Why Transform?

When I heard Barack Obama exulting in the fundamental transformation of America that he promised to bring about in his 2008 speech at the University of Missouri, I was dumbfounded. Why, I thought, would anyone want to transform the most dynamic and successful nation on the face of the planet? Improve it gradually and intelligently through what philosopher Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies called “piecemeal social legislation,” certainly. Seek to strengthen its position in the world, to guarantee its security, and to stimulate a free market economy, with moderate safeguards but without undue and heavy-handed interference, absolutely. But to steer it in a direction that would render it similar to Europe’s increasingly defunct socialist polities or, for that matter, that would resemble my own country, Canada, with its onerous cost of living, high taxation (with a disproportionate tranche falling on the middle class), faltering institutions and intrusive legislation -- no way. Americans did not seem to realize how fortunate they were, and some of my American correspondents have indicated that they are beginning to look north for a template to follow. They should look again.

The disparities in daily economic life are palpable. My salary as a professor in the Quebec college system, frozen for several years, was dramatically less than that which my counterparts earned in the U.S. My mortgage rate was several percentage points higher than the comparable American figure. My Tucson SUV costs several thousand dollars more in Canada than the identical model in the U.S. A bottle of my favorite Australian wine costs $13.95 in Quebec; in the U.S., it’s $4.99. A book I’ve just ordered costs $49.50 on Amazon.ca.; on Amazon.com, it sells for $24.40.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average price of gasoline in the country is $3.38 per gallon; of course, gasoline prices vary from region to region and time to time in Canada, as in the U.S. But in the province of British Columbia, prices recently spiked at $1.44 per litre for regular unleaded, the cheapest octane going, which factors out to approximately $6.48 per gallon. (It has since declined to $1.32 per litre, which works out to $5.94 per gallon.) Filling up at a PetroCan station in Quebec the other day, I paid the equivalent of $6.30 per gallon for regular unleaded; the super premium grade would have nudged the price toward the $7 per gallon range. I focus on these differentials since my current itineraries require me to do considerable driving. It is, apparently, unseemly to complain as the twin levy of national and provincial fuel tax is earmarked for various social projects, whatever these may be. But the result is that, compared to the average American, the average Canadian pays approximately twice as much driving to work for the socially conscious privilege of earning a lower salary.

Generally speaking, the cost of living in Canada is, according to available statistics, around 20 percent higher than in the U.S., while purchasing power is 22.25 percent lower; the variance is even more disadvantageous in the provinces of Ontario, where electricity costs have skyrocketed, and Quebec, where everything keeps going up and never ever comes down. This explains why huge numbers of my fellow citizens spend their Saturdays profiting from cross-border shopping in Plattsburg, NY. (Note: the official currency exchange rate, though volatile, is more or less at par.)

It is true that America may be the most litigious society in the world, but we are fast catching up -- I have personal experience in the matter with our libel-hunting Islamic organizations, where a notice of libel is a pretext for getting a critic of Islam to shut up. Lawfare, as it’s called, is the consummate form of duct tape. Where we exceed the U.S. regarding the climate of legal vendetta involves something called human rights commissions, which are essentially kangaroo courts whose mandate is to protect the nation from “hateful” speech. To this end, an offended plaintiff may lodge a complaint at no expense to himself, the defendant must pay legal fees and costs from his own resources (and such costs may run into the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars), evidence for the defense is usually regarded as inadmissible, witnesses for the defense are frowned upon, and the conviction rate hovers around 100 percent. Recent changes to the so-called Human Rights Act are modest and nationally selective, and the tribunals continue to slash and burn their way across the common culture.