Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative and innovation.

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April 25th, 2013

The Liberals Strike Back … Finally

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The night before last, I watched the Conservatives one-two advertising punch during a Jays’ game: their Justin Trudeau attack ad as well as an Economic Action Plan ad, the latter being nothing more than taxpayer-supported political advertising.

Yesterday I saw Justin Trudeau’s reply to the attack ad, and I consider it a good first step. Despite being titled “let’s put an end to attack ads,” it’s really a counter-attack ad. Using the words “we deserve better” to refer to the Conservative attack ads and ending “together, we can build a better country,” he’s putting forth his intention to set a higher standard in both political conduct and public policy than the Conservatives. By asserting that he’s “proud to be a teacher” and that “he’s a son, but also a father,” he’s beginning to tell his own story. He’s refusing to let the Conservatives define him, and tell their misleading version of his story.

Most importantly, he’s signaling that, unlike recent Liberal leaders, he’s willing to fight back. It’s essential that he send this message right at the outset of his leadership.

The YouTube count as of today, April 25, is promising. The Conservatives’ ad, which has been running for 10 days or so, has 258,000 views, but the Liberals’ ad, by only its second day has 202,000 views. It may well overtake the total for the Conservatives’ ad. Clearly there is a lot of interest in Trudeau, from both the Liberal faithful, who were waiting for this, and from citizens who want to check him out.

As I mentioned at the outset, the Conservatives have their positive story about the Harper government, which claims that it has delivered economic renewal, and their negative story, which claims that the Liberal (and, in the future, NDP) leadership combine ambition and incompetence.

The Liberals also need to develop their two sided narrative, with a powerful story of hope, determination, and gravitas attributed to Justin Trudeau, and a negative story about the failings of the Harper Government.

We saw the makings of the first part of this with the counter-attack ad. The Liberals should not – I emphasize not – put an end to their attack ads. If they want power, eventually they have to develop attack ads that delegitimize Stephen Harper. They should be watching his every word and every move, looking for inconsistency, hypocrisy, mendacity, and corruption. Political survival demands no less.

 

April 23rd, 2013

If He Says You’re Fat, You Say He’s Bald

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This is a maxim about negative campaigning that Jim Coutts, former Liberal party strategist and principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau, told my public management class decades ago. I quoted it in a blog post on March 12, 2011 in which I questioned then Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff’s unwillingness to respond to Conservative Party attack ads. Given that Ignatieff ended up in the dustbin of Canadian political history, I return to Coutts’s maxim in the hope that Pierre Trudeau’s son will listen to Coutts’s wisdom.

As 243,000 (and ever increasing) YouTube viewers and God knows how many television viewers know, the Conservatives have begun their attack ads on Justin Trudeau. Like their attack ads on former Liberal leaders Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, they are personal and they come with a narrative. They dredge up history (Rae’s record as NDP premier of Ontario) and public statements (Michael Ignatieff on US television) to demonstrate that the Liberal leader, while motivated by overarching ambition, lacks the competence to be Prime Minister. The narrative about Trudeau is that, while he has the political pedigree, he doesn’t have the experience, judgment, or gravitas to be prime minister. And the Conservatives have also set up an attack website, justinoverhishead.ca, to amplify their point.

As I discussed in my post about Ignatieff, this is a use of what I call the ironic political fable. It contrasts the achievement of personal ambition (Ignatieff, Rae, or Trudeau becoming prime minister) with the predicted deleterious consequences for Canada.

Why are the Conservatives so stridently attacking Trudeau? One might simply argue, because they can. The Trudeau attack story is ready-made and the Conservatives have the money needed to tell it.

But it goes deeper than that. First, the Conservatives are intending to create conflict within the Liberal Party between those who counsel ignoring the attacks and those who advise strong and swift retaliation.

Second, it is part and parcel of the Conservatives’ desire to reshape Canadian politics by destroying the Liberal Party so as to create a two-party system consisting of the Conservatives and the NDP. In Conservatives strategy, the Liberals are a centre-left party, so must be destroyed, so that the Conservatives can occupy the centre. The Conservative attack machine has virtually ignored NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, with only the occasional attack on his policies but nothing attacking him personally.

What should the Liberals do? If they do nothing, Justin Trudeau risks the same fate as Michael Ignatieff, having a disastrous story told by the Conservatives about him so convincingly that he has no capacity to tell his own story of hope and heroism.

Coutts’s point was that you don’t deny what your opponents claim as your weaknesses because that just perpetuates their story. Rather you attack your opponent’s leader with your own negative attack ads. Liberal pollster Mike Marzolini’s suggestion of trying to parry the Conservative attack ads with parody and satire has the unfortunate effect of perpetuating their story.

Are the Liberals ready to launch attack ads on the Conservatives? Do they have the money? I recall that when Bob Rae was being attacked, they raised a special fund of several hundred thousand dollars for response, money which has yet to be spent. And they are attempting to raise more now for the same purpose.

Do they have the message? They could certainly attack Harper as having an ideologically conservative agenda, contrasting his May 2011 election-night statement that he would govern on behalf of all Canadians with his record since then. They could attack his omnibus bills and other perversions of parliamentary democracy. They could find clips of him smiling supportively with ministers whom he has later thrown from the bus. There is no shortage of material.

The NDP is quite pleased to see the Conservatives attacking the Liberals if it will help establish their role as permanent, rather than one-time, Official Opposition party. Just as the Conservatives have muted their broadcast attacks on the NDP, the NDP has silenced their broadcast (as opposed to parliamentary) attacks on the Conservatives.

Liberal attack ads would differentiate their party from the NDP. They would energize the Liberal base. They would put the Liberals in a position of leading the attack on Stephen Harper and constitute a bid for the support of the majority of Canadian voters who want something other than Stephen Harper.

Justin Trudeau must choose, and choose very soon, whether he wants to let the Conservatives tell his story, with all the predictable consequences that follow, or whether he will authorize a different narrative.

 

April 5th, 2013

A Hedgie Prince of Darkness Brought to Justice?

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One of the long-standing business fables – particularly in the financial services sector – is that of bringing the prince of darkness to justice. By prince of darkness I mean the CEO, and usually entrepreneurial founder, of a financial services firm who is breaking the law: insider trading, fraud, or perhaps a Ponzi scheme. Justice is delivered by the government, usually the SEC acting in concert with the Justice Department and the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Justice may come about because the government’s own tripwires, such as its monitoring of stock trades, reveal criminality, or because some disgruntled employee of the prince of darkness, either voluntarily or under criminal prosecution himself, provides the information on which the government can build its case.

In terms of the four quadrant matrix for analyzing organizational narratives outlined in Governing Fables, this is a retributive one. Because this narrative takes place in the financial services sector, it is about the money. The prince of darkness forfeits his ill-gotten gains to the government, which uses the money to recoup at least some of the losses suffered by those who have been tricked or exploited. The prince of darkness is disgraced, is required to do prison time, and may have important privileges, such as trading on the stock exchange, withdrawn for the rest of his life.

One can think of several real-life narratives that follow this fable: those of Jeffrey Skilling, Conrad Black, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, and Bernard Madoff. There is also a classic fictional version, which is the movie Wall Street, with its prince of darkness protagonist, Gordon Gekko. Gekko, a role for which Michael Douglas won the Academy Award for best actor, is vital and charismatic. He can convince his employees to break the law on his behalf: his conversation in his limo with the ambitious neophyte trader Bud Fox is a classic example. Gekko is also effective at arguing – however cynically – that his market manipulations actually benefit society (“greed is good”). Gekko’s crime is insider trading, in particular encouraging his employees to find inside information which he can use for profitable trades.

As life imitates art, which itself reflects life, we are now watching the unfolding of the US Government’s case against Steven A. Cohen, CEO and 100 percent owner of the hedge fund SAC Capital Advisers. A number of Cohen’s employees have confessed to or are under indictment for trading on inside information and Cohen has already paid over $ 600 million in a preliminary out-of-court settlement (a fact curiously omitted from his Wikipedia entry). The big question that remains is whether Cohen’s employees will be willing and able to provide enough information to enable the government to indict and convict him.

Cohen, however, is no Gordon Gekko. He is notoriously private and most unlikely to make speeches extolling his values at shareholder meetings. Unlike Michael Douglas’s classic chiseled profile and flowing hair, Cohen is bald, bespectacled , and podgy-faced. His successive wives do not at all appear to be like Gekko’s trophy wife and mistresses.

If Cohen is not the charming and charismatic rogue of a Gordon Gekko, he is also not the progressive and socially enlightened plutocrat that Bill Gates freely chose to become, or that Michael Milken, as part of his restitution, was compelled to become. Cohen’s two all-consuming passions appear to be building an ever bigger mansion and enhancing his personal art collection. He contributed substantially to the Romney campaign, presumably seeing it as an investment in keeping his rate of taxation low.

Few tears will be shed for him if, in the pursuit of justice, the US government brings him down. My guess is that many people, on Wall Street and elsewhere, are cheering for this to happen. Another instantiation of the retributive fable awaits.

 

March 29th, 2013

Hello Stephen, this is Barack, I’m Cancelling Keystone

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So began this year’s crisis management exercise for my public administration students. I always start our discussion of crisis management and government communications by giving the students an exercise. This year’s exercise imagined that President Obama, responding to environmentalist pressure, decides to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline and announce his decision on Earth Day, Monday, April 22, 2013.

As a courtesy, he calls Prime Minister Harper on Sunday night, adding that in his announcement he will describe Keystone “as a defining climate change decision for a generation” and that “by saying no to Keystone, we are taking a stand for an economy that will make less use of fossil fuels, that will expand use of renewable energy, and that will put a priority on preventing further global warming.”

The exercise asks the students to put themselves in Harper’s shoes and indicate what he should immediately say to President Obama over the phone and what he should say to the Canadian people the next day.

After discussing Harper’s response, the exercise asks the students to divide into three groups to prepare public responses to Obama’s decision by Russ Girling, President of Transcanada Corporation, as well as Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair and newly-elected Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (the latter, an easy prediction). A little twist in the second assignment is that Prime Minister Harper has called Girling Sunday night to tip him off, but that Mulcair and Trudeau hear about the decision only when Obama announces it on Monday morning, and are being pressed by the media for an instant reaction to scrums outside their office doors.

I won’t attempt to lay out detailed answers but here are some suggestions for an overall approach.

In Harper’s case, the challenge for the phone call is to keep calm and not express the anger, disappointment, and surprise (at the speed of the decision) he must certainly feel. The question portrays Obama, by explaining how he will present his decision to the American people, as lecturing the Prime Minister. While Harper might well take umbrage at the lecture and suggest that Obama’s environmentalism is cynical given America’s continued heavy use of coal, responding to a lecture with a tit-for-tat debating point does nothing to enhance their relationship.

Harper’s public statement – one student suggested waiting until the day after Earth Day when the media would give him more attention – should combine a small measure of regret about Obama’s decision, an affirmation of the government’s policy of continued development of the oil sands in an environmentally responsible way, and a commitment to pursue other options, such as speeding the review process for the Northern Gateway pipeline to facilitate selling the oil on Asian markets, or developing pipelines in Canada that would allow the oil to satisfy the eastern Canadian market and be refined, possibly for export, in eastern Canadian refineries.

Given how controversial Keystone has become (something I demonstrated by giving the students the New York Times editorial of March 10 about Keystone entitled “When to Say No”), Harper should be having both the PMO and PCO hard at work on contingency planning.

Russ Girling’s challenge will be to convince capital markets that he hasn’t bet the company on Keystone and that Transcanada has many other profitable options. Given the market’s inevitable focus on Transcanada’s stock price, when trading resumes after the announcement, it would be a good idea for Girling to appear with his chief financial officer, who can field more detailed questions about the company’s plans. This would be a clear instance of the double-headed public face of the organization, Girling to outline the big picture, and the CFO to fill in the details. For Transcanada as well, contingency planning is in order.

Mulcair and Trudeau face the same challenge, except that Trudeau is a newbie, having been Leader of the Opposition for only a week. Both will want to criticize Harper for his over-reliance on one economic option as well as his lack of concern about the environment. The media will press both as to whether they favour any of the government’s Plan B options, such as Northern Gateway or new or enhanced pipelines to Eastern Canada. Neither will want to make a commitment of such consequence in a scrum, and both will want to change the topic to strengthening the environmental review process.

These scenarios will not play out on Earth Day, because the period for public response to the State Department’s draft environmental impact analysis of Keystone will not have concluded by then and Obama would be very unlikely to act before State has presented its final analysis. But the end game appears to be coming soon, and Canadian politicians, corporations, and public interest groups should be doing their own contingency planning.

 

March 24th, 2013

Saying “Si” to “No”

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I just saw director Pablo Lorrain’s movie “No,” about the unexpectedly successful referendum campaign in Chile that unseated dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988.

The movie focuses its attention on Rene Saavedra, a fictional young ad man, to whom it attributed many of the ads used by the “No” side. (They were the “No” side because the question asked was whether voters would agree to an eight year term as President for Pinochet.) The rules permitted a maximum of 15 minutes of national television advertising by both the yes and no sides in the month before the referendum.

Following the movie’s focus, most of the critical discussion has revolved around the use of American-style advertising tactics. Comparisons have been drawn to Madison Avenue and ‘Mad Men.” Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post “Saavedra co-opts Madison Avenue ad strategies to create a down-with-dictatorship/up-with-people campaign.” Liam Lacey wrote in the Globe and Mail, “from a marketing perspective, [Saavedra] sees a chance to put his product over in the marketplace, and if that means selling regime change with a We Are the World-style charity video, why not?” Andrew O’Hehir, wrote in Salon, “ On one level ‘No’ is an inspiring tale of peaceful liberation, self-determination, and the fundamental clash between optimism and pessimism. On another, it’s a darker a more complex fable about the birth of the media age and the rise of the neoliberal consensus that conceived of all humanity as a market.” He concluded, “do you want to speak truth to power, and less the election? Or do you want to beat the dictator at his own game, and move Chile into the future. Because the road to the future is paved with focus groups and cheerful rainbow logos…”

I think this notion of “selling out to win” that has dominated the discussion is misguided. I suggest looking at the Si and No referendum campaigns from the narratological perspective I developed in Governing Fable, and have frequently applied in this blog.

Every successful political campaign must have a positive story about itself and a negative story about its opponent(s). For the Si campaign the positive story was about Pinochet bringing calm, stability, and prosperity to Chile. In its ads, Pinochet the military dictator is re-interpreted as a genial, avuncular, civilian paterfamilias of the nation. The Si campaign also had its attack ads, associating the No campaign with economic instability, Marxist ideology, and the suppression of traditional family values. A No victory raised the spectre of a return to the chaos of the Allende years.

The No side had its negative fable, and it was a compelling one: Pinochet’s history of military dictatorship, suppression of human rights and civil liberties, torture, and the disappearing of the junta’s opponents. This story was told quite compellingly in ads narrated by the mothers of the junta’s victims.

But the No side could not win without a positive fable.

Because the No side was an alliance of opposition parties, there was no one individual who could be presented as a protagonist whom the voters could see as preferable to Pinochet. Rather the No side had to present its positive fable as an idea – the idea of personal freedom in a democratic regime. It portrayed the idea of freedom by portraying the goal of freedom as the pursuit of happiness. Hence the upbeat slogan “happiness is coming,” the upbeat music, the pictures of people openly enjoying themselves. I don’t see this is evidence of “the neoliberal consensus that conceives of all of humanity as a market” but as a reasonable attempt to portray, to people who may have forgotten, what it means to live in a free society.

The movie, at the end, shows spots with Christopher Reeves, Jane Fonda, and Richard Dreyfuss (speaking in Spanish) endorsing the No. I don’t see this as Hollywood-ism, but rather as a message to Chileans to reject the insularity of the Pinochet era and embrace a wider world.

As the character of Rene was a composite, one can reasonably ask whether a more factual approach would have portrayed the proponents of the positive message in the No campaign as less adman-like than Rene. In his review, O’Hehir noted that No has provoked a controversy in Chile, in particular about whether the movie’s exclusive focus on the advertising campaigns ignored the broader political campaigns, in particular the No campaign’s ground-level political organizing and voter registration drive.

The movie suggested that, when the counting of the ballots began, the possibility of the Pinochet regime stealing the election arose, and then made the case that people knew Pinochet had been defeated only when other military leaders publicly affirmed the No side’s victory. People living in stable democracies take for granted that elections will be run fairly and this fairness extends to the critical activity of counting the vote. In so many countries this is not the case.

Finally, a word about production values. The movie was shot with U-matic video cameras that were in common use in the late 80s. This has the advantage of making the film and the clips culled from the image archives indistinguishable. But the movie has the appearance of what Lacey called “smeary desaturated music videos from decades ago.” I would have opted for something more aesthetically appealing, and maintained historical realism through the use of clothing styles, facial hair, and home furnishings.

No is definitely worth seeing because it applies to a critical moment in Chilean history an understanding of the importance of political communication, and shows how an underdog group was able to communicate effectively.

 

March 24th, 2013

Getting Back to Normal

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Following up on my previous post, I’m pleased to report that I’m definitely on the mend. After a few weeks of exercises stretching the arm, I’ve been able to restore full motion. My arm is feeling increasingly normal. I’ve also started some exercises to strengthen the biceps. The only thing that will have to wait a while is work on the triceps. The bone I broke, the olecranon, is knitting, but the break is not completely mended. The triceps is attached to the olecranon, so triceps exercises pull the break apart. So no triceps exercises for now, but I’m doing lots of other exercise: bicycling, running, and weights.

February 25th, 2013

Getting off Lightly

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It was a beautiful Sunday morning, cold, calm, sunny, and with a cloudless blue sky – perfect for skating. At 10 in the morning, there weren’t many skaters at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square rink, and as my brother and I skated and talked I observed a few of them: the couple on a date, the father with his young son, and the man in rubber boots, dropping a puck on the ice and picking it up.

Without warning, I felt a hard body check to my right side. I landed heavily on my left hip and elbow. The wind knocked out of me, I struggled to catch my breath and keep from blacking out, as my brother and a rink attendant helped me to a bench beside the rink. I remember the man in boots mumbling something to me, and my brother remembered seeing him high-tail it outtathere.

I resumed skating, just to prove I could, but we quickly headed home. Driving home, I felt my left elbow growing painful and stiff. I put the car in garage, with a premonition that it would remain there for a long time.

Rolling up my sleeve, I noticed the elbow had dramatically swollen. I went to the Emerg at nearby Sunnybrook. I was x-rayed quickly and the young physician called me to look at his computer screen. “Mr. Borins, I’m afraid you have a badly broken arm near the elbow, requiring surgery.” He put my left arm in a cast that immobilized the elbow, and booked me for a visit to the fracture clinic the next day.

The fracture clinic confirmed the diagnosis, and I had my surgery a few days later. My left arm is still in a heavy cast. Bathing and sleeping are awkward and, as a leftie, writing and eating are particularly difficult.

The surgeon told me the operation was successful, and with more time in the cast, and then physiotherapy, most of the mobility in my elbow will be restored. I should be able to take my car out of the garage in a month or two.

With a period of enforced rest as my arm heals, I’ve begun to reflect on this experience, especially from my professional perspective as a teacher of public management.

Thinking back to the incident itself, I was blind-sided. The man in rubber boots had stepped onto the ice from the side of the rink, and I didn’t see him at all. Wearing skates, I had the momentum. Wearing boots, he had traction and stability. He stayed on his feet, and I went down.

I wasn’t wearing a helmet. The only helmets that morning were being worn by children. What if I had struck my head on the ice with the same force that shattered my elbow? Perhaps a severe concussion, perhaps worse. The demise of actress Natasha Richardson four years ago haunts my mind.

What can be learned from my experience, as a matter of the safe management of public rinks and arenas? Put more starkly, had the worst occurred, what would the coroner have recommended?

On the ice, people wearing boots are infinitely more stable than those wearing skates. In any collision between the two, the skater will go flying. As I understand it, rinks and arenas attempt to ensure that only people wearing skates go on the ice, but this is often not enforced.

An open rink like that at Nathan Phillips Square can be accessed at any point, unlike a hockey arena, where the boards restrict access and egress. With restricted access, skaters know where to anticipate people entering the ice surface. It’s very unlikely anyone will be blind-sided as I was.

The effect of Natasha Richardson’s death is evident on any ski hill in Canada. Everyone, regardless of age, is wearing a helmet. Similarly, many jurisdictions require children to wear bicycle helmets, and most adults are also wearing them.

Ice-skating, not so much. But combine open and unrestricted access to the ice surface, and no requirement to wear helmets, and there is the potential for a tragedy. This could have been my tragedy, my permanent disability, my sudden senseless death.

If we wanted to make the Nathan Phillips Square rink safe, we would erect a barrier around the ice surface so there would be a few, limited points of access. The rink monitors would ensure that there are no clowns who walk onto the ice in their boots. And everyone would be required to wear a helmet.

Will I ever go skating again? Perhaps, but I will be wearing a helmet and a pad on my left elbow. I’ll never skate on an open access rink like Nathan Phillips Square again.

I’ve occasionally skated on the Rideau Canal in the past, and would love to do it again – with a helmet.

The broken arm is a major disruption to my life right now. I’m confident I will heal, but as a person of middle age, not sanguine that it will be “good as new.” But I am hopeful that I’ll keyboard with as much facility as in the past, and that my fingers will keep up with my thoughts. All things considered, I got off lightly.

 

February 1st, 2013

Lincoln’s Leadership Lessons

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The Sunday New York Times business section recently (January 26, 2013) ran a piece by Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn entitled “Lincoln’s School of Management. “. Prof. Koehn has developed a teaching case on President Lincoln that she uses with mid-career students. In the Times article, in addition to her own discussion of Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, she reports on the response of her students to the Lincoln case.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks wrote to Prof. Koehn in an email that “Lincoln’s presidency is a big, well-lit classroom for business leaders seeking to build successful, enduring organizations … Listening, always being present, and authenticity are essential leadership qualities whether one is leading a country in wartime or a company during a period of transformation.”

Ari Bloom, “a strategic adviser to consumer-related companies and a former student of [Prof. Koehn] wrote to Prof. Koehn in an email that “Lincoln is striking because he did all this under extremely difficult circumstances … This is important in building a business because you have to listen to customers, employees, suppliers and investors, including those who are critical of what you are doing.”

And Kelly Close “founder and president of Close Concerns, a health care information firm” wrote to Prof. Koehn in an email that “being responsible for even a small company and all the people and issues involved in such management forces you to come to terms with yourself and whether you can rise to the challenge … [Lincoln] was able to do this in a way that amazes and inspires me.”

It appears that what Prof. Koehn does in her pedagogy is depict Lincoln’s leadership traits (“resilience, emotional intelligence”) and practices (“thoughtful listening and the consideration of all sides of an argument”) and draw specific leadership lessons from them. She then applies those lessons to her students’ context, for example “the ability to experience negative emotions without falling through the floorboards is vital to entrepreneurs and business leaders.” Finally, judging from the emails she quoted, she encourages her students to identify with Lincoln, thinking of their own challenges and struggles as comparable to his.

I think the identification of leadership traits and practices in an historical individual is an acceptable practice in management education. Drawing lessons from those traits and practices is also acceptable, with the caveat that traits and practices depend on context, so that traits and practices useful in one context might be problematic in another. What I find objectionable is the promotion of identification with Lincoln.

Lincoln was a political leader who faced an existential challenge to his nation. Even among political leaders, only a small proportion ever faced an existential challenge to their nation’s survival. The leap from government to business and from existential threats to business opportunities and problems is a metaphor too far. The emails Prof. Koehn quotes strike me as expressions of delusions of grandeur or managerial hubris, sanctioned by Prof. Koehn’s pedagogy. Business schools in general, and the Harvard Business School in particular, promote this sort of managerial grandiosity.

It seems to me that Harvard Business School’s emphasis on a reductionistic pragmatism, as taught by the case method, provides a particular ineffective template for public sector decision making. One need only think of George W. Bush’s failures as “decider” and Mitt Romney’s disastrous presidential campaign to recognize the shortcomings of that approach when applied to the public sector arena.

I would advise Prof. Koehn to continue studying Lincoln and mining his experience for valuable nuggets of advice for managers. But the strongest piece of advice I would give Prof. Koehn and her students is to respect both Lincoln’s genius and the uniqueness of his context and stop deluding themselves by over-reaching in their identification.

 

 

January 14th, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: An “Heroic” Narrative?

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Structurally, Zero Dark Thirty rigorously follows the heroic fable pattern. It begins by replaying, over a dark screen, voices of people trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and it ends with a real-time reenactment of the moment of vengeance, the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. But it takes a path that lacks the triumphalism of an equally recent movie about the CIA, Argo (2012), or a somewhat less recent movie, Charlie Wilson’s War (2007).

Zero Dark Thirty is ironic in the same way that “The Social Network” is ironic. The latter ends with the originator of Facebook alone, obsessing over the Facebook page of the woman who rejected him. Zero Dark Thirty departs from the archetypal heroic fable in several ways. It graphically presents the use of torture by the CIA and implies that torture contributed useful information, while also incorporating President Obama’s decision to order a cessation to torture. It is unsparing in its depiction of reversals along the way to victory, most notably a suicide bombing engineered by a false lead that wipes out a dozen key CIA agents in Pakistan. Finally, the key protagonist, a front line agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, shows, at best, relief at the outcome.

Zero Dark Thirty, in its desire to be topical, is based on what is necessarily incomplete information. It lacks historical perspective. Again, there is a contrast with both Argo (2012), which recreates the 1979-80 “Canadian Caper” and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), which, based on George Crile’s magisterial history, recreates the CIA’s initiative supporting the Mujahideen who drove the Soviets out of Aghanistan in the Eighties.

Zero Dark Thirty has been criticized by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain as well as a faction with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for implying that torture was effective in ascertaining valuable intelligence. It has also been criticized by the CIA for exaggerating the importance of the front-line agent Maya and downplaying collaborative teamwork. These are claims that cannot be evaluated until more evidence emerges. The filmmakers, as is often the case, want to have it both ways: claiming the validity of their anonymous sources while also arguing that they have created a docu-drama, rather than a history, and so should not be judged on the basis of historical accuracy.

The aspect of the movie that fascinated me most was the bureaucratic work of following sources that ultimately led to military action. Ann Hornaday, in the Washington Post, wrote “In many ways [director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are] paying tribute to the kind of career officials and government bureaucrats that are so often ridiculed and scorned outside Washington. Zero Dark Thirty celebrates process, professionalism, and continuity of government that transcends partisan bickering and policy changes.” That statement would certainly appeal to the Post’s particular readership, but begs the question of how accurate the movie is about what it celebrates.

In focusing on the agent Maya, Zero Dark Thirty has followed a particular trope, namely that of the dedicated front-line officer who strongly holds a theory and ultimately convinces her initially skeptical colleagues that the theory is correct (comparable to reporters Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men). The CIA’s tradition of giving front-line officers of the Clandestine Service wide latitude, reinforces the trope.

Having myself celebrated front-line innovators (in Innovating with Integrity: How Local Heroes are Transforming American Government), I am particularly partial to that trope, but as someone who respects accuracy, I am troubled to read reviews mentioning that Maya remains under cover and that “Maya” was actually a male or a composite or a number of people. Obviously the choice of trope and actress – the talented and attractive Jessica Chastain – heightens the appeal of the movie. When more well-researched accounts of the hunt for Bin Laden emerge, we will have a better sense of the movie’s historical accuracy. In the meantime, we can ponder the moral questions it raises about the use of torture and appreciate the narrative it constructs about the efforts of a smart, dedicated, and compelling local hero.

 

January 5th, 2013

Canada’s Government Advertising Addiction

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I’ve recently read two papers that, together, make the case that the Government of Canada has an addiction to advocacy advertising. Christopher Stoney and Tamara Krawchenko’s “Transparency and accountability in infrastructure stimulus spending: a comparison of Canadian, Australian, and US programs” is the lead article in the December 2012 issue of Canadian Public Administration (volume 55, number 4, pages 481-503). I had editorial responsibility for Murray Fulton and Michael Atkinson’s article “Understanding public sector ethics: beyond agency theory in Canada’s sponsorship scandal,” which will appear in the International Public Management Journal.

Stoney and Krawchenko’s article provides a rigorous comparison of the fiscal stimulus programs the three countries launched in response to the global financial crisis of 2008-09. They found that Canada’s “Economic Action Plan” was less transparent and accountable than its American and Australian counterparts, but displayed much more governmental advertising (see the table on p. 497). They concluded that “Canada stood out as having a concerted, centrally planned advertising campaign that, at times blurred the line between public and partisan interests.”

Fulton and Atkinson examined the sponsorship scandal from the standpoint of cognitive theory, attempting to explain the psychological processes that those in charge of the sponsorship program, particularly Chuck Guite, used to justify breeching standard procurement practices. Taken together, these articles suggest that the federal government, regardless of its political stripe, has an addiction to the use of advertising as a policy instrument, and that the line between policy advocacy and political promotion has become increasingly blurred.

A case could be made that advertising is an appropriate instrument as part of a fiscal stimulus package. Some components of the package (the Home Renovation Tax Credit) were intended to encourage spending by individuals, so it was essential that individuals were aware of those programs. The fact that one-third of Canada’s nine million owner-occupied households claimed expenditures under HRTC indicates that it was effectively publicized. Furthermore, one of the concerns during the financial crisis was the paradox of thrift: consumers, fearing the worst, would dramatically increase their savings rate, exacerbating the contraction. “Stay calm and carry on” messages about the economy would be appropriate for encouraging consumers to continue spending.

My concern now – in January 2013 – is that the rubric “Economic Action Plan” has long outlived the Global Financial Crisis. The meaning of Economic Action Plan has morphed from “emergency policies undertaken in response to the crisis” to “economic policies of the Harper Government.” And, since economic policy is the main priority of the Harper Government, Economic Action Plan has morphed further into “policies of the Harper Government.”

The Harper Government continues to spend heavily on advertising the Economic Action Plan. The Economic Action Plan incurred advertising expenditures of $54 million in 2009-10, and, given the frequency with which Canadians encounter Economic Action Plan ads, my guess is that its advertising expenditures remain at that level. The Economic Action Plan button remains visible all over the Canada website, for example at the bottom of Environment Canada’s weather information site (weatheroffice.gc.ca).

In effect, the Economic Action Plan has become a rubric for an ongoing program of advertising to promote the policies of the Harper Government and thereby promote the Harper Government.

The United States has much more stringent restrictions on advertising by the administration. There was no comparable promotion of the Recovery Act. The most I could find were infrequently watched videos posted by the White House. The Recovery Act finally became prominent as part of the 2012 election campaign because it was promoted by the Obama Campaign and attacked by the Romney Campaign.

Outside observers, particularly Canadians, criticize the American political system because of the unconstrained spending by political action committees permitted by the Supreme Court in its decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Electoral Commission. But we have our own problem of unconstrained policy advertising – with political overtones – by the federal government. Surely this is deserving of review and the creation of limits.

Scholars like Stoney and Krawchenko and Fulton and Atkinson are making important contributions to launching such a debate by pointing out the magnitude and urgency of the problem.

 

November 12th, 2012

Lincoln: A Roll-Call Vote as High Art

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In his review of “Lincoln” last weekend, New York Times critic A.O. Scott began by noting the “paradox that American movies – a great democratic art form, if ever there was one – have not done a very good job of representing American democracy … The squalor and vigor, the glory and corruption of the Republic in action have all too rarely made it onto the big screen.” Scott’s assessment is that Lincoln is an exception. (To avoid ambiguity, I will use Lincoln to refer to the movie rather than the man.)

I agree with Scott’s overall observation and his evaluation of Lincoln. I will consider, initially, the nature of Lincoln’s depiction of the political process, and, ultimately, the type of political fable it represents.

Lincoln is presented as being based in part on Doris Kearn’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Team of Rivals dwells on Abraham Lincoln’s political courage in choosing a cabinet consisting of his political rivals, and his managerial skill in inducing his cabinet to function as a team, rather than, to quote Yes Minister, as “a loose confederation of warring tribes.” But the movie Lincoln devotes much less attention to President Lincoln’s cabinet than to one critical roll-call vote in the House of Representatives.

The issue was ratification of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution, which would unambiguously abolish slavery. President Lincoln felt the amendment was necessary because the Emancipation Proclamation might be interpreted as strictly a wartime measure. By January 1865, when the amendment was being considered, the Confederacy had sent a delegation to negotiate an end to the war. Recognizing that the delegation would attempt in the negotiations to preserve slavery and that support for abolition would wane after the war ended, President Lincoln chose to ignore the southern delegation and to prolong the war and its suffering to achieve the principle for which the war had been fought.

The movie focused on the tactics used by President Lincoln, his cabinet and advisers, and the abolitionist leaders in the House of Representatives to win the necessary supermajority of two-thirds of those voting.

Some votes were won by patronage, for example promises of government positions made by President Lincoln’s advisers to lame-duck representatives. But patronage would not win all the necessary votes, and the president had to approach some representatives to argue his case on its merits.

A roll-call vote demands legislative debate, and Lincoln depicts a great deal of it. The abolitionist leaders, to win the votes of some representatives who were concerned about how the ending of slavery would transform American society, had to greatly restrict their stated vision. Thus, Rep. Thaddeus Stevens deprived the supporters of slavery of verbal ammunition by affirming that the amendment established no more than equality before the law for blacks.

The roll-call vote shows many Congressmen who had made their decisions (or their deals) in advance and calmly announce their choices. A few others were wrestling with their consciences right up to the moment of voting, and cast their votes under great duress, and are seen by their colleagues as either heroes or traitors.

Ultimately the Amendment passed, but with a minimal margin of two votes more than the required supermajority.

I can think of only one other movie that makes a legislative vote the focus of dramatic attention, namely Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Allen Drury’s novel, Advise and Consent. The issue was a critical one for the audience of the day – the stance to maintain towards the Soviets in the cold war – and the outcome was suspenseful – a deadlocked Senate, with the deciding vote cast by the Vice-President. While the cold war has rapidly receded into history, the Civil War will remain central to the American experience.

Some reviewers have question why, if the movie that focuses on the ratification vote, Director Steven Spielberg began with a gory battlefield scene (reminiscent of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan) and ended with the pathos of Lincoln’s assassination and the rhetoric of his second inaugural address (reminiscent of the final scene of Schindler’s List).

Is this another example of what Spielberg’s critics consider to be his over-the-top emotionalism? Should he have dispensed with scenes that appear to have been intended primarily to open the tear-ducts?

I believe these scenes are integral to the movie’s character as political fable. In a sacrificial fable, the protagonist suffers in order that the political order be renewed. Evoking the suffering of fallen soldiers, as was done in several places in the movie, is appropriate. The burden of responsibility markedly aged Lincoln towards the end of the war. The passions aroused by the Confederacy’s virtually unconditional surrender should have been expected to inspire assassination attempts that, without anything approaching modern security, would succeed. Depicting President Lincoln’s personal sacrifice was thus entirely appropriate.

Finally, I thought that the lead actors – Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (Secretary of State Seward), and Tommy Lee Jones (abolitionist leader Thaddeus Stevens) – were all excellent, and provided entirely credible and sympathetic portraits of historical individuals acting in situations of deep intellectual challenge and emotional conflict. Playwright Tony Kushner’s screenplay was thought-provoking in its rhetoric, and perhaps too much to be comprehended in one viewing on the screen. I look forward to reading it in the future, with the same attention I would give to Shaw’s Saint Joan or Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. And I look forward to using Lincoln in my course to illustrate the mixture of ideals, ambitions, and pressures that motivate political decisions.

 

November 5th, 2012

Argo: A Story of Heroic Public Servants

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When my twelve year old son and I entered the theater for the matinee showing of Argo last Saturday, his immediate observation was that “everyone here is probably old enough to remember the hostage crisis.” Despite his ageist attitude, he enjoyed Argo tremendously. So did I.

In its essence, Argo is a story of heroic public servants. The protagonist, CIA “exfiltration expert” Tony Mendez has the unenviable assignment of smuggling six American diplomats who are talking shelter in the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s residence out of Teheran while 52 of their compatriots are being held hostage in the American embassy.

Mendez approached his assignment with creativity: coming up with the idea that the six diplomats would assume identities of the Canadian crew of a Hollywood sci-fi movie intended to be filmed in Iran. Mendez and his CIA colleagues showed their expertise in making sure every detail was covered the story they spun and identities they created. Mendez was bold, in that, when his superiors decided to scrub the mission while he was on the scene in Teheran, he took the initiative and went ahead with it anyway. (This last aspect somewhat strains credulity, but even if exaggerated, it detracts little from Mendez’s overall heroism.)

The six diplomats were also heroic in that, despite doubts about the plan that they heatedly expressed, they flawlessly assumed their parts as Canadian film crew (Mike McEwen from Trawna, eh) and gave the correct answers –at gunpoint – to the Revolutionary Guards at Mehrabad Airport.

The plot moves along quickly, with just the right mix of humor about the fictitious sci-fi movie and tension about whether Mendez and the six diplomats can implement a bold plan in which failure would mean certain imprisonment and possible execution.

This is very much an instance of the heroic organizational fable. Mendez succeeds, and is recognized the Clandestine Service’s highest honor, given in a secret ceremony, of course. The organizational consequences are all redemptive. The six diplomats regain their freedom. Their escape was presented by President Carter as one of the rare bright moments in the Iranian hostage story. “The Canadian caper,” as it was called here, was certainly a feel-good story, but it didn’t give then Prime Minister Joe Clark enough bounce to win the 1980 election campaign.

In a classic example of “where you stand depends on where you sit” journalism, Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian broadcaster-writer of Iranian descent, criticized Argo in the Globe and Mail last Saturday for what he called “an unbalanced depiction of an entire national group” with “hordes of hysterical, screaming, untrustworthy, irrational, bearded and lethal antagonists” with “not one positive Iranian subject in the entire story.”

As has been pointed out by several who commented on his column, Gomeshi has the facts wrong. For instance, the Iranian housekeeper at the Canadian ambassador’s residence had figured out who the ambassador’s mysterious guests are, but when approached for questioning by the Revolutionary Guard, she refused to blow their cover. As a consequence, as soon as Ambassador Taylor returned to accolades in Canada, she left for Iraq as a refugee.

Ghomeshi also misses the point that the movie was portraying the Iranians as they were perceived by the CIA agent and American hostages, and they can be forgiven for seeing little nuance or ambiguity.

Comparisons with two other films come to mind. Charlie Wilson’s War also told the story of a heroic CIA agent, Gust Avrakotos, who worked with Congressman Charlie Wilson to arm the Afghan mujahideen who were fighting the Russian invasion. This story, however, ends with an ironic twist, in that the mujahideen eventually morphed in the Taliban.

The King’s Speech was another heroic tale of national revival, in which, with the assistance of his speech coach Lionel Logue, King George VI overcomes his stutter and becomes an effective spokesman for the nation during World War II. The King’s Speech was the big winner in the 2010 Academy Awards. IMDB showed that the King’s Speech received 231,000 votes, averaging 8.2 out of 10. So far, Argo has received 19,000 votes, averaging 8.4. So opinion of the film-watching public suggests that it stands a good chance of winning the award for best picture.

That, of course, depends on the competition, and it appears that a very strong competitor will be Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, to be released later this week. As an adaptation of Doris Kearn’s book Team of Rivals, I’m looking forward to a movie that portrays cabinet meetings. Shades of Yes Prime Minister? That will be the topic of my next blog post.

 

October 14th, 2012

Please don’t send me e-mail at sympatico

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I had an email address at sympatico but I have now closed the account.  Unfortunately, the email address sandford.borins@sympatico.ca still exists and still can receive email. I am not notified of any such emails nor can I access them. So please do not send me any email at that address because I cannot reply to it. Instead use borins@utsc.utoronto.ca.

Many thanks in advance.

October 9th, 2012

Arbitrage: Actually, it was Fraud

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I continue scanning the cinema for new films about private sector managers, to be analyzed in the book I’m writing or discussed in my course on narratives. There have been more than a few inspired by the economic crisis, the most compelling of which is Charles Ferguson’s 2010 documentary Inside Job. The latest to hit the screens is the drama Arbitrage, the screenplay and directorial debut of Nicholas Jarecki.

The title Arbitrage is misleading. Arbitrage involves taking advantage of price differences that exist in two or more markets to strike profitable deals. Economists generally approve of arbitrage, because arbitrageurs’ trades will eliminate those inefficient price differentials. The key character in Jarecki’s Arbitrage, hedge fund manager Robert Miller (played by Richard Gere) is however a fraudster, pure and simple. He has secretly invested $400 million of his firm’s assets in a Russian copper mining venture that he says is immensely profitable, but he cannot get any of his money out. Attempting to sell his firm, he borrows $400 million from a fellow hedgie to temporarily plug this hole in his balance sheet. He has a potential buyer, but to consummate the deal he must mislead both the buyer and the regulators. On the personal level, behind the façade of a happy marriage – his wife Ellen, is played by Susan Sarandon – he has a mistress, a young French art dealer for whom he provides an tony apartment.

The precipitating event: Miller escapes his sixtieth birthday party at home to visit his mistress and then takes her on a late-night drive. Tired from his hot sexual encounter, he rolls his Mercedes, killing her and injuring himself, visibly but not seriously. Miller embarks on an instant cover-up, calling in a favor to help him escape the accident scene and, when an NYPD detective begins an investigation, Miller denies any involvement in the accident. So Miller’s criminal fraud accompanies his commercial fraud.

Miller is yet another exemplar of the corrupt financier, a well-known character in financial fables. As played by Gere, he is handsome, charming, smooth, and determined. But he lacks the near-frenetic energy, ambition, and bombast of Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, still the paradigm of this character. Miller is attempting to liquidate his firm for a mere half-billion to have a more quiet life – a lack of ambition that pales in comparison to the grandiosity of Gekko’s greed. We can’t imagine Miller giving a “greed is good” speech, because he is a much more shadowy and private character. I don’t think Miller will resonate with audiences the way Gekko did, and the movie stands or falls on how Miller is regarded.

Miller ultimately succeeds in selling his firm to another hedgie, played by the assuredly uncharismatic if not downright unattractive Graydon Carter, definitely a face made for radio. Miller’s criminal fraud is another matter. Much of the movie deals with the investigation of the accident. Miller beats the first rap, as his clever legal counsel has the charges against the accomplice who spirited him away from the scene of the accident withdrawn. Miller faces a more serious challenge in that his wife, who is well aware of Miller’s philandering, especially on the evening in question, presents him with a one-sided separation agreement, and threatens that if he will not sign, she will go to the police to destroy his alibi.

The movie ends without showing how Miller will respond to this dilemma. In terms of the four organizational fables I often discuss in this blog, Arbitrage presents itself as an example of the ironic fable, in which the protagonist Miller enriches himself at the expense of the purchaser of his firm and indulges himself to the disgrace of his family. The movie’s ending raises the possibility of it being an instance of the retributive fable in that, if Ellen Miller stays firm in her resolve, Robert Miller will end up either in jail, or a free man, but without his millions. Either way, he will be brought to justice and the moral order restored.

My initial judgment, on first viewing Arbitrage is that I will mention it in Enterprising Fables, the book on private sector narratives, as one narrative instantiating the rogue financier genre. But it is unlikely that I would use it in class. The financial chicanery is not particularly complex or enlightening, so students learn little about the financial sector. Miller is far from the most compelling of the rogues. And too much of the story revolves around his attempt to conceal the tragic consequences of his marital infidelity.

 

September 19th, 2012

Dr. Bernard Ludwig has Passed Away

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This post is about Dr. Bernard Ludwig, my uncle (mother’s brother) who, passed away on Sunday, Sept. 16 at the age of 90. His funeral will be Wednesday, Sept. 19 1 p.m. at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel (2401 Steeles Ave West).

What is best known about him is that during his long career as an obstetrician-gynecologist, he delivered 20,000 babies – the population of a small town. He has been acclaimed for his willingness to work long hours and his devotion to his patients. This devotion found expression not just in his availability to perform deliveries, but in his willingness to listen and, if appropriate, offer advice.

On one of my visits when he was still at home, I brought my 12 year old son Alexander with me. He had a message for Alex, delivered succinctly in the words “aim high,” which he then expanded upon in terms of the importance of setting ambitious goals. He then had a personal demonstration for us. One of the reasons he was in such demand was that he was highly skilled in doing the difficult deliveries. He has large hands, and he asked both of us to hold his hands so that he could show us that they still remained – at age 90 – strong and steady.

He also has a large heart, and it was this largeness of heart that inspired his practice, and that his patients responded to. And it was this kindliness and warmth that his relatives, in particular grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and grand-nephews responded to.

I’ve often written about local heroes, people who never have 15 minutes of widespread fame, but who make a huge contribution to the community around them. Dr. Ludwig was the epitome of a local hero.

While in the hospital room as he was dying, one of his former patients who knew he was in the hospital came by to offer prayers for him. And I was there to hold his hands. It was my way of saying thank you.

 

August 29th, 2012

The Sovereigntists Meet the Bond Vigilantes

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With the prospect of a PQ Government in Quebec after next Tuesday’s election and a third referendum (a syndrome called the “neverendum”) on the horizon, I will reflect a bit on how global capital markets – the bond vigilantes – might respond.

There is some relevant historical precedent. In the run-up to the too-close-to-call 1995 referendum, international capital markets refused to buy new Canadian public sector debt. At the time, I was on the board of the Ontario Transportation Capital Corporation, then responsible for building Highway 407. We wanted to replace the provincial treasury bills that were funding the project with long term debt, and were given that alarming news by the Ontario Ministry of Finance.

Since 1995, Canada’s fiscal position has become much more secure relative to that of other countries. On the other hand, the bond vigilantes are much faster to pounce on countries whose finances are at all suspect.

Quebec’s public sector debt now stands at about 50 percent of gross provincial product. Debt service costs approximately $10 billion and consumes 11 percent of the government budget. The critical question is what will happen to the federal debt in the event Quebeckers were to vote for sovereignty in a future referendum. Sovereigntists will ignore the question or obfuscate. The federal government will argue that the debt was incurred by the entire nation, that federal assets in Quebec (the St. Lawrence Seaway, airports, federal buildings, national parks) will remain in situ and would thus become the property of a sovereign state of Quebec, and that therefore an independent Quebec must assume its fair share of the federal debt.

If we assume that a fair division of federal debt results in Quebec assuming its per capita share of the debt (24 percent, based on the 2011 Census), then an independent Quebec’s debt would increase to approximately 90 percent of gross domestic product (as shown in a recent briefing note entitled Quebec Election: Handle with Care posted on the Pimco Canada website). If we then assume that Quebec would be able to pay the same interest rate on its additional debt as on its current debt, then debt service costs would increase to close to 20 percent of the government budget.

Enter the bond vigilantes. Public debt of 90 percent of GDP is close to the situation in Greece, Italy, or Spain. If the bond vigilantes are skeptical about the long-term viability of the public finances of a sovereign Quebec, they would demand a substantially greater risk premium for debt issued by a sovereign Quebec than by the Canadian province of Quebec. The downward financial spiral faced by Greece or Italy could become a reality for Quebec. So virtually the first action of a sovereign Quebec government would be to seek a bailout.

If the sovereigntists’ Achilles heel is therefore public debt, then the federal government could exploit it. As soon as a sovereigntist government begins to prepare for a referendum, the federal government should enact a Fiscal Responsibility Act that would be parallel to the Clarity Act. (Recall that the latter requires a clear referendum question passed by a supermajority as a prerequisite for negotiating Quebec sovereignty.) The Fiscal Responsibility Act would stipulate that a sovereign Quebec would have to accept its per capita share of the federal debt. The Fiscal Responsibility Act would be intended to so substantially increase the economic cost of sovereignty for Quebeckers that it would dissuade them from voting for it in a referendum.

What I have outlined here is one of the key sticks the Harper Government could use to keep Quebec in confederation. But what carrots could it provide? It is a majority government with minimal representation from Quebec. Prime Minister Harper, to his credit, has achieved a level of fluency in French that, unfortunately, few members of his Cabinet or caucus can match. On a host of issues – for example social policy, cultural policy, and the long-gun registry – the Conservatives are completely out of step with Quebec. The Harper Government will have to do some serious thinking about how it can present a more welcoming face to Quebeckers if it is still in power during another referendum. Threatening to saddle Quebec with an unsustainable debt burden may be necessary to preserving the Canadian confederation, but it will not be sufficient.

 

August 9th, 2012

Swiss Bank Accounts or a One-Term Proposition: Attack Ads, Round Two

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After some vacation time, I’m now back to the blog. The latest round in advertising for the US presidential campaign features attack ads by the Obama campaign and by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative superpac.

The Obama campaign’s attack ad starts with Barack Obama’s affirmation – in his voice accompanied by his physical presence – that he approved the ad. With Romney’s off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful” in the background it reminds us that Romney’s firms outsourced private sector jobs to Mexico and China, and that as Governor of Massachusetts, he outsourced public sector jobs to India. It continues that Romney personally has millions in Swiss bank accounts and tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. It ends with the text message “Mitt Romney’s not the solution. He’s the problem.”

The Americans for Prosperity ad starts with a clip of Obama pledging to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term in office and then shows clips of a “national debt clock,” in which the national debt increases from $10 trillion at the start of his term of office to the current level of $15.9 trillion – the latter displayed with a cacophony of background voices talking about the debt crisis and government spending. The ad ends with another clip of Obama saying that “I will be held accountable. If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s gonna be a one term proposition.” The ad’s punch-line is the text message: “let’s make this a one-term proposition.” The ad concludes with a narrator stating that “Americans for Prosperity is responsible for the content of this advertising.”

What stories is each ad telling? Who is the narrator? Which ad is more convincing?

Obama’s voice and the accompanying clip of him in the White House at the outset proclaim his status as a metanarrator, the person with authority to set in motion the attack on Romney. The attack is waged on two levels, first public policy, namely that Romney has outsourced both private and public sector jobs in the past and can be expected to do so in the future; and second, personal probity, the implication that, through bank accounts in Switzerland, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands, Romney has been aggressively, and perhaps illegally, minimizing his tax obligations. Contrasting Romney’s public display of patriotism with his policy decisions and personal conduct as taxpayer suggests hypocrisy and an absence of integrity.

The Americans for Prosperity ad has a much less authoritative metanarrator. Who or what is Americans for Prosperity? The conflation of the deficit with the national debt is unexplained and the cacophony of voices hides a fuzziness of thinking. In the second clip of Obama, in which he says “if I don’t have this done in three years,” it isn’t even clear that the “this” he refers to is the same “this” (cutting the deficit in half by the end of his first term) he was referring to in the first clip. The ad’s implicit message is that Obama is a promise-breaker. But is breaking a promise a sufficient reason to throw an incumbent out of office? There are plenty of instances of incumbents being reelected even if they broke their promises. What incumbents must argue is that they made a sincere attempt to keep their promises, but circumstances changed, and changing circumstances required a changed response. Obama hasn’t yet made that argument, but he could, and he could certainly blame the Congressional Republicans for their role in the US Government’s inability to halve the deficit.

To summarize: the Obama campaign’s attack ad tells a more coherent and convincing story than does the Americans for Prosperity ad, it hits at more serious personal failings on Romney’s part, and it uses a more authoritative metanarrator. Advantage in round two to the Obama campaign.

 

July 2nd, 2012

Peter Aucoin’s Yahrtzeit

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Our colleague Peter Aucoin passed away on July 7, 2011, almost a year ago. Yahrtzeit is a Yiddish word meaning anniversary (literally, time of year), and Jews are obligated to observe the Yahrtzeit of the deaths of members of their immediate family (parents, siblings, children). Within Judaism, it is a way of ensuring that everyone will be remembered for several years, hopefully a generation, after passing away.

Another way that people are remembered after their passing is through their professional achievements. This certainly appears to be the case for Peter Aucoin, whose accomplishments, at the end of a long and productive career include the Donner Prize-winning book Democratizing the Constitution and the April 2012 article in Governance about the New Public Governance in Westminster Systems.

Aucoin’s article about the New Public Governance (NPG) raised the spectre of politicization of the bureaucracy by first ministers intent on centralizing power in response to 24/7 media, 24/7 political competition, and 24/7 pressure for transparency and accountability. Aucoin made it clear that he regarded NPG as an ideal type present in varying degrees in the four different jurisdictions he discussed (Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand).

The article has the look and feel of being written when the author’s time is running short. Aucoin’s writing was very simple and direct. At the end of his life, he wanted to communicate his message with the utmost clarity and forcefulness. Aucoin also qualified his views much less than is typical of most academic writing. Thus he wrote, “NPG constitutes a corrupt form of politicization to the extent that governments seek to use and misuse, even abuse, the public service in the administration of public resources and the conduct of public business to better secure their partisan advantages over their competitors. At best, this politicization constitutes sleazy governance; at worst, it is a form of political corruption that cannot but undermine impartiality…” (p. 178). Aucoin provided some examples, but his intent was less to provide exhaustive evidence than to develop a conceptual framework that can be tested empirically by other scholars. A clear measure of the fruitfulness and impact of Aucoin’s work would be if his ideal type of NPG stimulates ongoing scholarship.

For example, Aucoin remarked, without elaboration, that “the communication function of government has become the black hole of public service impartiality” (p. 183). There is certainly fertile ground for research on the politicization of the communication function of government. My ongoing research about the use of narrative by politicians, while starting from a very different set of premises than Aucoin’s, is leading me to conclusions similar to his, at least with respect to the Government of Canada.

Let me conclude with a personal note. Peter Aucoin was very explicit with colleagues in the last years of his life that he was fighting cancer. A very important prayer in Judaism is the mishebeirach, a prayer for healing, said in the middle of the Torah service. The rabbi, or leader of the service, asks members of the congregation to name aloud family or friends who are ill, and the congregation prays for their health. (“The One will send him/her, speedily, a complete healing – healing of the soul and healing of all the body – along with all the ill, among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay, and let us say: Amen.”) Readers who are interested may Google mishebeirach, and there is a particular moving choral setting by the late Debbie Friedman on YouTube.

We academics are generally secular in our outlook and dealings with one another, yet naming Peter in this prayer seemed to me to be the right thing to do. I emailed Peter and he responded that “it is greatly appreciated from one for whom prayer is central to life.” The last email I received from Peter, three months before he passed away, reported that he was in good spirits, even after seven weeks of chemotherapy and radiation and the exhaustion of treatment options. He again asked for prayer on his behalf, and concluded looking forward to the completion of Democratizing the Constitution.

As we approach Peter’s Yahrtzeit, I think it is important to remember some of the values he embodied towards the end of his life: optimism, prayer, and working as long as he could to communicate his message.

 

June 15th, 2012

Changing the Story: Citigroup’s Upbeat Innovation Narrative

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While travelling in Australia, I repeatedly saw Citigroup’s latest advertising campaign, which readers can access on Citi’s website (citigroup.com) or its YouTube channel. The ad is intended to “change the story” – a term used cynically in the movie Wag the Dog – from Citi’s current perilous state to its glorious history.

Citigroup’s precursor, the First National City Bank of New York, is now 200 years old. The one-minute ad reminds us of its history of “supporting people, ideas, and innovations that make things better.” Specifically, the ad mentions the first transatlantic cable (1866), the Panama Canal (1904), the Marshall Plan (1948), the ATM (1978), and the Space Shuttle (1995). The ad attempts to reframe the banking business from merely lending money to actively supporting ideas. And many of the ideas that Citibank was supporting had their origins in the public sector.

The ad’s writers are too clever to leave the story floating in the domain of big ideas and big innovations. They begin with the question of why should Citi’s anniversary be of interest to you, the audience. The penultimate image in the ad shows a young woman opening a Chinese bakery, hardly a big idea. But the intent is to create identification between the big ideas Citi is proud to have supported during its history and everyday small business lending. The ad concludes with the message that “the next great idea could be yours.” This desire for widespread identification is likely the reason that the ad didn’t show more avant-garde ideas, such as web or biotech start-ups.

The ad drives its story with two recurring motifs. It uses a catchy upbeat eight-note theme from beginning to end, introduced on keyboard and repeated in the strings. It uses an image of a young woman riding a bicycle three times: first a bicycle courier, second a young woman bicycling through the ruins of post-war Europe to illustrate the Marshall plan (an iconic image I’ve seen before), and finally the young woman rides up to her bakery on a scooter. The musical theme and the visual image together create a sense of forward motion and dynamism. That the bicycle rider was female, combined with the person using the ATM being black, was intended to communicate a message that the contemporary Citigroup is a more diverse institution than its precursor First National City Bank of New York.

The YouTube channel tells us that this video has been watched over one million times. It has gone viral because it is pleasing, optimistic, even inspirational. It is yet another illustration of the heroic fable, but in this case there are three heroes: the bank, the innovators of the past who succeeded in part because the bank supported their ideas, and finally the innovators of the future, no matter how small their innovations might be.

While watching the ad, you can forget about Citibank’s problems as a bank that has been deemed too big to be allowed to fail, but that is too over-extended to be able to succeed. A powerful narrative has the ability to “change the story,” and Citigroup’s story-tellers have done just that – at least temporarily.