Tuesday, 1 January 2008

New Year's Resolution: Books by Paul Krugman and Chantal Hébert That You Must Read

Two books you have to read in 2008, whatever other resolutions you might make: The Conscience of a Liberal by Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and French Kiss: Stephen Harper’s Blind Date with Quebec by Chantal Hébert, columnist for The Toronto Star, Le Devoir, CBC and Radio Canada. The first analyses what has gone wrong in the United States over the last 30 years, with the ascendancy of movement conservatism. The second takes a look at the complicated relations between the Rest of Canada and Quebec, and between what I have long thought of as "Canadian values" and the spin Harper’s brand of conservatism would like to bring about here.

I read the Hébert book last spring shortly after it came out, and was impressed by her clear-eyed view of ideology and belief in this country. In particular, I was fascinated by her suggestion that Alberta is squandering a tremendous chance to improve the world by passing back its petroleum windfall to corporations, not investing in its society. What, she asks, would happen if Alberta used Quebec’s strategies to support culture and science instead? Quebec has done pretty well in developing research and cultural industries with much more limited resources (think Cirque du Soleil, Bombardier, computer animation and SNC-Lavalin.) Alberta could do much better if it wanted. But it won’t because that’s against the conservative ideological grain.

The Krugman book examines how that same sort of belief system has destroyed the American middle class since Ronald Reagan’s time, creating a country where income distribution is more inequitable now than at any time since the Gilded Age of the early 19th century. Race has been the way that a large proportion of white Americans have been distracted from what has been going on, he argues quite convincingly. He ends by saying that perhaps movement conservatism's power will be overturned in the next few years, in large part because Americans are now less racist, and because the truly bad news about what has happened to the US is finally sinking in. Instituting a system of universal health insurance would be the best way to turn things around, he says, adding that he is encouraged by the way all the Democratic presidential candidates have rather detailed ideas about how to do this.

Both books are written engagingly: I devoured the Krugman one on Boxing Day, while the Hébert book filled a couple of quiet spring evenings. The questions they pose and the actions they suggest to people who care about the way their countries work, however, may lead to some sleeplessness—and, hopefully, political action in the days ahead.


Martin Langeland said...

Thanks again for reminding me of Witold Rybzczynski's wonderful "Home." I am sipping my way through it over the holidays.
Also, I believe Krugman is a professor at Princeton. I don't think he would care about the sidewise career move you make, But those Ivy league schools can get pretty huffy about their turf!
Happy New Year's to you, Lee and all.

Mary Soderstrom said...

Oh yes, you are right: Krugman is at Princeton. Don't know why I put Harvard.

And Happy New Year to you and your family.