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Maxed Out

The Annals of Greed – Part I



I once baited my father into an argument – our principal arena of communication – by suggesting his generation went out and fought the good fight in World War II, came home, started families, got jobs and pretty much coasted after that, living off the accomplishments of an earlier generation and leaving the sticky problems of building a bigger and better society to my generation.

I knew it was both untrue and incendiary; that was the point. But it got us into a heated debated over what his generation had accomplished, and left undone, and what my generation had wrought. By the end of the discussion I had to admit the Interstate highway system, communications satellites, a polio cure, nuclear power and disc brakes looked pretty good compared to rock ’n’ roll, the personal computer and Donkey Kong.

When the power went down last week in Toronto and New York, the debate over who’s been building and who’s been coasting began to surface again in an oblique way. It was overshadowed by arguments over the role of government and the role of the private sector. Of course, the overwhelming question for millions of Torontonians and New Yorkers was more immediate – when can we turn the damn air conditioners back on and eat hot food?

In the United States, Democrats and Republicans are once more locked in their philosophical wrestling match over whether government should take the lead in modernizing the power grid or whether it’s something best left to the private sector. The Dems want to go for the quick fix – get the power up and running, focus on reliability of supply, impose operational standards and leave the Big Picture for another day – while the Republicans want to play every possible angle to ensure the ultimate outcome of any power renaissance will enrich the rich, be paid for by everyone else, allow oil exploration in the Arctic and quite possibly bring Jesse Helms back from the dead.

In Canada, the Liberal Party and Liberal MPs, there being no opposition worth mentioning, are locked in philosophical debate over whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry or... some other word that means the same thing but doesn’t scare straight, religious people. Given the Supreme Court’s rulings, it’s a pointless debate which should, but never will, be shifted to whether the government should invoke the Charter’s Notwithstanding Clause. But in the final Days of Chrétien, little of substance is likely to float to the surface on any issue. Ditto the Days of Martin to come.

So the question arises, just what is the role of government? Okay, perhaps that’s too broad. But what’s the role of government in providing infrastructure? Okay, perhaps that’s too boring.