14 April 2014

Common sense in Kitimat

Good news over the weekend. The citizens of Kitimat B.C. had their say on the Northern Gateway pipeline, and they said NO.

In a referendum on Saturday, they voted 1,793 to 1,278 to oppose running the pipeline to their town, the proposed terminus. Mayor Joanne Monaghan promised to discuss the result at tonight's Council meeting and deciding where to go from there. "The people have spoken," she said, "it’s a democratic process.” Kitimat is key to the pipeline as it would house the marine terminal where supertankers would load before sailing down the narrow Douglas Channel to take the dilbit (diluted bitumen) to markets in Asia.

Opponents had to overcome a major effort by Enbridge, the company sponsoring the pipeline, to promote the project with a barrage of advertising and open houses. Its promises of jobs and money flowing into the town were no doubt hard to resist for many. Residents of the local Haisla First Nation have also shown a lot of resistance to the pipeline, however they were ineligible to vote in the referendum.

I suspect the primary concern of Kitimat's people was the chilling thought of supertankers full of dilbit floating off their pristine shores. But the vote also serves as another strike against tar sands production. Anything that helps to put the brakes on Canada's great folly is welcome.

The referendum result is not binding, but it is mighty encouraging.

10 April 2014

The United States—democracy or oligarchy?

Last year, Iran held an election to choose its president. Many in the West mocked the election because the candidates were vetted by the Guardian Council (a group appointed largely by the Supreme Leader). This, however, is not so different from American presidential elections. In the U.S., candidates have to get approval from the corporate sector simply because if they don't get those big corporate bucks they'll never be able to afford a successful campaign. This is an informal vetting compared to the Iranian formal one, but a vetting nonetheless.

We have long referred to the United States as the world's leading democracy. It is certainly still a leader, but given the increasing influence of money in American society generally and in politics specifically, the "democracy" part now has to be reconsidered.

Democracy is political equality, and the U.S. is a very long way from political equality. It starts with the vast inequality of wealth in the country and ends with the ability of the disproportionate rich to corrupt politics with abundant largesse.

The magnitude of the inequality is vast and growing. The richest one per cent of Americans own 38 per cent of the country's financial wealth, the bottom 60 per cent own 2.3 percent. One family—the Waltons, owners of Walmart—are worth $148-billion, more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined. From 2009 through 2012, 95 per cent of all new income earned went to the top one per cent. One family, the very politically-active Koch brothers, saw a $12-billion increase in their wealth.

This might not be so bad for democracy if the wealth was kept out of politics, but it isn't. Any hope of that has been systematically extinguished by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2010, in the Citizens United case, the Court ruled that the constitution forbade governments from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations and other associations. Acting independently of candidates and parties, big donors can spend unlimited amounts on attack ads and other campaign efforts.

Recently the Court loosened the reins even further. In another ruling, it decreed that big campaign donors can dole out money to as many candidates and political committees as they want as long as they abide by limits on contributions to each individual campaign. In striking down reasonable campaign limits, the Court seems incapable of distinguishing money from speech, or corporations from citizens.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sums up the Court's behaviour with the observation, "The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process,” a sentiment hard to argue with.

Corporate control is not, of course, limited to funding politicians. The defense industry, for example, has cleverly established manufacturing plants around the country such that hardly a single congressman can propose reducing the military budget without proposing the loss of jobs in his own constituency or state. Furthermore, gun manufacturers have a proxy in the National Rifle Association. By heavily funding what has been referred to as a "virtual subsidiary of the gun industry," they allow it to savagely attack any politician who dares to propose gun control laws or indeed any measure that might interfere with the profits of gun dealers and weapons makers.

Republicans are, not surprisingly, delighted with the Supreme Court and find no problem with corporations using their economic muscle to set the political agenda. I remember my first conversation with an American conservative about democracy and she pointedly informed me that the United States was not a democracy, it was a republic. If she wasn't right about the former when she told me this those many years ago, she is certainly right now.

08 April 2014

$36-million for a cup? Some people are just too rich

It's called the chicken cup because it's got chickens painted on it. The world's highest priced birds, in fact. The cup fetched $36.1-million, including commission, at Sotheby's spring auction in Hong Kong. Described as the "the holy grail when it comes to Chinese art," the cup set a record for Chinese porcelain.

It was bought by self-made multimillionaire Liu Yiqian for his museum in Shanghai. Liu isn't all that rich, worth a mere $900-million, not even a billionaire, and only the 200th richest man in China, yet apparently rich enough to pay $36-million for a cup. He was bemused by the fuss over the purchase. "Why do you all care so much about the price?" he asked, "I bought it only because I like it."

While not wanting to begrudge Liu his riches (he made his money in the stock market), there is something vaguely obscene about paying millions for a cup, even a Ming Dynasty cup, when many on the planet would be grateful for the rice to fill it.

Quebec—another majority that isn't

A lot of euphoria last night from Liberal supporters and those many Canadians (including not a few Quebecers) who don't want to hear about separation for another generation at least. Not only did the Liberals win, they won big, majority big.

Or at least the majority that counts which, unfortunately, is not a majority of Quebecers. A solid majority (58 per cent) did not vote Liberal. Premier-elect Couillard and his party won 56 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly with only 42 per cent of the popular vote, an electoral victory but not a democratic one.

I have long complained about being ruled federally by a party that most of us didn't want. Now Quebecers will be ruled by a party that didn't do much better than Mr. Harper's Conservatives.

Perhaps it won't be as bad in Quebec. After all, the Liberals have won, and if they are truly liberals, they will listen to a broad range of views. Our federal government, on the other hand, is not only the most ideological we've ever had, it's led by a man who is the least open to other views of any Prime Minister I can remember. Fortunately for Quebecers, Mr. Couillard appears to be a great deal more inclusive.

Nonetheless, it would be nice to see governments in this country required to represent at least a majority of their citizens. But that, it seems, just isn't the Canadian way.

06 April 2014

Canada strikes out as a progressive nation

There was a time—long, long ago—when Canada had a reputation in the world as a progressive nation. Well ... not so long ago actually. Only eight years in fact. It just seems like a long time. Now, in at least three areas we have joined the ranks of the reactionaries, we have three strikes against us, and we must therefore, as in baseball, be counted out.

Strike one, the environment: The Guardian newspaper has referred to Canada as "the dirty old man of the climate world" and a "corrupt petro-state." And sadly, it is appropriate. We seem to increasingly exist for the primary purpose of exporting bitumen. Anyone or anything that gets in the way is trashed, particularly scientists and environmentalists. We opted out of Kyoto and are failing to meet the modest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions we agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord. We richly deserved the Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award we were dishonoured with at the UN climate talks in Warsaw last year. After all, we had won the Colossal Fossil Award—awarded to the country doing the most damage to climate talks in a given year—five years in a row.

Strike two, drug policy: At the UN Commission for Narcotic Drugs' international drug control negotiations last March in Vienna, we helped block the inclusion of harm reduction in future international drug policies despite the desperate need for it in countries with high levels of injection drug use and HIV. "Historically, Canada had been leader in this area," said Don MacPherson, adjunct professor in Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, "A substantial amount of the scientific research validating harm reduction measures was done right here in Vancouver, and we've implemented quite robust harm reduction policies at the provincial level across Canada." (The federal government attempted to halt those provincial efforts but was denied by the courts.)

Strike three, illegal arms sales: Canada has refused to sign the UN Arms Trade Treaty, an agreement aimed at curbing the illegal global trade in conventional weapons. Five of the world's top ten arms exporters—Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain—have all ratified the treaty. Our government seems to be balking because of lobbying from gun groups even though the treaty doesn't interfere with domestic arms sales or laws. Canada has also been criticized internationally for proposing a loophole in the Convention on Cluster Munitions that would allow our soldiers to use cluster munitions when in joint operations with U.S. forces. "Canada has always been such an upstanding global citizen," said Angela Kane, UN High Representative for Disarmament, "And I would like to see this kind of greater spirit ... prevailing also in this case." Good luck, Ms. Kane.

So there you have it. In these three areas at least we are now perceived internationally as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Canada a progressive nation? No more. I can't help but wonder how many Canadian youths backpacking around the world now put the Stars and Stripes on their knapsacks.

04 April 2014

Support the tax gap motion

That governments are robbed of billions of dollars by the rich and by corporations exploiting tax havens is a well-known national and international scandal. It is now standard practice for corporations to exploit a variety of often opaque schemes to shift profits into low or no-tax jurisdictions.

The corporate tax rate in Canada, including federal and provincial taxes, averages 25 per cent. This is generous compared to the average American rate of 35 per cent, but in any case most corporations don't pay it. Of the TXS 60 (top 60 corporations on the Toronto stock exchange), through the period 2007-11 over half paid less than 10 per cent, thirteen paid less than five per cent and only four paid the full 25 per cent.

The Canadian Revenue Agency is currently in a legal battle with the uranium mining firm Cameco. Cameco set up a subsidiary in Switzerland, sold its uranium to the subsidiary for $10 a pound, and the subsidiary then sold it on the world market for prices as high as $100 a pound. (The price is currently $30.) All the uranium is mined in Canada, but by basing its revenues on the $10 figure the company avoided at least $850-million in Canadian taxes.

A quarter of Canadian direct foreign investment now goes to tax haven countries. This gambit is, of course, highly unfair to small and medium-sized Canadian firms who are unable to exploit tax havens but have to compete with international corporations that can and do.

The Canada Revenue Agency's pursuit of this issue has been hindered by the government's enthusiasm for staff cuts. The agency has suffered a loss of over 3,000 staff, the most of any department.

Our government, as a result, has no idea how many tax dollars it is missing. The Parliamentary Budget Officer would like to know (as would I), however the Canada Revenue Agency hasn't been much help, refusing to provide key information even though it isn't confidential.

In response to this, NDP MP Pierre Dionne Labelle has introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling on the government to:
a) study and measure Canadian tax losses to international tax havens and tax evasion, in order to determine the Canadian federal “tax gap”;

b) order the Canada Revenue Agency to provide the Parliamentary Budget Officer with the information necessary to provide an independent estimate of the Canadian federal tax gap arising from tax evasion and tax avoidance through the use of tax havens;
This motion will be debated in the House on April 9th. If you, too, would like to know how much tax money we have to ante up because of corporate tax avoidance, you might ask your MP to support the motion. Or you can simply go here and have Canadians for Tax Fairness send a message for you.

03 April 2014

The "mother of all accountants" flays election bill

Sheila Fraser was once one of Stephen Harper's favourite people. When she, in her capacity of auditor-general, exposed the Chretien government's sponsorship scandal, sewing the seeds that would bring down the Liberals, Mr. Harper praised her handsomely as the "mother of all accountants" and in a neat turn of phrase remarked she "did not say that she thought that something smelled fishy. She identified the fish."

Well Ms. Fraser has now identified a new fish and it's Bill C-23, the inappropriately-named Fair Elections Act. According to The Canadian Press, she claims that the proposed legislation would, among other things, "disenfranchise thousands of voters, undercut the independence of the chief electoral watchdog, impede investigations into wrongdoing, give a financial advantage to rich, established parties and undermine Canadians' faith in the electoral system."

I have heard many criticisms of the Bill, but I take none more seriously than Ms. Fraser's. She is perhaps the best auditor-general we ever had and currently co-chairs an advisory board to Elections Canada. The latter adds considerably to my trust in our electoral system.

I don't agree with Stephen Harper on many things, but I agree with him unreservedly that Sheila Fraser is a lady of competence and courage. He has shown no inclination to bow to the widespread criticism of his government's Bill, but perhaps he will heed the esteemed public servant he once acclaimed as the mother of all accountants.

More to Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations than meets the neoliberal eye

When we think of Adam Smith, the great Scottish philosopher and economist, and his seminal book The Wealth of Nations, we are inclined to think of free markets, individual self-interest, and the invisible hand. However, reading another good book recently, How Markets Fail by John Cassidy, I was reminded there was a lot more to Smith and The Wealth of Nations than the elements of laissez faire capitalism.

Consider, for instance, Smith's example of the pin factory which he uses to illustrate the power of the division of labour. He compares the productivity of workers creating a pin on an assembly line to workers making pins individually: "One man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for fitting the head ...." etc. "Whereas one workman ... could scarce ... make one pin a day," ten workers skilled in their individual tasks, "could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins a day."

And what are these workers doing to complete this remarkable feat? They are co-operating. Smith has illustrated, perhaps unwittingly, the power of co-operation over individualism.

He goes on to discuss the making of the humble wool coats worn by pin makers. These too are efficiently created through the division of labour, by many hands creating a coat rather than one. Thus are the coat makers connected to the pin makers, one collective to another. And such it is for myriad products, and the resources for those products, and the transporting of resources and products, and so on ad infinitum. Smith is talking about interconnectedness. Each of us may pursue his or her individual self-interest, but we can only succeed with the help of many others.

Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister and enthusiast of unfettered markets, once famously proclaimed, "There is no such thing as society." She was wrong. Society is real, and it is a collection of collectives.

Smith also saw multiple roles for government. In addition to defending the nation and administering justice, government had a duty "erecting and maintaining certain public works and public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain ... though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society."

Of particular interest to us in this the twenty-first century, Smith saw the need to regulate the financial industry. He had little trust in merchants of any kind, once observing, "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public." But, no matter, free market competition would keep them in line.

Bankers, however, needed the tighter leash of government regulation. "The obligation to build party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty," he wrote, "exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed." How ironic that two centuries years after The Wealth of Nations was published, the U.S. government ignored Smith's advice and acting instead on the urging of his would-be ideological descendants, deregulated the financial industry allowing the bankers to wreck their companies, the industry and much of the economy.

Free market fundamentalists of the political kind often rely on Adam Smith to justify their policies and those of the economist kind to justify their advice on policy to politicians. But there are more things to Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations than they dream of in their philosophy.

14 March 2014

Alberta, oil, and indoctrinating children

"Give us a child till he’s seven and we’ll have him for life"—a maxim some claim comes from St. Ignatius Loyola himself, founder of the Jesuits. Somewhat hackneyed but nonetheless true, the Alberta government and the oil industry seem to be taking it seriously.

The government is engaged in a major overhaul of Alberta's school curriculum and, to the surprise of some, it is bringing in major oil companies as consultants on the changes. Syncrude Canada and Suncor Energy are listed under a working group led by the Edmonton Public School Board in the redesign of the kindergarten to grade three curriculum. Cenovus Energy will consult on the grades four to twelve curriculum. That industry would be involved in education in the higher grades when kids are starting to consider career paths makes sense, but in kindergarten?

The idea that the oil industry can be an impartial conveyor of knowledge is risible. It is one side of a fierce debate regarding fossil fuels and the environment, a debate that will affect the future of humanity, and it vigorously promotes its side. It is by far the biggest lobbyist in Ottawa, its efforts dwarfing those of other industries. And with great success—they have seen the Conservative government rewrite or repeal a host of laws governing environmental assessments, navigable waterways and other measures, and shut down or hamstring environmental research.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) inundates the airwaves with ads, aided and abetted by the federal government which has spent millions on major TV campaigns pitching Canadians on its biased version of “responsible resource development.” CAPP is already making forays into schools with its Energy in Action program designed to teach grade four and five students about "oil and natural gas resources and the importance of environmental stewardship," for which it won the Alberta School Board Association's Friends of Education award in 2011. This is ironic indeed considering that elements in the oil industry have been complicit in undermining climate science. (At least Exxon hasn't been invited to consult on the new curriculum.)

Considering the massive propaganda effort by the oil industry to hype fossil fuels, including the infamous tar sands, inviting them to participate in curriculum development for children in their most formative and vulnerable years is inviting indoctrination. Not that the children will be asked to recite "the oil sands are my friend" every morning at start of class. The government and the industry will be quite satisfied if an instinctive association between "oil industry" and "environmental stewardship" is firmly planted in young minds. The fact that the two concepts are in major ways incompatible is, I suspect, a truth that won't be included in the curricula.

13 March 2014

Federal hiring and the warrior ethos

The federal government has, it seems, something of a Jekyll and Hyde attitude towards military veterans. On the one hand, its budget-cutting has resulted in the closing of Veterans Affairs offices and a penny-pinching approach to the well-being of injured and disabled veterans.

On the other hand, the government announced it will implement measures that "will help move Veterans to the front of the line when it comes to hiring qualified Canadians for federal public service jobs." Veterans with at least three years service will be given preference in advertised external hiring and will also be able to apply for internal hiring.

Why former military personnel should be given an advantage over other Canadians for employment is hard to justify. One refrain is that they served their country. But this is meaningless—everyone with a job (or is volunteering) serves their country. Or we hear that they put their lives on the line for their country. But a great many workers do that. Ever year, an average of 1,000 Canadians suffer workplace fatalities and for every death, hundreds more are seriously injured. Agriculture is the deadliest industry with an average of over 100 fatalities a year. The military are by no means alone in serving their country or serving it dangerously.

What we are looking at here is warrior-worship, the atavistic notion that the highest form of manhood is the warrior—man fulfilling himself by picking up his weapon to defend the tribe. It is long past time to rid ourselves of such primitive habits of mind.

All civil servants, including those who train to kill, should be treated with respect by their employer, and if they need help because of job-related injury they should get it. And if they need help to retrain and obtain more constructive employment, they should get that too. But not at the cost of depriving other, more qualified citizens of their opportunities. That kind of discrimination does a disservice to those others and to the civil service itself.

12 March 2014

Saudi arms sales—the triumph of economics over morality

If nothing else, it illustrates how, in the world of international relations, economics trumps morality. I refer to General Dynamics Land Systems Canada landing a deal to sell light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The deal was announced last month by International Trade Minister Ed Fast who praised it as a major success for Canadian diplomacy.

Now how on earth can selling arms to Saudi Arabia possibly be a cause for celebration? The Saudi regime is one of the world's most oppressive dictatorships and certainly its most misogynistic. According to Human Rights Watch, “In Saudi Arabia, 2013 was another bad year for human rights, marred by executions and repression of women and activists.” And Saudi repression isn't just local. In 2011, Saudi Arabia invaded Bahrain to suppress dissent by the Shiite majority against another gulf dictator. The vehicles we are about to sell them could conceivably be used in their next invasion or, for that matter, against their own people.

And why is our government, a government that has in the past objected to religious discrimination around the world, championing the sales of military equipment to a regime that forbids the public worship of any religion but Islam and even systematically discriminates against Muslim faiths other than its own?

The answer of course is money. The contract is worth $10-billion over 14 years and will sustain more than 3,000 jobs annually. This is the lipstick on the pig.

And there's a bigger picture. Saudi Arabia controls 25 per cent of the world's oil supply, giving it a uniquely influential role in the world economy. It is a country too big to fail. So if the Saudis want weapons, the Saudis get weapons. And our government is happy to help, morality be damned.

11 March 2014

The global economy—a case of bad engineering

For a number of years I toiled in the oil industry as an engineer, and not infrequently lessons I learned from my engineering experience return to inform me in other contexts. Recently I have been thinking of the global economy in such terms, and it fails miserably to pass the test of good engineering.

When an engineer designs a bridge he doesn't simply design the supports to meet the stresses he expects to be imposed upon them. He conservatively designs the supports to meet the expected stresses—and then adds a generous safety factor. In other words, he follows the precautionary principle, knowing that he cannot account for every eventuality.

And that is the way a sensible society would design its economy. It would conservatively estimate the demands the environment is capable of meeting from resource extraction and waste disposal, and then add in a generous safety factor. It would then design its economic activities to fit into the calculated environmental capacity.

Unfortunately for society after society, civilization after civilization, throughout history, humanity has not done that. The usual practice has been to exploit the environment to whatever extent the desired economy demands, even if that pushes it to the maximum. And then, when the maximum shrinks, as it always does, due to drought or flood or other whim of nature, that society's economy is threatened, not infrequently to the point where it collapses, bringing society down with it. This is a pattern repeated over and over, yet we have never learned the lesson of living within our means, or more correctly, within the means of our environment.

Past civilizations might have been able to plead ignorance for their failure. They didn't fully understand the relationship between their economy and the environment. We do, we are by far the best informed generation in history, and yet we are making the same mistake. In our case, it isn't ignorance, it's stupidity.

According to the Global Footprint Network, we are using the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and to absorb our waste. UN scenarios suggest that if current trends continue, by the 2030s we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. Unfortunately, we only have one.

Representing the amount of productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a population consumes plus the waste it produces in global hectares (gha), the Earth's biocapacity is estimated at 1.8 gha per person. Our actual demand, however, our global footprint, is 2.6 gha per person. We are sucking the planet dry.

We frequently hear talk about balancing the economy and the environment, but this is an error. The environment has no need of our economy, indeed it would be vastly better off without it, but our economy is totally dependent on the environment. Our economy must, therefore, not balance the environment but fit comfortably within it with room to spare. Only then will we have a well-engineered economy and only then will our civilization be able to sustain itself.

10 March 2014

U.S. conservatives going all progressive?

If Justice Minister Peter MacKay announcing that the Conservatives may soften marijuana laws came as a surprise, the change of heart among some conservatives in the U.S. is nothing less than a shock.

Addressing the 2014 Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Washington, CPAC's blogger of the year, Mary Katherine Ham, argued in favor of accepting marijuana legalization in states such as Colorado and Washington and wherever else it may be adopted. She argued that allowing people to make their own choices about their health was a core conservative value and might even reduce pot smoking by taking “the cool out of it.” Apparently, she got a good hearing from a highly receptive crowd.

And that ain't all. In a debate on security, when one panelist referred to Edward Snowden as a traitor, he was loudly booed. His adversary, arguing that it was conservatives’ duty to take the programs Snowden exposed as affronts to personal liberty, was much better received.

In a panel on criminal justice, Texas Governor Rick Perry, while not backing off on his state's use of capital punishment, defended reforms for nonviolent offenders that included “drug courts,” which give judges more latitude on sentencing and provide alternatives to incarceration. “You want to talk about real conservative governments?" he said, "Shut prisons down. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.” He was supported by fellow panelist Grover Norquist, the infamous anti-tax crusader, who suggested that conservatives could attack prison systems on the basis they are vast government bureaucracies.

Heady stuff, not at all what we expect from the Republican right, but maybe they are just tuning in to the real America. The country has sometimes been described as a land of liberals governed by conservatives. Perhaps that's changing, or maybe they are simply coming to terms with the fact that the best solutions to their nation's problems lie on the other side of the philosophical divide.

Perhaps Mr. MacKay's change of heart on marijuana is yet another example of the Harper Conservatives taking their cue from American Republicans. If they take these cues on security and prison reform as well, they will be making further progress.

07 March 2014

Ukraine and American arrogance

The New York Times ran an intriguing headline earlier this week. It read "Debate Over Who, in U.S., is to Blame for Ukraine." Apparently American politicians are debating which among them is responsible for recent events in Ukraine, Republicans blaming Obama and Democrats blaming Bush.

The arrogance is extraordinary. The debate seems predicated on the notion that if something goes awry in the world, it's because the Americans in charge aren't managing things properly. Somebody must have slipped up. In other words, it's their job to run the world. It seems incomprehensible to the American political class that they should not be involved in everything that's happening everywhere.

Sadly, there's a certain truth to the notion. The U.S. is constantly interfering in the affairs of other nations, and apparently they have been interfering in the Ukraine. That they should leave the Ukrainians and the Russians alone to sort out their own quarrels just doesn't seem to cross the American mind, or at least the political minds.

Nonetheless, if they can help negotiate a truce between the various parties, that would be helpful indeed. Unfortunately their standing in Russia at the moment is at a very low ebb. They have created the distinct impression of being partial to the anti-Russian elements, and their credibility wasn't helped by John Kerry accusing Russia of 19th century behaviour for "invading another country on completely trumped up pretext" when a mere 10 years ago the U.S. did exactly that. And of course, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland's well-publicized comment "fuck the EU" won't help bring the Europeans on side. Running the world isn't easy.

06 March 2014

Does the terrorist threat justify the snooping? Not according to the stats

British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking about the need for mass surveillance of communications, talked about keeping concerns about civil liberties "in proportion." Perhaps what should be kept in proportion is his enthusiasm for mass snooping. Mr. Cameron and other national leaders justify their obsession about security and its attendant secrecy on the terrorist threat. But how much of a threat is terrorism?

In Mr. Cameron's Great Britain, since "the world changed" in 9/11 terrorists have killed less than 60 people. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, of course, but on a national scale the number is trivial, about five deaths per year. This is roughly equal to the number of Brits who die annually from bee stings.

The numbers in the U.S. are hardly more disturbing. Since 2000, deaths from homeland terrorism average out at 235 per year, including of course the World Trade Center bombing. Again, for a nation of 314 million people, that is a minor threat. Twice that many Americans die every year from falling out of bed.

The only death in Canada from terrorism over the same period was the man killed by the anglophone Quebecer who attempted to assassinate Parti Québécois leader Pauline Maurois on election night.

Terror attacks present great drama and therefore attract enormous media attention, rather more than bee stings or falling out of bed even though they hold no greater threat to the average citizen. And politicians dread attacks because they make them look weak, which of course is often the point, and politicians fear little more than looking weak.

As a result, Britain, the U.S. and Canada have invested massively in and given unprecedented powers to security institutions including surveillance agencies such as Britain's GCHQ, the Americans' NSA and our very own CSEC. This year, CSEC's budget was increased from $444-million to $829-million, including part payment for its new headquarters. The lavish new building, estimated to ultimately cost $1.2-billion, has been aptly described as a spy palace.

Terrorism has been long with us and will no doubt be with us for much longer. Reasonable precautions are justified, but let's stop using a minor threat to justify major surveillance, to say nothing of extravagant expenditure.

22 February 2014

Will Homo sapiens evolve itself into extinction?

The notion that eventually we will create an artificial intelligence superior to our own has been around for quite a while. Now someone has boldly, perhaps foolishly, predicted a deadline.

Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering. has confidently predicted that computers will be smarter than humans by 2029. Normally I don't take predictions too seriously. I made a living in the oil business for years, largely engaged in forecasting, and if there's one sure thing I learned about predictions is that, within a minute after you've made them, they're wrong. Nonetheless, Kurzwell has impressive qualifications. He has invented world-changing devices, including the first flatbed scanner, the first computer program that could recognize a typeface, and the first text-to-speech synthesizer. He predicted the wide acceptance of the world wide web when it was still just a playground for academics, and he predicted a computer would defeat a world chess champion long before Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov. Furthermore, his employer is busy assembling the greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on the planet.

In any case, if he's right we'll be on our way out in about 15 years. These smart—very smart—machines won't have any need for us. They'll be able to design intelligences (brains) and bodies for specific tasks, intellectually and physically far beyond our capacities, and they'll take over. If we're lucky, they'll keep us around as pets.

So the future doesn't look so dark after all. By 2029 we should have pretty well messed up the planet for us, but we will then be replaced by beings vastly more adaptable to whatever environment we have created. They will also be vastly more suited to leaving this degraded planet behind and setting off for new worlds. They could design perfect space travellers—tiny robots that require trivial resources, can shut down for millennia if necessary, are immune to radiation, etc.—and become intergalactic explorers like we can never hope to be.

I only hope they treat the new worlds they find better than we have treated Earth. Just because they're much more intelligent than us won't necessarily meant they are any wiser. After all, we will be their moral role model.

Andrew Leslie's troubling views on defence policy

Andrew Leslie, former Canadian forces commander in Afghanistan, now adviser to Liberal Party chief Justin Trudeau, has been busy recently defending his $72,000 moving expense, particularly from attack by the Conservatives. Apparently the expense was within appropriate guidelines, so I have no intention of joining in that quibbling.

I am, however, concerned about his views on defence policy, seeing as he has the ear of Mr. Trudeau, possibly Canada's next prime minister, and his views are troubling. Mr. Leslie has been reported as saying, "It's not going to be peacemaking anymore, it's going to be counter-insurgency ... Counter-insurgency will not form the cornerstone of our operations, but it's right in the centre of our spectrum of capabilities we're going to train for."

Putting counter-insurgency at the centre of our capabilities raises a number of red flags for me. To begin with, it smacks of secret operations, and I've had more than enough secret operations from our and our friends' intelligence agencies. I don't need any from our military.

Apparently Leslie believes counter-insurgency is now priority one due to developed countries' concerns about the security threats posed by failed states. That kind of concern tends to be American, the kind of concern that got us into Afghanistan, and I don't want to see any more of that either. It leads to invasions of other peoples' countries, something the Americans just can't seem to quit doing, but then that's the price of empire. There are many things Canada can do, including peacekeeping, to get failed states back on track, things that don't involve killing people.

No doubt counter-insurgency is popular with militarists. It's the glamorous stuff, the Navy Seals and all that, and maybe the machismo will infect Trudeau as well. It was, after all, the Liberals who got us into Afghanistan, and they started by sending in forces from the secretive JTF2 without informing the Canadian public. That was more than enough surreptitious slaughter for me.

Leslie will quite likely play an important role in setting defence policy if the Liberals are elected to government, a policy we know little about. This will bear watching ... closely.

17 February 2014

The brutal costs of the World Cup

As the scandal over Vladimir Putin's $50-billion Olympics begins to fade, equally sordid scandals about the World Cup come to the fore.

Brazil, which has won more World Cups than any other country. is holding the Cup this year. To date, things are not going well. Five stadiums scheduled for completion by the end of last year are still under construction. International Football Association (FIFA) President Sepp Blatter said Brazil was further behind schedule than any host since he joined the organization in 1975. Six workers have been killed in stadium construction accidents, four since late November as the deadline pressure accelerates. The waste of lives and money on what are widely seen as white elephants has galvanized street protests that initially had nothing to do with football. "Não vai ter Copa!" (No World Cup) is now commonly chanted at demonstrations.

The loss of life in Brazil is almost trivial compared to the veritable slaughter taking place in preparation for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The deaths of over 400 Nepalese migrant workers have been recorded on Qatar's construction sites and Nepalese make up only 20 per cent of the workforce. The workers, although generally healthy young men, are frequently diagnosed as dying of heart failure, not surprising considering they work 12-hour days in temperatures that can exceed 40C, often without adequate food and water, and are forced to live in squalid, overcrowded quarters with no air-conditioning and overflowing sewage. This in one of the richest countries in the world.

The 2022 World Cup organizing committee has threatened to punish companies who violate workers' welfare and FIFA could yet reassign the venue. The obvious question is why they awarded the Cup to a nation notorious for human rights violations and labour exploitation in the first place. But then these are not criteria for assigning international sports spectacles.

Paying a high price for insulting Mexico

In 2009, our government in its wisdom imposed stringent visa requirements on Mexicans visiting Canada, the harshest on any country. claiming this was necessary to deter increasing numbers of bogus refugee claimants. The complex and intrusive requirements included probing questions about potential visitors' families and their financial histories. The move was, and is, considered an insult by Mexicans and has chilled relations with their country. Mexican ambassador Francisco Suarez has referred to the visa as "a major irritant" that will cast a shadow over the festivities planned for the 2014 celebration of NAFTA's 20th anniversary.

The insult was difficult to understand. Mexico is after all our partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement which was supposed to open the participating countries to each other, not close them off. We do almost $30-billion annually in trade with Mexico. One might think that when dealing with a country that is so important to our economy, we could settle a problem without gratuitous and one-sided impositions.

Nor is it clear why the measure remains in place. Canada has revised its refugee policy since 2009 and a similar visa against Romania has since been removed. The U.S. uses an online system that provides almost immediate travel permission once travelers submit their basic data. It seems ridiculous that we have tougher requirements than the U.S. which has serious border and immigration issues with Mexico.

According to a report from the Canadian Council for Chief Executives, Canada's corporate elite, spending by Mexican tourists in Canada fell from $365-million in 2008 to $200-million in 2012. That's a $165-million a year penalty we are paying for our government's high-handedness.

A few weeks ago, our prime minister led a delegation of dozens of business people (plus a score of rabbis and a dozen preachers) to Israel, a country with which we do piddling trade, yet his government treats Mexico, the fifth largest market for our exports, with disdain. What strange economic idiocy is this?

15 February 2014

The human legacy—one of the world's six greatest catastrophes

I was watching with interest the other night Jon Stewart's interview of Elizabeth Kolbert, author of a new book, The Sixth Great Extinction.

There have been five great extinction events in the past 550-million years of multi-celled life on Earth, events in which abnormally large numbers of species die out simultaneously or within a limited time frame. The last, and best known, was the Cretaceous-Tertiary event which wiped out the dinosaurs, caused by a massive comet or meteor striking the Earth 65
million years ago. The cause of some of the others is debated, but we know the cause of the sixth—us. Human activity is having a catastrophic effect on our fellow species.

Stewart's interview had me pondering legacies, not mine I hasten to say, but our species'. Over the great span of geologic time, Homo sapiens will leave a legacy, and what a tragic legacy it is shaping up to be. We are becoming the cause of one of the six greatest die-offs of life on Earth in over half a billion years—a destroyer of worlds.

Yet we are a moral creature and a reasonably intelligent one. One might think such a creature would pause in its activity, and reflect on what it will leave for posterity—its own posterity and the posterity of its home, the planet Earth. But there is little evidence of such reflection. Our leaders are obsessed with growth, of wringing ever more out of the planet and despoiling it in the process.

I have always been an optimist, but I see little room for optimism as I observe the destroyer of worlds march down its awful road. If we don't pause in our obsessions, reflect on our wayward ways, and apply our innate morality to our ambitions, our legacy will be dark indeed.

14 February 2014

Our dangerous dependence on the tar sands

It sounds like good news. A new study, "Oil Sands Economic Benefits: Today and in the Future," states that tar sands production supported more than 478,000 direct, indirect and induced Canadian jobs in 2012 and contributed $91-billion of Canada's GDP, an economic contribution greater than that of the province of Saskatchewan. Government revenues in the form of tax receipts and royalties totaled $28-billion, over half going to Ottawa. Furthermore, the study claims that in 2025, the tar sands will provide 753,000 jobs, add $171-billion to the GDP, $61-billion going to the provincial and federal governments.

All of this sounds wonderful indeed, but in fact it is a curse. The tar sands are just too rich. No matter how much harm producing bitumen may do, corporations seeking profits, governments seeking taxes, and workers seeking jobs, just can't say no.

And the harm is immense. First and foremost, the tar sands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emission in Canada and therefore our fastest growing contributor to global warming, the greatest threat humanity faces.

There are other harms as well, such as the serious harm tar sands production has done to our international reputation. Then there is the danger of becoming increasingly dependent on an industry that could collapse if renewables are developed faster than expected, or if our foreign markets become increasingly reluctant to buy our junk oil. This is a very unhealthy dependency, both morally and economically.

But what can we do? We are hooked. And with the money and the jobs flowing like good beer, no political party is going to turn off the taps. Like every civilization that ever collapsed because of excessive demands on its environment, we have no trouble rationalizing our self-indulgence. Sensible people can only cross their fingers and hope renewables will soon put this nefarious trade out of business. Until then, we will no doubt continue down the dark path of our addiction.

13 February 2014

From the Wildrose, an interesting idea

Alberta's Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith has offered what on the surface sounds like a good idea. Her party is proposing the province transfer 10 per cent of all its taxes—personal and corporate income taxes, education tax, tobacco tax and fuel tax—and 10 per cent of any budget surplus, to municipalities to spend as they see fit. In the 2015-16 budget year, Smith says, municipalities would share in nearly $2-billion, $500-million more than they are currently getting.

As cities assume increasingly greater importance relative to  provinces, the debate over revenue-sharing intensifies. With limited taxing powers relative to the senior levels of government, cities must beg their provincial masters for grants for major projects. Consequently, they have long sought stable sources of revenue.

Smith claims the Wildrose plan, termed the Community Infrastructure Transfer, will provide more stable funding than the grant system and precludes municipalities fighting for new taxing powers. The plan will "give municipalities the right to choose their own priorities, with no strings attached, eliminating needless layers of bureaucracy and a patchwork of funding programs."

The Wildrose proposal was no doubt motivated by the party's strong opposition to new taxes at a time when Alberta's cities are seeking just that. The City of Calgary, for example, is looking at over two dozen ways of raising revenues and hopes to adopt some of them if it can negotiate a city charter with the province.

The Community Infrastructure Transfer concept seems a worthy contender for revenue sharing. It at least offers the government and the municipalities a yardstick for their negotiations.
gives municipalities the freedom to choose their own priorities, with no strings attached, eliminating needless layers of bureaucracy and a patchwork of funding programs that play to the whims of the PC MLAs in the Legislature - See more at: http://www.wildrose.ca/press-releases/just-the-facts-wildroses-plan-for-municipalities/#sthash.
Wildrose’s 10-10 plan gives municipalities the freedom to choose their own priorities, with no strings attached, eliminating needless layers of bureaucracy and a patchwork of funding programs that play to the whims of the PC MLAs in the Legislature. - See more at: http://www.wildrose.ca/press-releases/just-the-facts-wildroses-plan-for-

Flaherty bribes automakers—globalization at work

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's $500-million handout to the auto industry has engendered a bit of controversy. Dino Chiodo, president of the union representing hourly workers at Chrysler's Windsor assembly plant, says it isn't enough. Mark Milke of the Fraser Institute says it's way too much, claiming corporate welfare is a bad idea and the money would be better spent on social welfare programs and retraining.

I find myself—and this doesn't happen very often—in agreement with the Fraser Institute's Mr. Milke. At least in theory. In practice, however, Dino Chiodo may very well be right when he says, "If they don't do this, Windsor will be a ghost town."

Mr. Chiodo is simply recognizing the reality of globalization, or at least globalization as we have come to know it. And that is as a system where corporations reign supreme. They have been granted the upper hand over both workers and government. If a government doesn't bribe them generously enough, they move somewhere that has a more amenable government. And more amenable workers. And they are quite prepared to leave a ghost town behind.

Apparently Flaherty's largesse is supposed to be repayable, however as the automakers have the advantage we can't expect the government to be too demanding. Corporate handouts have a checkered history of repayment.

So as much as Flaherty's corporate generosity ticks me off, I have to admit he may be doing the necessary thing to keep jobs in Ontario.

12 February 2014

Electoral reform—PR is not a voting system

Observing debates about electoral reform online and elsewhere, I notice one error cropping up consistently: the notion that proportional representation, like first-past-the-post, is a voting system. It isn't, of course. It is a goal, something you try to achieve with your voting system.

They are two different things and the difference is important because one frequently encounters the argument that PR doesn't work well in some country or other—Israel is commonly mentioned—therefore we wouldn't want it here. The problem with this argument is that we would never adopt the Israeli voting system. It is indeed proportional, but it's designed for a homogeneous country and Canada is anything but that.

We have been a nation for almost 150 years and yet we have never seriously asked ourselves what would be the best voting system for the unique society we are. When we created the country, we simply adopted the system at hand, and being born out of the British Empire that was of course first-past-the-post. It was never a good system, particularly for a highly regionalized country, and since 1867 we have become even more regionalized—adding the West, for instance, a highly regionalized place in itself.

It is long past time that we asked ourselves what the most appropriate choice would be, or better yet, how do we tailor-make a system that meets our needs. We might start start by asking just what our needs are. The list would undoubtedly be topped by a system that provided a legislature that satisfied the will of the people. The need for this is exemplified by the current government—a political party that a solid majority of Canadians did not want running the government is doing exactly that. That may be electoral but it isn't democratic. The number one priority, therefore, would indeed be a system that provided proportional representation.

Other goals would include answering to our highly regionalized nature and providing equal representation for women (women make up half our population but only 22 per cent of the House of Commons).

Once we established what a truly Canadian voting system would require, we could then create it. But to do that we have to keep systems and goals separate.

10 February 2014

Is the CRA reacting to political pressure?

Not being a conspiracy theorist and having great faith in the integrity of our civil servants, I find it hard to believe that the current spate of audits of environmental organizations by the Canada Revenue Agency is a result of pressure from the Harper government. Yet the pressure is substantial.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently warned, “If I were an environmental charity using charitable money, tax-receipted money for political purposes, I would be cautious," which sounds rather like a threat. Regarding suggestions that changing rules for charities could be seen as a way to silence critics of the government, he replied, “If the critics of the government are terrorist organizations and organized crime, I don’t care.” One wonders into which category he places environmental groups.

radical ideological agenda
radical ideological agenda
other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project - See more at: http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Environment/2012/01/09/Environmentalists_other_radical_groups/#sthash.4e4jtryB.dpuf
Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver has been more explicit. Referring to environmentalists as radicals, he claimed they wanted to stop every major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families and wanted to hijack the regulatory system in order to pursue their "radical ideological agenda."

Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.
These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.
- See more at: http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Environment/2012/01/09/Environmentalists_other_radical_groups/#sthash.FydZEDVl.dpuf
Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.
These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.
- See more at: http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Environment/2012/01/09/Environmentalists_other_radical_groups/#sthash.FydZEDVl.dpuf
Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.
These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.
- See more at: http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/Environment/2012/01/09/Environmentalists_other_radical_groups/#sthash.FydZEDVl.dpuf
As for the Prime Minister, his enemies list is infamous and environmentalists are no doubt at the top. And then there's the fact some of the audits were scheduled after complaints by an organization founded by the PMO's director of issues management.

Quite aside from political influence, the government in effect paid the CRA to pursue environmentalists. In its 2012 budget, it allocated $8-million for the agency to take a closer look at environmental charities and their political activities.

All this is a lot of pressure to resist. So even though the agency is unlikely to take orders from their political masters, when the PM and two of his most powerful ministers are making their wishes known, and that PM is the most controlling in the nation's history, and the government even provides a not so subtle financial hint, the CRA would be less than human not to lean a bit in the right direction. At a time when the government is cutting the budgets of any agency that doesn't contribute to the tar sands mission, it wouldn't be prudent for any civil servants to look like they don't want to be on the team.

09 February 2014

Supporting Keystone is supporting the Kochs

Criticism of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline focuses, understandably, on the threat it poses to the environment, both in its construction and in its enabling more production from the tar sands. Too often overlooked is the political mischief that approval will contribute to.

According to an article in the CCPA Monitor, "Petroleum Coke from Oil Refineries Polluting the Atmosphere," the pipeline will provide the infamous Koch brothers with a potential $100-billion in profits. Charles and David Koch are aptly described by Rolling Stone magazine as "oil-and-gas billionaires ready to buy any congressman, fund any lie, fight any law, bust any union, despoil any landscape, or shirk any (tax) burden to push their free-market religion and pump up their profits." They are also major players in the tar sands from production in Alberta to refining in Minnesota and Texas.

They are most notorious for funding attacks on climate science and attempting to muzzle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Their political activities include funding Republican candidates and a maze of right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups (including the Tea Party movement). Nor is their politicking confined to the States. They have, for example, been generous contributors to our very own Fraser Institute.

The idea of reprobates like the Koch brothers making billions more to help them pursue their dangerous agenda would be enough in itself to make me oppose Keystone. However, the environmental implications are quite sufficient.

05 February 2014

The Senate as citizens' assembly?

The best idea I've seen yet about what to to do with our constitutional albatross, the Senate, short of abolishing it, appeared in a recent issue of The Tyee. The article suggests random selection of "ordinary citizens to sit as senators for a limited period of time (perhaps one or two years)." The authors suggest that "with proper support and access to expert opinion, ordinary citizens can tackle complex policy problems. A randomly selected Senate would produce an assembly that is representative of the Canadian population in all its diversity."

The Tyee is talking about a citizens' assembly chosen by lot, a system of direct democracy known as sortition. Sortition was used extensively by the Athenian Greeks who had a certain distrust of elections. It is in fact more democratic than elections and a great deal more representative than the current Senate, or the House of Commons for that matter. 

Free of any grip of party loyalty, allowed to deal with their fellow participants on an equal, open, intimate and informal basis, participants in an assembly are willing to allow the heartfelt views of others to influence their own. The competitive, adversarial nature of conventional party politics is sharply reduced. By bringing people of all sorts together, assemblies create a more consensual, inclusive democracy as opposed to the hostile, partisan, macho democracy of party politics. In effect, they take the “politics” out of decision-making.

With the participants brought together as equals, assemblies eliminate social and financial inequality. The CEO of a large corporation sits down with the welfare mother; they can get to know each other and understand each other’s views and problems. They can conclude the issues under discussion while building bridges for the future. They escape the isolation that leads to people obsessing on their own world views, constantly reinforcing their own prejudices.

Particularly important in assemblies is the dialogue between participants. Good talk—vigorous, well-informed conversation, especially debate with those whose views differ from one’s own—remains a major ingredient of healthy democracy. It not only ensures better decision-making, it engenders respect for other views and refines the art of compromise. It offers the possibility of a politics of shared goals rather than a politics of angry difference.

There are two essentials for a sound assembly: random selection to ensure that the assembly is truly the people in microcosm, and mandatory attendance to ensure all the people are heard. Selection would still be distorted by Senate constitutional requirements such as regional representation, so unfortunately perfection would elude us.

Citizens would be selected like juries are now, providing a constant rotation. Every citizen would share the prospect of becoming a senator. The possibility would keep people on their democratic toes and create a more aware and confident citizenry. And the sober second thought the Senate was designed to provide would be provided by the people themselves.

Prostitution—keeping the state out of our bedrooms

"There's no place for the state," a prime minister once said, "in the bedrooms of the nation." I hope Justice Minister Peter MacKay and his colleagues keep that sage advice in mind as they draft our new prostitution laws. The state's primary responsibility, indeed one might almost say the purpose of the state, is safeguarding the security of its citizens. However, because prostitution is about sex, governments often find it hard to resist morality-infused legislation to govern it, but resist they should.

If one consenting adult is willing to sell sex, and another consenting adult is willing to buy it, and they aren't bothering anyone else, then it's no one else's business, including the state's. The government should confine its legislation to ensuring that people engaging in this perfectly legal activity can do so safely.

As for moral objections to the trade, logically it is hard to defend the notion that selling sex is a bad thing. Sex in itself is quite a good thing—an essential part of life and one of its more enjoyable gifts. Those who believe selling it is a sin should not buy or sell it, but they should not expect those who do to submit to their moral prescriptions.
 
Of course it is thoroughly wrong for women to be coerced into the profession by dysfunctional family life, poverty, drugs or white slavery, and these pressures should be dealt with through appropriate legal and social measures. No one should be forced into a business against their will. But it is also quite possible a woman (or man) may simply be making a rational economic choice. If a woman can make twenty dollars an hour as a grocery clerk or two hundred dollars an hour as a call girl, choosing the latter is eminently reasonable.

Critics of the profession attempt to demean it by accusing prostitutes of selling their bodies. In fact, they don't sell their bodies anymore than hockey players sell their bodies. Both exploit their bodies to provide a service, and in both cases they are well-paid for the service.

Workplace safety is a common focus of legislation. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that sex workers deserve safe workplaces no less than other workers, and if the new law can ensure that, it will do its job. The sex trade should then be left to go about its business.

01 February 2014

Speak up for science

Our federal government's lamentable attitude to science, or at least any science that doesn't benefit business, is one of its key features. Nonetheless, Industry Canada is giving us a chance to comment on science and technology policy by inviting responses tn a "Consultation Paper." This is your chance to offer your comments on how our policy should develop.

You can read the paper and then write up your suggestions and email them in to the address provided or, if you would prefer an easier route, you can take advantage here of the message Evidence for Democracy has composed.

Will it do any good? Probably not. The government is focused on science and technology that creates jobs and growth to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, and that won't change. However, maybe if enough progressives make their views known, the government will be deflected just a little toward science designed to stimulate innovation in the public interest as well as in the private sector, science designed to benefit the environment, public transport, health care, social services, and so on. And of course science designed simply to expand our knowledge, the kind of science that leads to the big breakthroughs. We might even encourage our government to facilitate an easy flow of information between scientists, citizens and parliamentarians in order to stimulate highly-informed discussion and debate on science and related issues.

OK, so I'm getting carried away, but other than a few minutes to compose an email to Minister Rickford, what can you lose?

30 January 2014

Wealth gap—the greatest ever?

A couple of items I encountered recently demonstrated perfectly the extremes of the now much talked about wealth gap. First, was a report by Oxfam entitled "Working for the Few" which revealed that the world's richest 85 people own as much wealth as the poorest 3.5-billion, a staggering statistic.

At the other end of the scale, a recent Guardian article nicely illustrated the title of the Oxfam report. It discussed the living conditions of the migrant construction workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Last year, at least 185 Nepalese men alone died, over half from some kind of heart failure, which may seem odd for healthy young men but not when you consider they work 12-hours days in temperatures that can top 40C. Figures for the death rates of Indian, Pakistani Sri Lankan and other workers have yet to emerge. In addition to the appalling working conditions, the men live in squalid, overcrowded accommodation.

There is nothing new about a tiny group of the filthy rich living off the sweat of the masses. This is the story of human civilization. Nonetheless, it seems hard to believe that in these advanced times, the gap between rich and poor may be the widest ever. It is hard to imagine workers ever toiling in such lowly conditions as the labourers in Qatar while the richest man who ever lived is with us today—Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire.

Slim's fortune relies heavily on his monopoly over Mexico's telecommunications market, a stranglehold that neatly allows him to transfer money from the poor and middle class to himself. According to the OECD his monopoly, which he obtained largely through political connections, costs Mexican consumers over $13-billion a year excess for phone and internet services.

The rich live opulently while the poor die miserably, building our sports palaces—a story that stains the modern era.

28 January 2014

Crime—a criminal justice problem or a health problem?

Place your finger on your forehead, just above the eyebrows toward the right side. It is now within centimetres of your conscience. Our conscience is not, as long thought, a theological abstraction, but is in fact an organ resident in our skulls. Furthermore, it can be measured and observed in action through brain-scanning techniques.

Our moral compass lies in our orbitofrontal cortex and in its communication with other structures in the brain. Here lies our social intelligence, our emotional regulation, our impulse control—our conscience. If the orbitofrontal cortex and associated regions are damaged, or if our neuronal communications are malfunctioning, we are unable to properly regulate our emotions and reactions; our behaviour may be inappropriate, even antisocial, even criminal.

According to the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, “Case studies as far back as 1835 have reported the onset of antisocial personality traits after frontal lobe injury. Such cases typically involve damage to the orbitofrontal cortex, which clinical observation has associated with ‘poor impulse control, explosive aggressive outbursts, inappropriate verbal lewdness, jocularity, and lack of interpersonal sensitivity.’”

This is intriguing but not surprising. We might expect that people who engage in antisocial behaviour would have different brains. The question is what we should do about it. The traditional answer is to label the more antisocial behaviour “crime” and subject its perpetrators to the criminal justice system.

But is this just? After all, no one chooses to have an abnormal brain. Whether the abnormality is the result of faulty genes, fetal alcohol syndrome, infant or child abuse, or head injury, the victim does not choose his or her fate. Is it just to punish someone for something over which they have no control?

We must always, of course, protect the public. And for more serious crimes, that will mean incarceration, but perhaps it's time to start thinking about incarceration less as a punishment and more as a form of quarantine in the same way we sequester people with contagious diseases. People with impaired brains have, after all, already been punished.

Unfortunately, We do not yet know how to repair a damaged conscience. We are a long way from abandoning the criminal justice system. All we can offer at this time is early diagnosis and therapy—empathic approaches rather than punitive ones. Nonetheless, our knowledge is steadily increasing. We are already recognizing that we can prevent much crime by reducing the incidences of fetal alcohol syndrome and infant and child abuse—healthy pregnancies and healthy infancies produce healthy brains. Drug and psychological therapies, even electronic implants, hold promise that one day we will be able to repair a malfunctioning conscience, perhaps even cure a serial killer.

As we gain ever greater knowledge of the brain, aberrant behaviour may eventually be considered more a health problem than a crime problem, and crime considered more a symptom than a sin. The very idea of punishment may become obsolete.

23 January 2014

Inheritance—the ultimate free lunch

Watching Jon Stewart the other night brilliantly satirizing American right-wingers' laments about the poor exploiting social justice programs for a "free lunch," I was disappointed that he failed to mention the greatest free lunch of them all.

Ironically, while "there's no free lunch" is one of our favourite expressions, down through history most land, property and political power has been gained not by merit, not by the sweat of one's brow, but by that magnificent free lunch known as inheritance. The recipients of the great part of society's wealth and power have long been benefactors of nothing more than being born into the right family. In the case of diverse kings, aristocrats, and inheritors of great fortunes the largesse has been more banquet than lunch.

Since the Industrial Revolution, merit has increasingly replaced inheritance as the primary vehicle for obtaining both wealth and power, but the free banquet is still of great importance. Much of this country's asset base continues to lie in the hands of heirs. And even though political power is now gained primarily by merit through the democratic process, wealth has retained much influence. In the United States, great wealth has produce political dynasties such as the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and the Bushes. Power still flows through blood as well as the ballot.

Nor does wealth have to run for office to have its way. Politicians who are not rich often must genuflect to the rich to succeed. One of K.C. Irving's sons once told a premier of New Brunswick, "My father's never lost a New Brunswick election in his life." Old K.C. never ran for office but he was the richest man in the province and that was as good as being premier. And we are all familiar with ambitious British politicians pandering to press lord Rupert Murdoch and American presidential aspirants pandering to Wall Street for the funding without which they would never set foot in the White House.

We are curiously ambivalent about someone getting something for nothing. We don’t approve of it for the poor. If we must provide charity to keep them off the streets, we will, but sparingly and only until we can wean them off of it. We are concerned about the harm that handouts may due to their characters.

Yet we have no concern about the damage that inheritance, the most lavish handout of all, does to the characters of the rich. If we were as concerned about their characters as we are about those of the poor, and if we really believed merit should determine success in gaining either wealth or power, i.e. if we believed people should earn their rewards, we would be more determined to wean the rich off the free banquet than the poor off the free lunch.

22 January 2014

Capitalism—an irrational system in an age of climate change

Capitalism is generally recognized as having one great strength. That, of course, is as a creator of wealth. Aided by the remarkable advance of technology (some would say inspired and facilitated by capitalism) it has created wealth unknown before in human history.

Capitalism is also generally recognized as having one great weakness. It is a lousy distributor of wealth. Indeed, that goes against its basic nature which is to accumulate. It is based on greed, not altruism.

In order to balance these two characteristics, to ensure that all would benefit from the wealth generated, Western countries invented the welfare state, one of the greatest of human social inventions. Capitalism would create the wealth and the welfare state would distribute it—a just and sensible balance. The rising tide of wealth would raise everyone's financial boat. However, the system is now breaking down. The rising tide is no longer raising everyone's boat, indeed it is raising increasingly fewer boats, and with globalization, capitalism has escaped the nation state and therefore the moderating influence of the welfare state.

And there is an even bigger problem. At a time when we are polluting the planet to the point of changing its climate while simultaneously exhausting its resources, a system committed to endless accumulation is no longer rational.

Simple good sense demands an economic system designed to fit comfortably within the limits of both the environment and the Earth's resources. Fortunately such a system is readily available—co-operation. Co-ops are tried and true economic vehicles, functioning with great success at local, national and international levels. A global economy based on co-operation, with our fellow global citizens and our environment, could escape the rat race of competitive capitalism that is compromising the health of the planet. And, as the icing on the cake, co-op's one member/one vote structure offers equality and democracy to workers and consumer/owners alike, unlike the plutocratic one share/one vote of capitalist enterprises.

Those who persist in defending capitalism must explain how it can be curbed to adapt to a world facing runaway pollution and resource exhaustion, particularly that it has now broken the leash of the nation state. If they can't, they have nothing to offer.

21 January 2014

Mr. Harper's pilgrimage to Israel—more Canterbury Tales than trade mission

Trade missions have always been questionable vehicles for boosting the Canadian economy. Nonetheless, some can be justified by, if nothing else, the trade potential of the host country. For example, Jean Chrétien's Team Canada mission to China in 2011. China is now our second most important trading partner and the world's largest market. Huge potential there.

But Israel? Israel is a minor trading partner and offers but a small market. Yet our government is sponsoring a 208-strong mission led by our PM and including advisers, press secretaries, cabinet ministers, MPs, senators, chief executives of Canadian companies, lobbyists, RCMP security staff, various bureaucrats, members of the press, a priest and 21 rabbis. This motley assortment of travelers, particularly the priest and the rabbis, suggest the tour is more pilgrimage than trade mission, more Canterbury Tales than Team Canada.

This occasions no surprise given the Prime Minister's evangelical support of Israel. His justification of Israel's invasion of Gaza in 2008 in which 1.400 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians including some 300 children, as an "appropriate response" was as Old Testament as it was distasteful.

Most of the expense for the pilgrimage will be picked up by Canadian taxpayers, some of whom
will no doubt object to paying for Mr. Harper's spiritual adventures. Faith-based trade policy is not in the best interests of Canada, nor is faith-based foreign policy.

20 January 2014

Our 150th birthday bash ... all about war

If there was any remaining doubt that the Conservative government has a militaristic view of history, check out Canada 150, the website for Canada's 150th anniversary. Note that the only subject with its own heading is "World War Commemorations." Then click on the "Road to 2017" and peruse the milestones. You will discover that out of 22 milestones listed, over 40 per cent commemorate war.

Apparently this does not reflect the interests revealed by Canadian Heritage-commissioned focus groups on the Canada 150 logo. TNS Canadian Facts, who conducted the research, reported, "From the words that people chose to describe this event, it is clear that the communications should focus on the celebration of Canada’s diversity and multiculturalism as a country, as well as appeal to the younger generation as much as possible." As for the younger generation, I counted only two milestones that originated after WWII. An extensive study by the Canadian Capital Cities Organization that included a Facebook campaign, an online survey and cross-country consultations seemed to agree with the focus groups. The words "mosaic" and "multicultural" came up repeatedly. Acknowledging First Nations treaties and contributions also came up frequently (incredibly, the government's milestones ignore the signing of the treaties, some of the largest peaceful land transfers in history).

Nor do the government's milestones mention Medicare and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, arguably the two most important Canadian achievements post-WWII, not only in themselves but in the fact that they are "live" history; they continue to affect us today in critical ways and will continue to do so well into the future, unlike the "dead" history of names, dates and old battles.

An informal online survey by the CBC had "Confederation and events of 1867" and "1982 constitution and charter" as the two most popular of the seven choices offered with "Canada's wartime contributions" and "past political leaders" least popular. The latter two provided most of the government's milestones.

The government's choices show a disturbing lack of generosity for any interests other than those which strongly appeal to Conservatives, particularly to their maximum leader. Most problematically, they represent a re-writing of history.

So, if the Conservatives still form the government in 2017, and the government's milestones are a sample of things to come, our 150th birthday celebration will be a very military exercise.

18 January 2014

Religious persecution on the rise

The Pew Research Center recently published a study of religious persecution over the period 2007-12 and the results aren't pretty. Of 198 countries and territories included in the study, 29 per cent had high or very high government restrictions on religion and 33 per cent had high or very high social hostilities involving religion. Egypt had the highest level of government restrictions and Pakistan the highest level of social hostilities. Over the period, religious hostilities increased in every major region of the world except the Americas.

Religious minorities suffered abuse in forty-seven per cent of the countries for acts perceived as offensive or threatening to the majority faith, and in 39 per cent of the countries threats or violence were used to compel people to adhere to religious norms.

Women were harassed over religious dress in a third of the countries, and religion-related mob violence occurred in a quarter. About a fifth of the countries suffered religion-related terrorism and sectarian violence.

In 2012, the top five countries for very high social hostilities involving religion were Pakistan, India, Somalia, Israel and Iraq. The top five for very high government restrictions on religion were Egypt, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Also in 2012, the Middle East and North Africa saw both the highest levels of social hostilities and of government restrictions.

Government restrictions and social hostilities didn't necessarily coincide. For example, Jews faced social harassment in many more countries than they faced government harassment, whereas Sikhs faced government harassment in more countries than they faced hostility by groups or individuals.

That discrimination and hostility are occurring because of religion, either by or to members of various faiths, isn't surprising—bigotry and violence have always followed religion around. The extent surprises me, however, as does the fact that, in recent years at least, it is increasing.