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Harper’s v. Harper

It is a tradition among Canadian pundits to travel abroad bearing tales — possibly because it is easier to convince a foreign audience that the current government, regardless of its politics, has reduced the “once proud” country to a wasteland than it is to make the same argument at home, where readers might awkwardly notice that they are not surrounded by smoking ruins.

Heather Mallick’s “The Nixon of the North” [Revision, October] is a classic of the genre. She passionately argues that if the current Conservative government is reelected, Canada “will sink, and everyone will drown in a hideous libertarian vortex.” Her proof of this is that Harper seems to be an unpleasant man and that his party hates liberalism.

Unfortunately for Mallick, the facts are far less melodramatic. The devastation wrought by Harper includes annual increases in health-care spending of 6 percent, a 3 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, and a 10 percent decline in military expenditure as a proportion of GDP. The national broadcaster, CBC, continues to receive more than $1 billion each year in federal grants. And the Social Progress Index, a comprehensive measure of global well-being, ranks Canada sixth among all nations (the United States is sixteenth).

Mallick threatened to emigrate if the Conservatives were returned to power. She made a similar promise before they were reelected in the previous election, but curiously she remains, as does Canada, in spite of nine years of Conservative rule.

Scott Gilmore
Maclean’s magazine
Ottawa, Ontario

Heather Mallick responds:

I’ll always write truthfully, even for Harper’s Magazine and other foreign publications, about the designed decline of Canada under Stephen Harper. Am I supposed to shyly abstain from criticizing my own country?

Gilmore’s facts may not be wrong, but the argument they are used to bolster certainly is. Harper’s new funding formula would have cut Ottawa’s support for health care by $36 billion over the next decade, at a time when older Canadians will need more care. Under Harper, greenhouse-gas emissions were on track to miss the 2020 target of a 17 percent drop; even the 3 percent actual drop was largely thanks to the closing of coal-fired power plants, as well as an oil-price slide. Military expenditure is down partly because Harper abandoned support for veterans. The CBC may still be costly, but it is selling off its real estate as I write. The network is a whisper of its former self. Its mandate is huge; it has nothing like the money it needs to cover this country. Gilmore thinks $1 billion is an excitingly big number. A competent national CBC needs much more.

Gilmore’s cheerful suggestion that things could be worse is true, if silly. Though Harper was recently defeated, massive damage has already been done to the world’s climate and to the structure of the Canadian nation. It will take decades to repair it.

I was joking, of course, about leaving Canada. Who else would have us?


Women and Children Last

Virginia Sole-Smith has done an excellent job of conveying a sense of the hardship that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) has imposed on low-income families, especially single mothers [“Getting Jobbed,” Report, October]. We needed to reform the welfare system that TANF replaced, but, as Sole-Smith shows vividly, TANF went completely in the wrong direction.

The old system failed to help recipients get jobs, but at least there was a legal right to get other kinds of help. Now the states have no obligation to help anyone. The result is that the number of people getting cash assistance has shrunk precipitously. For every hundred families in poverty in 1996, sixty-eight received cash assistance; now it’s twenty-three. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans receive TANF, and benefits for those who do are a pittance in most states. The consequences: 7.5 million people have SNAP (food stamps) and no other income — no job, no cash assistance. The number of Americans living in deep poverty — with incomes below half the poverty line (less than $9,500 for a family of three) — has doubled over the years to more than 20 million people. This is a travesty.

The main tool that states have to hold the TANF rolls down is keeping people from getting benefits, either by making it so unpleasant to apply, with prying questions and onerous behavioral requirements, that people don’t bother, or by simply turning them away. Wyoming wins the prize, with just 4 percent of its poor children and fewer than 700 people, children and adults, receiving TANF. Many other states are not far behind.

The recent recession revealed TANF’s failure even more starkly. SNAP’s rolls went from 26.3 million people before the recession to 46 million today and thereby played a major role in counterbalancing a depressed economy. TANF rolls went from 3.9 million people to just 4.4 million. What’s the difference? There’s a legal right to SNAP.

We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Peter Edelman
Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy
Georgetown University Law Center


Thoroughly Vetted

I read Ted Conover’s “Cattle Calls” [Folio, October] with great interest. As a New Mexico rancher who lives an hour from the nearest town, I know how important it is to have veterinarians like Zach Vosburg, who understand and support rural farm and ranch communities. This morning I woke to find that my gelding had cut his pastern during the night. I left a message on my vet’s phone, hosed the injury off, and hoped for a call back — all before 8 a.m. on a Sunday. I was promptly contacted and, after texting photographs of the injury, was advised what to do, from bandaging to pain management. Rural vets like Vosburg and Becky Washburn (the New Mexico vet who responded to my call) supply crucial care and information that my husband and I depend on. There’s no way to compensate them for the extra time and heart they put into their work, but acknowledging what they do is a start.

Laura Jean Schneider
Mescalero Apache Reservation, N.M.


Restless Nativists

Andrew Cockburn’s “Weed Whackers” [Letter from Washington, September] begins with a description of the recent California Native Plant Society (C.N.P.S.) Conservation Conference — unfortunately, Cockburn was not at that conference, and so the description does not match the reality! Had he joined us at the event, he would have seen a talented speaker make joking declarations, and the audience respond with stagy boos and hisses. He also would have learned a lot about the thousands of Californians working to protect our continent’s natural legacy.

His article might then have talked about a group of people who love plants, including and especially the grand eucalyptus trees that grace our state. He might have come to understand that we appreciate the eucalyptus much as we appreciate Starbucks coffee shops — it’s great to have them around, but just as chain stores can push out local shops, so can aggressively spreading eucalypti exclude local plants and homogenize our still-wild natural communities. Cockburn, too, might then feel some responsibility for conserving remnants of the nature that was here before the European conquest of our continent.

Cockburn’s letter closes with a description of a mare’s-tail plant that can “stop a combine in its tracks.” Perhaps he is unaware that our mare’s tail is a modest plant incapable of stopping a tractor. Or perhaps this closing image was a metaphor, paying homage to C.N.P.S., which has stood against mindless, mechanized habitat destruction, stopping tractors galore and saving much of what the whole world treasures about California.

Daniel A. Gluesenkamp
Executive Director, California Native Plant Society
Sacramento, Calif.

Andrew Cockburn responds:

It is standard practice for journalists to describe scenes for which they could not be present, and I based my report of the conference on conversations with several attendees, as well as on a set of contemporaneous notes that was shared with me. Given the writer’s endorsement of the canard that eucalyptus excludes native plants, and the C.N.P.S.’s full-bore support of a scheme that will almost certainly eliminate eucalyptus from the Bay Area, I find it difficult to believe that his boos were anything other than sincere. The combineresistant mare’s tail I described is a product of the GMO corn states. I am glad that Mr. Gluesenkamp has found a variety to cherish that has so far escaped the probably carcinogenic glyphosate that his fellow nativists like to pour on the trees and plants of their treasured California.



“Pakistan in Miniatures” [Sage Mehta, Letter from Mall Road, October] misstated that Imran Qureshi and Shahzia Sikander were classmates at the National College of Arts in Lahore. While they overlapped as students there, Sikander graduated in 1991 and Qureshi graduated in 1993.