Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A microcosm of America in despair

As you've gathered from my last post, I was just in Lake Placid, New York over the Canadian long weekend. Having recently only visited major cities on the two coasts, it was eye-opening to be back in small town America, and the contrast with Canada quite startling. Now, I realize it's not legitimate to compare Ottawa, a government town, known as fat city even in Canada, with Lake Placid, a faded resort town that has seen better days, but still the juxtaposition, and contrast, are interesting. In Ottawa, there is very little visible sign of a recession in progress. Restaurants, bars, and shops are always packed, the patios full on warm evenings, lots of traffic everywhere, and a general sense of bustle and activity. In Lake Placid, the once-charming Main Street is now almost a ghost town, the formerly elegant boutiques replaced by tacky souvenir stores that do very little business, even when times are good. There are four liquor stores on the small stretch of downtown Main Street, lots of fast food joints, several realtors, but not a single grocery store, health food store, or anywhere to get something moderately nutritious that isn't junk food. Lots of shuttered businesses, buildings for sale, others looking derelict or abandoned.

Now that's downtown Lake Placid. A few miles away, is the ultra high end, luxurious, and posh Lake Placid Lodge, a discreet and opulent haven that attracts well-heeled travellers from around the world and the occasional New York investment banker or celebrity who wants to get away from it all for a few days. The food is fabulous, nutritious, and tasty, the wine list extensive, the service impeccable, and the prices ... well, rather high. These are the two faces of America. A society in which the American dream has become, for many, a myth, and in which income inequality is on the rise while proleterian wages stagnate. The dream, such as it is, in tatters, is fed and fuelled by a culture of celebrity that seems increasingly disconnected from the reality of most peoples' lives. As a cash clerk at a local convenience store told us, she's making minimum wage, while a box of cereal now costs $5 at the one and only grocery store in town. Meanwhile, back at the Lodge, the chef is preparing a special tasting menu and suggested wine pairs for his bon vivant patrons the same evening. Two worlds, that seem to be diverging.

Smart border, forsooth!

I'm just back from the Canadian long weekend, named in honour of the Queen who gave Canada its independence. I was in Lake Placid, New York, and got there by crossing into the United States at the Seaway International Bridge, which crosses the St. Lawrence River between Cornwall, Ontario, and Massena, New York. This got me to experience a land crossing between the two countries for the first time in a while. All of this talk of the need for a smart border between the United States and Canada needs to confront the hard reality that the border infrastructure as it exists today is far from smart. It's pretty dumb, and really antiquated, and can't handle the large volume of people and commerce that cross everyday. The world's biggest trading relationship needs something better. At Seaway, for example, the bridge itself is in terrible shape, and the pavement all dug up, so that cars and trucks are bottlenecked into a few lanes in each direction. When I crossed, it wasn't particularly busy, but it was already getting backed up. I can only imagine how bad it was for someone who crossed at the very end of the long weekend, last night. The truth is, successive governments in both countries have taken the border for granted, and even 9/11 and its aftermath haven't led to much in the way of the new investment in the necessary infrastructure improvements that would be needed to make the land border crossings halfway decent. I'm not even of talking of a truly smart border, such as exists in Europe in the Schengen area, with a common perimeter around members, allowing for nuisance-free travel with no border inspections, allowing one to cross seamlessly from country to country. Now imagining such a border for the United States and Canada seems so remote as to be only a pipe dream. That's why I say, smart border, forsooth!

Digesting the Indian election results

It's worth remembering a few factoids about Indian electoral politics, to help interpret the results. (1) Participation rates are high, by any standard. (2) Participation rates are higher, other things equal, the poorer you are. This is the opposite of just about every Western democracy. (3) If you're a politician, you're less likely to win, other things equal, being the incumbent. This "anti-incumbency bias" is also at variance with most Western countries. (4) Regional issues matter. (5) This, coupled with shifting alliances between the national and regional parties, mean that national trends don't predict constituency by constituency election outcomes very well. (6) As India follows the Westminister first-past-the-post (called "winner take all" in US parlance) system, rather than proportional representation, small differences in popular vote amongst parties will have magnified effects on the distribution of seats.

In light of these, the Congress' victory, strengthening the mandate that they earned in 2004, is striking and surprising, and indeed impressive. It is true that the principal opposition party, the BJP, has suffered its share of infighting, and has been in something of a state of disarray in its leadership. But what seems to have resonated most with voters, based on people I've spoken to on the scene, is that the Congress was seen as a safe choice in difficult times. As India deals with the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack in Mumbai last year, the possible spillover into India of the unfolding events in neighbouring Pakistan, and the aftermath of the global financial crisis, returning the Congress to power was a vote for the status quo. Voters also evidently gave the Congress high marks for finalizing the Indo-US nuclear cooperation deal, and pushing it through the Lok Sabha, despite opposition from the Left parties (who had their worst electoral results in years and will be a non-factor in the new scheme of things).

In terms of individual winners and losers, the election victory validates the alliance of Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress Party, and Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister. They have a clear division of labour: Mrs. Gandhi runs the party, and Dr. Singh runs the government, largely keeping out of the political fray, and maintaining a squeaky clean image. Another clear winner is Jairam Ramesh, who had quit the Union Council of Ministers to run the election campaign as the party's chief strategist. It will be a major suprise if he doesn't receive a major Cabinet post. A new star on the scene is Shashi Tharoor, the former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations. Bitterly disappointed at being passed over for the top job, he has now catapulted himself into Indian politics in a major way, with a landslide victory in his constituency in Kerala. (In India, all numbers are large, and a landslide is a winning margin of about 100,000 votes!) Watch for him, too, to have an important portfolio in the new Cabinet.

In the midst of this overall good news for the Congress, several key ministers in the previous government went down to defeat. Most noteworthy is Mani Shankar Aiyar. Long the conscience of his caste (Aiyar was the only Brahmin from Tamil Nadu in the Lok Sabha), party, and the country, preserving its Gandhian and socialist traditions, an unrepetant secularist and critic of all fundamentalisms, a sharp and keen wit, and without a doubt the most brilliant political orator in India or just about anywhere (that, too, in three languages -- English, Hindi, and his native Tamil), he will be very much missed by his many admirers. Perhaps, taking a cue from Tharoor, Aiyar might now enter the fray of a major international organization? Let us hope so.