Saturday, January 30, 2010

Twitter me this

I've finally signed up for Twitter, primarily because I expect to leave the country in a little over a week and be in China in a little over a month. I am interested in how difficult it will be to evade the Great Firewall of China, particularly given the current state of blocking there.

Nathan Freitas is both a social activist and a programmer and I have been following his blog for applications to install on my Google Android mobile. He addressed a Congressional hearing on new media called "Twitter against Tyrants: New Media in Authoritarian Regimes" last October and was a participant with Open Mobile Camp in November.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Stealth Democracy

This book makes the point I made last week but with evidence (namely, surveys and interviews).

The Futurist's blurb on this book:
Is greater citizen involvement the solution to society's problems? Not according to political science professors Hibbing and Theiss-Morse. Americans do not want to be involved in politics and are content to turn decision making over to others, provided they are non-self-interested. A compelling challenge to the prominent view that government participation leads to better government.

From the book's own abstract:
Contrary to the prevailing view that people want greater involvement in politics, most citizens do not care about most policies and therefore are content to turn over decision-making authority to someone else. People’s wish for the political system is that decision makers be empathetic and, especially, non-self-interested, not that they be responsive and accountable to the people’s largely nonexistent policy preferences or, even worse, that the people be obligated to participate directly in decision making.

This is of particular importance to the Wildrose Alliance, since if the research behind this Cambridge University Press publication is sound, then the party's current direction is fundamentally at odds with researchers' evidence.

Currently, the Wildrose Alliance is long on citizen involvement in the policy making process, which the citizenry doesn't actually want, and short on transparency, which the citizenry does want (since transparency is fundamentally incompatible with pursuing narrow, self-interested agendas). To be sure, the party isn't actually worse on transparency than the other parties, but at the same time it hasn't been a theme that the party has been championing. Who donated to the leadership campaigns? Are communications primarily controlled by a small group of insiders at the party's centre? Why not let the media in on everything the party does? Because that wouldn't be in the party's interest? See what this book has to say about partisanship. What ordinary people really want is political parties that work against their own self-interest and for the public interest instead.

It's not without reason that the global NGO leading the fight against corruption is called Transparency International. Transparency exposes self-interested behaviour by government officials and lawmakers and accordingly does more to ensure the better government that citizens want than getting more citizens involved in setting policy.

Friday, January 22, 2010

OK I take that back

This morning the Wildrose Alliance issued the exactly the press release that I didn't think the party would issue because, as I ranted yesterday evening, I didn't think the party would appreciate what it picked up as much as the PCs appreciated what they lost.

Note to Edmonton Journal editorial board and Paula Simons in particular: this person graduated not once but twice from the U of Alberta. That's in Edmonton! He resided in Clareview. An Edmonton neighbourhood, just to jog memories. He currently resides in Vegreville, you know, in the riding of Edmonton's supposed native son Ed Stelmach? Is Vegreville in downtown Calgary? Perhaps the meme that Wildrose can't see outside the sandbox of Calgary office towers could be dialed down a bit?

Note to Wildrose Alliance members: I understand the concern about senior people in the PC party moving over to Wildrose. But this particular individual was interested in volunteering to help with ordinary literature drops, etc before it was ever cool to be Wildrose because of a thorough-going commitment to smaller government. As for being a lawyer, I wouldn't be too concerned that influential Wildrosers hailing from northern Alberta towns are going to be all lawyers or people with multiple university degrees. While the Liberal party is branded as too elitist, something supported by polling crosstabs, the same data suggests that Wildrose's appeal skews too far the other way. Fact is, having someone with a distinguished background in tax legislation means having someone who can provide valuable technical advice. You, as a member, still reserve the right to "take it or leave it" with respect to that advice.

To confess my own interest in this, I've been very keen on Jack Mintz's proposal to halve both the provincial corporate and personal income tax rates, but I have favoured a bigger cut to the corporate rate than the personal rate based primarily on research I saw while at Finance Canada. Exactly how to handle the two rates, however, is a matter that has to be sensitive to the danger that people who receive income through the corporate form are unduly favoured such that corporate forms are created just for tax purposes (like income trusts were prior to the 2006 federal fix). Ordinary people should not be disadvantaged just because they are not tax law experts who can readily exploit a tax break. Shayne would be in a position to provide authoritative advice on this matter such that a recommendation I hope to propose to the membership in 2011 for a 3 or 4% corporate rate and a 7 or 8% personal rate (down from 10 and 10) would take account of everything that needs to be taken account of.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

policy vs politics in Alberta

I found Daveberta's latest post quite interesting, and not just because it mentions Shayne Saskiw, who resided in the Edmonton constituency I ran in under the Wildrose Alliance banner two years ago and who was the first person to call me when the party's candidate list was released. Shayne seemed to me to be the sort who would be Wildrose if the party's level of organization and human asset utilization was comparable to the PCs (I mean here constituency association executives etc as opposed to MLAs, the elected PC caucus being very much a mixed bag when it comes to professionalism). It wasn't, sadly, and so while I wasn't surprised when Shayne indicated on his Facebook page that he was supporting PC MLA Tony Vandermeer, or when he took a policy position with the PCs, neither was I surprised to learn that he is officially resigning from the PCs (perhaps to be an unofficial chief of staff to new Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson? - they are both U of Alberta Law class of 2006 grads).

What surprised me was that a leaked email addressed to Alberta PC Association Executive Director Jim Campbell and party president Bill Smith, said "we also expect the WAP to issue a news release this afternoon." IF ONLY! If Wildrose actually did that I would have been completely stunned. Why? Because it would have meant that the Wildrose Alliance's biggest problem, which is recognizing quality people and putting them into positions of influence and authority, had been substantively solved.

I would be surprised if blogger Leigh Sullivan, who is organizing for Wildrose in Shayne's (and Premier Ed's) constituency, knew who this guy on the Fort Sask - Vegreville constituency membership roll was, not because I don't think Leigh is diligent in finding out who's who but because I have never heard anyone in the party advise local organizers to Google their membership lists so they find out who their members are, never mind taking the next step and kicking prominent names in specified fields up to the party leadership so that they can be approached about taking roles in the party either locally or provincially that fits their particular expertise.

Fact is, I kicked Shayne Saskiw's name up to the party leadership in February of 2008 and to the party's policy people (who are still in charge of policy) a couple months later in April but, given how far my input has gone in the past and the consistency with which names seem to end up falling through the cracks, again, I would have been stunned if the Wildrose exec had prepared the ground for giving Shayne a job in the policy process prior to this afternoon.

The problem, in my mind, is a culture which considers giving any particular person more influence over policy than another person undemocratic. I'm of the opinion that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the general population wants. What the people want is transparency. They want to know how the party came up with the policy it does. Who originated the idea? What can we infer about that person's motivations? Who thought it would be good policy but bad politics? Who thought it would be bad policy but good politics? What was the background discussion? I would like to see a group of policy experts have a thorough-going, comprehensive debate on the platform at the next AGM, together with political types to talk about polling and the communications angles, for a final vote to be made by the membership, as opposed to just the current practice which is effectively just small groups of members standing up on the floor and saying, "we think we should do this so let's have a debate on the floor involving hundreds of people and a vote."

To be sure, it won't be quite like that this coming June, since there will be some Task Forces chaired by experts that will be delivering policy proposals for a vote. But there will still be the issue of whether the membership will be privy to the full background debate of pros and cons. Why were the particular Task Force chairs chosen? Why them and not others? What are their motivations?

To sum up my grievance with Alberta's Wildrose party, it's that few of the people with power in the party seem to share my view that what matters is not policy per se but people. It should be well known that I am big on incentivizing capital accumulation, but really I would care less what the policy was if Jack Mintz dictated it all. That's because Mintz is far smarter than I am on tax policy and I think his motivations are sound. I suspect that a lot of Albertans would feel the same way. Is your policy shop staffed by people who are interested in a broad, growth-oriented agenda as opposed to advancing the narrow, leftist agendas of various unions or special interests? Are they qualified? Can we see the full back-room discussion, including the input of the campaign strategists and communications spinmeisters? This is what Albertans want. Most Albertans don't see themselves as the primary origin of good policy ideas. They rather see themselves as people of sound judgment who are qualified to and entitled to pass verdict on the various policy ideas produced by specialists whose motivations should be clearly visible.

There seems to be a mentality amongst some influential Wildrosers that people vote for policy. I disagree. They vote for people. Albertans don't vote for conservative policies but for conservative candidates. The role of enumerated policy planks is to keep candidates honest and consistent so they don't write themselves blank cheques. Policy planks are necessary, in other words, and are the focus of general debate, but really they are just examples of what the candidate's, or party leader's, mindset is, a mindset that shouldn't change after being elected if good faith with the electorate is to be maintained.

The candidate or party leader might not have the skill set to defend some of the policy planks he or she supports but the people are OK with that if the candidate makes it clear that the policy planks are supported because trusted people recommend the planks. The electorate is more interested in whether those advisors are all academics, or all right wing think tank types, or union careerists, or oil company execs, or banking industry lobbyists, etc etc than in the details of the policy itself. Again, the policy plank is just used in democratic discourse as an example of who can be expected to have the candidate or leader's ear, and what the role of political and communications concerns will be in the candidate's or leader's calculations.

Albertans want more Wildrose policy, although in fairness they already have a lot when they know the leader's personality and background and when they know the party leans libertarian. What they want is a few example policy planks in some key areas that would be of interest not so much in and of themselves but as products of a policy making process. The current party line is that party policy is whatever ordinary Albertans want and I don't think that will do because Albertans want contradictory things (e.g. some are on the left and want more spending in various areas, some are on the right and want less) and it doesn't provide any predictability about how decisions will be made on matters not enumerated in the policy book.

The floor-crossings didn't go over well with me primarily because transparency as to how they came to go down like they did was non-existent and because even if there were no guiding policy, if I had to guess what the party's stance would be, at a minimum the crossing MLAs would have been cut loose on the by-election question such that the crossers would have been expected to justify their decisions without further cover from the party. If the party is going to provide cover, then it isn't just a matter for the local constituencies. You can't have party spokespeople talking about how a byelection would create financial hardship for a MLA at the same time that a MLA Pay and Perks task force is running without creating confusion about what the party's branding is supposed to be. So what if the letter of the policy book was not violated. As I've been arguing, that's not of interest to most people. They are interested in a more generalized stance, such that what really matters is whether Wildrose is going to be true to non-specific expectations, as opposed to specific policy planks which everyone understands might not survive the messy reality of real implementation.

Develop a brand and then concentrate on remaining true to the brand as opposed to what may end up being a grab-bag of contradictory and impractical policy planks. Hire and promote the people with the strongest resumes and social skills instead of friends and people from the same tribe, be it geography (e.g. Edmonton/Calgary), industry (e.g. energy/media), prior affiliation (e.g. federal Conservative), etc.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

GOP takes Massachusetts Senate seat

I found this race interesting because although Obama carried this state by a 26 point margin in November 08, Scott Brown won a state-wide race for a US Congress job by a 5 point margin, a swing of 31%. Although some of that swing can be explained by the deterioration in Obama's support over the last year, clearly the Republicans in Massachusetts did a lot of things right these past few weeks and/or the Democrats did a lot of things wrong. After all, if it was just a referendum on Obama or Obamacare, this seat should have been tagged for possible takeover last fall. It wasn't. Brown was down 20 points as late as December 19. Any campaign that can overcome a deficit like that in just a month is worth studying.

One might begin with what Massachusetts Democrats did wrong. According to a national Democratic official:
The only thing that changed between the Dec 19th poll, where the Coakley campaign had a 20 point lead, and the January 5th poll, where their lead had been halved, is that the Brown campaign went on air and aggressively defined their candidate as well as the Democratic candidate, while the Democratic candidate was literally on a vacation. During that period, the Coakley campaign did no further polling, advertising, or ID'ing of supporters despite having a significant fundraising advantage.

Another national Democrat doesn't mince words:
the [state] campaign failed to recognize the threat, failed to keep Coakley on the campaign trail, failed to create a negative narrative about Brown, failed to stay on the air in December while he was running a brilliant campaign. [The state] pollster, candidate and campaign team were caught napping and allow[ed] one of the worst debacles in American political history to happen on their watch...

Before the DNC and DSCC got involved there was barely a single piece of paper on what the narrative is on Brown. The candidate in this race and the campaign have been involved in the worst case of political malpractice in memory...

Now the Coakley campaign disputes these allegations, but Marc Ambinder's knocking down of the Coakley campaign's various complaints about the national Dems is worth reading.
This attack ad, apparently the brainchild of the DNC, features the silhouettes of bankers against the Boston skyline and, quite frankly, has "created by over-educated, liberal nerds" written all over it. The ad tries to play the populist card and simply tries too hard. Brown's ad looks amateurish in conception but is far more effective.

What did the Massachusetts Republicans do right? According to the RNC:
The RNC shipped computers, printers, scanners, routers, and over 400 phones to the Massachusetts Republican Party...
the RNC deployed an additional 32 staffers and helped send 160 volunteers on three busses from Washington, DC to the state during the final week...
people from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. have made over 150,000 calls from their own homes to urge Massachusetts voters to go to the polls for Scott Brown on Election Day....
the RNC committed to put into action a plan to test new and innovative voter ID and get-out-the-vote programs. Starting in early December, the RNC equipped 9 field offices with new peer-to-peer networking technology and innovative VOIP products for volunteer voter contact...
In mid-December the RNC made its portion of the maximum allowable federal contribution to the campaign and also sent out 228,000 fundraising e-mails on behalf of Scott Brown.
As a result... nearly 2.0 million volunteer voter contacts have been made through Jan. 18

All good stuff, but the work of ordinary citizens in trying to raise the race's national profile might have been significant, and in any case I happen to think that the choice of candidate must have been the most critical factor given the degree to which the Brown campaign overperformed the expected result for a generic Republican in Massachusetts. Brown's Facebook page had 120 000 fans, for example, while Martha Coakley had less than 20 000.

I found a speech that Brown gave to the Newburyport (population 18000) Republican Committee in June and I think it is really good, not because it is eloquent or profound but because it is engaging, informative, and uses humour well. There's a part 1, part 2, and part 3. Unlike a set-piece Obama speech, it isn't tele-promptered. Interestingly, in the first part he describes a caucus colleague as the caucus leader, even though another person has that role officially. In this video, we see Brown doing his job as local politician and sounding quite reasonable.

Merely being affable isn't sufficient, of course, since it is often combined the dubious judgment. But in this interview from November 2008, however, Brown sounds quite measured:
I think there is too much of a Southern influence on the Republican party right now nationally and it needs to be more of a moderate party...
We lost our way with the overspending issue that affected the Bush administration and really it was President-elect Obama going against President Bush not really Senator McCain. That's going to wear off and he's going to have to deliver... If the economy doesn't work out well quickly and [Obama] is not decisive he is going to have some lingering problems...

Combine an avuncular personality with a good work ethic and a good feel for moderation (apparently Brown distanced himself from Palin on a talk radio show last year) and one's got the makings of a good candidate. I happen to think it imperative that conservative candidates be upbeat. To be a great candidate, however, he or she has to also be a policy heavyweight, and on that count Brown has his detractors, in particular the upscale - perhaps too upscale - Boston Globe. One of the Globe's editorialists wrote a very clever - perhaps too clever - analogy piece after Brown won election to the US Senate that may say a lot about the nature of Brown's appeal.

Another Boston Globe writer doesn't think that Scott Brown is likely to be found at Mensa meetings. But can we expect politicians to be public policy ninjas? Just because Alberta has one doesn't mean it's at all common. Nuance is not exactly in fashion these days in any case. An Associated Press analysis quotes White House press secretary Robert Gibbs as saying that in 2010
People are going to have to decide whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they're on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they're on the side of protecting insurance companies, or whether they're on the people's side.

There is, to be sure, a minimum bar when it comes erudition, and Sarah Palin manifestly does not meet the standard. Palin may have the charisma, but the conservative intelligentsia has never backed her (I don't consider Bill Kristol a respected pundit... at least not any more). When it comes to Scott Brown, apparently some of his supporters have brandished signs referencing Hayek. That means essentially nothing at this stage, but Rich Lowry of NRO speaks approvingly of "conservatism in its practical, electoral aspect" and David Frum's FrumForum likes Brown's moderation.

If this environment persists into 2012, Scott Brown could potentially be a very competitive contender for the Oval Office. The fact he that can remind people of Richard Gere when he is wearing his glasses would count for a lot more than most voters would admit to. I would not want to bet against him should he take his truck to Iowa. Keep in mind that Obama's legislative record as a state senator wasn't any more distinguished the Brown's, and some of the policies Obama supported in the Illinois legislature were demonstrably misguided. Even if Obama is strong on policy in the sense that he can readily understand and appreciates expert advice, it doesn't mean anything when he is so ready to cut political deals and play the populist card.

I am of two minds about what to conclude about how Brown appears in this video. He comes across as arrogant and aggressive. If I were a female voter I might find him sexy (who knows?) but would probably be turned off by his attitude, reinforced by the body language, relative to his female opponent. I've complained a lot about the hostility that seems to emanate from the federal Conservative party in Canada. But it may be possible to distinguish the Harper Conservatives from Scott Brown in that the former are a dour lot, while Brown generally exhibits a sunny disposition . Exhibiting some contempt may just come with the territory of a candidate that has the right psychology for handling the ugliness of politics. We shall see!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts seat to go Republican?

In November 1960 JFK won the Presidency in one of the closest elections in US history, edging out Eisenhower's Vice-President, Richard Nixon, 49.7% to 49.6% in the popular vote (although one can lose the popular vote and still win the electoral college, as Bush did in 2000). Kennedy resigned his Massachusetts Senate seat to move into the Oval Office and wanted the seat to go to his brother Ted (JFK having designated his other brother, Robert, for US Attorney General) but Ted Kennedy was not yet 30 years old, and according too young to be constitutionally eligible to serve in the US Senate. A Kennedy family friend was accordingly appointed to serve as a placeholder until Ted came of age in 1962 and a special election was held that year. Although I haven't found the quote online, I recall watching the late Bob Novak on Crossfire in the 90s claiming that "Massachusetts isn't a democracy, it's a monarchy."

In 2004, the Massachusetts state assembly withdrew the authority of the governor to fill a Senate vacancy by appointment, to prevent the then-Republican Governor Mitt Romney from appointing a Republican to fill the remainder of Democrat John Kerry's Senate term should Kerry win the 2004 presidential election. The legislation was enacted over Romney's veto. Today, just one eighth of "Taxachusetts" Senate seats and one tenth of its legislature's lower house seats are Republican.

But in August 2009, when Ted Kennedy passed away after 46 years of service in the national Senate, Massachusetts Democrats approved a bill that would allow the state's now Democratic governor to appoint an interim Senator. Appointee Paul Kirk accordingly assumed Kennedy's seat in September, pledging that he would not be a candidate in the special election. Since a three-fifths majority is required to bring out a vote of cloture and break a filibuster, Kirk's vote was critical to the healthcare reform vote that passed 60 to 40 in December, with all 40 Republicans opposed.

An election for the Senate seat will be held on Tuesday, and according to Steve Kornacki, Democrat "Martha Coakley's internal poll for Thursday night showed her trailing [Republican] Scott Brown by three points -- 47 to 44 percent."

Even if Coakley pulls this one out, national Democrats will be wringing their hands over having to commit resources to such a deep blue (thoroughly Democrat-voting) state. Obama has created an ad for Coakley and will be campaigning for Coakley in Boston this weekend. But whether Obama has ever really been the ideal politician for Masschusetts is debatable. In March 2008, for example, "Survey USA show[ed] McCain tied at 47 percent with Barack Obama; [and] Hillary Clinton beat[ing] McCain, 55-42." Still, though, it'd surely be a shock if a Republican won a state-wide race when state data in late 2006 indicated that less than 13% of the population is registered Republican, versus 37% Democrat.

It might, of course, just be Martha Coakley. Stories are circulating that, as a prosecutor, she was too lenient with respect to prosecuting accused child abusers or not lenient enough. There are also charges that she's shown a disturbing disinclination to prosecute corruption. But it seems hard to believe that someone could win a Masschusetts primary for US Senator if he or she had serious baggage; it's not like someone else could not be found!

Obama's approval ratings have been in a steep slide for months now, but January 19, just a year into his mandate, could be a key milestone in the unraveling of his power if the Democrats cannot pull a win out of this Senate race. Mass. Republicans will no doubt call it karma for the state's Dems reversing their own legislation on appointing Senators, and Clinton supporters might dare to suggest that sending in the President to campaign for the Democrat might have gone over better if that President's first name were Hillary instead of Barack.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Alberta must go conservative"

On January 8 Fraser Institute economists Niels Veldhuis and Charles Lammam penned a Financial Post opinion piece titled "Alberta must go conservative."

But is the Wildrose Alliance the vehicle to bring "a clear focus on the investment climate" to Alberta? The real test will be when rhetoric runs into "reality". A trade-off will have to be made such that tax relief to investors gets funded by either cutting/capping program spending or shifting the taxation burden from business to consumers.

Last month Veldhuis wrote an op-ed in the Winnipeg Free Press saying
Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk last week kiboshed a harmonized sales tax (HST) for Manitoba. Her reasoning: "We don't think it makes sense to impose $405 million in new sales taxes." While such rhetoric might be good politics, it is terrible economics...
Under an HST, businesses could claim a refund on the sales tax they pay on business inputs, reducing the tax penalty on new business investment and improving the incentives for investment. ...
Simply put, the HST is an excellent economic deal which would provide significant and lasting economic benefits to the province.

This sort of thinking isn't exactly in tune with the prevailing zeitgeist. On January 4 David Brooks observed that, "Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year. As Andrew Steele, in a G&M op-ed titled "Going Populist" says
We have seen the same trend flaring in Canada. Sales tax is an obvious example. ...
Expect more sweaters and Tim Hortons cups from all parties this year as strategists seek to go down market at a time when fancy words and "inter-dependent productivity gains"-type language is out of favour.

My primary concern about the way the Wildrose Alliance is currently formulating policy is not that it is being handed over to the daily mob per se but that it appears the mob will be assessing policy planks individually instead as a coherent whole. There have been sincere efforts to set up a task force system that gathers together the available research, such that while everything (aside from floor crossings?) will apparently still come down to a grassroots vote, there's reason for optimism about how informed the vote will be. Just because I am not yet aware of any independent or academic research being utilized so far does not mean it won't be. The problem is rather that the membership, and Albertans, will apparently be presented plank after plank to vote for in isolation, such that the naturally interconnected web of policy will be chopped up into a series of one-off decisions that are prone to leading to contradictory results.

The fact that effective governments don't routinely make policy by reference to popular party membership votes outside of elections (unless making a change to the constitution) whereas the Wildrose Alliance does is not, in other words, the central problem. The topical expertise of elected ministers is typically limited enough relative to deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers that ministers making final decisions on the memos they receive may be roughly analogous to Wildrose members voting on reports received by task forces. Of interest is rather the fact that real governments have central agencies: e.g. a Treasury Board, a Finance department reporting to a Finance minister, and a Privy Council Office reporting to a first minister.

If a Wildrose government did not have a powerful premier, Finance Minister and Treasury Board President it would represent a remarkable reversal of the trend towards centralization in Westminster jurisdictions. Currently, the leader's role in policy determination is relatively limited and nothing analogous to a Finance ministry or a Treasury Board exists. I have heard that there is a coordinating committee assigned with some authority to direct and intervene in the activities of the task forces, but I am told that it is limited. If the leader has a broad authority to coordinate and/or dictate policy, from her statements and actions to date it seems she is circumspect about wielding that authority. Now that may be a good thing on the democratic reform front. But it would not be a good thing for fiscal conservatism were this to continue while in government since the provincial government would be left with an uncoordinated collection of line departments each directing resources towards what they consider priorities. Minding the deficit would become no one's job in particular, which, of course, would mean that job won't get done.

If, for example, one Wildrose task force comes back with a recommendation to cut royalties without offering a substitute revenue source and another comes back with a recommendation to increase spending on healthcare, unlike the debate that would occur were a decision by a real government cabinet involved, there is no "Minister of Finance" who can be called upon to comment on the fiscal impact.

I have been advised by other Wildrose members that I am not helping the party's political prospects with my various criticisms of people and policies associated with the party. I should explain that I am not really a political type. A former Clerk of Canada's Privy Council, Gordon Robertson, distinguished between a Minister and a Deputy thusly:
A Minister is politically oriented but must be operationally sensitive.
A Deputy Minister is operationally oriented but must be politically sensitive.

As someone whose background is in the civil service of a federal central agency, I have a deputy minister's mentality as opposed to a minister's. I'm operationally oriented. Whereas the PCO, for example, analyzes a proposal in terms of impacts on costs and in how it relates to other government initiatives, the PMO (Prime Minister's Office), staffed by political advisors, looks at the issue from a political standpoint, ie. does an issue enhance the first minister’s standing or will it increase the government's popularity? This division between political and public service is replicated throughout the federal government: each Minister has key political advisors reporting directly to their Minister in addition to senior public servants reporting through the Deputy Minister. At a December meeting of Edmonton Wildrose organizers we were introduced to a Calgary-based assistant to the party's Calgary-based Director of Operations, who introduced himself as having advised Minister Flaherty against taxing income trusts while as a member of his team of political advisors. Meanwhile I was a member of the team of civil servants advising the Minister to do the exact opposite (ie tax income trusts). So while the egos of various people involved with the party, including my own, are likely partially to blame for any incongruent choreography, there are also some substantive differences in perspective about how the boat should be run and its direction.

Although Deputy Ministers take their cues on upcoming plans and priorities from ‘political documents’ (election platform, Ministers speeches, policy statements), they respond and fulfill these priorities in a nonpartisan manner. And indeed during my time in Finance Canada I came to appreciate the culture of nonpartisanship and concluded that the country needs more of it. Returning to Alberta, I saw partisanship and loyalty to political parties as more of a hindrance to good government than a help. I am not keen on the recent floor crossings primarily because they suggest to me that the party's position on democratic reform is ad hoc as opposed to philosophically consistent and creating financial hardship for politicians is not what I consider a serious policy concern. What this adds up to, of course, is the possibility that I do not play well enough with other politicians for me to make a good politician myself.

But even if I and people like me shouldn't or couldn't be made ministers, that does not mean that we cannot make a useful contribution to the party by interacting with and responding to it from a relatively nonpartisan, Secretary to Cabinet/Deputy Minister-like perspective. It is from this perspective that I sound the warning that as the policy formulation process currently stands, it is going to be a challenge to get the policies adopted under the current plank by plank process translated into actual policy that is coordinated by a premier's office, finance ministry, and Treasury Board easily or predictably. The more of that that is done in advance, the easier the adjustment will be once in government, and the fewer the "but when it came to reality..." situations that will arise.

Now I also happen to be of the firm conviction that the closer the policies are to those that would actually emerge from a government with a civil service of thousands, the better the policies will sell politically since Albertans will intuitively appreciate Wildrose as a government in waiting. This call should, of course, nonetheless be left for the "political" advisors!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

DBRS notes Edmonton`s growing debt

From a Jan 6 press release by the Dominion Bond Rating Service:
... concerns are mounting with respect to the scope of the current capital plan and the amount of new borrowing required over the years to come, which DBRS notes has the potential to push tax-supported debt to a level no longer consistent with the current rating.
... When including substantial net capital spending, the City posted a deficit of $610 million. Despite cost escalation from service expansion and wage inflation, balanced operating budgets are expected for the foreseeable future, although they will most likely rely on tax rate increases.

The City is projecting that the tax-supported debt burden grew by 60% in 2009 to $878 million, or $1,123 per capita, with ongoing capital projects pushing the burden to roughly $1,800 per capita by the end of 2011. ...

Monday, January 11, 2010

red carpet treatment from Sherwood Park

I know it is no Highway of Heroes (I talked to Orgill who came back with Miok from Afghanistan and rode with the family to Toronto and he said the crowds for that were astounding) but seeing dozens and dozens of people line Baseline Road waving yellow ribbons and Canadian flags was amazing. Out of the the various events that occurred over the last week, for friends of 41 CER who were not part of the drive from Edmonton International and down Argyll to Sherwood Park, the experience of seeing ordinary citizens come out with little notice (or none? how did these people find out where and when the funeral procession was going?) packed the most emotional punch. I would have taken some video but I was sitting next to Matthew Martin's wife Jen (she's the one who took the photo of George, left, that is getting the most circulation after his DND supplied photo) and I was not keen on leaning over her just to take a low rez video through a somewhat dirty window with my phone.

After the internment the unit gathered at Debney Armoury and since Giles and I were the only ones there in civvies, it fell to one of us to take a 41 CER group photo and I ended up with the honours, although perhaps I should have passed since I (think I) erred on protocol by addressing Captain Louard familiarly as "Big Lou" before the whole unit and asking him to shuffle over to get into the picture (Roger and his brother went to the same high school that my brother and I - and Colby Cosh - did). Big Lou seemed to take it in stride though. Below is a photo of some of the vehicles 41 CER guys from Calgary used to drive up here:

The following photo, also by Jen Rose Martin from a happier evening, includes many of the pallbearers. From left to right is Mike Mroch, George, Robbie Farhat, Matthew Martin (all 3 longtime friends of George along with the unpictured Greg Gorecki and Brian Hyland), Chad Santo (in the middle), Nathan Goisnard, Martin Bizon, and, in civvies, Dan Hildebrandt.

This last photo was taken by Lisa Sautner as dusk began to fall at the cemetery. At left facing sideways is Sgt Chad Santo, whom I've known all of my adult life and who directed the folding of the flag. Even after allowing for the fact that people typically say great things about the just deceased, according to everything I've heard few deserved their sergeant stripes as much as George Miok.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

reality bites

Apparently I was not the only one to write to party HQ expressing a concern about potential floor crossings back in September/October. According to Graham Thomson:
On Oct. 27... the party's office manager, Heather McMullen, wrote an e-mail to a well-wisher spelling out what the party would do in the event an MLA wanted to jump to the Wildrose: "As for floor crosses, we have a policy in place that any MLA wishing to cross the floor will have to first sit as an independent, then gain the support of the Executive of the party and Constituency Association, and prove that their decision is also supported by the residents in that riding. They can't just cross and assume we will take them on. I hope that helps alleviate your fears."

Wildrose party officials say McMullen spoke out of turn...

Perhaps she forgot to take a number? What I didn't mention in my post of last night is that I actually got a response from one of the party executives in regard to my concerns, and it was consistent with Heather's email with respect to 1) the support of the party leadership 2) the support of the constituency association and, last but not least, 3) evidence that the decision is supported by voters of the riding, to wit, "voters in that riding are entitled to a byelection if they want one (a competent opinion poll would suffice for evidence)."

Are "Wildrose party officials" going to say that this party executive "spoke out of turn" (or alternatively commission a poll)?

There was, to be sure, a qualification, namely, "None of this is really capable of being sorted out... before [a party leader is chosen on] October 17th..." But according to Liza Yuzda's report of January 5th: " policy had been to require a by-election for 'floor-crossers' but when it came to reality..." So there WAS a policy... right up until it came time to actually implement it! The "reality" was that if by-elections were held, Alberta taxpayers might be saved from having to pay the salaries of the defecting MLAs for months! No doubt the Pay & Perks Task Force weighed in on this one given that politician pay is "so important to Alberta taxpayers."

I'm being snide, of course, but really the lesson from all of this in my mind is that the party should continue to run under the new brand of government-in-waiting that can appreciate nuance as opposed to the old brand of populist protest party keen to lecture all and sundry about "grassroots democracy" from a lofty perch safely removed from any complexity or real decision making.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

drama at 10800 97 Avenue

Before discussing what has happened at the Alberta Legislature this week, I'd note to any interested readers that a funeral date for Sgt Miok is still uncertain. The problem is apparently that the coroner's office in Toronto is busy solving crime such that it is not clear when the remains of those who fell in Afghanistan will be released. 41 CER is busy drilling in preparation for a military funeral on Saturday but a postponement may be required.

What to say about Monday's news? When rumours of floor crossings first arose in late September, I wrote to a member of the Wildrose exec to give my opinion (which I am very generous in sharing) that
[the party] executive [the leader still being undetermined at this time] shouldn't just accept them without any conditions if it is going to create a backlash... We would arguably be better served going into the next general with 1 MLA and 100% credibility than 11 MLAs and an attack line. ...
The ideal situation would be for these people to announce, then run in byelections, and to run in open nominations for the WAP nod. But that would mean no concessions to any [MLAs putting out] feelers... If they are people opposed to Bill 44 s.9 and they are not all concentrated in Calgary it would be political gold.

What we ended up with isn't quite gold and I think I would be rightfully dismissed as a party mouthpiece if I tried to pass it off as such. That would in turn arguably do the party more harm than good because people looking for attack angles would associate my remarks with the party line, something they cannot fairly do when neutral observers are of the opinion that I comment from an independent (albeit ideologically sympathetic) perspective.

But neither is this just a lump of coal for either the Wildrose party or standards of political practice. That some have expressed outrage should be acknowledged. An Edmonton Wildrose organizer in a south side constituency got an angry call from a resident who had previously been an enthusiastic volunteer. Given that not one but two 41 CER men are the go-to organizers in northwest greater Edmonton, I was particularly uneasy about a Facebook note of displeasure I received from another senior NCO from the unit concerning the news. Bob Layton has wagged a finger. A letter writer to the Calgary Sun has deplored the "desecration of democracy." The Edmonton Journal has huffed about the "betrayal of voters' intentions" and Paula Simons has, predictably, jumped on the (supposed) opportunity to play up the menace of Calgary oil men with an alacrity that would impress any old Alberta Reformer given to regular warnings about nefarious eastern bankers.

I'd say methinks the lady doth protest too much but it appears that I am not the only one who suspects that Ms Simons has called wolf a time or two too many given some of the comments I've seen. To envision a crime against either Edmonton or democracy or both seems rather too conspiratorial. Consider this: you vote for a platform. Since you believe that individual candidates generally can only impact 10% at most of the platform that affects you and your constituency, generally you base 90% of your vote on the candidate's party affiliation. Suppose the platform you believed you voted for was simply fiscal conservatism. But the party turned away from that platform after some time in power. The candidate, however, wished to remain true to platform and crossed over to a new party that took the vacated place with respect to that platform. Would it not be a "betrayal of voters' intentions" to NOT cross the floor in this circumstance? So what if the labels are "conservative" or "liberal" when the substance is yesterday's conservative is today's liberal? If the Canadian Parliament went from 169 PC MPs and zero Reform MPs to, say, 160 PC MPs and 9 Reform MPs because of floor crossing in 1992, would continuing with 169 and 0 into 1993 truly have been more reflective of the electorate's desires given that after the election of October 93 it was 2 (yes, two) PC MPs and 52 Reform MPs?

Before Monday, the Alberta PC caucus outnumbered the Wildrose Alliance caucus by a 70 to 1 margin. Now, it is a 23 to 1 margin. The 2008 election result was less than an 8 to 1 margin. Where's the "desecration" again? "Ah, but you are looking at it from too broad a perspective," someone might say. "I'm talking about my backyard." Of this NIMBY view I would ask why not restrict your backyard to just your local polls or literally your backyard. 100% of the votes in my own backyard went Wildrose last election and this backyard didn't get the result its electorate wanted. The point being here that there is a continuum here and the point at which one makes the slice is more or less arbitrary. Too arbitrary to support much righteous indignation beyond tut-tutting.

Which brings me to what I think the real issue is here, and that's the internal consistency of a political party's view of what is democratic and what is not as opposed to whether a particular floor crossing is democratic or not in the absolute sense. There are no absolutes here. There is a rather a spectrum where at one end a party would accept into its caucus only those who had been elected under its party banner consequent to an open nomination. By-elections in 100% of cases where the caucus is enlarged outside of a general election, in other words.

Moving along the spectrum one would first find a caucus that was enlarged without a by-election but only after announcing the desire to cross the floor on a conditional basis, the condition being consultation of all of
- the constituency association of the party being left (with particular concern for those who put the most time and effort into campaigning for the candidate)
- the constituency association of the party being joined
- the membership of the party being left
- the membership of the party being joined
- the constituents in general

As an aside, if one were to contend that it is not the business of anyone outside the riding, then in my view consistency would demand that a constituency association or a candidate issuing their own press releases (to take an example) ought to similarly be considered no one else's business. If the party's view is that everybody wears it when a controversy erupts in a particular constituency, then I would think that there would be no carve-out for controversial floor crossings. Recall that Edmonton Wildrose people have received feedback about events related to Calgary-area constituencies this week.

To return from that aside, while there may be much gnashing of teeth during and post-consultation, the fact is that people had the opportunity to express their opinions in letters to newspapers, to friends, to party officials, etc. There are always going to be losers, just as there would be losers in a formal byelection, but losers in the byelection scenario accept it because they got their 2 cents in, and they would still get their input in (albeit to a rather lesser degree) were they are consulted in a more indirect and approximate way.

Moving further along the spectrum, the transparency and the breadth of the consultation and the conditionality of the floor crossing goes down, to the eventual point where the representative is not only crossing without any demands from the party that the crossing representative demonstrate that his action has the support of his constituents, but the representative makes demands of the party being crossed to and back room deals are cut to satisfy those demands.

Suppose a representative with all the perks of a front bench role and comfortable re-election prospects under the same party should cross to a party that is polling poorly, for an obscure role in the legislature and lower pay. Even if there were no transparency at all with respect to the decision to cross, the circumstances would suggest that there could not have been a back room deal of much significance. On the other hand, crossing to a party that is polling better than the party defected from suggests more constituents would support the move. Both of these mitigating elements exist with respect to the floor crossings that occurred this week, to the extent they can when they are more or less inversely related on the polling strength aspect. Also, if one is consistent in holding an uncompromising view about representatives acting with the approval of their constituents, then we ought to be having byelections every day on the each day's unique issues. The practical reality is that most democracies allow elected representatives to go against their constituents' desires as often as they like but for a maximum of 5 years. If the voters will be given an opportunity to render a verdict within 4 or so years on a floor crossing, one's outrage should accordingly be limited, and perhaps limited in proportion to the expected wait. What's so special about a floor crossing decision relative to other major policy decisions that a byelection is much more required for the former?

The safest thing is nonetheless to hew as close as possible to the byelection side of the spectrum. That's why I spoke of a byelection as an "ideal" back in September. But where one is beyond that depends more on consistency of philosophy than anything else. I don't believe in recall, referendums, or an elected senate, primarily because I see myself as a "conservative" cynic who looks through to the concrete result as opposed to a "liberal" type who idealizes some ambition in its unimplemented abstract. California is ground zero for recalls, referenda, etc and is also home to some of America's worst K-12 schools, net out-migration, and a fiscal disaster. I've seen Senate committees at work in person in Ottawa and I've come to the conclusion that most Senators, many of them accomplished individuals, conduct themselves with more dignity and less grandstanding than our elected Parliamentarians. So I am not uncomfortable with these floor crossings in and of themselves. Byelections here would be wastes of time and money, and having a Wildrose caucus that is 1/23rd the size of the PC caucus despite leading the PCs in the polls is hardly a situation that screams for an electoral review for possible oversize.

I could go on: freeing up the crossers to dissent and speak their minds is a net gain for transparency in this province. Advanced Education Minister Doug Horner's contention that "it takes integrity" to tow the party line instead of supporting what one really supports or saying what one really thinks strikes me as laughable. It takes loyalty, not integrity, to be a good soldier for Stelmach. When I question the Wildrose party I am presenting a true front instead of united front. Let's not pretend there isn't a trade-off.

I am concerned about a potential gap between what the powers-that-be in the Wildrose Alliance deem is OK for them and what is OK for others. Call me a concern troll but the deal here is that I'm a Kantian in that I think one has to universalize one's principles. That's why I think consultation with the constituency association being joined should be matched with consultation with the constituency association being left. If a floor crosser left my constituency association and I complained about it, I would expect to be given the same level of consideration as I was given when a floor crosser came to my constituency association. Why would my opinion count in the one case and not the other?

There is, of course, a need for political realism. Things get done because people make the compromises necessary to go with the team instead of one's own way. But if any of the three caucus members introduce a MLA recall bill I am going to have to ask myself whether there is any way to get what I would consider a glaring inconsistency ring fenced into a regrettable one-off incident. A recalled MLA isn't going to suffer "financial hardship" as a consequence, an excuse I've seen trotted out for not having a byelection? Taxpayers aren't going to have to foot the bill for a byelection consequent to a recall? Why are these justifications coming from the party and not from the floor crossers themselves if there were no quid pro quo that the party would help provide political cover? A Wildrose nomination is the hottest ticket in town and people ought to begging for one. If there is going to be a nomination sale everyone should have a chance at the same deal. It's not like the Alberta Altruist or Shawn Howard would have been unacceptable candidates such that s. 9 supporter had to be courted to represent Airdrie and area. Allow me to quote from a Tory insider who rightly perceived far more downside to a byelection for his party than for Wildrose, which raises the question of why so much as an inch was conceded on whether to demand one:
[The PCs should] stop calling for Forsyth and Anderson to step down and run in by-elections as Wildrose candidates. It’s a stupid idea. Let’s say they actually went ahead with the suggestion and DID step down to run again a-la Sheila Copps: what would that accomplish? If you’re the PCs, not a damn thing.

Not only would a pair of by-elections serve to draw attention (every day for an entire 28-day writ period) to the fact that two government MLAs left government to sit in opposition… they would both win their seats back - quite handily, too. A month of anti-government press (almost guaranteed in Calgary these days) capped off with a couple of Wildrose blowout victories will only legitimize the notion that the good ship Tory has already hit the iceberg and is on her way down in spectacular fashion.

And I say all three caucus members because even though one of them did not make such a significant decision so as to create more than a negligible expectation of a recall desire, this one has shown more enthusiasm for having MLAs elected under other banners come over and provide company than I was ever comfortable with. As far as I'm concerned, this should be a matter for the leader not the caucus, since the leader has the confidence of the full membership that caucus members do not. If the caucus does not defer to the leader, the party's greatest asset is going to be left unutilized. These crossings are a potential sign that the party has matured to the point of appreciating nuance and practical politics. To revert to populist moralizing going forward would be a serious regression.

Casual readers who haven't worked with me may not know that I am a notoriously unhappy camper. Due allowance for that means that folks ought to just move along since there really is nothing particularly new to see if Brian Dell has a beef. But I will say that an uncompromising defence of this floor crossing that I saw coming from a Wildroser who had previously condemned Belinda Stronach (who was re-elected by her constituents under the banner of the party she crossed to in the first subsequent general election) as "treacherous" and a "traitor" created the biggest beef I have had yet, outside of operations management issues. A "waste of time" argument was scoffed at in 2005 yet now that the shoe is on another foot the same argument is being advanced to refuse to "go to the people" in Airdrie or Fish Creek. How about either a more dialed down denunciation of Belinda or, in the alternative, a more equivocal and tepid endorsement of this week's crossers? Or is partisanship just too hard to step back from? This person is not the leader, but as far as I'm concerned the attitude is either too widely held or too influential. Stop giving passes to federal Conservatives for engaging in the same high-handed behaviour that was so bitterly denounced with the Liberals did it. Why is Andrew Coyne the only prominent conservative to take issue with the federal government's spending spree? If a prime minister dodges a Parliamentary confidence vote it is not a violation of "the first and greatest commandment." It's a political maneuver that should be regretted but with a sigh instead of righteous indignation. I consider it the mark of an older, wiser individual to jump on a high horse only after much introspection. Crusading should be generally left to those with little experience of the world and the complexity of its demands. As the Calgary Sun responded to the letter writer, "politics is a blood sport." It's a response that concedes that corners were cut, and is accordingly the response that acknowledges the complainant while nonetheless disagreeing with him.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wildrose expands presence in Leg

I'll post about this tomorrow afternoon or evening but for the moment I'd say that, as usual, I am more or less in agreement with the Alberta Altruist's take on the situation.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

cold day in Trenton

At about 4:52 of this CTV news clip you'll see George's family approach the hearse. Anna is carrying 2 roses in her right hand to place on the casket. For several years I worked odd hours with the IT group of the U of Alberta School of Business and was often found in the grad students computer lab on the 3rd floor of the Business building. Anna worked for the U of A non-academic staff and was a regular guest of ours (or more likely we were guests of hers!) as she came into the lab to keep the place tidy. There were typically few students on campus that late in the evening and she loved talking with us. I can still recall her opinions on variety of topics as she always had one! She really was a delightful babushka type and this part of the clip is pretty heartbreaking. If you look closely at the cap being worn by George's father you'll see the Hungarian coat of arms.

At 5:41 you can see a closeup of my house mate Greg (the tall one) standing next to another 41 CER guy (Mike Orgill) who accompanied George's body back from Afghanistan and is accordingly still in desert fatigues. In front of them is Kristi Anderson, who owns the Mo House along with her husband Neil Fritz. Neil, a long time acquaintance of mine, has been a senior NCO in the unit for years and years and is currently very busy organizing what will be a full dress military funeral. What you don't see on camera is Anna collapsing and Greg leaving to see if he could get something to assist.

8 Field was an Edmonton unit but 41 CER is province-wide and a number of guys from what was Lethbridge-based 6 Field have indicated that they will be coming up here for the funeral. Fortunately I can help make room for them here at the Mo House by heading back to my parents' place for a while as my folks will be leaving for Florida on Wednesday. I haven't really had a fixed address anyway for the last couple of years although I've been looking for a condo of my own in the city's southwest.

In this other CTV clip you can see a photo of George with fellow 41 CER boys Robbie Farhat and Ricky Hurley at 1:28, hear one of the unit's officers, Lt Michael Kunce, talk about George at 1:40, and listen to another former Mo House resident, a beard-sporting Nathan Goisnard, at 2:01.

I don't know the guy who made this mini-poster of Gorgeous George, but I'll post it here because it's so upbeat.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

statement by family of Sgt George Miok

George was the youngest of four brothers, raised in a loving home by Anna and Illés [popularly known as Eli, since Illés is Hungarian for Elijah]. The fact his father Eli had served in the military on behalf of his country was a factor in George's decision to join the Engineers in 1998 in response to an army recruiting advertisement.

George attended Archbishop Jordan Catholic High in Sherwood Park, and in his Grade 12 scrapbook George titled the following entry "The Event That Has Changed My Life":
This last summer, the summer of '98, I did Basic military training at the Wainwright training base. The experience was long but it made me look at things differently. I went through many tough times, long nights, and early mornings. I got through the days with the help of friends and my own inner strength. Once, when I was in the field late at night, I looked at the sky and saw stars like I've never seen before and I knew that there was more to life. The whole experience made me appreciate my life more and made me think about everything I was fortunate for.

George was happy spending his Wednesday evenings and Saturdays with his new friends at the Debney Armoury [just west of 75 st on Roper Rd in Edmonton]. He enjoyed the occasional weekend-long adventures in the field, the travel opportunities, the income a reservist receives which allowed him to buy gas for the car, and, most of all, the camaraderie. George took time off from his Bachelor of Education program at the U of Alberta to serve in Bosnia in 2002. He would later teach at École St Cecilia Junior High [a few blocks southeast of Northtown Mall].

A gifted athlete, George loved to play sports: soccer, baseball, hockey, football, and rugby. He was a natural on the dance floor and a coveted two-step partner. He was a long-time member of Edmonton's Csárdás Hungarian Folkdance Ensemble. He loved watching movies and laughing at funny TV shows. He enjoying socializing and was known to go for a long run after a night of merriment.

Before George left on his first overseas deployment to Bosnia he explained his decision to go to his mother by saying that Canada has been good to the family and he wanted to pay his country back. He was also interested in helping those who lived in other countries achieve Canada's peace and prosperity. Anna recalls her son reading a passage from the Bible that included the verse "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." George went on his first tour of Afghanistan in 2006. His decision to return not just once but twice was a reflection of his belief that he could continue to make a difference.

George will be loved and remembered forever by his parents, his three older brothers Michael, John, László (Les) and his sister-in-law Melissa, his large extended family (aunts, uncles, and so many cousins), and by his many friends.

The family appreciates the public's sympathy and interest but asks that media inquiries be directed to Grant Cree at (780) 949-3228 or jgcree [at] during this difficult time.

2010: moving forward

The year has started off under something of a cloud with 8 Field's (Edmonton predecessor to the Alberta-wide 41 CER) first death in theatre to any current member's recollection. On New Year's Day a number of guys from the unit visited George's mother and said that it was the most difficult experience in their military careers. In the evening guys came here to the house to polish George's boots. For hours. Gorecki will take them with him when goes to Trenton with the CO to repatriate the body. When one considers the origins of the injured as well, December 30 may have been Alberta's worst day in Afghanistan.

Not all of the guys were on the best of terms with George but the few who had a falling out with him at one point or another have, if anything, been doing the most to ensure that his memory is preserved and his long service honoured. If there was any one thing that suggests the mentality of the military man to me, I think it may be this way in which a sense of solidarity with one's brothers in arms comes so automatically as a natural priority. That and the job focus. I could see how some observers might think more emotion should be expressed by unit members, but the reality is that the soldiers accept the ultimate sacrifice as something that comes with the territory. A combat zone is not a horror free area, and when they happen people are expected to continue to do their jobs. Men who are extremely sensitive are generally not the dominant type in the armed forces. That does not mean that events like the New Year's Day meeting with the family were not agonizing to all involved.

George would have wanted the guys to have a good time on New Year's Eve and a real effort was made on that count. DJ Earworm, who does a mashup of the top 25 American pop songs every year, did a good job with 2009, packing two dozen different tracks together into a theme of getting back up when down, and I'm sure the mix was popular at a lot of New Year's Eves.

I thought 2009 was going to be the year I ended up more settled but that didn't end up being the case. The year ended with me alive and kicking so by that metric it was a good year.