As part of their severance, those who serve 20 years or more are offered a last move, at government expense, after they retire. Soldiers are asked to live in many places; the policy recognizes that the house you occupy at the end of your career may not be where you want to remain.
Leslie served 35 years at home and abroad and moved 18 times. When he left the military in 2011, he wanted to simplify things. He moved from a bigger house to a small one, in the same neighbourhood. The move cost some $72,000, of which the real estate fees could have come to perhaps $60,000. The rest went to packing and moving.
All expenses were covered by government.
So, what’s wrong here? What’s the offence? A distinguished soldier does his duty, retires honourably and sells his house. The bills are settled by the government, because that’s the arrangement.
But that’s not really the story, is it? The story here has less to do with General Leslie than Citizen Leslie, or perhaps, in the future, Minister Leslie. It’s about politics.
While Rob Nicholson asks his officials to explain this long-standing government policy — one he could have changed but hasn’t — here are a few questions for him.
Why is Andrew Leslie the first veteran to come under this kind of public scrutiny? Is $72,000 egregious? If so, what is the average figure for moves involving such neighbourhoods?
And how is it that Leslie’s expenses found their way to CTV News, which first reported this on the weekend? Is there a breach of privacy in your department, Minister? Your office suggested the document was acquired under the Access to Information Act, but CTV did not.
We know what is going on here. Andy Leslie is a Liberal. His father was a Liberal. His service notwithstanding, that displeases the government. Tell us, Minister Nicholson, would you have ordered an inquiry if Leslie had been running as a Conservative? Would your question have been as sharp, your anger as hot?
Could it be that Leslie’s expenses would never have found their way into the media at all? And could it be that the Conservatives wanted Leslie to join them, when they learned that he was going to the Liberals? Let us see this for what it is: a drive-by smear.
Argue, if you want, that after years of dislocation and adjustment, that Leslie and his wife had no right to move to a smaller house. Make it another great moral failing of another public servant, as we like to do these days in a country filled with accountants of envy.
If you do, though, remember that soldiers spend their lives disrupting their families, often with little notice and at great cost. Ask yourself why soldiers are committing suicide. Ask yourself about divorce, domestic violence, addiction and other consequences of military life.
As we disparage a decorated general, seeing scandal that isn’t there, consider the greater affront of a government that tolerates a minister, Julian Fantino, who insults veterans as he cuts their services. Now there’s gratitude.
Then ask yourself why Andrew Leslie and other good people would even contemplate entering our soiled, sorry public life.
From the long-distance perspective of an American, Asia looks like one of the world’s most peaceful places. And it is — for the moment. But when Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Tokyo on Monday, he stepped into what has suddenly become a dangerous diplomatic crisis between China and Japan. On the surface, it’s a dull dispute over a string of uninhabited Pacific islands. Underneath, as I realized on a recent visit to China, it’s a story reaching back some 75 years that involves war, brutality, rape and historical reckoning. And now threatens to drag in the U.S.
The immediate cause of the crisis is Beijing’s recent declaration of an air-defense zone over the disputed islands, a string of rocks about 200 miles southeast of China’s coast, not far from Taiwan. No one will ever vacation on the islands, but there’s a good incentive to claim them, given that they sit in an area of the Pacific that may contain enough oil to fuel China for 45 years.
Far more than a story about energy, however, this is a story about national pride and historical grievance. The showdown over the islands — whose very name the two countries disagree about: China calls them the Diaoyu and Japan the Senkaku — touches one of the most sensitive nerves in Chinese culture: the Japanese occupation of China from 1937 to ’45.
“It may be hard for you to understand,” an expert at Beijing’s Academy of Military Science told me in October, echoing several others to whom I spoke. “The nationalist feeling, the emotion toward Japan, is very strong.”
Japan doesn’t seem to like China either
Japan’s recent militarization is driven, in part, because the feeling is mutual: polling shows that the animus in Japan toward China runs about as high as it does on the other side of the East China Sea. The “unfavorable feelings” of each side toward the other runs poisonously above 90%. It’s certainly hard to argue that China has done anything to Japan comparable to the 1937–45 occupation. But one scholar on Sino-Japanese relations argues the animus is about envy and anxiety toward the roaring Chinese dragon.
In early December, the government issue a list of economic highlights for 2013: population growth, up 100,000 in six years; economic growth of 3.6 per cent, second-highest in Canada; unemployment rate of 3.6 per cent, lowest in Canada; employment up 17,000, “an all-time record;” and record crop production of 34.2 million tonnes (later increased to 38.4 million tonnes).
But recent economic forecasts have been more subdued. suggesting that the province’s economy may be due for a slowdown next year. Earlier this month, RBC downgraded Saskatchewan’s forecasted economic growth from 2.7 per cent to 2.1 per cent in 2014, which put us squarely in the middle of the pack among the provinces.
Part of that downgrade is just a return to a normal crop from the record harvest in 2013. But part of it is plummeting potash prices, plunging production and reduced capital spending.
Similarly, two commodity price reports this week pointed to weakness, not just in potash, but uranium, oil and agricultural commodities, like wheat and canola.
Oil prices are falling, thanks to widening differentials between western Canadian heavy oil and benchmark West Texas Intermediate, which are now pushing $40 US a barrel. Even Canadian light crude prices are $20 US a barrel lower than comparable U.S. crudes due to growing supplies of light oil production from North Dakota’s Bakken play and a chronic shortage of pipeline capacity.
Potash prices have fallen below $300 US per tonne, thanks to the collapse of the BPC cartel, while uranium prices are at a “low ebb” at $34.50 US per pound due to the fallout from the Fukushima tsunami in 2012 and the subsequent idling of 50 Japanese nuclear reactors.
Even agricultural commodity prices have been under pressure lately due to the “monster-sized crops” in the U.S. and Canada and are sitting nearly 12 per cent below levels one year ago.
Analysts forecast commodity prices “bottoming’’ in 2014 before returning to the “bull’’ market in 2015 and beyond.
The point is, Wall is right to be cautious about the province’s economic fortunes in 2014, despite the record performances posted in 2013. But that’s not Wall’s only problem.
He knows that the province’s fiscal position is far more tenuous than the rosy picture painted by Finance Minister Ken Krawetz in his midterm financial statement, which shows the province sitting on a $22.8-million surplus in the general revenue fund. This is the same general revenue fund that the provincial auditor’s report said was nearly $600 million in the hole at the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year, instead of the $58 million surplus reported by the finance ministry.
The same provincial auditor issued an “adverse’’ opinion on the province’s books, saying the financial statements do not provide a fair and accurate accounting of the province’s fiscal position.
So Wall finds himself between a rock and hard place, largely of his own making. Happy New Year will have a whole new meaning for the premier in 2014.
Don’t count the Premier down quite yet. He enjoys considerable trust from the people of Saskatchewan and as Alan Blakeney once said, “It’s easier to govern duing adversity than prosperity.” That being said, winning a third election is much tougher than winning the second.
Almost all you need to know about Canadian politics in the next two years can be summarized in one simple number – 10 per cent.
Ten per cent is the share of the electorate that has deserted Stephen Harper’s Conservatives since the last election. In that contest, the Conservatives captured a shade less than 40 per cent of the votes. For months now, polls have given the Conservatives about 30 per cent.
At 40 per cent, the Conservatives would win again, likely with another majority; at 30 per cent, they would lose power. Their aim – and it will drive almost everything they do in the next two years – will be to recapture all or most of the difference.
What about the other 60 per cent of the voting public? The Conservatives could care less about them. The overwhelming majority of those people aren’t going to vote Conservative, period.
Nik Nanos, the pollster, asks this interesting question on an ongoing basis: Could you imagine voting for a given party? He consistently finds that 60 per cent of voters reply that they could not imagine voting Conservative. The party’s ceiling, therefore, is 40 per cent.
No matter what the Conservatives have successfully done in office, no matter how hard they have tried and how much money they have spent, no matter how favourable the economic circumstances, no matter how inept the other parties, the Conservatives have never shattered that 40-per-cent ceiling. But if they don’t crawl back close to it by the time of the next election, they will struggle to be re-elected, let alone to win another majority.
Given this strategic imperative, you might think that midway through a majority government’s term, a party mired at 30 per cent would be rethinking its strategy. That would be to misunderstand the Harper government.
Instead of rethinking, the Prime Minister has doubled down on his long-term strategy, which depends on polarizing the electorate and identifying and mobilizing the Conservative vote. He reshuffled his cabinet to add younger ministers of the same type as the more experienced ones: hard-edged communicators and sharp-elbowed partisans. He regrouped people in his office and at party headquarters who are unreserved loyalists. There are no even mildly discordant voices, let alone fresh faces or new views, in Mr. Harper’s inner political circle.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s appearance at a meeting of Canada’s finance ministers this week has renewed backroom speculation about whether his health will allow him to continue in his job.
As meetings at Meech Lake began on Monday, Flaherty was seen to struggle to get out of his car, and his voice was painfully weak as he addressed reporters later.
In the hours-long meeting with his provincial counterparts, he sat in silence most of the time, sometimes with his eyes closed, allowing minister of state, Kevin Sorenson, to chair the meeting.
“He did not seem like a well man,” said a person who was in the room. “He kind of closed his eyes a number of times, but whether that was just him sitting there listening or not, I don’t know.”
Tuesday on Parliament Hill, Flaherty was seen by a reporter walking with great difficulty.
In January, Flaherty went public with news about his health condition, bullous pemphigoid, a rare skin condition that produces painful blisters. He is taking the steroid prednisone, which can cause weight gain and, in large doses, can spur severe mood swings.
His staff did say that Flaherty was suffering from a cold at Meech Lake which could explain his mood there but he does seem to be suffering. I can’t imagine the requirements of the job make it any easier to deal with his health condition.
An amazing long form essay by the Detroit Free Press. The answers may surprise you – and don’t blame Coleman Young.
Detroit is broke, but it didn’t have to be. An in-depth Free Press analysis of the city’s financial history back to the 1950s shows that its elected officials and others charged with managing its finances repeatedly failed — or refused — to make the tough economic and political decisions that might have saved the city from financial ruin.
Instead, amid a huge exodus of residents, plummeting tax revenues and skyrocketing home abandonment, Detroit’s leaders engaged in a billion-dollar borrowing binge, created new taxes and failed to cut expenses when they needed to. Simultaneously, they gifted workers and retirees with generous bonuses. And under pressure from unions and, sometimes, arbitrators, they failed to cut health care benefits — saddling the city with staggering costs that today threaten the safety and quality of life of people who live here.
The numbers, most from records deeply buried in the public library, lay waste to misconceptions about the roots of Detroit’s economic crisis. For critics who want to blame Mayor Coleman Young for starting this mess, think again. The mayor’s sometimes fiery rhetoric may have contributed to metro Detroit’s racial divide, but he was an astute money manager who recognized, early on, the challenges the city faced and began slashing staff and spending to address them.
And Wall Street types who applauded Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s financial acumen following his 2005 deal to restructure city pension debt should consider this: The numbers prove that his plan devastated the city’s finances and was a key factor that drove Detroit to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July.
The State of Michigan also bears some blame. Lansing politicians reduced Detroit’s state-shared revenue by 48% from 1998 to 2012, withholding $172 million from the city, according to state records.
Decades of mismanagement added to Detroit’s fiscal woes. The city notoriously bungled multiple federal aid programs and overpaid outrageously to incentivize projects such as the Chrysler Jefferson North plant. Bureaucracy bogged down even the simplest deals and contracts. In a city that needed urgency, major city functions often seemed rudderless.
When all the numbers are crunched, one fact is crystal clear: Yes, a disaster was looming for Detroit. But there were ample opportunities when decisive action by city leaders might have fended off bankruptcy.
If Mayors Jerome Cavanagh and Roman Gribbs had cut the workforce in the 1960s and early 1970s as the population and property values dropped. If Mayor Dennis Archer hadn’t added more than 1,100 employees in the 1990s when the city was flush but still losing population. If Kilpatrick had shown more fiscal discipline and not launched a borrowing spree to cover operating expenses that continued into Mayor Dave Bing’s tenure. Over five decades, there were many ‘if only’ moments.
“Detroit got into a trap of doing a lot of borrowing for cash flow purposes and then trying to figure out how to push costs (out) as much as possible,” said Bettie Buss, a former city budget staffer who spent years analyzing city finances for the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. “That was the whole culture — how do we get what we want and not pay for it until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow?”
Ultimately, Detroit ended up with $18 billion to $20 billion in debt and unfunded pension and health care liabilities. Gov. Rick Snyder appointed bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr as the city’s emergency manager, and Orr filed for Chapter 9 on July 18.
It’s an amazing story and one that many cities could repeat if they can’t make hard financial decisions (Saskatoon loves our debt too). Nice job by the Detroit Free Press to bring all of this together. Including this great quote.
“It just makes me ill. Almost cry,” said former Mayor Gribbs, now 87, who served from 1970 to 1974. “You can’t continually borrow money and use it for operating expenses and expect never to have the trouble of paying it back. That’s where you end up going bankrupt.”
"That Justin Trudeau would use Jack Layton’s dying words as a political tool says everything that needs to be said about Justin Trudeau’s judgment and character," Mulcair said.
New Democrat MP Olivia Chow, Layton’s widow, focused her reaction on Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"I’m quite surprised that the leader of the Liberals used my late husband’s words, but at the end of the day Stephen Harper is the prime minister," Chow said.
"If we are to have a better country, and certainly Canadians deserve a lot better, we need to focus on Stephen Harper. Yes, we are the party of love, hope and optimism and let’s be hopeful. Let’s not be fearful of each other, but let’s train our eyes on the real problem, which is Stephen Harper’s government."
Trudeau, however, was unapologetic, accusing the NDP of being nasty and divisive in the hard-fought campaigns, which saw all three major parties use aggressive tactics.
In other words, it is okay for the NDP to use Layton’s dying words as a political tool but not Justin Trudeau. I am glad we got that straight.
Because of its persistent inability to tally its accounts, the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments. That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for. That sum exceeds the value of China’s economic output last year.
Aiken, then 30 years old, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, after two tours of combat duty had left him shattered. His war-related afflictions included traumatic brain injury, severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), abnormal eye movements due to nerve damage, chronic pain, and a hip injury.
But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay. It had started that October, when he received $2,337.56, instead of his normal monthly take-home pay of about $3,300. He quickly raised the issue with staff. It only got worse. For all of December, his pay came to $117.99.
All Aiken knew was that the Defense Department was taking back money it claimed he owed. Beyond that, “they couldn’t even tell me what the debts were from,” he says.
At the time, Aiken was living off base with his fiancee, Monica, and her toddler daughter, while sharing custody of his two children with his ex-wife. As their money dwindled, the couple began hitting church-run food pantries. Aiken took out an Army Emergency Relief Loan to cover expenses of their December move into a new apartment. At Christmas, Operation Santa Claus provided the family with presents – one for each child, per the charity’s rules.
Eventually, they began pawning their possessions – jewelry, games, an iPhone, and even the medic bag Aiken used when saving lives in Afghanistan. The couple was desperate from “just not knowing where food’s going to come from,” he says. “They just hit one button and they take your whole paycheck away. And then you have to fight to get the money back.”
Aiken’s injuries made that fight more difficult. He limped from office to office to press his case to an unyielding bureaucracy. With short-term and long-term memory loss, he struggled to keep appointments and remember key dates and events. His PTSD symptoms alienated some staff. “He would have an outburst … (and) they would treat him as if he was like a bad soldier,” says Monica. “They weren’t compassionate.”
They were also wrong. The money the military took back from Aiken resulted from accounting and other errors, and it should have been his to keep. Further, even after Aiken complained, the Defense Department didn’t return the bulk of the money to Aiken until after Reuters inquired about his case.
The Pentagon agency that identified the overpayments, clawed them back and resisted Aiken’s pleas for explanation and redress is the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, or DFAS (pronounced “DEE-fass”). This agency, with headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, has roughly 12,000 employees and, after cuts under the federal sequester, a $1.36 billion budget. It is responsible for accurately paying America’s 2.7 million active-duty and Reserve soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
It often fails at that task, a Reuters investigation finds.
A review of individuals’ military pay records, government reports and other documents, along with interviews with dozens of current and former soldiers and other military personnel, confirms Aiken’s case is hardly isolated. Pay errors in the military are widespread. And as Aiken and many other soldiers have found, once mistakes are detected, getting them corrected – or just explained – can test even the most persistent soldiers (see related story).
“Too often, a soldier who has a problem with his or her pay can wait days, weeks or even months to get things sorted out,” Democratic Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote in an email. “This is simply unacceptable.”
It’s a pretty widespread problem
A review of multiple reports from oversight agencies in recent years shows that the Pentagon also has systematically ignored warnings about its accounting practices. “These types of adjustments, made without supporting documentation … can mask much larger problems in the original accounting data,” the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a December 2011 report.
Plugs also are symptomatic of one very large problem: the Pentagon’s chronic failure to keep track of its money – how much it has, how much it pays out and how much is wasted or stolen.
This is the second installment in a series in which Reuters delves into the Defense Department’s inability to account for itself. The first article examined how the Pentagon’s record-keeping dysfunction results in widespread pay errors that inflict financial hardship on soldiers and sap morale. This account is based on interviews with scores of current and former Defense Department officials, as well as Reuters analyses of Pentagon logistics practices, bookkeeping methods, court cases and reports by federal agencies.
As the use of plugs indicates, pay errors are only a small part of the sums that annually disappear into the vast bureaucracy that manages more than half of all annual government outlays approved by Congress. The Defense Department’s 2012 budget totaled $565.8 billion, more than the annual defense budgets of the 10 next largest military spenders combined, including Russia and China. How much of that money is spent as intended is impossible to determine.
In its investigation, Reuters has found that the Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years, often eventually detected by external law enforcement agencies.
The consequences aren’t only financial; bad bookkeeping can affect the nation’s defense. In one example of many, the Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies between 2003 and 2011 as it shuffled equipment between reserve and regular units. Affected units “may experience equipment shortages that could hinder their ability to train soldiers and respond to emergencies,” the Pentagon inspector general said in a September 2012 report.
The American military has about 5,000 different accounting programs in use. Most of them are incompatible.
In a May 2011 speech, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described the Pentagon’s business operations as “an amalgam of fiefdoms without centralized mechanisms to allocate resources, track expenditures, and measure results. … My staff and I learned that it was nearly impossible to get accurate information and answers to questions such as ‘How much money did you spend’ and ‘How many people do you have?’ ”
It gets better
The practical impact of the Pentagon’s accounting dysfunction is evident at the Defense Logistics Agency, which buys, stores and ships much of the Defense Department’s supplies – everything from airplane parts to zippers for uniforms.
It has way too much stuff.
“We have about $14 billion of inventory for lots of reasons, and probably half of that is excess to what we need,” Navy Vice Admiral Mark Harnitchek, the director of the DLA, said at an August 7, 2013, meeting with aviation industry executives, as reported on the agency’s web site.
And the DLA keeps buying more of what it already has too much of. A document the Pentagon supplied to Congress shows that as of Sept. 30, 2012, the DLA and the military services had $733 million worth of supplies and equipment on order that was already stocked in excess amounts on warehouse shelves. That figure was up 21% from $609 million a year earlier. The Defense Department defines “excess inventory” as anything more than a three-year supply.
Consider the “vehicular control arm,” part of the front suspension on the military’s ubiquitous High Mobility Multipurpose Vehicles, or Humvees. As of November 2008, the DLA had 15,000 of the parts in stock, equal to a 14-year supply, according to an April 2013 Pentagon inspector general’s report.
And yet, from 2010 through 2012, the agency bought 7,437 more of them – at prices considerably higher than it paid for the thousands sitting on its shelves. The DLA was making the new purchases as demand plunged by nearly half with the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The inspector general’s report said the DLA’s buyers hadn’t checked current inventory when they signed a contract to acquire more.
Mind boggling stuff.
The best-selling nonfiction book when he was killed was Victor Lasky’s “J.F.K: The Man and the Myth,” a dubiously researched jumble of smears and innuendo, including the stale rumor that Kennedy, an observant Catholic, had suppressed a previous marriage to a Palm Beach socialite. The book was briefly removed from circulation by its publisher, Macmillan, after Kennedy’s death.
Kennedy hatred was deepest, perhaps, in the South, where civil rights battles had grown increasingly tense. “White violence was sort of considered the status quo,” Diane McWhorter, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and is the author of “Carry Me Home,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the racial unrest of 1963, said recently.
“There had been so many bombings that people had accepted it,” Ms. McWhorter said. But in May, the city’s blacks struck back, attacking the police and firefighters and setting several businesses on fire. In September, only two months before Dallas, white supremacists in Birmingham planted a bomb in a black church, killing four young girls.
Kennedy himself was a reluctant supporter of civil rights legislation, but when at last he called for it, many Southern whites were enraged.
“I was in my gym class at the Brooke Hill School for girls,” Ms. McWhorter recalled. “Someone came in and said the president had been shot, and people cheered.”
I’ve never met Nigel Wright, and all I know of him is what I’ve read. But after consuming the 80-page, minutely detailed RCMP document released Wednesday, I have to say I sympathize with the guy. He comes across in the document just as his defenders have described him: capable, dedicated, “a person of good faith, of competence, with high ethical standards,” as Jason Kenney put it. You get the impression of a man who found himself in a rat’s nest, and tried to keep one of the rats from destroying himself. Instead, he got destroyed too.
That’s not the sentiment you’re supposed to have towards Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff. You’re supposed to denounce him as the Machiavellian hand behind the dark and devious manipulations that helped bring a corrupt Senate to public disgrace. His great sin, personally paying off $90,000 in expense claims made by Mike Duffy, was a monumental mistake. But you can understand how he got there after months of maddening efforts to achieve what must have seemed a simple quest: getting Duffy to repay the $90,000 he’d claimed in inappropriate housing and other expenses.
From the start, Wright doesn’t think Duffy has broken any laws. The Senate rules on “primary” residence are such that Duffy may be able to justify a claim that, legally, he’s done nothing wrong. “I…believe that Mike was doing what people told him he should do, without thinking about it too much,” he relates in one message. But Wright is convinced it’s a clear ethical breach and Duffy is morally bound to repay the money. It’s getting the senator to admit as much that causes the headaches.
In an interview with RCMP Cpl. Greg Horton, who headed the investigation and prepared the exhaustive outline, Wright reveals that since joining the Prime Minister’s Office he hasn’t filed a single expense claim, paying all his flights, hotels, meals and other costs from his own pocket. It has already cost him tens of thousands of dollars, but, thanks to his corporate career, he can afford it, and, Horton writes, “it is his global view and contribution to public policy that taxpayers not bear the cost of his position if he can legitimately afford to fund it himself.” He gives the same reason for his fatal decision to write a cheque to cover Duffy’s expenses, after concluding Duffy legitimately didn’t have the money: “He did not view it as something out of the norm for him to do, and was part of being a good person. He said it was a personal decision, and he did not want a lot of people to know about it.”
Fascinating read. You have a sympathetic figure in Nigel Wright, the devious and self serving Mike Duffy and then the rather incompetent Senate. No wonder why Harper wants is abolished. They can’t even execute a scandal right.
Sixteen years ago, president Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, Robert Reich, summed up the frustrations of adjusting to life in the Cabinet, where even a close personal relationship with the president, dating to their Oxford days, didn’t spare him from being bossed around by arrogant West Wing nobodies. “From the view of the White House staff, cabinet officials are provincial governors presiding over alien, primitive territories,” Reich wrote in a classic of the pissed-off-secretary genre, Locked in the Cabinet. “Anything of any importance occurs in the national palace.”
Two presidents later, the Cabinet is a swarm of 23 people that includes 15 secretaries and eight other Cabinet-rank officers. And yet never has the job of Cabinet secretary seemed smaller. The staffers who rule Obama’s West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance: At the top of the pecking order are the celebrity power players, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be warily managed; at the bottom, what they see as a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the president’s agenda. Chu might have been the first Obama Cabinet secretary to earn the disdain of White House aides, but he was hardly the last.
“We are completely marginalized … until the shit hits the fan,” says one former Cabinet deputy secretary, summing up the view of many officials I interviewed. “If your question is: Did the president rely a lot on his Cabinet as a group of advisers? No, he didn’t,” says former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Little wonder, then, that Obama has called the group together only rarely, for what by most accounts are not much more than ritualistic team-building exercises: According to CBS News White House reporter Mark Knoller, the Cabinet met 19 times in Obama’s first term and four times in the first 10 months of his second term. That’s once every three months or so—about as long as you can drive around before you’re supposed to change your oil.
When Necole Hines moved to Calgary from Toronto nine years ago, she was offered teller positions at four different banks. When she got laid off from a recent job at a stock photography company, she easily found another in sales and administration at a magazine.
Ms. Hines – who spent a year in university but has no degree – has always made lower-end but respectable wages, most recently around $50,000 a year.
But that salary doesn’t go very far in what has become one of Canada’s most expensive cities, where an oil boom has created reams of new money and driven up the cost of everything from housing to groceries.
The signs of wealth are everywhere – from the frenzy to build the new tallest skyscrapers, skyrocketing sales at the four-year-old Bentley dealership, and plans for high-end malls and neighbourhoods at every turn.
In the country’s energy capital, where business people, lawyers, engineers and geologists earn some of the highest salaries in Canada, households making less than a six-figure income – who many would classify as middle class – face a tough slog.
Calgary families earning up to $68,175 still qualify for a three-bedroom social housing unit, proof that even amid Calgary’s wealth, middle-class households are being increasingly squeezed. The tight labour market created by the expansion of the energy industry has not eliminated the issue of income inequality. Far from it – the rise in the cost of living is adding to the pressure.
Ms. Hines will attest that if you’re not working for an oil and gas company, or one of the other corporate towers that make up the landscape of the downtown, it’s an expensive place to be.
“If you don’t get into that right industry, you’re still having to pay for the same things as somebody else making that amount of money,” Ms. Hines said.
She found she needed a car because public transit isn’t reliable, and food basics such as produce and cereal are more expensive. (The Consumer Price Index was higher in Calgary in 2012 than any other city in Canada, except for Edmonton.) In a city where home ownership is prized, the average single-family home costs more than $516,000, so the single mother of three rents the main floor of a house. Although she is the main breadwinner for her family, Ms. Hines has never felt as if she’s been able to get ahead. “In this city, it’s not that easy.”
Alberta’s bountiful oil and gas resources have given many people steady work, and have made others rich. Calgary is home to more than one in 10 of Canada’s wealthiest tax filers, those with an annual income of at least $201,400. Between 1989 and 2010, its share of the national total more than doubled, to 11 per cent from 5 per cent.
But the influx of money and 20,000 newcomers to the city each year – whether it’s for views of the Rocky Mountains or the low unemployment rate – means the demand for every service, from housing to hairdressers, has gone up.
“It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in Calgary,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in an interview. “There are a lot of people who are vulnerable. There are a lot of people who are living on the margins.”
While Calgary has become home to one of the country’s highest family median annual incomes – now at $93,410 – increasing wealth has not affected everyone equally. In an analysis of Statistics Canada income-tax data, the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute says Calgary is Canada’s most unequal city, as the bottom 90 per cent of income earners saw an average increase in pay (adjusted for inflation) of only $2,000 between 1982 and 2010.
Alberta has the highest average hourly wages in the country, but certain sectors routinely benefit more than others. For instance, while people in business, finance or sales saw large average increases in hourly rates over the past 12 months, wages in art, culture and recreation occupations dropped.