Why Obama has made so little difference: reflections on Canada-US differences

This is a post I wrote for Active History last year, just before the US presidential election.

It draws on my comparative and transnational historical research and writing on the United States and Canada. I’ve stressed the importance of political-institutional structures in shaping and constraining what it’s possible for political leaders and policymakers to accomplish in each country.

In retrospect, a more descriptive title would probably have garnered more interest in this post. (It doesn’t really get explained until the end.) At the time, though, I liked the militant sound of it.

World War II Propaganda Poster, Office of Price Administration.

Less than two weeks to go in the US presidential election campaign, and the candidates are (surprisingly) running neck and neck. The sense of disappointment in incumbent President Barack Obama is palpable, especially after his sleepy first debate performance turned what should have been a runaway race into a real contest. Of course, the current disappointment is just the latest in a string of disappointments—from the failure to close Guantanamo Bay to the failure to reform social security. Combined, they have turned 2008’s campaign slogans such as “Change We Can Believe In!” into a bitter memory for many audaciously hopeful liberals, lefties, and social activists of all sorts.

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Capitalist Theology on the CBC

Read my take on CBC Radio‘s summer 2012 show “The Invisible Hand” on Active History.

I was prompted to write this piece after hearing the show’s homage to price gougers—those who, in the aftermath of crises such 1998’s ice storm in central Canada or 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in the US Gulf Coast, seek to exploit a situation of crisis-induced shortages (not to mention the desperation of others) for personal financial gain. The show’s conclusions seemed so out of line with my own historical research, which suggests there’s value in governments attempting to regulate such activity. (The picture below is a WWII poster produced by the US Office of Price Administration, which oversaw American price control and rationing.)

My commentary on the show was pretty critical. Interestingly, I was contacted by the show’s host, with whom I had a quite pleasant email exchange. In fairness, one of the later episodes of the show featured a committed Keynesian, which did provide a bit of balance, but I think the overall critique is still valid.

By Dr. Joseph Tohill

There’s nothing like a bit of neoconservative propaganda gussied up as a hip, edgy CBC radio program to get your blood boiling on a hot summer’s day. The Invisible Hand, a mid-week staple of Radio One’s summer schedule hosted by

Vancouver broadcaster Matthew Lazin-Ryder, bills itself as “a defiantly non-dismal take on the ‘dismal science’ of economics.” Revelling in its role as cheeky iconoclast, the show seeks to upend the conventional wisdom about greedy price gougers, rapacious capitalists, and exploitative sweatshop owners.

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