Contented Norway, Stressed-Out America: A tale of two countries, and what their governments spend the people’s money on

Nearly five years ago, The Economist published a front cover featuring a scruffy-looking Viking, accompanied by the words: “The Next Supermodel: Why the world should look at the Nordic countries.” While the world’s bigger countries and current and former superpowers struggled with their problems, the Nordic countries — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland — seemed to have their act together, winning praise over and over again for their healthy economies, relatively low crime rates and high standards of living.

Over the intervening five years, not much has changed. The Nordics continue to be strong performers in all the areas that matter. When this blog looked at countries’ performance across four indices last May — the Human Development Index, the Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard and the Global Peace Index — the Nordics constituted at least four of the world’s 10 best countries, with Denmark taking the number-one spot. (Canada ranked either fourth or sixth, depending on whether you ranked each country by its “weakest link” or by its average score.)

Now there’s more good news for the Nordics. John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs of the New York-based Sustainable Development Solutions Network have released their 2017 World Happiness Report, and concluded that Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland were the world’s happiest societies in the 2014-16 period.* They credit Norway’s high ranking on “mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance”, as well as good management of its oil reserves, and using the proceeds from it to prepare for a better future instead of spending it all as it comes in.

“Mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance” are not words, however, that would describe 2017 in our neighbour to the south. The United States has had a memorable 2017 for all the wrong reasons — and it showed in its rank. As noted:

The USA is a story of reduced happiness. In 2007 the USA ranked 3rd among the OECD countries; in 2016 it came 19th [Note: this might be a typo — the report’s data tables show the U.S. in 14th place; it was the U.K. that was in 19th place]. The reasons are declining social support and increased corruption . . . and it is these same factors that explain why the Nordic countries do so much better.

The authors particularly singled out the U.S. government’s priorities for criticism. As they bluntly note on page 180:

America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis . . . This American social crisis is widely noted, but it has not translated into public policy. Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington DC centers on naïve attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. This kind of growth-only agenda is doubly wrong-headed. First, most of the pseudo-elixirs for growth — especially the Republican Party’s beloved nostrum of endless tax cuts and voodoo economics — will only exacerbate America’s social inequalities and feed the distrust that is already tearing society apart. Second, a forthright attack on the real sources of social crisis would have a much larger and more rapid beneficial effect on U.S. happiness.

One could only imagine the authors’ alarm that, having just passed controversial tax reform legislation, there is now talk of targeting America’s already modest social safety net for deep cuts. As the New York Times reported on Dec. 2:

As the tax cut legislation passed by the Senate early Saturday hurtles toward final approval, Republicans are preparing to use the swelling deficits made worse by the package as a rationale to pursue their long-held vision: undoing the entitlements of the New Deal and Great Society, leaving government leaner and the safety net skimpier for millions of Americans.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republicans are beginning to express their big dreams publicly, vowing that next year they will move on to changes in Medicare and Social Security. President Trump told a Missouri rally last week, “We’re going to go into welfare reform.”

In fact, the core items of the social safety net already constitute a relatively small share of total U.S. local, state and federal government spending. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data show that, in 2015, only 21 percent of total government spending was dedicated to what the OECD classifies as “social protection”; that is, sickness, disability, old age, housing and unemployment support.

This already puts the U.S. toward the bottom of OECD nations in terms of the percentage of local, regional and national government spending on social protection. Indeed, given the low priority their own governments give to their well-being, not to mention other abuses like drawing local electoral boundaries to guarantee one-party rule, why shouldn’t Americans feel bitterly resentful toward their governments?

In Norway, social protection was a significant 40 percent of all government spending in 2015 despite an unemployment rate of just four percent that year and 75 percent of all Norwegians aged 15-64 having a job — one of the highest rates in the world.

That spending paid off, according to a 2017 OECD report on Norway. Not only has it helped provide the sense of well-being that the lack of prompted many Americans to vote for Donald Trump in 2016, but it is something the OECD recommended that Norway leave intact (emphasis mine):

Fiscal reform should not aim to significantly reduce the scope of Norway’s comprehensive welfare programmes and public services. These are integral to its socio-economic model, playing a key role in making economic growth inclusive and keeping well-being high. Given the fiscal rule, this means that taxation will remain high compared with many countries. Consequently, a pro-growth tax mix, strong labour skills and easier regulations for doing business are needed for the business sector to thrive in global markets.

As we end 2017, revolution is in the air as like no other time in the past 50 years, if not the past 100 years. Some look to the hard-left for solutions to the high level of anxiety, some to the hard-right. What the world could really use, though, is a bit of Nordic sense by protecting not jobs, not industries, but people.


* – Canada ranked seventh in the World Happiness Report, just behind Finland and the Netherlands. New Zealand, Australia and Sweden rounded out the top 10.


Electoral cheating means America’s political dysfunction is likely permanent

There were three dreams I had growing up in Elmwood, a gritty working-class neighbourhood northeast of downtown Winnipeg. One, thanks to parents who had lived in Europe before I was born, and to too many late Saturday nights spent watching James Bond movies, was to someday stand in the shadow of the British Parliament, stand atop the Eiffel Tower, and to touch the Berlin Wall with my own hands.

The second was to own my own television station, which would naturally have been programmed as I saw fit. (And, in hindsight, have been an almost certain ratings disaster.)

The third was to trade in life in the boring old Canada never deemed sexy enough for Agent 007 to set foot into, for life in President Reagan’s sexy, glamourous America.

The first dream, I have happily achieved.

The second dream was never all that realistic, and that’s probably just as well. Television stations were essentially regulated utilities at that time, their healthy profit margins protected by government policy. Now they struggle just to break even,  and the industry’s woes have even forced some smaller stations to shut down entirely.

The third dream… well, what can I say about the third dream? The sexy America of my youth has gone to a dark place, far, far away, replaced with a modern America that’s hard to figure out, leaving me relieved that I stayed in a Canada whose relatively pleasant way of life I’ve come to appreciate.

And leaving me to wonder whatever happened to that once magical country whose border is a mere 95 kilometres (59 miles) south of where I sit writing this post.

Part of the decline of American glamour can certainly be attributed to its political system. For most of its history, the American political system worked reasonably well. There were occasions when tensions built up between a Republican president and a Democratic congress, or vice versa, but these would eventually be resolved by negotiation.

Yet the U.S. political system had its underlying hazards. One fault, increasingly apparent from the late ’70s onward, was the realignment of party identities — Republican for Christian church-going America, Democrat for those Americans who belonged to non-Christian faiths or to none at all, or who slept in on Sunday morning — a dangerous development in a country that had long been home to partisan and religious identities of a strength unknown in most of the rest of the affluent world.

The other lingering fault was the way in which the United States set its congressional electoral boundaries. In many affluent countries, these boundaries are set by autonomous electoral boundary commissions which are required to draw these boundaries in a reasonably impartial manner.

In the United States, these boundaries are often drawn by state legislators who obviously have an interest in seeing their party do better than the other party in an election, and hence tend to draw boundaries in such a way as to ensure de facto Republican and Democratic monopolies — just as long as the majority party can be assured of a majority of seats.

Prof. Justin Levitt of Loyola University has put together a detailed web site dedicated to explaining how the process of drawing congressional electoral boundaries — known as redistricting — works in each U.S. state. Only four states — Washington, Idaho, California and Arizona — have independent electoral commissions to draw congressional boundaries. The rest of the states have either political appointees draw these boundaries, or leave this job to state legislators who might harbour ambitions of securing these seats for themselves eventually.

How biased are the outcomes in favour of the dominant party? Prof. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium discussed a test that could be used to objectively determine whether or not a state’s congressional electoral boundaries have been rigged to ensure one-party dominance in a New York Times op-ed in Feb. 2013:

I have developed approaches to detect such shenanigans by looking only at election returns. To see how the sleuthing works, start with the naïve standard that the party that wins more than half the votes should get at least half the seats. In November, five states failed to clear even this low bar: Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Now let’s do something more subtle. We can calculate each state’s appropriate seat breakdown — in other words, how a Congressional delegation would be constituted if its districts were not contorted to protect a political party or an incumbent. We do this by randomly picking combinations of districts from around the United States that add up to the same statewide vote total. Like a fantasy baseball team, a delegation put together this way is not constrained by the limits of geography. On a computer, it is possible to create millions of such unbiased delegations in short order. In this way, we can ask what would happen if a state had districts that were typical of the rest of the nation.

In North Carolina, where the two-party House vote was 51 percent Democratic, 49 percent Republican, the average simulated delegation was seven Democrats and six Republicans. The actual outcome? Four Democrats, nine Republicans — a split that occurred in less than 1 percent of simulations. If districts were drawn fairly, this lopsided discrepancy would hardly ever occur.

But you don’t have to take his word for it, or mine. In a dispute with the U.S. Justice Department this past summer, in which federal officials accused Texas of redrawing its electoral boundaries to disadvantage ethnic minorities, the state’s Attorney-General, Greg Abbott, gave the following breathtakingly brazen response:

DOJ’s accusations of racial discrimination are baseless. In 2011, both houses of the Texas Legislature were controlled by large Republican majorities, and their redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats. It is perfectly constitutional for a Republican-controlled legislature to make partisan districting decisions, even if there are incidental effects on minority voters who support Democratic candidates. See Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 551 (1999) (“[A] jurisdiction may engage in constitutional political gerrymandering, even if it so happens that the most loyal Democrats happen to be black Democrats and even if the State were conscious of that fact.”) . . . The redistricting decisions of which DOJ complains were motivated by partisan rather than racial considerations, and the plaintiffs and DOJ have zero evidence to prove the contrary. (pp. 19-20)

In the old days before bipartisanship became a dirty word in the ’90s, and before the traumas of 9/11, the Iraq War and the 2008 financial meltdown radicalized U.S. politics, Texas’s practices would have been obnoxious and distasteful, but not necessarily a threat to governability.

Now, with the U.S. government effectively shut down — and threatening to default on its debts within the month if a deal isn’t reached, which could set the U.S. up for a fourth trauma in the space of just over 12 years — the situation is looking more serious.

Yet, what motivation does the U.S. Congress have to compromise? Many of its members represent districts that are effectively one-party monopolies. Thus even if the U.S. government begins defaulting on its debt, undermining the economic recovery and global confidence in the U.S. as a low-risk place to do business, many will only face token opposition from the other party at the next election. Many members of congress are more fearful that accepting a compromise might alienate party activists, causing a challenger to run against them for the party’s nomination in 2014.

Because the process of drawing congressional boundaries is so decentralized, passing a federal law won’t nearly be enough: the battle to dismantle the Democratic and Republican quasi-monopolies will need to be won one state at a time over many years.

Until then, it’s a fairly safe bet that federal politics in the United States will be marked by bitterness and an inability to make meaningful progress on important projects — such as restoring the country’s finances to health, upgrading its aging infrastructure or improving the quality of its labour force. All projects that could help make America the sexy, glamourous place one Elmwood kid once thought it was.

The rather suspicious boundaries given to Illinois's 4th congressional district, represented by Democrat Luis Gutiérrez (Click to enlarge)

The rather suspicious boundaries given to Illinois’s 4th congressional district, represented by Democrat Luis Gutiérrez (Click to enlarge)

Anglosphere’s conservatives march on without the GOP

A mock-up of an "Anglosphere" flag, still in need of a more modern Irish reference. (Click for source.)

A mock-up of an “Anglosphere” flag, still in need of a more modern Irish reference. (Click for source.)

It is perhaps apt that Wikipedia’s map of the Anglosphere makes generous use of the colour blue. Of its six core members, five are or imminently will be governed by right-of-centre administrations: Canada and Britain under their respective Conservative Parties, New Zealand under the National Party, Australia under its incoming (and curiously named) Liberal-National Coalition government, and Ireland under the Fine Gael (“Tribe of the Irish”) party.

The sixth country, the United States, is partially governed by the Democrats who dominate the White House and Senate, and the Republicans who dominate the House of Representatives.

The election of the newest of these governments, Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition in Australia this past Saturday, was observed with keen interest in Canada, despite the precisely 10,008 miles (16,107 kilometres) that separate Ottawa and Canberra, the two countries’ capitals.

During their long spell in opposition from 1993 to 2006, Canadian conservatives turned to their more successful Australian and New Zealander counterparts for advice, especially as the Internet and the falling cost of long-haul travel eliminated the tyranny of distance. The relationship has remained fairly close, as Simon Kent noted today in a Sun Media op-ed:

Abbott and Harper can both claim former Australian Prime Minister John Howard as a mentor, friend and political guide. They are both published authors, with Abbott’s works set on political philosophy whereas Harper’s book on the early history of hockey is set to hit store shelves Nov. 5.

[ . . . ]

With Tony Abbott’s ascent to power there is now a quartet of socially and politically conservative leaders in four of the major English-speaking members of the Commonwealth. Abbott joins U.K. premier David Cameron, Canada’s Stephen Harper and New Zealand’s John Key at the helm of their respective countries at a time when conservative politics seems to be on the rise.

It is a bit of a stretch, however, to describe the four as being of like mind. Kent correctly notes that Abbott, who once trained to become a Catholic priest, is socially conservative, at least at a personal level. Abbott, however, is akin to Harper in his tendency (so far) to focus on economics and to throw his fellow social conservatives no more red meat than absolutely necessary.

Perhaps taking advice from former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, who once attributed his popularity to the fact that “I don’t exude morality”, Abbott’s party painstakingly avoided topics other than the economy, education, health care, infrastructure and security in its 2013 election platform.

The U.K.’s David Cameron and New Zealand’s John Key, meanwhile, might be typically conservative on economic and security issues, but are less so on social issues. Both of their governments legalized same-sex marriage this year — Britain in July, New Zealand in August — and Key’s government in New Zealand recently passed legislation aiming to regulate rather than prohibit certain drugs.

The policies of “the quartet”, as Kent calls them, stand in sharp contrast to those of the Republican Party in the United States, illustrating a growing separation of mind between American conservatives and their erstwhile Anglosphere allies.

Normally, one would expect the Americans to play a leading role in generating and exporting ideas, given that the Republican Party is by far the Anglosphere’s largest conservative party.

Instead, the Republican Party — long called the Grand Old Party, or GOP for short — has become an absurdly insular and provincial party, almost completely disengaged from the outside world of conservative politics.

Can anyone seriously imagine Stephen Harper, who has a Master’s degree in Economics, suggesting, as one Oklahoma congressman did, that a $9 minimum wage would cause the price of a hamburger to rise to $20?

Or David Cameron calling for a law that would make oral sex illegal, as a Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia has done?

Or John Key, a former U.S.- and Singapore-based Merrill Lynch executive, mulling the idea of putting the New Zealand dollar on the Gold Standard, as the 2012 Republican Party presidential platform suggested for the U.S. dollar — an idea that a writer for The Economist described as “ridiculous, antediluvian, superstitious nonsense“.

In all three cases, such moves would be unthinkable, as their respective parties, whatever their shortcomings, are cognizant like all other parties of the importance of keeping the proponents of flakier ideas, such as those that have emanated from the less-disciplined GOP, in a state of containment.

Thus the small-c conservative parties of the Anglosphere are divided between five smaller ones that periodically play to their base, as all parties do, but are still largely pragmatic in practice, and one big one that seems to eschew reality, risking the future of a country whose successes and failures have impacts that can be felt far beyond its borders.

A global learning tour for U.S. Republican leaders, with stops in Dublin, London, Canberra, Wellington and Ottawa, might well be in order given the success of the smaller parties. But don’t count on it happening soon.

Lost in transit

Even U.S. pre-clearance at Toronto is feeling the pain.

Even U.S. pre-clearance at Toronto is feeling the pain. (Source: CBC)

Planning a trip abroad this summer, or expecting friends or relatives to come visit? Either way, it might be best for would-be travelers to avoid transiting through the United States until the U.S. government’s financial situation improves.

There was once a time when passing through the United States en route between Canada and a third country was a good deal for money. Sure, you had the hassle of an extra trip through Customs and Immigration checks in both directions, but that wasn’t so bad if the price was right.

In fact, the price often was right: Delta’s and United’s fares are often noticeably lower than Air Canada’s on flights between Winnipeg and many popular non-U.S. foreign destinations, and their respective Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago hubs are essentially no further out of the way than Air Canada’s Toronto hub is.

The U.S. budget crisis, however, has added a wrinkle to travelers’ plans. Staff shortages have slowed down U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing times at major hub airports routinely used by Canadians. Average processing time at Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 5 during the busy 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. hour rose from 16 minutes in April 2009 to 49 minutes in April 2013. At Minneapolis/St. Paul’s main terminal building, average processing times during the 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. rush doubled from 12 minutes in April 2009 to 25 minutes in April 2013.

Some have reported even longer waits, as these comments posted about Chicago O’Hare on the Skytrax airport/airline review web site indicate:

  • “After waiting for 45 minutes in the incredible line up which appeared to consist of a thousand people I pleaded with the girl directing US residents and she let me into this line.”
  • “It took 2 hours to get through the queue plus the 45 minutes in the corridor. Many people were missing connecting flights.”
  • “Arrived at O’Hare from London yesterday to face longest immigration line that I’ve ever seen in many years of travelling worldwide. In essence, it took me 3 hours of waiting to be processed! Yes, I repeat 3 hours!”

Some of the most scathing remarks, however, came from Lufthansa chairman Jurgen Weber this past March, after his wife suggested they avoid traveling through the U.S. in the future due to long line-ups at both Customs and Immigration and at airport security:

Jurgen Weber, chairman of Lufthansa’s supervisory board, told reporters Tuesday that a Transportation Security Administration line that morning for a flight to Washington from New York’s LaGuardia airport was hundreds of yards long.

And Weber said Customs and Border Protection lines coming into the U.S. also are long for foreign travelers.

Weber belongs to Global Entry, a U.S. background-check program to speed up Customs and Border Protection processing from overseas. But Lufthansa finds Customs waits at New York’s JFK airport are more than two hours for its passengers, he said.

“Huge concerns,” Weber said. “It’s unbelievable that this nation at the helm of technology thinks about reducing the number of air-traffic controllers, the number of security people at the airport.”

Longer lines stem from $85 billion in federal spending cuts that run from March 1 through Sept. 30.

For its share, the Department of Homeland Security cut overtime for Customs and TSA, which already lengthened lines at busy times of day.

[ . . . ]

“Everybody is working hard to give the passenger a superior experience and at the point of arrival, after a wonderful flight, you are stuck for three or four hours,” said Nils Haupt, a Lufthansa spokesman. “This is really unacceptable.”

[ . . . ]

Weber said his wife suggested Tuesday that they avoid U.S. travel in the future.

“They cannot understand it,” Weber said of passengers facing the waits. “I hope many people fly to the United States as customers of Lufthansa, but we also have to protect our customers.” 

Germany’s Lufthansa, the largest European member of the Star Alliance, offers single-ticket bookings between Winnipeg and many European and other foreign destinations through passenger-sharing agreements with Air Canada and United Airlines.

A two-hour wait to get through U.S. border controls on the return trip, though, would likely cause a missed connection. Frankfurt to Winnipeg flights  via Chicago listed on Lufthansa’s web site for July 10, for example, offer connection times of 2h05m, 2h32m and 2h55m respectively.

Lufthansa’s U.S. partner United, on the other hand, remains wildly delusional about connection times. One ridiculous example offered for sale on United’s web site as part of a London-to-Winnipeg itinerary has the trans-Atlantic flight arriving at New York’s Newark airport at 11:45 a.m., and presumes that the passenger will be able to disembark, clear border formalities, re-check his/her luggage, pass through security and then find and get to the gate at least 20 minutes before departure to catch the 1 p.m. onward flight to Chicago — a mere 75 minutes to make an international-to-domestic connection at one of North America’s most notoriously congested airports! 

Who cares about realistic scheduling when you’ve already got the passenger’s money in your pocket?

Canadian airlines and airports have begun to benefit from what ails the major U.S. hub airports, not only by retaining more Canadian passengers, but by offering slightly better processing for U.S. passengers transiting through Canada.

Toronto’s Terminal 1, with Air Canada as its anchor tenant, has begun allowing passengers coming off of international flights to connect to U.S.-bound flights without having to go through full Canadian border formalities, as long as they can do so without officially entering Canada.

As these passengers are then processed through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection office at Toronto airport before entering a specially reserve block of gates, they can then disembark at a domestic gate on arrival in the U.S., bypassing the long lines at Chicago O’Hare and other global gateway airports.

Non-Canadians and non-Americans should, nevertheless, check Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s web site before booking any connections through Canada to ensure that they obtain any transit visas that still might be required. There have been reports of transit passengers missing their connections in Canada due to unobtained visas. Unlike many popular global hub airports, such as Amsterdam, Dubai and Singapore, neither Canadian nor U.S. airports allow passengers to make international-to-international connections without clearing any border formalities.

Any improvement to making international connections through either Canada or the U.S. would be beneficial to consumers by encouraging competition. It would also allow airlines to take full advantage of the ongoing boom in international travel, which is growing by leaps and bounds while domestic travel demand does hardly much better than GIC rates.

Canada is moving in the right direction by easing the process for passengers making International-to-U.S. connections through the bypass system set up in Toronto, and through the Travel Without Visa program established for U.S.-bound travelers at selected Canadian airports.

Traveling to (or back to) Canada via the U.S. will always remain slightly more complicated by the fact that U.S. airports generally do not have segregated departure gates to keep international and domestic passengers separate, meaning that transit passengers must complete all U.S. border formalities before catching their onward flights.

An express lane for passengers who have boarding passes for their connecting flights might help, though. But most helpful of all would be a resolution of America’s budgetary politics woes and an easing on the hardship it has imposed on that country’s airports — and visitors.

If you’re traveling back to Canada from a third country via the U.S. this summer, or know of someone planning on traveling such a route, leave 3 hours or more between an international arrival at the U.S. airport and the departure for the onward domestic or Canada-bound flight.

Republicans struggle to find allies, even among Thatcher’s political heirs

That was then…

“She gladly claims that no one admires Ronald Reagan more than she does. ‘I’m his greatest fan,’ Margaret Thatcher has said. For his part, Reagan has never hidden his glowing respect for the Conservative British leader,” Time Magazine reported in its Mar. 4, 1985 issue.

“So it came as no surprise that Thatcher and Reagan behaved like a two-person mutual admiration society during the Prime Minister’s two-day visit to Washington last week.”

Twenty-seven years ago, the relationship between British Conservatives and U.S. Republicans was indeed quite strong, the two parties finding a natural affinity in their pro-free-market brand of conservatism, and with their leaders getting on famously well.

The world has changed, however, over the intervening years. Reagan died in 2004 at age 93. Thatcher, who will turn 87 in October, lives on, but suffers from dementia and is rarely seen in public aside from a few photographs captured this year during an outing to a London park with her caregivers.

Over those years, their respective parties have grown further apart.

In June 2011, it was reported that former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin wanted to drop in to meet Margaret Thatcher at her London home. That idea was quickly quashed.

“Lady Thatcher will not be seeing Sarah Palin,” an unnamed insider told the British press. “That would be belittling for Margaret. Sarah Palin is nuts.”

Three months later, it was presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann’s turn to be taken to task by a British Conservative, who this time was more than happy to be identified.

“I know Margaret Thatcher, and congresswoman, you’re no Margaret Thatcher,” Andrew Roberts of the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust wrote after Bachmann compared herself to the former British prime minister.

“It is simply impossible to imagine Lady Thatcher suggesting that it would be better for her country’s economy to be allowed to default on its international financial obligations sooner than to raise its debt ceiling,” he wrote in a scathing critique of Bachmann’s economic views.

Nor did Roberts think that Thatcher would approve of Bachmann’s ideas on social or environmental policy, which enjoy a receptive audience in the Republican Party.

“Thatcher would have seen through Bachmann’s ideologically driven scientific ignorance and absurd social bigotry in a matter of moments,” he thundered.

British Conservatives showed little sign of being any more sympathetic to or even able to comprehend their former American allies’ veer to the right during the Tampa convention that formally nominated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the Republican presidential candidate.

“I’m not as nervous of a Romney-Ryan team in the White House as a lot of people are across all [British political] parties,” U.S.-born British Conservative MP Brooks Newmark told the Daily Telegraph around the time of the convention.

“[But] I think you will find still, in our party today, more people still supporting Obama.”

“[T]he whole Tea Party movement doesn’t sit comfortably with most conservatives in the UK. And the whole Bible-Belt thing; looking to God the whole time; the extreme anti-abortion approach; it just doesn’t sit well with the Conservative Party at all,” Newmark said of the growing trans-Atlantic rift.

The rift has only been widened, as the article notes, by the perception among Republicans that David Cameron, the U.K.’s Conservative prime minister, has been too friendly with U.S. president Barack Obama.

Other British Conservatives say that reports of bad blood between the two parties are exaggerated.

Yet a lack of affinity for the Republican Party among British voters of all ideological stripes is the logical conclusion of a poll conducted in June, but only released this week, for the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

If given a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the “approximately 1,000” British adults  surveyed would have handed Obama a runaway 8-to-1 victory — 75% Obama, 9% Romney. (See p. 29).

When the same question was asked in continental Europe, the results were often even more lopsided.

(A similar result would materialize in Canada, where pre-U.S. election polls dating back to at least 1992 have consistently shown that most Canadians, if we had a vote, would vote Democratic. This Democratic lead has been strong even in times when the Conservatives have been leading in Canadian polls. In 2008, the “decided vote” in Canada favoured Obama over McCain by more than two-to-one.)

Recent U.K. polling has given the Conservatives about one-third of the vote, the gap between that and the extremely low Republican support suggesting even British Conservatives feel they have little in common with the Republicans.

British voters, of course, have no say in who the United States elects as its president in November. Nor do Canadians, Swedes, Turks or New Zealanders. It is a choice that only Americans can make.

But should he become president in January 2013, Mitt Romney might find himself having to walk a tightrope.

Be too moderate, and he could find himself fighting off a re-nomination challenge from his party’s right wing in 2016. Similar challenges to other incumbent presidents, such as to Gerald Ford in 1976 (from Reagan), Jimmy Carter in 1980 (from Ted Kennedy) and George H. W. Bush in 1992 (from Pat Buchanan), were precursors to defeat.

Be not moderate enough, and he could find himself with little political capital on the world stage, with international leaders fearing that being seen to be too cooperative with the U.S. president could risk their own political careers.

A tough spot to be in indeed.

Focus on size of U.S. government misses real threat to America’s future

One of the things I find most confounding about the United States is how it is that such nice people ended up with such strange politics.

Politics is a dysfunctional profession in most of the world, but things have become exceptionally strange in the United States, where a curious brand of Republican Party conservatism, led by a mercurial former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate and a Delaware senate candidate who once expressed her opposition to masturbation (!), looks likely to sweep the country in tomorrow’s midterm elections.

Thirty years ago, the stereotypical Republican was something akin to the socially ambitious Nancy Reagan, or to the snobbish members of the fictitious Bushwood Country Club in the 1980 hit movie Caddyshack.

Since then, the Republican Party has changed dramatically. Ronald Reagan, the affable two-term California governor who went on to win two presidential elections by a landslide, has been replaced as the party’s standard-bearer by Sarah Palin, a snarky less-than-one-term former Alaska governor and gaffe-prone former vice-presidential candidate.

The old-style Republican, if the stereotype is to be believed, shopped at Bloomingdale’s, enjoyed weekends on the golf course and the occasional glass of fine French wine, and religiously watched Nightly Business Report — even if it was on PBS.

The new-style Republican, again if the stereotype is to be believed, shops at Wal-Mart, loves his guns, prefers beer but is okay with wine as long as it’s not from France, and religiously watches The O’Reilly Factor.

What hasn’t changed over the years is the distate for Big Government.

But is it Big Government that is the problem, or just misgovernment?

Last week, Transparency International released its latest Corruption Perceptions Report. The global corruption watchdog assessed the United States’ ability to control corruption at 7.1 out of 10.

A score of 7.1 is hardly the worst thing in the world, but it’s still merely at the higher end of ‘mediocre’ nevertheless. While it’s far below the gold-star assessments given of Denmark, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland and Sweden — which all got scores of 9 out of 10 or higher — it still leaves the U.S. ranked 22nd overall for honest and transparent government, putting it in the same league as Belgium and France.

Which might be reassuring if it weren’t for the fact that Belgium is in such a mess that a government still hasn’t yet taken shape nearly five months after the June 13th election, while France’s government lurches from crisis to crisis and is difficult to take seriously.

If that didn’t serve as a wake-up call, this might: Chile of all places (7.2 out of 10) has been more or less tied with the United States in terms of the perceived honesty and openness of its government over the past five years, and ambitious Uruguay (6.9 out of 10, up from 5.9 in 2005) might be about to overtake the U.S.

Ditch your preconceptions about generals and banana republics. Chile has well and truly buried Augusto Pinochet, who died in 2006 appropriately enough under the rule of Michele Bachelet, one of his regime’s many torture victims. That Chile would elect Bachelet — a socially liberal agnostic elected to lead a traditionally religious, socially conservative country — showed how much the country wanted to exorcise the memory of the old man at the end of his life.

Uruguay, once called the Switzerland of South America for its relative peace and prosperity before drinking from the poisoned chalice of populism and then military rule, is once again a model to its neighbours as it moves up in the world.

While Uruguay moved up a full point in Transparency International’s 10-point scale between 2005 and 2010, the U.S. slipped backwards, dropping from 7.6 out of 10 in 2005 to 7.1 this year.

The war against corruption and for openness and ethics in public administration is a key part of the battle for a better life. Countries that do more in this regard tend to end up wealthier, to have governments that are in better financial shape (as this blog pointed out last week) and to have a larger percentage of the population reporting high levels of satisfaction with their lives.

Just as people tend to behave differently when they’re being watched — such as not belching at a Canadian Club luncheon, whereas they might feel more comfortable doing so in the privacy of their kitchen — elected and non-elected public servants behave differently when subject to some healthy scrutiny.

The ability of the United States to restore a feeling of prosperity and well-being, and to play a more constructive role on the world stage, depends on its ability to improve its reputation for running a clean, open and ethical system of government.

This means that playing in the same league as France and Belgium is no longer an option, and that a “7 out of 10” is not good enough for a country that wants to continue playing an important leadership role in the world.

Failure to improve will have far-reaching consequences for the United States: diminished leadership ability on the world stage, a deteriorating political situation at home and a lower quality of life for Americans.

America’s ability to turn things around is of vital interest to Canada, given our close ties to the U.S.

Americans, a generally friendly, charming and generous-minded people despite their politicians, also deserve better.

The battle for honest and open government in 2010: Still way too much red and orange. (Source: Transparecy International; labeling of Chile and Uruguay is mine.)