The thin gruel of politics

George Smitherman has again failed to produce his promised glorious 10-Year Plan for saving health care in Ontario. It's like sitting in a fancy restaurant with a mouth-watering menu and great prices but whatever you order you invariably get a long delay and a bunch of excuses -- and then they chuck deep-fried leftovers on your plate and charge you double. While you can change waiters and cooks once every four years, it seems you can never leave. In a speech to the Cato Institute this spring, P.J. O'Rourke explained that while he actually knows and likes many politicians, "The problem isn't the cook. The problem is the cookbook. The key ingredient of politics is the idea that all of society's ills can be cured politically. It's like a cookbook where the recipe for everything is to fry it. The fruit cocktail is fried. The soup is fried. The salad is fried. So is the ice cream and cake. And your pinot noir is rolled in breadcrumbs and dunked in the deep fat fryer."

Because government is force, it can do the things that need to be done through force, often very effectively: fight crime, beat Hitler, make people pay taxes -- just as a fast-food restaurant can often make a great burger and fries when that's what you want. Unfortunately at Chez Gouvernement, where they don't just insist on frying everything including the ice cream but they promise they can also bake, roast, sautée and serve raw, you don't simply get an unhealthy diet, you get deceived.

The latest sizzling empty plate was Stéphane Dion's carbon tax. I gave him some credit when he first suggested it because clearly it didn't come from focus groups. I would even say it came from conviction except, as so often, it didn't come at all.

It was proudly listed as delicious nutritious greens, price zero. Yes, zero, by shifting taxes from desirable activities to environmentally destructive ones. But when he put it on the menu he didn't have a recipe or ingredients, and he still doesn't.

Last week I asked Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which also favours a carbon tax, how such a tax would work in practice when carbon dioxide and methane both have one carbon atom but methane is said to be 23 or 30 times as bad for the environment. He replied, and I quote, "We believe the enemy is carbon and we believe carbon is the one that has to be priced and taxed."

This reply is unfit for human consumption. Diamonds are pure carbon, but if geologists announced that Greenland had unexpectedly turned out to be one giant diamond, no one would be concerned about the implications for global warming. If it then caught fire they would, because it would start releasing greenhouse gases.

As former Natural Resources Stewardship Project executive director Tom Harris recently observed, calling a tax on carbon dioxide a "carbon tax" is like calling your water bill a "hydrogen tax". To work, a carbon tax must fall on things that worry global warming alarmists, roughly in proportion to how much worry they cause. But Mr. Dion's "plan," larded with offsetting tax breaks, has as its sole nutrient a wholesale tax on fuels based on how much carbon dioxide they release, starting at $10 per tonne, rising to $40 in four years.

Or not. In his press conference yesterday, Mr. Dion talked about "carbon dioxide," as did the press release, but the bit on pricing in the "Handbook" (see only says "carbon emissions" and "greenhouse gas emissions." The handbook doesn't mention methane and neither did Mr. Dion, like chefs who don't know butter from margarine. But both stress that gasoline gets a free pass because there's already an excise tax on it that exceeds the proposed final $40-per-tonne-of-CO2 price.

The whole plan is absurd if the point is to change behaviour significantly by changing incentives dramatically. But the plan is logical if you suddenly realize all you can do is fry up a politically attractive mess of empty calories. I don't know if this meal will really be free, but it sure won't be nourishing.

Nor does it help to change waiters. No one has a more substantive carbon plan than Mr. Dion.

And while Ontario Tory health critic Elizabeth Witmer berated Mr. Smitherman over his missing 10-year plan, in her press release she quoted herself that "Ontario requires a long term vision .... How much longer must we wait for this government to take action and develop a long overdue plan?" As if she had one either. Like Mr. Smitherman, she's happy to list it on the menu but let her take your order and it's, um, uh -- oh, look here's some batter, fry some excuses for me quiiiick I've got hungry rowdies at table 42.

I hate this restaurant. Is there no way we could eat somewhere else?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]