11 September 2014

The Islamic State—should we be helping to clean up the Americans' mess?

In early 2003, there were no Islamic extremists in Iraq, or at least none that dared raise their heads above ground. Then the Americans and their "coalition of the willing" invaded.

Today, Islamic extremists so vile even al-Qaeda disowns them have taken control of a huge swath of the country including major cities and now threaten Baghdad. And, in a particularly unpleasant development, young men from the West, including Canada, are joining their ranks. The U.S. and its allies created chaos in Iraq and from the chaos has arisen a bogeyman even nastier than Saddam Hussein. So, right on cue, the Americans are creating a new coalition, this time a "core coalition" to confront the Islamic State, as the insurgents refer to themselves and their "caliphate."

Unlike the last time, Canada has opted to be part of this new crusade. Why, one must ask, has our government volunteered to participate in a war that does not threaten us. We ask because, firstly, this is largely a made-in-the-USA mess and therefore the Americans should be largely responsible for cleaning it up. And, secondly, we ask because the countries who should be most concerned with the threat, i.e. Middle Eastern nations, should be the members of the coalition. In fact, the only non-Western member is Turkey.

The United States has for a long time been generous to the Egyptian military, supplying it with more military equipment than any other country outside of Israel. Both the U.S. and Great Britain have made massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the Americans recently completed the greatest arms deal in their history with the Sauds. So what was all this largesse for, if not to deal with threats to their countries and to their region? If anyone is obligated to act against the Islamic State and follow the U.S. into war it is these guys. They have the money and they have the weapons, and it is their turf, not ours.

If Canada can help victims of the Islamic State, we should of course be generous. That's where our money and expertise should go. But we should be very wary indeed of getting involved in a now-extended American imperial adventure, keeping in mind that it began with an illegal invasion in the first place, an invasion neither sanctioned by the UN Security Council nor in accordance with the UN's founding charter. Only if any action taken is on firm legal ground should we even consider participating.

03 September 2014

Hamas popularity surges

Whatever damage Israel did to Hamas during the recent war, it didn't harm the group's standing among the Palestinian people. Quite the contrary. According to a survey by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, the popularity of Hamas has surged in both Gaza and the West Bank to the point that if elections were held today it would win, as it did in the last Palestinian election in 2006. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya would defeat Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas two to one in a presidential election.

Furthermore, over half of the survey's respondents said armed resistance would help gain a Palestinian state while only 20 percent supported non-violent means. An overwhelming majority of West Bankers want to transfer “Hamas’s way” to the West Bank. For the first time ever, Hamas’s official TV station is the most popular in both Gaza and the West Bank (followed by al Jazeera).

As time passes, the support for Hamas will fade, but in the meantime it has been given a significant boost. It seems that Israel's attempts to destroy Hamas only rejuvenate it. This is not surprising. Nothing rallies the people around their government more effectively than dealing with an external threat, a threat to the tribe.

Nor is it surprising that the Palestinians believe violence may be the only way to win their own state. Fighting Israel causes them great suffering but endless talks with their overwhelming enemy, against whom they have absolutely no leverage in negotiations, have gained them exactly nothing. Or less than nothing—they remain under Israel's boot and more of their land is stolen every day. Putting up a fight, no matter how futile, at least allows them to feel like more than victims.

30 August 2014

Sister Simone for pope

What you may ask is a non-Catholic, indeed a non-Christian, doing recommending someone for pope. Well, it's partly tongue-in-cheek, of course, even if American Sister Simone Campbell might very well make a better pope than anyone else around, including Francis himself. I am quite aware that the Catholic Church, immersed in misogyny as it is, keeps women in their place and that place doesn't include running the outfit.

My inspiration to recommend Sister Simone regardless of Catholic dogma came from an article in the August issue of Harper's, "Francis and the Nuns" by Mary Gordon. Ms. Gordon outlines the current pope's treatment of nuns and finds him wanting. She lays out a sordid history of men religious dominating women religious in the oldest Christian faith, a domination that continues under Francis.

She gives as an example the reaction to an open letter to Congress written by Sister Simone, head of Network, a progressive Catholic lobbying group, and cosigned by dozens of Catholic sisters' groups, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The LCWR represents the leaders of 90 per cent of America's 59,000 nuns. The letter was in support of Obamacare. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had opposed the legislation on the grounds it would require Catholic employers to cover contraception and abortion, a claim the nuns' letter disputed.

In response, the Vatican initiated a 3-year investigation of the LCWR and ultimately censored the group. Further, the Vatican imposed an "apostolic visitation" that would examine in minute detail the works, prayer lives and finances of every nun in an apostolic community in the U.S. To put it bluntly, the nuns were to be harassed for their effrontery and masculine authority clearly established. Author Gordon provides a number of other examples of the male church flaunting its power to discipline uppity sisters.

But Sister Simone is not intimidated. Further to the Obamacare letter, she organized Nuns on the Bus, a cross-country tour to protest the cutbacks to social services proposed by Catholic Congressman Paul Ryan. And the good sister's work has not gone unnoticed. She has been a guest on The Colbert Report, spoken to the Democratic National Convention, and was invited by President Obama to the signing of the Affordable Care Act into law.

She is a highly intelligent woman of courage, she is charismatic and an excellent organizer. She has all the characteristics of a good leader. But why a leader of a church specifically? This is why. When asked where she got her courage, she answered, "It's not courage, not really. When your heart's been broken, nothing can stop you. And living beside the poor, I had my heart broken every day. ... When you are with the poor, you weep with them, you weep for the world. Weeping becomes part of your prayer."

I may be an atheist, a mere observer of the religious scene, but this sounds to me close to what the gentle Jesus was all about. It is something many bishops never seem to discover, but something a pope should have above all else. And Sister Simone has it.

28 August 2014

Putin leads Russia from Communism to Fascism

Russian president Vladimir Putin is on record as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the 20th century's major geopolitical disasters. Some might say this suggests he is an unregenerate communist but that, I suspect, is not the case. He was comfortable enough in the USSR, serving the state as a member of the infamous KGB, but I doubt he misses communism very much. The empire, yes, and certainly the strongman rule.

A communist would not, for example, restore the power of the church. Putin has overseen the reconstruction of some 23,000 churches that had been destroyed or fallen into disuse and returned all church property that had been seized during the Soviet era, making the Russian Orthodox Church the largest landowner in Russia. He has flaunted his own faith, into which—rare for a KGB agent—he was baptized as a child.

The support is mutual. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Rus', who has referred to Putin's rule as a "miracle," commented during street protests against Putin’s return to the presidency that “liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the apocalypse.” Father Alexey Kulberg adds, “The President’s ideology for developing Russia coincides with the direction of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

That direction includes demonizing homosexuals, providing Putin with a convenient scapegoat. When the czars felt their people were getting fed up with their ruler, they would institute a pogrom as a distraction. As one Russian interior minister was reputed to have said, "If the people can't hate the Jews, they'll hate the Czar." Under Czar Putin, it appears gays are the new Jews.

So how do we describe this new Russia? Fascist would seem to fit the bill. Historian Roger Griffin describes fascism as having three core components: "(i) the rebirth myth, (ii) populist ultra-nationalism and (iii) the myth of decadence." This fits Putin's politics rather neatly: rebirth of the nation's spiritual traditions, encouraging chauvinistic attitudes, and rallying his people against the decadence of the West.

Rebels in the eastern Ukraine claim their violence is justified by excessive fascist influence in Kiev. How ironic. The fascism they should be concerned about lies in the east, not in the west.

26 August 2014

Evidence for Democracy

Our current federal government's aversion to facts is now, unfortunately, well-established as a fact itself. Examples are legion, but I will just mention one.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose has assured Canadians that her government is a firm believer in science-based policy. Unfortunately, in a recent CBC interview she went about proving herself wrong. On the subject of drug treatment, she stated, and repeated with variations, a number of times, "There is no evidence at this point that heroin—giving heroin to heroin addicts—is any way an effective treatment." Science, it seems, disagrees. A study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, prepared by researchers with the National Addiction Centre at King’s College in England, states:
"Over the past 15 years, six RCTs [ randomized controlled trials] have been conducted involving more than 1,500 patients, and they provide strong evidence, both individually and collectively, in support of the efficacy of treatment with fully supervised self-administered injectable heroin, when compared with oral MMT [methadone maintenance treatment], for long-term refractory heroin-dependent individuals. These have been conducted in ... Switzerland ... the Netherlands ... Spain ... Germany ... Canada ... and England."
It appears Ms. Ambrose isn't even familiar with the most recent research in her own country. Canadians who despair at a government that has such little regard for facts in their policy making, have ample opportunity to respond. They can, for instance, support any of the other three major parties. They can also support Evidence for Democracy (E4D), A national, non-partisan NGO that "advocates for the transparent use of science and evidence in public policy and government decision-making."

E4D is looking for experts from all fields to help monitor and report on whether government decisions are being based on the best available evidence. Even if you aren't an expert on anything, volunteers are needed to help with research, social media, communications, graphic design, video production, campaigning, fundraising, writing, and English-French translation. It's an opportunity for every Canadian, at least every Canadian who believes in evidence-based policy (and what member of Progressive Bloggers doesn't?), to do their bit for science and enlightened governance.

Calling the bluff on "we must compete in the global marketplace"

The soul-numbing mantra "we must compete in the global marketplace" is much heard these days. Conservative politicians and business groups toss it out tirelessly as an argument to reduce taxes, and weaken labour and environmental laws. Unfortunately, their argument is valid. Trade agreements have so reduced the ability of national governments to tax and to provide legislative protection for workers and the environment, or indeed to act in way that might reduce corporate profits, they are now largely at the mercy of corporate whim.

Governments have seen their power slip away, turning democracies into plutocracies. Indeed, that and not trade often seems to be the primary goal of these agreements. One answer to this challenge is global agreements on worker rights and environmental policy. Another is global taxation.

Movement in this direction is showing signs of life. For instance, 11 members of the European Union have agreed to create a financial transactions tax (FTT), sometimes called a Robin Hood tax, to be levied on trades of shares and some derivatives. The FTT is popular among the European public because it generates new revenue from the under-taxed financial sector. It may also dampen speculation that contributes to financial crises. The tax is expected to have only marginal effect on economic growth. Other countries may join later although the U.K. is opposed to an FTT (as is the U.S.).

In his best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty goes much further, arguing for a global wealth tax. He refers to the tax as “the only civilized solution” for avoiding capitalism’s "endless inegalitarian spiral.” It must be global, he argues, because it has become too "difficult for any single government to regulate or tax capital and the income it generates.”

Piketty admits the idea is utopian, but the idea is in itself useful. It can serve as an effective challenge to the conservative argument that government taxing power is limited by our need to compete in the global marketplace. We can counter by pointing out that that is a choice, not an act of nature as they seem to imply. We can liberate ourselves from corporate blackmail by matching global trade with global taxation. If they reject the idea, then they are choosing to undermine democracy. We can, in other words, call their bluff.

23 August 2014

Who would you believe—Stephen Harper or Willie Nelson?

Apparently the $24-million of our tax money the federal government spent on an ad campaign to promote Canadian oil and the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington has gone down the drain. According to experts on Canada-U.S. relations, the campaign was a bust. "Buy our oil because we’re nice people—that doesn't fly," said David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington.

But the feds had better keep their ad blitz going because Willie Nelson is coming to town. Well, to a farm near Neligh, Nebraska, actually. He will join our very own Neil Young for an anti-Keystone concert in a local cornfield. Yes, cornfield. The field is in the path of the pipeline—a group of farmers, ranchers and Native Americans, along with artist John Quigley, carved an anti-pipeline message into it earlier this year. The concert is September 27th.

And why, one might ask, should anyone believe what a couple of singer/songwriter/guitar players have to say about pipelines? Well, one might ask the same question about the Harper government. Nelson and Young are, in fact, both long-time environmentalists, but that's not the point. We are talking about promotion here. What will best reach Americans' hearts and minds? Ads by the Canadian government or the warmth and charm of a country music icon? I'm betting on Willie.

22 August 2014

RIP—and thanks for the beer, Ed

The inventor of my favourite beer died this week. Ed McNally, former lawyer and barley farmer, who founded Big Rock Breweries in 1985 and introduced Traditional Ale (Trad to us aficionados), the world's finest beer, a year later.

Ed was a pioneer in craft beer. Unimpressed by the pale, fizzy, lagers mass-produced by the major breweries, he decided to exploit Alberta's barley and glacial waters to make traditional European-style beer without additives, preservatives or pasteurization. The result was Big Rock Breweries, now the largest and longest-running independently-owned craft brewery in Canada.

Much more than an entrepreneur, Ed was also a philanthropist and will be missed by Calgary's arts community, of which he was a strong supporter. He was a member of the Order of Canada and has been inducted into the Calgary Business Hall of Fame.

If there was a heaven and God liked his beer, no doubt the two would be having a pint as we speak. Cheers!

21 August 2014

Hillary Clinton—a very dangerous lady

During the Democratic nomination race for the 2008 U.S. presidential election, my preference was torn between a woman president or a black president. I was leaning toward the woman, Hillary Clinton, when, watching her on a TV interview, she stated that if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons she would "totally obliterate" Iran. I almost fell out of my chair.

What the hell was this all about? Iran doesn't have nuclear weapons and it hasn't attacked another country in centuries, so why was she tossing "obliteration" around—the slaughter of millions? This was reckless speculation that one would really not like to see in the president of the world's most powerful country. I quickly switched my hopes to the black candidate.

And, indeed, the black candidate duly won—the nomination and the presidency. Apparently Clinton's militarism also cost her the support of people who could actually vote on the nomination. But she soldiers on, almost certainly aiming for the Democratic nomination in 2016. I find her no more appealing now than I did then.

Very recently, in an interview in The Atlantic, she trotted out a series of bellicose views on American foreign policy that would have had Dick Cheney applauding: advocating a tougher stance on Syria, zealous support for turning the war on terror into a new cold war (sounding a bit like a jihadist herself), cheerleading Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians, denying Iran the right to any uranium enrichment at all, and advocating a more belligerent approach on foreign policy generally, while all the time bad-mouthing Obama's overly "cautious" approach. (Any progressive tempted to support Clinton should read this interview—it's a mind changer.)

All this was accompanied by a chauvinistic view of U.S. foreign policy achievements not always rooted in fact. For instance, while wallowing in a little American exceptionalism, she and her interlocutor agreed that the U.S. defeat of fascism and communism had been "a pretty big deal" for the U.S. But of course their motherland defeated neither. Fascism was defeated primarily by the Soviet Union (80 per cent of the casualties suffered by the German military were inflicted by the Soviets) with the support of the U.S. (and others) and Communism was defeated largely by the citizens of the Soviet Union and its satellites, to say nothing of collapsing under its own dead weight, although again, the U.S. might be credited with a supporting role. Clinton's Hollywood view of history does no credit to a woman who was U.S. Secretary of State for four years.

Maybe she is just flaunting her tough guy bona fides, necessary it seems for a U.S. presidential candidate, no doubt more so for a woman. But I think she does too much macho strutting for it to be an electoral gimmick. I think she means it.

Nonetheless, I would love to see a woman win the presidency. So please, please, Democratic Party, take courage and convince Elizabeth Warren to run in 2016.

Why is Purolator tackling hunger?

I confess that one of my minor pleasures is watching CFL games on TSN. Among the endless game interruptions is an ad/public service announcement in which genial Chris Schultz, member of the TSN football panel, hosts a presentation about the Purolator Tackle Hunger program. According to its website Purolator, the parcel delivery company, uses the Tackle Hunger program to work "closely with its teammates, customers and food banks across Canada to collect donations and help raise awareness about the issue of hunger in Canada."

I cringe every time the bit comes on. Not to disparage Purolator's charity, but in one of the richest countries of the world, why on earth are we depending on a corporation to feed our people? For that matter, why are we relying on food banks? This is something for us to be deeply embarrassed about, if not ashamed.

It's not as if food banks generally and Purolator specifically are tackling hunger successfully. Food bank use rose steadily after 2008, hitting a high of 872,379 people per month in 2012. Over a third of those helped are children. One wonders how often these thousands of kids go to school hungry. And food banks aren't the half of it: a survey by Human Resources Development Canada indicated that only a quarter of Canadians who go hungry use food banks, and many of those who do still go hungry at times.

The reason we have food banks is, of course, low incomes: low pay (12 per cent of households helped are employed) and inadequate social welfare. Food Banks Canada (yes, there is actually a national organization) makes a number of recommendations, including long-term federal funding of affordable housing, increased social investment in areas with high levels of food insecurity, increased support for programs that help vulnerable Canadians get training for better-paying jobs, revolutionizing social assistance so people can build self-sufficiency rather than being trapped in poverty, and helping people in low-paying, part-time, and temporary jobs get better-paid, long-term employment.

All good ideas and all will take money, but fortunately there's lots of that around. Our governments have no excuse for not ensuring all Canadians have a standard of living adequate for a healthy lifestyle. According to Statistics Canada, private non-financial corporations in this country are currently sitting on a cash hoard of $630-billion. It's time we instructed the tax man to dip into those billions companies aren't investing so we can invest them in decent incomes for the poor, allowing them to buy food with dignity. Then, instead of branding hunger, Purolator can stick to delivering parcels.

19 August 2014

What keeps Canada together?

The above is the title of a survey commissioned by the Association for Canadian Studies and carried out by Leger Marketing earlier this year. The answer to what unites the country, from the 1,509 Canadians included in the survey, was clear. Of the 11 possibilities offered, the top two choices by a wide margin were the Charter of Rights and Medicare. Even hockey wasn't close.

Except among the youth (18-24 year olds) who ranked Medicare (surprising) and hockey (not surprising) as our top two ties. Francophones ranked the Charter first but chose hockey and respect for provincial jurisdiction slightly ahead of universal health care. A couple of the old unifiers, threat of Americanization and the monarchy, ranked dead last, suggesting a certain confidence in the country.

One suspects the top two choices of Canadians would definitely not be those of our federal government, which appears to have little use for the Charter and only reluctant support for Medicare. The monarchy would, no doubt, rank high on its list. But then in 2011, a survey known as an election showed that over 60 per cent of Canadians would prefer not to have the current party running the government, so it's hardly surprising we disagree on what's important to us.

16 August 2014

PR tops journalism in U.S.

If Americans often seem uninformed or misinformed about current affairs, it may be because they get more propaganda than news. There are now five times as many public relations experts at work in the U.S. than reporters. Furthermore, the difference is growing. While the number of reporters in the country dropped by almost 9,000 from 2004 to 2013, the number of PR experts increased by over 36,000. The PR people are also better paid, on average 25 per cent more, and the income gap, too, is growing.

As a result, Americans get increasingly more of their information from press releases rather than from news reporting and often this material isn't vetted or contextualized. A study by the Pew Research Center on the 2012 presidential election coverage reported "how journalists in that campaign often functioned as megaphones for political partisans."

For young Americans seeking a lucrative career, the best advice would seem to be choose propaganda over news. Both the pay and the prospects are much better. A University of Georgia study found that graduates entering public relations earned about $5,000 more than those starting at daily papers and $6,000 more than those working in TV. The prospects for a well-informed American public are not quite as promising.

15 August 2014

Harper—not a man for our time

Vladimir Putin is a corrupt bully and I don't like the guy. Nor do I like the mischief he's up to in Ukraine. Nonetheless, I am not impressed by Stephen Harper's self-righteous ranting about him.

I find Harper very hard to agree with even when he's on the right side of the issue. Not because of the position he takes but because of the way he takes it. He has a black and white, us vs. them, approach to every issue which is not only questionable but dangerous. Few issues are black and white. There are shades of grey, nuances, subtleties, which are often critical to understanding an issue thoroughly.

Such is the case in Ukraine. As thuggish as Putin's actions are, they have a certain justification. Russia has been catastrophically invaded on a number of occasions throughout its history bringing horrors we can hardly imagine, from the Mongols in the thirteenth century to the Germans in the twentieth. Russians have a right to a little paranoia when it comes to security along their borders. The pillar of Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War was maintaining security against western invasion. We can hardly be surprised that Putin is not going to accept a hostile state on Russia's western border. And unfortunately the West, particularly the U.S., has been making its own mischief in Ukraine.

As for the Crimea, it belonged to Russia from the time of Katherine the Great until 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev rather generously gave it to Ukraine. Of course at the time, Ukraine was a Soviet republic so it was really just keeping it in the family. Putin seems to be saying, now that you've left the family you can't take it with you. Furthermore, Russia sees the Crimea, home of its largest warm water naval base, as critical to Russian security.

Harper seems to appreciate none of this. When the U.S. decided to protect its security by invading a country not next door but on the other side of the world, and justified the invasion with lies, Harper wanted very much for us to participate. He went so far as to publicly chastise us in the U.S. for not doing our bit. He simply cannot see the analogy to Putin's behaviour in Ukraine. To Harper it's the United States (friend) good, Russia (foe) bad. This kind of simplistic thinking leads to nothing but dangerously biased and rash decision-making. And, of course, it precludes any possibility of Canada acting as a negotiator and peace-maker, the most important role we can play in international disputes. This prime minister is simply not a man fit for leadership in a volatile and complex world.

14 August 2014

Libya—another dictator replaced with chaos

Political use of the term "blowback" first appeared in the CIA's internal history of the 1953 Iranian coup. Orchestrated by Britain and the U.S., the coup replaced the democratically-elected Mosaddegh government with the Shah. The term proved most appropriate as the big power mischief ultimately led to the Iranian Revolution and alienation of Iran from the West, essentially the opposite of the intended consequences.

Judging by two recent examples, overthrowing dictators can equally result in some nasty blowback. The usual suspects, Britain and the U.S., led the invasion of Iraq which successfully overthrew Saddam Hussein. The theory was that with the overthrow of Hussein, the Iraqis would shower their liberators with candy and flowers, embrace democracy and become good friends with Israel. It didn't quite work out that way. The invasion resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, millions of refugees, massive destruction of the country, and a nation declining into chaos. The Kurds have taken control of their ancient lands in the north, Sunni insurgents attack Shias and the brutal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has seized control of several major cities in the northwest. The country may not survive.

Things are hardly better in Libya. In 2011, NATO aided rebels in their fight against Muammar Gaddafi by launching massive air attacks. NATO participation was vital in successfully bringing Gaddafi down. Britain and France, who led the bombing, proclaimed they had delivered democracy to Libya. Well ... not exactly. Three years later, Gaddafi is gone, but rival militias fight each other and government forces in a chaotic civil war that leaves no one safe. A number of countries, including the U.S. and Canada, enthusiastic supporters of the NATO intervention, have abandoned their embassies. The country is rapidly becoming a failed state.

Every action can have unintended consequences, but it seems that when Western countries interfere violently in other people's business, the consequences are all too often tragic. The West can and should do a lot of good in the world, but it might be advisable to confine its contributions to more constructive instruments than bombs.

13 August 2014

Israel vs. Hamas or Likud vs. Gaza—framing the issue

A major goal in a propaganda war is to frame the issue on your terms. For example, in labour disputes, businesses (and their political and media allies) often claim the argument is not with the workers but with the "union bosses." The objective is to convince the public and perhaps even union members that management has no quarrel with their decent, hard-working employees, it's all the fault of the trouble-making union leaders. This is nonsense, of course. Unions are thoroughly democratic organizations and their leaders legitimately represent their members. But if management can successfully sell its message, and it often does, it can gain the upper hand in public opinion, an important advantage.

Israel, with its powerful publicity machine, aided and abetted by Western political and media elites, has been highly successful in just such a framing of its assault on Gaza. It has sold the issue as Israel vs Hamas, sending the message that Israel is not assaulting the good people of Gaza but rather just this terrorist organization called Hamas. The hundreds of Palestinians who die, and the thousands injured and driven from their homes are not the enemy, just unfortunate collateral damage, victims not of Israel but of Hamas.

But Hamas is in fact the democratically-elected government of Gaza. Khaled Mashal's Hamas is just as legitimate a representative of Gazans as Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party is of Israelis. Israel vs. Hamas makes no more sense than Likud vs. Gaza. The conflict should correctly be framed as either Israel vs. Gaza or Likud vs. Hamas. But by selling "Israel vs. Hamas," Israel has created the impression that Netanyahu truly represents his people whereas Hamas represents only its members, a bunch of terrorists, a highly useful lie in the propaganda wars, a lie completely swallowed by the Western media.

Israel not only has the biggest guns, it also has the best PR. The Palestinians get beat up on both fronts.

Frank's 10 happiness tips

Pope Francis may still be immersed in a certain amount of traditional Catholic misogyny, but he is nonetheless a breath of fresh air for the church, and for that matter, Christianity. In a recent interview he offered 10 tips to achieve happiness. The tips are worth repeating not only because they make good sense but because they are rather surprising coming from the world's top Christian:
1. "Live and let live."
2. "Be giving of yourself to others."
3. "Proceed calmly" in life.
4. Have "a healthy sense of leisure."
5. "Sunday is for family."
6. Be "creative" with young people and find innovative ways to create dignified jobs.
7. Respect and take care of nature.
8. Stop being negative.
9. "The worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes."
10. Work for peace. "We are living in a time of many wars. The call for peace must be shouted."
Surprisingly, other than Number 5, they ignore the Ten Commandments. Indeed Number 1, which sounds like a Canadian motto, seems in direct contradiction of the Commandments' dictatorial tone. Along with Number 9, it also violates what I have always thought to be a Christian duty: spreading the good word and converting everybody gullible enough to take it seriously.

Now if only other Christian leaders, along with a parcel of Imams, would emulate il Papa, lay off the proselytizing and preach a little more "live and let live," the world would be a much better place.

11 August 2014

Why a lifelong Dipper is disappointed with Thomas Mulcair

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, I've been a supporter of the CCF/NDP since before Thomas Mulcair was born. The major reason is simply that Canada's social democratic party has always been the voice of the vulnerable and the oppressed. And that is also the major reason I am uncomfortable with its current leader, specifically with his failure to speak out strongly about the atrocities being inflicted on the people of Gaza. His statement on the issue was nothing more than a mealy-mouthed piece of political pap.

Where is the outrage? The suffering of the Gazans ought to inspire any self-respecting social democrat to righteous wrath. Yet Mulcair lays the blame for the slaughter almost entirely on Hamas while tiresomely repeating the refrain that Israel has a right to defend itself, ignoring the fact that violence from Gaza is entirely the result of Israel's imprisonment of its people, including the million refugees denied their moral and legal right to return to their homes solely because of their race. Oppressors lose any right to punish their victims for retaliation by the very act of oppression itself. However, perhaps Mulcair's pusillanimous reaction is not surprising—he has said in the past he is "an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances," a position disturbingly similar to Stephen Harper's.

None of the leaders of our major political parties has the courage to speak in defence of one of the most long-suffering people on earth. All three cower from the political correctness that smothers discussion of Israel in this country. Harper's motive may be the purest. He has a keen eye for political advantage, but his black and white view of the world blinds him from finding fault in a nation he considers a friend. Trudeau's position is just ... well, your guess is as good as mine. But Mulcair betraying his party's proudest tradition is simply unforgivable.

No doubt some NDP MPs are as frustrated about this as I am. But party "discipline" under Mulcair allows only the leader and the party critic to speak publicly on the issue, another aspect of his leadership that troubles me. Fortunately I am a mere member of the party, so I am free to criticize both Israel's behaviour and the party's response to it. Some wit has suggested that the N in NDP now stands for Neoliberal. Say it ain't so, Tom, say it ain't so.

28 July 2014

Canada Revenue Agency snubs Parliamentary Budget Officer

It may be hard to believe, but Canadians don't know the difference between what the government is owed in taxes and what it collects. And we aren't going to find out. That is the decision by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in response to a request from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) for information that would allow calculation of the tax gap.

Apparently the Commissioner of Revenue had assured the PBO the info could be provided without breaching taxpayer confidentiality or violating the Income Tax Act, but after meetings with CRA officials that initially appeared productive, the CRA declined to provide critical information, citing legislative prohibitions. The PBO stated in a letter to the Commissioner that he would, as a result, be unable to fulfill part of his legislative mandate and requested other options. After a long delay, he was told he would not be getting the information and that was that.

Tax evasion and tax avoidance through the use of tax havens has long been a problem for Canada and other countries. Indeed it is an international scandal. Knowing the tax gap would assist government in best allocating resources to recover these monies. Appreciating this, earlier this year MP Dionne Labelle made a motion in the House of Commons to order the CRA to provide information necessary to provide an independent estimate of the gap arising from tax evasion and tax avoidance via tax havens. It was defeated by the Conservatives.

The PBO is mandated to "provide independent analysis to Parliament on the state of the nation's finances." Rather hard for him to do his job, and hard for us to get a proper picture of the nation's finances, when we don't know what's missing.

Germany stands up for democracy

Finally, someone has said enough to the erosion of democracy brought about by "trade" agreements. From NAFTA to the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, these agreements have eroded the power of governments in favour of investors.

International agreements are, in themselves, a very good idea, one way of imposing orderly behaviour among nations, and trade has always been a way of bringing people together. If we are to have trade agreements, as with any international agreement, we have to sacrifice a certain degree of sovereignty to the larger good. Unfortunately, these agreements go much further than what is necessary. For instance, by incorporating investor-state dispute settlement provisions, they have been used as instruments to provide foreign corporations the right to sue national governments, not in the nation's courts, but via trade panels established under the agreements. A three-person panel could, behind closed doors, override a nation's laws, in effect dismissing both democracy and due process.

It is precisely for this reason that Germany has declared it will not sign CETA. According to Deputy Economy Minister Stefan Kapferer, "The German government does not view as necessary stipulations on investor protection, including on arbitration cases between investors and the state with states that guarantee a resilient legal system and sufficient legal protection from independent national courts." The Germans have already taken a similar position in the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement with the United States.

Germany is showing a respect for its courts that unfortunately our government infamously does not have. How ironic that we must take lessons on democracy from our old foe, but this isn't particularly surprising—Germany is now, in a number of important ways, a much more democratic nation than any in North America.

26 July 2014

NHL is worried about global warming—listen up, Mr. Harper

Surprising perhaps, but the National Hockey League now produces a sustainability report. And it's worried about global warming. According to League Commissioner Gary Bettman, "Our sport can trace its roots to frozen freshwater ponds, to cold climates. Major environmental challenges, such as climate change and freshwater scarcity, affect opportunities for hockey players of all ages to learn and play the game outdoors." This is the first sustainability report produced by a pro sports league.

It presents the league's carbon inventory, detailing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its operations, including energy and water use, waste and travel, acknowledging that NHL hockey is energy intensive. The league has established an initiative, NHL Green, to raise the level of environmental consciousness among fans and arena operators, and encourage improvements within its buildings and operations.

Mike Richter, three-time NHL All-Star goalie, now environmental champion, concludes the report stating that researchers have "found a 20 to 30 per cent decrease in the length of Canadian skating seasons over the past 50 years, with the biggest drops in Alberta, eastern British Columbia, and the southern Prairie regions."

Perhaps Mr. Richter could convince hockey fan Stephen Harper to add another chapter to his book about hockey discussing the threat global warming poses to the "Great Game." And then add what he learns to a new chapter in his environmental policy.

25 July 2014

Hamas more legitimate than Harper's Conservatives

Discussions on the Palestine issue are usually framed as Hamas vs. Israel. This suggests Hamas is merely an organization when in fact it is the democratically-elected government of Palestine, having won the last all-Palestine election in 2006. Or at least it was. That government collapsed after violent assault from Israel including the arrest of dozens of parliamentarians, sanctions by Israel and the West (supported, to our shame, by Canada) and ultimately fighting between Hamas and its rival, Fatah. Nonetheless, no election has been held since, so Hamas remains the only party in Palestine with democratic legitimacy.

We might compare that legitimacy with our elected government. Hamas won with 44.5 per cent of the vote. This compares to the 39.6 per cent the Conservatives received to win our 2011 election. Furthermore, the Palestine election had an impressive 77 per cent turnout, despite considerable Israeli obstruction. The election was described by the head of the European Parliament's monitoring team as "extremely professional, in line with international standards, free, transparent and without violence."

Canada's election was no doubt extremely professional as well, but the turnout was only 61 per cent. In other words, the Conservatives were elected by 24 per cent of Canadians, Hamas by 34 per cent of Palestinians. One might say that, from a democratic perspective, the Hamas government is 50 per cent more legitimate than our federal Conservative government. How ironic that Canada, ostensibly a strong supporter of democracy, helped to destroy an elected government with more democratic legitimacy than our own.

In any case, Hamas legitimately represented the will of the Gazan people, if not all Palestinians, at least until the formation of a unity government with Fatah in April. Whether that remains the case, we will soon find out. Hamas and Fatah have now agreed to an election later this year. Let us hope Canada will not collaborate in wrecking this government.

I'll answer your question, Mr. Cameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron, like our PM a cheerleader for Israel, posed a rhetorical question this week: how would those criticizing Israel’s actions expect their own government to react if hundreds of rockets were raining down on their country's cities?

Well, Mr. Cameron, if hundreds of rockets were raining down on Canadian cities because our government had in effect imprisoned 1.8 million people, one million of them refugees denied their moral and legal rights to return to their homes solely because of their race and religion, I would make it very clear what I expected my government to do—END THE IMPRISONMENT. I decidedly would not tell it to invade the prison and slaughter hundreds of the inmates including children. Sometimes, sir, the best answer is the most obvious one.

22 July 2014

Who loves the US of A?

The answer to the above question, according to a Pew Research survey of 44 countries, is mostly everybody. Well, outside of the Middle East anyway. Not surprisingly, most Middle Eastern countries hold an unfavourable view of the U.S., led by Egypt where only 10 per cent of the population is favorably disposed.

Most European countries are fans, particularly Italy, France (now there's a surprise) and Poland, where over three-quarters of the public hold positive views of the U.S. Approval has declined to low numbers, however, in Germany, likely because of spying on their PM, and even more so in Russia, no doubt over the Ukraine issue.

The U.S. is overwhelmingly popular throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. Popularity peaks in the Philippines, where over 90 per cent of Filipinos hold a favourable view. Even 60 per cent of Venezuelans, despite the tensions between the two countries, offer a favourable rating, as did half the Chinese. Pakistanis, however, return the low esteem Americans hold their country in with only 14 per cent warmly disposed toward the U.S.

Americans face widespread disapproval of their National Security Agency's spying and strong and increasing disapproval of their nation's drone attacks. Nonetheless, outside of the Middle East, there is little anti-Americanism and a lot of thumbs up. The median rating among the nations surveyed was 65 per cent favourable compared to 49 per cent for China, the Americans' major rival in international affairs. All in all, not bad news for Uncle Sam.

Tobacco companies—the biggest, baddest drug dealers pursue our kids

If we conjure up an image of drug cartel bosses, we might imagine swarthy men with gold chains hanging around their necks and voluptuous babes hanging off each arm. This would be well off the mark for the drug dealers who present the greatest threat to our young people. They are, on the contrary, law-abiding citizens, loving spouses and parents and friendly neighbours. At least in their personal lives. But when they don their dark suits and pick up their briefcases, these respectable family men, or women, metamorphose into commerce people, the CEOs of Imperial Tobacco, JTI-MacDonald and Rothmans, Benson and Hedges, dealers in nicotine, an addictive recreational drug that kills 40,000 Canadians a year.

They may not hang around high schools, but they are nonetheless setting their sights on addicting Canadian youth. Their latest gimmick is flavoured products—fruit, vanilla, mint, chocolate, maple syrup and menthol-flavoured cigarillos, cigars and thin cigarettes that look like a lipstick.

Loaded with kid-friendly appeal, they work. Over half of young smokers use a flavoured product. According to University of Waterloo public health professor David Hammond, "What we have is a very effective recruitment tool for kids to start smoking." Menthol (a favourite of mine those many years ago) is particularly insidious in that it not only imparts an icy flavour but also anesthetizes the throat making it easier to inhale.

The time to hook people on drugs is, of course, when they are young. The tobacco companies are quite aware that 70 per cent of future smokers start before their 18th birthday. The corporate CEOs present themselves as respectable citizens, and we accept them as respectable citizens, even as they, with premeditation, addict young people in a habit that will kill half of them if they don't manage to quit. It's a sordid business, and the tobacco barons should be treated with the contempt they deserve.

21 July 2014

Why Canadians must resort to the courts for democracy

Federal Conservatives have been complaining lately about the courts being used, in the words of MP Dan Albas, "to do an end-run around our democratic process." My immediate reaction to Albas's remarks was, what democratic process? If he is referring to our current governance, describing it as democratic is overly generous.

To begin with, our government is run by a party that won the support of less than 40 per cent of the Canadian people. In other words, we are governed by a party that a solid majority do not want governing us. This isn’t necessarily contrary to democratic process. In the past we have had governments, both Liberal and Conservative, that won only minority support but compensated by drawing ideas from across the political spectrum. This is not the case, however, with this government. It is led by the most dogmatic prime minister in my memory (and I’ll be 80 in November), a man uncomfortable with views not his own, a man who sees issues only in black and white. Never have I felt more alienated from my own government.

The current government’s style is illustrated by its environmental policy. Despite dramatic changes, I don’t remember it being presented to the people during the last election or being opened to the public for thorough discussion, and when finally presented to Parliament it was buried in omnibus bills thus precluding our elected representatives from properly debating it. Indeed, there have been suggestions that it was, in effect, written by the oil industry. In any case, this is not democratic process.

What then are the majority of us to do when our views are ignored? One perfectly legitimate recourse is the courts which, incidentally, often seem more in tune with most Canadians than the executive branch.

I agree that this is not the preferred approach. However if the government is concerned, it can do something about it. First, it could legislate an electoral system that would ensure a majority of Canadians are represented in their government. Second, before it finalized legislation, it could make an effort to hear and consider the views of all Canadians and then present a bill to Parliament such that each and every issue could be individually and thoroughly debated. Both of these measures are straightforward and could be initiated forthwith. 

Until such measures are undertaken to create a truly democratic process, concerned Canadians will have no alternative but to avail themselves of other means of having their voices heard. If Conservative MPs like Mr. Albas do not approve, they know what to do.

Hamas is not a terrorist organization

It seems that the media and politicians can hardly mention Hamas, much in the news these days, without referring to it as a terrorist organization. And indeed a number of governments, including our own, have officially labelled it as such. But we might keep in mind that our government at least is sycophantically pro-Israel and labeling Hamas terrorist is very much in Israel's interest. So is Hamas truly a terrorist organization or is this just a political ploy?

We might start by defining "terrorism," a notably slippery task. I will, for the purposes of this discussion, borrow from Wikipedia: "violent acts that are intended to create fear (terror); are perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal; and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants." So, has Hamas committed such acts? Yes, it has. But then so has Israel, Hamas's nemesis. Indeed, Israel's current actions in Gaza might fit the above definition rather well. And of course the two greatest terrorist acts in all of history—the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—were committed by our great and good friend, the United States.

Yet we have never labelled Israel or American governments terrorist organizations. Why? Well, there is a logical reason. Although their military arms have committed terrorist acts, they are a great deal more than their militaries. The governments responsible were and are complex, comprehensive institutions with social and political arms as well as military arms. It would not make sense to categorize them by only one of the many activities of only one of their parts.

But the same logic applies equally to Hamas. Its military arm has used terrorism, but the organization also has a social welfare arm and a highly successful political arm. Hamas, after all, won the last all-Palestinian election in 2006 and is, in fact, a democratically elected government, not merely an organization. Reuven Paz, Israeli scholar and specialist in Islamic movements, has stated that 90 per cent of Hamas’s activities involve “social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities.”

So to categorize Hamas as a terrorist organization is no more logical than to categorize other governments as such if they commit terrorist acts, and many do. What then is the way out of this definition conundrum? We must not only define terrorist acts, we must also define a terrorist organization—another slippery task. I suggest that it be defined as an organization or government whose behaviour consists primarily of terrorist acts as defined above.

This will allow us to exclude culpable Israeli and U.S. governments, but we must also exclude Hamas. So let's put an end to the political fiction and recognize Hamas for what it is—a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It will be very difficult to achieve peace in the region until we do.

13 July 2014

Settlers killed in Palestine—echoes of another colonialism

The killing of three Jewish teenagers from a West Bank settlement in Palestine brought to mind another colonialism—that of North America. As the Europeans swarmed across the Americas, the Native people found themselves overwhelmed. Sometimes they fought to keep the intruders out, but inevitably they found themselves outmatched by superior numbers and technology. Sometimes out of desperation they would commit violence against the invaders, attacking and killing settlers, the very ones they could see dispossessing them. The attacks could be savage, as acts of desperation often are.

There is a remarkable similarity to what we see happening in Palestine. Although the killers of the Jewish boys have not yet been identified, they may well be militant opponents of Israeli expansion. As with the Native peoples of North America, the Palestinians watch the seemingly inexorable theft of their land, unable to resist forcefully against overwhelming military superiority. Most patiently await the results of negotiated agreement, but a few, frustrated by endless and unproductive chin wagging, act out their frustrations with violence.

Today we would label the Indians who carried out attacks on settlers as terrorists, as indeed we label the Palestinians who echo their desperation. But these are less acts of terrorism than gestures against colonialism, against land theft.

Just as there are strong similarities between the two stories, there is also at least one significant difference. The Indians were doomed to lose their land, to be left with scraps, as their populations were decimated by the diseases the Europeans brought with them while the numbers of Europeans and others ultimately swelled into the hundreds of millions. The Palestinians, however, do not face the same smothering sea of intruders. Even in Israel, they make up 20 per cent of the population and in Palestine as a whole they make up nearly half, and then there is their diaspora in the surrounding countries, to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of Arab allies in the region. Unlike with the Indians, time and numbers are on their side.

12 July 2014

Bucking horses and other immoral entertainments

It's Stampede time in Calgary and that means it's time for another debate about exploiting other animals to amuse ourselves. The focus, of course, is rodeo—bucking broncs, calf roping, steer wrestling, chuckwagon racing and other entertainments featuring man and beast. Every year, animal welfare advocates criticize some or all of the events as cruel and Stampede officials staunchly defend those same events. So, is rodeo cruel or not?

In answer to that concern, consider the most iconic of rodeo events—cowboy versus bucking bronco. The first question is, why do the horses buck? There are various possible reasons but one fundamental one. A horse is a prey animal and when a large creature suddenly leaps on its back, it means but one thing: a predator is attempting to kill it. This terrifies the animal and it desperately tries to rid itself of the thing.

This then is how rodeo amuses and entertains the crowd. It subjects a dumb beast—a horse, a calf, a steer—to stress and fear. Over and over and over again. Cruel? Without a doubt.

Rodeo people insist they treat their animals to the best of care, and as far as food, shelter and medical attention is concerned, I don't doubt that they do. The animals are, after all, prize assets, the source of rodeo revenues. Only fools fail to take good care of their assets. I take good care of my car, but my car is not a sentient being. Animals are. Good care of an animal requires attention to its mental well-being as well as its physical, and the repeated infliction of terror does not contribute to mental well-being.

The Stampede has a great deal to offer in the way of fun, entertainment and education. It really has no need to play to the crowd by tormenting animals. It is time to end the barbarism.

04 July 2014

Blair makes nice with Sisi—following in Margaret's steps?

Former British PM Margaret Thatcher's fondness for Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet was infamous. Pinochet was a mass torturer and murderer, but the iron lady was quite fond of him despite his peccadilloes. He was a favourite partner for tea.

Now it seems former PM Tony Blair also has a fondness for military dictators. He has agreed to become an adviser to Egyptian president, and former general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi is truly a rival for Pinochet when it comes to bloodletting, only in power for a year and already he has killed more than 2,500 protesters and imprisoned over 20,000. More recently his regime sentenced three journalists, including one Canadian, to long prison terms for ... well, for committing journalism.

Tony claims he will not make money out of the arrangement, yet he is acting on behalf of a program funded by the United Arab Emirates that has promised to deliver huge business opportunities to those involved. This nest of dictators—the Emirates and Saudi Arabia—are jolly good friends of the UK and faithful customers of British arms dealers.

But is it only commerce that attracts politicians like Thatcher and Blair to these political thugs? Does that macho military swagger turn them on? Or did Pinochet's butchery of leftists excite Thatcher's political passions and Sisi's butchery of the Muslim Brotherhood excite Blair's? In any case, it's an unhealthy attraction that has led both to the most unseemly relationships and makes mock of their democratic pretensions.

Omar Khadr's trial lacked legal basis

After the way Omar Khadr has been persecuted by both the American government and ours, I wouldn't have thought any more outrageous news of this sordid affair could emerge. But it has. After a hard-fought freedom of information case by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, a court has ordered the release of a U.S. Department of Justice memo that rejects any legal foundation for Khadr's trial for war crimes.

In order to prosecute Khadr, the U.S. military invented the category of "unprivileged belligerent," i.e. because he wasn't wearing the uniform of a regular army, his actions constituted war crimes. It appears that the CIA became concerned that this legal sleight of hand might turn around and bite them in the ass. They use civilians to pilot drones and they do a lot of killing, so could these civilians be tried for war crimes? The CIA asked the Justice Department and got a decisive answer—no. In a detailed opinion, the Department concluded war criminality depends on a person's actions, not on whether the person is officially part of an army or wears a uniform. This, according to Khadr's Pentagon-based lawyer, "completely blows away one of the major prongs of the government's theory in all these Guantanamo cases."

Of further interest, the Justice Department memo came out several months before Omar accepted a plea. It isn't clear whether the prosecutors knew about the opinion, but if they did, and they didn't reveal it to the court, they were guilty of a serious breach of ethics.

Of particular interest to Canadians is whether or not our government knew. Was it aware that Khadr's conviction had no legal basis when it agreed to take him back? If not, then the Americans misled us about wrongfully incarcerating one of our citizens. If it did know, then its continued imprisonment of this young man is even more egregious than we had thought.

Khadr's story represents one of the sorrier episodes in the war on terror. This horrific abuse of a child soldier by the Americans aided and abetted by our own government has brought shame on both our countries. The least our government can do now is to recognize this legal charade and give Khadr his freedom. Unfortunately, this government is not one to admit error. The outrage will continue.

02 July 2014

Corporations suing countries—how crazy is that?

Lone Pine Resources sues Canada because Quebec has imposed a moratorium on fracking. Philip Morris sues the Australian government over its tobacco plain packaging legislation. Swedish energy company Vattenfall sues Germany because of that country’s decision to phase out nuclear energy.

Fracking is a method of exploiting oil and gas reserves that has been accused of, among other things, poisoning water reservoirs, and Quebec wants a time-out to properly evaluate the technology. Tobacco is the greatest killer drug on the planet, and Australia is simply trying to implement packaging recommendations of the World Health Organization. Germany is attempting to shift to safer sources of energy. All sensible measures. Yet companies are allowed to sue countries because their governments are trying to exercise the foremost responsibility of the state—protect its citizens?

What is more, these corporations are in effect above the law of the land. Rather than pursue their suits in the usual manner, by going to court, they can resort to panels empowered by the "trade" agreement under which they are suing. The treaties, such as NAFTA (Lone Pine vs. Canada), the Hong Kong-Australia investment treaty (Philip Morris vs. Australia), and the Energy Charter Treaty (Vattenfall vs. Germany), grant foreign investors the right to bypass the domestic courts of the host country and to directly file complaints to ad hoc tribunals which may operate in secret. How did this madness come to be?

At one time, in a more sensible past, governments granted charters to corporations to serve some public good—building a canal or a railroad, for instance—and could revoke that mandate when the job was done. But over the years, corporations have extended their influence until today, generously aided by "trade" agreements such as NAFTA, the World Trade Agreement, and other instruments of corporate empowerment, they can hold governments hostage, undermining both democracy and the rule of law.

We have allowed institutions that should be our servants to become our masters. It is time to end the madness and return them to their proper role—exploiting resources, providing jobs, products and services and absolutely nothing more. Their charters should confine them to strict mandates and be revoked if they engage in political activity of any kind. Fail to do this and we will continue to be bystanders as democracy is replaced with plutocracy.

28 June 2014

Republicans losing the Cuban vote

Lack of support from minority voters has long been an Achilles heel for the Republican Party. This holds true for Hispanics. In the last presidential election, Obama gained a record 75 per cent of the Latino vote. About the only consolation for the Republicans has been the support of Cuban-Americans who have long identified with or leaned toward the GOP. Now even that is changing.

A recent Pew Research survey showed that less than half of registered Cuban voters affiliate with the Republicans, only slightly more than with the Democrats. As recently as 2002, two-thirds affiliated with the Republican Party. Among all Cuban-Americans, including those not registered to vote, only a third say they identify with or lean toward the GOP, compared to half who identify with or lean toward the Democrats.

The loss of Cuban-American support is no small matter. They are committed voters. In 2012, two-thirds cast a ballot compared to less than half of Hispanics overall. 

Furthermore, young Cubans tend more to the Democrats than their elders although even among the older generation support for the Republicans is declining. The changing tide is well-illustrated in Florida, home to 70 per cent of the Cuban-American community. In 2004, George Bush won 78 per cent of the Cuban vote; in 2012, Mitt Romney won only 47 per cent. The Republican Party, it seems, is managing to alienate not only minorities but minorities within minorities.

20 June 2014

Iran has a huge PR problem

To say that that Americans and Israelis don't like Iran would hardly be news. But to say that just about every other country in the world doesn't like Iran either is worthy of attention. A recent survey by Pew Research of 40 countries around the globe found that in only three—Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan—did a majority have a favourable view of Iran.

Notice particularly that none of those countries is in the Middle East. Iran's popularity has been declining steadily throughout the area over the past decade, including surprisingly in the Palestinian Territories. Also surprisingly, in Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt, the new president, Hassan Rouhani, is even less popular than his predecessor, the controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Not so surprisingly, the survey revealed religious divisions. For example, large majorities of Lebanese Shias held a favourable view of Iran and its president while most Sunnis and Christians held an unfavourable view.

Among the nations engaged in nuclear talks with Tehran (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), public attitudes are largely critical of Iran. Even most Russians, although somewhat more divided, are negative toward the country.

If the U.S. and Israel are in a PR contest with Iran, they are winning hands down. Even if the Iranians don't care much for world opinion, they do their negotiating position no favour when almost the entire international community looks unfavourably on them. Their image needs a lot of polishing. On the other hand, it could just be their behaviour.

18 June 2014

Bravo to Elon Musk, patent-buster

Inventor/entrepreneur/engineer/investor Elon Musk recently announced he was giving away all the patents on Tesla Motor's electric car technology, allowing anyone, competitors included, to use them. Musk, CEO and product architect for the company (for which he receives a salary of a dollar a year), made the announcement last week, commenting, "We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform."

Nissan and BMW have already suggested they might take advantage. Other companies, such as Apple, Google and Samsung may also want to take notice. Sharing knowledge could be far more productive than the immensely expensive patent wars they have found themselves in lately.

Patents have always been thought to serve the public by stimulating innovation. But that idea is coming under fire. According to Musk, "There's far too much effort and energy put into creating patents that do not end up fostering innovation."

Open source knowledge, such as Linus Torvald's Linux operating system for example, allows everyone to experiment, to modify, to make cheaper, better and more accessible. Patents, by locking up knowledge, can inhibit innovation, often doing little more than help entrench monopoly in large corporations. Yet even corporations can benefit from open source. Rather than having to pay for all the research on a product themselves and limiting themselves to the ideas of their own people, they can take advantage of the creativity of many minds.

Quite aside from economic advantage, making knowledge available to everyone seems both more altruistic and more democratic, particularly in a shrinking world.

And, oh, incidentally, following the announcement, Tesla shares soared to an all-time high, making Mr. Musk half a billion dollars richer. Sometimes virtue pays.

17 June 2014

Can capitalists save capitalism?

Prominent Harvard economist Lawrence Katz illustrates the American economy with an amusing analogy. He depicts it as an apartment block in which the penthouses have increased in size, the middle apartments are increasingly squeezed and the basement is flooded. But what gets people down the most, he says, is that the elevator is broken.

Katz's analogy applies particularly to the U.S., the most inequitable nation in the developed world, and the one with the least economic mobility, but it applies to the rest of the world as well. Within nations and between nations, inequality is growing, perhaps dangerously. For this and other reasons capitalism, now the entire world's economic system, is becoming increasingly suspect. So suspect, in fact, that capitalists themselves are beginning to worry about its future.

At this year's World Economic Forum, the annual get-together of the world's corporate and government elites, one of the greatest threats to the global economy in the coming years was declared to be the growing gap between rich and poor.

Capitalists have even formed an organization to deal with inequality called the Inclusive Capitalism Initiative (ICI). Its website states that it "is concerned with fixing the elevator of the economist Larry Katz's famous analogy." The ICI recently organized a conference in London to address some of capitalism's sins. It was convened by Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild (now there's a name to be reckoned with), CEO of E.L. Rothschild, a holding company that manages investments in The Economist Group, owner of, among other things, The Economist magazine. The institutional investors and business leaders assembled represented, or so it was claimed, companies that together control about 30 per cent of the world's total stock of financial wealth under professional management.

All of this may represent a serious concern about the future of capitalism, or even about inequality, or it may just provide occasions for rich people to get together and reassure each other they are doing their bit for society. Time will tell. Even if its no more than noblesse oblige, I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt ... with a sensible degree of scepticism of course.

Alberta politicos hedge on flood mitigation

After the great flood in Calgary last year, municipal and provincial governments agreed something had to be done to prevent another such catastrophe. There were, however, no shortage of sceptics. There would be bold promises initially, they said, but the commitments would wane with time, people would start to forget, and much less would be done than promised. The sceptics, it seems, may be right.

Last week, a study of a proposed tunnel that would divert Elbow River flood waters from above the city to downstream on the Bow River concluded the cost would be $457-million. The reaction from both levels of government was less than encouraging. “Five hundred million dollars would build us a fair bit of LRT," said Mayor Naheed Nenshi, "Five hundred million dollars would go a long way towards solving the congestion problems on Crowchild Trail.” Premier Dave Hancock, too, exuded caution. "You know, we have to look at projects in the context of the effect on everybody who will be affected by it," he opined.

The numbers suggest an easy decision. If all the projects proposed to tame the Elbow were built—the tunnel plus a dry dam at McLean Creek and an off-stream reservoir at Springbank Road—the cost would come to $837-million. The flood cost $6-billion, not including the victims' personal expenses and heartache. In other words, the three projects would pay out over seven times if they prevented just one 2013 flood. They would, of course, protect us from many floods.

Nonetheless, here we are only a year later and already our governments are hedging. Major projects to prevent Elbow flooding have been proposed before and none survived the test of time. The cynics have history on their side.

14 June 2014

Kathleen Wynne—lucky with her enemies

Some people are lucky with their friends; some are lucky with their enemies. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is clearly one of the latter. Faced with two opponents that seemed determined to alienate voters, she swept to victory in Thursday's election.

With only a decade-old government replete with scandals to beat, the election should have been a walk in the park for the opposition Conservatives. But they insisted on being led by an extremist mouthing extremist policies, apparently inspired by the American Tea Party, a political force in decline even among their fellow Republicans. It was all too redolent of the Mike Harris years and Ontarians have obviously had enough of that. The Conservatives made a bad choice and paid the price—trounced.

The NDP did no better. Fighting an election they should never have forced in the first place and led by a leader who didn't seem to know what her philosophy was, they too paid the price of ignominious defeat. They had been in a position where they were a major influence on government policy, now they must linger in the legislative shadows, bereft of any influence whatsoever.

The cliché has it that electors don't vote a government in, they vote a government out. That should have happened this time, but with leaders like Hudak and Horwath, the opposition simply wasn't up to the cliché. Congratulations, nonetheless, to a worthy winner—Kathleen Wynne.

13 June 2014

Marshall Islanders take on the nuclear powers

This is a David and Goliath story like no other. The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a country with a population of only 68,000 souls, is taking the nuclear powers to court. Earlier this year, the Islanders filed against the nine nuclear-armed states at the International Court of Justice "for their alleged failure to fulfill their obligations with respect to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."

The Islanders distinguish between those states that recognize the jurisdiction of the Court and those that don't, and between those who have ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and those which haven't, but include all nine—China, North Korea, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.—in the suit. Their case can be read here. The Republic has itself signed the Treaty.

The Islanders have good cause for their suit. From 1946 to 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons in the islands, including the largest nuclear test it ever conducted. In 1956, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as "by far the most contaminated place in the world." In 1952, the U.S. tested its first hydrogen bomb on the island of Elugelab, utterly destroying it. The republic is the only country in the world where the UN has authorized the use of nuclear weapons. No one can question the Islanders credentials.

The suit calls for the court to acknowledge breach of international law, namely the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in both retaining a nuclear arsenal and in acting to improve weapons systems. It also seeks a court order compelling each nation to begin disarmament negotiations within a year.

Such a little country taking on such giants in such a noble endeavour, how can you help but wish them the greatest good will. The Islanders act for all seven billion of us, and you can help by signing the petition at the Nuclear Zero website.

07 June 2014

Mark Carney on capitalism eating its children

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, formerly Governor of the Bank of Canada, isn't exactly your average leftie. Indeed, bank governors tend to turn up on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, Mr. Carney, at a speech last week to the Conference for Inclusive Capitalism, sounded a bit like the Occupy Movement.

Linking the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting recession with absolutist beliefs in low taxes, deregulated markets and limited government intervention in the economy, he condemned what he called "unchecked market fundamentalism." His condemnation was replete with memorable quotes:
• Just like any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself.

• All ideologies are prone to extremes. Capitalism loses its sense of moderation when the belief in the power of the market enters the realm of faith.

• In the decade prior to the [2008] crisis ... we moved from a market economy towards a market society.
Great stuff from the governor. More evidence that those in the higher echelons of finance and industry are beginning to realize that capitalism's excesses are undermining the system itself, and a failure to contain those excesses may yet make a prophet out of Karl Marx.

06 June 2014

Legislating morality—the new prostitution law

Ah, yet another step backward into a failed past. I refer, of course, to our favourite government's new Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, a piece of legislation that criminalizes the purchase of sexual services.

To begin with, the bill isn't even logical. It criminalizes buying sex but not selling it. While claiming that it considers "the vast majority of those involved in selling sexual services as victims," it makes it more likely they will be victimized. If their customers are to be labelled criminals, prostitutes will be driven to ply their trade more furtively and in darker places. Afraid to identify themselves, clients will no longer be prepared to provide names or phone numbers. Valerie Scott, one of the three sex workers who successfully challenged the prostitution laws in the Supreme Court, calls this a gift for sexual predators.

The legislation is supposedly patterned after the "Nordic model" as practiced in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. Well, it hasn't improved things there. Sweden, whose laws most closely resemble the proposed act, has witnessed an increase in violence against prostitutes with no decline in demand. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform (CASWLR) calls this approach, "harmful and inconsistent with sex workers’ constitutional rights to health and safety."

CASWLR prefers the New Zealand model. There, prostitution is considered normal and legal work. Sex workers are protected by labour laws that promote their health and safety, and a tribunal hears disputes with brothel owners. The brothels pay licensing fees like any other businesses and are often run by prostitutes or former prostitutes themselves. In this model, the state does what it is supposed to do, protects the citizens concerned, and otherwise leaves people alone. The moralizing is replaced by common sense.

But our government, it seems, didn't bother to ask the sex workers for their opinions. Valerie Scott isn't aware of any being involved in the decision-making process. “MacKay is only interested in consulting with those who seek to prohibit sex work, under the guise of ‘saving us,’" said Scott, "It makes it crystal clear that this federal government is solely interested in its own political safety and could [not] care less about our lives.”

Ms. Scott may be a tad harsh, but her gist is right. The federal government's concern isn't security, it's sin.