showed similar or greater levels of misery. Now, those were also moments of febrile political activity; perhaps if Smith had surveyed people in 2018 or 2019, he’d have found less political angst. Nevertheless, his findings suggest that there are tens of millions of Americans who’ve felt themselves ground down by our political environment.
In some ways, this is surprising. Most people aren’t political junkies. The majority of American adults aren’t on Twitter, which tends to drive political news microcycles. Even in an election year, more people watched the 30th season of “Dancing With the Stars” than the most successful prime-time shows on Fox News, the country’s most-watched cable news network. As the political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan wrote in The New York Times, most Americans — “upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all.”
Smith doesn’t dispute this. But he speculates that even those who aren’t intensely interested in politics are still affected by the ambient climate of hatred, chaos and dysfunction. “What I think is going on is that politics is unavoidable,” he said. “It is essentially a permanent part of the background noise of our lives.”
Of course, the last thing a political scientist — or, for that matter, a liberal columnist — would tell you is that you should totally tune that noise out. It is depressing to live in a dying empire whose sclerotic political institutions have largely ceased to function; this is a collective problem without individual solutions. There’s an awful dilemma here. Any way out of the gloom of our current political situation will almost certainly involve even more politics.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). A list of additional resources is available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
As word circulated late last year that Stephen Harper, Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister, was planning to launch an activist investing fund with a protégé of Wall Street raider Carl Icahn, some eyebrows were raised on Bay Street and in political circles.
While former prime ministers have not shied away from private sector work after their time at 24 Sussex (if they leave politics at all, that is) in most cases that involvement has come through cushy positions at blue chip law firms, where drumming up business and making introductions at home and abroad has been the order of the day.
The rough-and-tumble world of activist investing, in which outsiders target underperforming companies and take stakes in them while sometimes less-than-gently encouraging a change in direction, would seem to be a deeper and more hands-on venture into the corporate realm than most have attempted.
Harper was, in the best sense of the word, an activist as Prime Minister
Karl Moore, associate professor of strategy and organization at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management
But the prospect of a former prime minister shaking things up in corporate boardrooms may not be as jarring when one considers Harper’s political legacy. Trained as an economist, Harper was instrumental in upending Canadian politics through the formation of the right-wing Reform Party and later helped unite the country’s sharply divided conservative political factions. When it came to governing, he actively courted business leaders to his team, including recruiting Onex Corp. managing director Nigel Wright to become his chief of staff.
“Harper was, in the best sense of the word, an activist as Prime Minister,” said Karl Moore, associate professor of strategy and organization at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, adding that he never pulled back from his vision to reshape the country.
“Activist investors have done some good things, and a few not so good to shake things up … and one could argue Stephen Harper did that as Prime Minister.”
As in most matters, Harper has in his post-prime-ministerial life refused to follow too neatly in the footsteps of his predecessors, Liberal or Conservative.
Some, like Paul Martin, who was wealthy before going into public life — having run and then purchased shipping company CSL Group Inc. — occupied their time out of office with projects of personal interest. Martin, for example, became involved in a number of educational and entrepreneurship initiatives for indigenous communities and advised the African Development Bank.
Brian Mulroney returned to law firm Ogilvy Renault, now part of Norton Rose Fulbright, after his run as Canada’s 18th Prime Minister. Before his life in politics, Mulroney had also served as president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, and afterwards he took up seats on the boards of companies including Barrick Gold Corp., Quebecor Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM).
John Turner and Jean Chrétien, too, returned to the law. Turner joined Miller Thomson LLP, while Chrétien became counsel for Heenan Blaikie LLP and later Dentons Canada. Chrétien also became involved in international organizations dedicated to democracy, peace and solving problems facing the global community.
Following his government’s defeat in 2015, Harper established a private consultancy called Harper & Associate in partnership with his former chief of staff Ray Novak. Upon leaving politics, Harper — who had become heavily associated with western Canada after moving from Toronto to Calgary, where he earned a Master’s degree in economics — worked out of the Calgary office of international law firm Denton’s, where he advised clients on market access and managing global geopolitical and economic risk.
According to a 2018 article in Maclean’s magazine, his pitch included a pledge to help clients navigate international waters — with the calling card that Harper’s Conservative government had reached several overseas trade deals without public backlash.
In contrast with many of other former prime ministers, he also went on to become directly involved in a handful of corporate ventures, mostly with an investment focus.
Among them is AWZ Ventures, a Canadian private investment company that invests in Israeli cybersecurity, intelligence and security technology. Harper is a partner and president of the advisory committee at the firm, whose website boasts management and advisors including former directors and senior executives from global security and intelligence agencies such as Mossad, the CIA, FBI, MI5 and CSIS.
Harper is also an adviser to 8VC, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm that aims to partner with founders and entrepreneurs to build “transformative” technology platforms, and whose managing partner, Joe Lonsdale, was an early institutional investor in Oculus, a virtual reality platform later acquired by Facebook/Meta, and a co-founder of Palantir, a sometimes controversial data-mining software company.
Closer to home, Harper became a director at Toronto-based real estate firm Colliers International, a global leader in real estate services and investment management with operations in 65 countries and $4 billion in annual revenue.
Ed Waitzer, a former chair of Bay Street law firm Stikeman Elliott LLP, who is an investor in AWZ and did legal business with Colliers over the years, said Harper has proven himself to be “excellent” as a director and adviser.
“While we may differ on policy issues, I find him thoughtful, diligent and strategic,” Waitzer said, noting that their paths crossed previously when Harper was in government and Waitzer was involved in initiatives to create a national securities regulator and strengthen business ties between Canada and Chile.
In their dealings, Waitzer said, Harper has brought “experience, judgment and ability to deal with people (through skills) gained from earlier parts of his career.”
Former politicians, and particularly highly placed ones such as country leaders, are typically retained because they bring access to prospective investors or investment opportunities, and credibility.
“Good ones also bring a unique perspective and good judgment,” Waitzer said.
Harper could be brash while in office, pushing hard for pipelines and energy development, curtailing media access and heavily scrutinizing charities, including funding an audit crackdown by tax authorities.
But courting controversy is not uncommon in public office and it is unlikely to get in the way of good business in life after politics, said Waitzer, who retired from Stikeman last year.
“Any public figure worth his/her salt has baggage. If not, it means they never took a stand on issues worth fighting about.”
Waitzer said Harper will undoubtedly “add value” to his latest venture in activist investing with partner Courtney Mather, a former portfolio manger at Carl Icahn’s investment fund manager Icahn Capital — if they get the firm up and running as planned.
According to a Bloomberg News report, the firm is to be called Vision One, and the intent is to target mid-sized companies — including those in the consumer and industrial sectors — in which they could unlock value through governance improvements, among other changes.
Harper would be chairman and Mather, whose professional designations in chartered alternative investment analysis, financial analysis, and financial risk management, would serve as chief executive and chief investment officer.
Educated at Rutgers and the U.S. Naval Academy, Mather spent more than a decade at Goldman Sachs & Co., from 1998 to 2012, where he became the managing director for private distressed trading and investing and was responsible for finding investment opportunities for both Goldman Sachs and the firm’s clients. He has also served on the boards of Newell Brands and Caesars Entertainment.
Nigel Wright, senior managing director of Onex who was a high-profile hire as Harper’s chief of staff in 2010, said in an email from Onex’s London office that he had been told about Harper and Mather’s investment venture and provided materials. Wright said he did not feel comfortable discussing the plans unless the principals — neither of whom responded to requests for comment from the Financial Post — were ready to elaborate.
In April, Reuters reported that activist investors pushing for boardroom changes were outperforming broader market, with smaller players and upstarts such as Ancora Alternatives and Honest Capital LLC ringing up double-digit gains.
But getting established isn’t the easiest path, even for investment industry stars.
Jim Keohane, a former senior pension executive and adviser, recalled one such senior pension executive who tried to start his own fund in 2008 but returned to the pension world when he was unable to raise sufficient funds.
“He had a very strong track record and was unable to secure funding, Keohane recalled.
Not only are activist funds capital intensive but they are competitive, he said, noting that large funds such as The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and other Canadian pensions heavyweights are already set up with dedicated in-house teams and pools of capital to take meaningful positions in companies whose boards and managers they seek to influence.
“It will be very challenging to get this off the ground,” he said, though he added that Harper’s former job as Prime Minister of Canada — and his reputation from that time — will undoubtedly be a draw for some.
“I would say that he has strong business acumen. I am sure that a lot of people would take a meeting with them because they would be interested in hearing Mr. Harper’s views.”
Government is suspicious of business, and business is suspicious of government
Karl Moore, associate professor of strategy and organization at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management
Harper’s ties to the business world were evident throughout his time in public office.
Though most Canadian prime ministers have tapped the business community to some extent for advisers, Harper made a decisive move early in his nearly decade-long tenure that began in 2006 by plucking high-profile executives to join his party — even courting controversy to do so.
“Mr. Harper went out of his way to recruit David Emerson, former CEO of various enterprises, and Michael Fortier, (a Bay Street lawyer and investment banker at Toronto-Dominion Bank) in the financial industry, into his early cabinet,” said Ian Brodie, another former chief of staff to Harper and now undergraduate program director in the department of political science at the University of Calgary.
Fortier served as the minister of both public works and government services and international trade, while Emerson served as trade and foreign affairs minister.
Neither political ally was easily attained.
“Emerson was poached from the Liberal caucus and Fortier was appointed to the Senate in order to let him sit in cabinet,” noted Brodie.
The Senate appointment was a rarity and was therefore somewhat controversial, while Emerson’s appointment led to a conflict of interest and ethics inquiry, which found no wrongdoing.
Moore, who has lived and taught in the United Kingdom and the United States, said there is an uneasy relationship between the public and private sectors in Canada that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
“The back and forth between government and business does not happen in Canada the way it does in the U.S. and U.K.,” he said. “There’s something where government is suspicious of business, and business is suspicious of government.”
There are some notable exceptions, such as Bill Morneau, who served as Justin Trudeau’s finance minister for nearly five years after running human resources consulting firm Morneau Shepell for a couple of decades.
That typical Canadian reticence was also not evident when Harper tapped Wright in 2010, then a senior executive at successful private equity firm Onex, as his chief of staff. Onex has been known for decades as one of Canada’s most successful buyout firms, with an international profile and $47 billion in assets under management.
I remember he told me his big focus was on doing international work, he didn’t want to really focus on Canada
Jack Mintz, chair of Alberta Economic Recovery Council
Jack Mintz, chair of Alberta Economic Recovery Council — whose members include Harper and which was created to provide insight and expert advice on how to protect jobs during the economic crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent collapse in energy prices — said Harper was always focussed on the international stage and did not pay particular attention to the line between the public and private sectors when building his team in government.
“Nigel is extremely smart and actually he was really an excellent Chief of Staff,” said Mintz.
“And he was looking for a big change.”
Harper was relatively young when he became Prime Minister, and still in his mid-fifties when he left politics, Mintz noted, adding that it’s not usual for Canadian politicians to seek “life after office.”
Now 62, he is looking to make his mark in perhaps the biggest way since his near-decade as Canada’s leader.
“After he stepped down as Prime Minister we had lunch together and I remember he told me his big focus was on doing international work, he didn’t want to really focus on Canada,” Mintz said.
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