17 October 2014

Saudi Arabia—beheading capital of the world

Of all the atrocities committed by the Islamic State, the ones that got the most attention were the very public beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker. Beheading is indeed a sordid act. And yet we remain on excellent terms with the beheading champion of the world. Saudi Arabia, good friend of Western nations and member of the U.S. coalition against the Islamic State, has publicly beheaded 59 people so far this year, for crimes including adultery, sorcery—yes, sorcery—drug smuggling, murder and, this is Saudi Arabia after all, political dissent.

Beheadings are a popular event in the Kingdom of the Sauds. According to one wit, they are the only form of public entertainment aside from football matches. Nor does the entertainment necessarily end with the decapitation. For certain crimes, the corpse is crucified, the head mounted above the body, where it will be left for public view for up to four days. The executions are generally clean but not always. For example, when Rizana Nafeek, a 24-year-old Sri Lankan maid accused of murdering her employer’s 4-month-old son (she claimed the baby choked on its milk bottle), swayed from side to side, the chopping took a very messy turn.

Lighter entertainment allows the public to witness the hacking off of other body parts—hands, legs—depending on the crime. According to one of the state executioners, Mohammed Saad al-Beshi, if it is a hand he cuts at a joint and if it is a leg he explains, "the authorities specify where it is to be taken off, so I follow that."

Currently awaiting execution for "sedition" and "disobeying" the kingdom's rulers is the prominent Shia religious leader and anti-government protester Nimr al-Nimr. Most of the country's Shia minority live in the east which also happens to be home to most of the country's vast oil reserves. They have long alleged severe discrimination by the Wahhabi majority who dominate religious institutions, the courts and education. Nimr is paying the price of their dissent.

So while we rightly condemn the Islamic State for its atrocious beheadings, this barbaric, misogynous regime remains our bosom friend, the United States and Britain's favourite customer for arms sales and a country to whom we are trying to increase our own weapons traffic. Of course, the victims of the Islamic State were innocents but then, given the quality of Saudi justice, so might victims such as Rizana Nafeek and Nimr al-Nimr.

Oh, what a difference a barrel of oil makes.

16 October 2014

Will we have to bomb the Shias now?

We are all familiar with the depravity of the Islamic State. Tragically, some of their foes are also descending into the moral depths. According to a report by Amnesty International, Shia militias, often armed and supported by the Iraqi government, "have been abducting and killing Sunni civilian men in Baghdad and around the country." Their complicity with government forces ranges "from tacit consent to coordinated, or even joint, operations."

Although the abductions and killings are often retaliation for Islamic State atrocities against Shias, they frequently have a more mercenary purpose. After abducting a young man, the militias extort his family. Many families report paying hefty ransoms "only to discover that their loved one had been killed." Even the retaliatory attacks often sweep up Sunnis not connected to the Islamic State but who simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One story illustrates the hopeless situation of many Iraqis. A man whose family fled the Islamic State and are afraid to return frequently visits Fallujah to check on his house and property. "Only I can go, he says, "because I am old. My sons cannot go. It would be too dangerous for them. They could be killed by Shia militias on the road between Baghdad and Fallujah, as they treat anyone going to or coming from Fallujah as a terrorist and often kill people on that road. And the IS gangs in Fallujah would consider my sons as government collaborators because they left Fallujah and are living in Baghdad."

The Shia militias are formidable, the largest containing tens of thousands of fighters, their power growing as the Iraqi army collapsed. They can operate like regular armed forces but with impunity.

According to Amnesty, "The existence of these sectarian, unregulated and unaccountable militias is both a cause and a result of the country’s growing insecurity and instability. They preclude any possibility of establishing effective and accountable security and armed forces able and willing to protect all sectors of the population." Amnesty insists that the Iraqi government must get them under control, but one wonders if that is any longer possible.

Iraq is in a state of collapse. Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and the Islamic State are now involved in a godawful civil war over the spoils. The American coalition's notion that it can do any good here may be nothing more than hubris run wild, turning a Middle Eastern war into an international one with no possible idea of where it will all end. And that prompts the question, Where does our participation end, and what can we possibly hope to achieve out of this mess?

15 October 2014

Will Republicans believe their military on climate change?

The American Republican Party is a major obstacle to the United States acting responsibly on climate change. In the manner of our federal government, they do not allow science to interfere with their dogma. But while they have little use for science, they are great admirers of the military, so is it possible they will start listening to the Pentagon when it comes to climate change?

If they will, there's hope for them, and their country, yet. According to the Pentagon, global warming is changing the way the U.S. military trains for and goes to war. Strategic planners have long believed that climate change has the potential to provoke hostilities over migration and food shortages, make old conflicts worse, and present new military challenges in the Arctic.

In a Pentagon report that came out just this week, Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel wrote, "A changing climate will have real impacts on our military and the way it executes its missions. We are considering the impacts of climate change in our war games and defence planning scenarios." The report pointed out that military installations and personnel are already exposed to climate change. For example, Virginia's Hampton Roads area, which contains the country's largest concentration of military forces and already floods during high tides and severe storms, could see sea levels rise half a metre over the next 20 years. Military bases in the southwest face water and electricity shortages due to droughts, and Arctic installations are shifting because of melting permafrost. The Pentagon is worried about global warming before they even rev up a tank, and their concerns increase along with climate change.

So will the Republicans pay attention to their fighting men? If nothing else will convince them of the seriousness of global warming, will a threat to their ability to fight wars do the job? So far it has not. Republicans have used their majority in the House of Representatives to preclude efforts by the Pentagon to adjust to global warming. For a party obsessed with national security, they have displayed a remarkable disdain for their country's greatest threat. Let us hope for all our sakes that as their military increasingly sounds the alarm, they will be forced to accept the inconvenient truth.

UK MPs vote overwhelmingly to recognize State of Palestine

It was overwhelming. British MPs voted 274 to 12 this week in support of a motion to recognize Palestine as a state. The vote was only symbolic, as it isn't binding on the government, nonetheless it sends a clear message on how sentiment is going in the UK and elsewhere on the Palestine issue.

MPs from both sides of the House supported the motion, some making it very clear why. Conservative chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, Richard Ottaway, long a strong supporter of Israel, said, "The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent."

Although the vote does not bind the government, it should accept the clear will of the House of Commons and officially recognize the State of Palestine, as134 other countries have done. And so should our government. We, like the UK, believe in a two-state solution to the Palestine issue. It is simply churlish therefore not to accept Palestine's peaceful accession to statehood. Instead we adopt uncritically the Israeli line that a Palestinian state only be recognized at the successful conclusion of negotiations between the two sides. But as former British foreign minister Jack Straw said this week, "Such an approach would give the Israelis a veto over whether a Palestinian state should exist." And as Palestine has no veto over a Jewish state, it is pure hypocrisy to allow Israel a veto over a Palestinian state.

Furthermore, all the leverage in negotiations lies with the Israelis. They have the most powerful military in the region, equipped with nuclear weapons and backed up by the most powerful nation in the world. And they control most of the territory and the water. When one side holds all the cards, demanding the other party negotiate with them is nothing more than demanding they submit, that they accept any crumbs they're offered. Naturally, this holds little appeal for the Palestinians.

The British MPs have done the right thing. Now it is up to their government to follow suit. And for ours as well.

09 October 2014

Mr. Harper, listen to the Commish

She's your commissioner, Mr. Harper, appointed under your watch. She is a former mining industry executive, the kind of credentials you respect. So when she speaks, pay attention. And she recently spoke loud and clear.

As federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Julie Gelfand heads her department's Fall 2014 report, which is not at all pleased with your government's greenhouse gas emissions record. No doubt, you have read the report and encountered the following scolding:
Overall, we found that federal departments have made unsatisfactory progress in each of the four areas examined. Despite some advances since our 2012 audit, timelines for putting measures in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have not been met and departments are not yet able to assess whether measures in place are reducing emissions as expected. We also found that Environment Canada lacks an approach for coordinating actions with the provinces and territories to achieve the national target, and an effective planning process for how the federal government will contribute to achieving the Copenhagen target. In 2012, we concluded that the federal regulatory approach was unlikely to lead to emission reductions sufficient to meet the 2020 Copenhagen target. Two years later, the evidence is stronger that the growth in emissions will not be reversed in time and that the target will be missed.
In short, you are failing to meet your own target for emissions reductions, your government doesn't know how to meet it, and your approach wouldn't have worked in the first place.

It's a sorry story, Mr. Harper, and it isn't coming from those radical, foreign-funded environmentalists. It's coming from your own government's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. So listen up.

Calgary inches closer to a charter

In 1867, Canada's founding fathers created two levels of constitutional government—provincial and federal. The municipal level didn't make the cut. This was excusable at the time. Over 80 per cent of Canadians lived on farms and in villages, so local government seemed rather unimportant in the grand scheme of things and was left to the tender mercies of the provinces.

How things have changed. Today, over 80 per cent of Canadians live in towns and cities. In Alberta, over half the population lives in just two cities: Calgary and Edmonton. Arguably now more important than provinces, cities are the centres of politics, social life and commerce—our major wealth creators. They deserve recognition and power accordingly.

In an initial attempt to recognize their new importance, the Alberta government signed an agreement in principle in 2012 to establish charters for Calgary and Edmonton. The charters would grant the cities more powers and change the way they are funded. This week the charters moved a step closer when new premier Jim Prentice signed a framework agreement with the Calgary and Edmonton mayors to work toward formalizing the charters, the details to be finalized by spring 2016. "Calgary and Edmonton face serious infrastructure deficits," said Mr. Prentice. "They need the freedom to come up with innovative, homegrown solutions."

Other Canadian cities—Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver among them—have charters, but theirs, like Calgary and Edmonton's, don't release them from constitutional subservience to provinces. Provincial governments retain the right to bestow authority on cities, and the right to take it away. A charter granted to Halifax in 1841 was extinguished by the provincial government on April 1st, 1999—April Fool's Day.

Nonetheless, charters will enhance Calgary and Edmonton's abilities to govern themselves even as they remain creatures of the provinces. Ideally, cities would be brought into the Constitution as, in fact, Lord Durham recommended in his famous report of 1838. But we are all aware of the current level of enthusiasm for constitutional change.

So this baby step is to be welcomed. We will remain for the foreseeable future an urban nation lumbered with a distribution of powers from a rural age, but we are nonetheless moving, albeit very slowly, in the right direction.

07 October 2014

Pity the Americans—running an empire ain't easy

Running an empire is tough. There are always tribesmen out on the fringes who fail to appreciate that you are bringing them civilization. In their lack of gratitude, they act up, and you are forced to send in the legions to bring them to heel. Such has been the case throughout history, from the Roman Empire to the British Empire and now for the American Empire. The need for war is perpetual.

The American Empire is different in that it doesn't colonize the lands of those it conquers—well, not any more, anyway. It is content to maintain an extensive network of military bases throughout the world from which to suppress threats to its power and safeguard access to resources. With hundreds of bases worldwide, the U.S. military deploys over a quarter of a million personnel in over 150 countries.

This empire is also different in possessing a new vulnerability. Previous empires always had a secure homeland, a place the empire-builders could return to after toiling away at their imperialist work and find sanctuary. But due to modern communications and transportation that is no longer the case. On September 11th, 2001, for example, recalcitrant tribesmen struck at the very heart of the Empire, striking the fear of God (or Allah) into its citizens. Never before had an empire suffered such vulnerability at the height of its powers. The ingrates, it seems, can now do to you in your backyard what you are doing to them in their backyard.

So pity the U.S. The job of running an empire is tougher than ever. And yet, at the risk of sounding callous, I must say I am completely lacking in sympathy.

06 October 2014

CEO pay—how much is too much?

The American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) has compiled a list of CEO compensation in 19 developed countries and the results are of considerable interest to Canadians. It turns out that the ratio of our CEO's pay to that of the average worker is second highest of the group, behind only—no surprise—the U.S.A. The average Canadian CEO makes over two hundred times the pay of the average Canadian worker (the average American CEO makes 354 times as much). The average Canadian CEO pulls in $8,704,118 while the average worker makes $42,253. The CEO pay package includes salary, bonuses, stock awards and other perks.

In Norway, with workers making about the same as Canadians, the ratio is only 58 to one. In Germany, where workers also make about the same as Canadians, the ratio is 147 to one, high by European standards but substantially less than North America.

One wonders what we get for our money. Norway has a highly successful economy, yet they only need to pay their top execs a third of what ours get. Germany is arguably the most successful industrial nation in the world, its companies superbly managed, and their CEOs receive only two-thirds the compensation of our overpaid lot. The answer I suppose lies in our proximity to the U.S., the most inequitable country in the developed world, a very bad but highly influential example. In 1965 the ratio of CEO to average employee in the U.S. was only 20 to one. Are CEOs really seventeen times better than they were back then?

A large part of the reason the gap is tolerated is that people grossly underestimate what CEOs receive. For example, a recent study, How Much (More) Should CEOs Make? by Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael I. Norton showed that Americans believe the ratio is about 30 to one but should be only about seven to one when in fact it is 354 to one. This gross discrepancy between what people think is fair, what they believe executive compensation to be, and what it actually is, is universal. If people around the world ever discover the reality about what CEOs are making, we may see an equally universal demand for a maximum wage.

05 October 2014

Are we too dumb for democracy?

Hey, the above is not my line. I plagiarized it from a CBC article about a new thesis from the University of B.C. that suggests our brains aren't up to the rational, autonomous thinking required for democracy. Ph.D. political science candidate David Moscrop says voters across the political spectrum tend to vote with instinct rather than reason, i.e. with their "lizard brains," that ancient part of the brain responsible for instinct and emotion, i.e. gut feelings.

I'm not so sure I would write off the voters' capacity for rational, autonomous thinking too readily, although the force that drives us politically, that make us progressive or conservative, is certainly not reason. In any case, one point where I agree completely with the young Mr. Moscrop is with his strong support for “deliberative” democracy, i.e. providing opportunities for citizens of all political views to gather, discuss and debate issues, and using the results to influence politicians and educate other citizens.

When citizens act as a community, rather than as isolated individuals, they are much more likely to support rational policies and indeed more democratic ones. That is why I have long advocated for citizen assemblies. Randomly selected groups of citizens can represent a town, province or nation in microcosm, bringing together a full range of views. Released from the grip of party loyalty and its tribal instincts, and from manipulative media, they are free to deal with their fellow participants on an equal, open, intimate and informal basis, more willing to allow the heartfelt views of others to influence their own. Provided with comprehensive packages of information and access to experts, such assemblies can produce policies underlain by passion but ultimately determined by reason and compromise.

We are smart enough to do democracy, but we need better structures than we have now, structures that allow for well-informed citizens deliberating equally as members of a community.

03 October 2014

Who is "part of the problem," Mr. Cameron?

Recently British PM David Cameron, even while encouraging Iran to help deal with ISIS, couldn't resist taking a shot at the country. In his UN speech, he stated superciliously that Iran can be "part of the solution, not part of the problem." Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, took umbrage, declaring the remark "wrong and unacceptable." A spokeswoman for Iran's foreign ministry, Marzieh Afkham, was rather more caustic: “The speech by the British prime minister at the UN general assembly shows the perpetuation of the egocentric attitude of a government which has a history of [causing] trouble in our region.”

The lady has a point. Britain does have a long history of making trouble in the Middle East, particularly for Iran. In the 20th century it invaded Iran twice. In the 1950s, it collaborated with the U.S. in overthrowing Iranian democracy. Most recently, it participated in the coalition that invaded Iran's neighbour, an invasion that ultimately lead in no small part to the creation of ISIS.

Britain has complained about the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons while hypocritically possessing nuclear weapons itself for no apparent reason but to strut on the world stage. Might we believe it is more responsible as a nuclear power than Iran would be? Well, Iran hasn't invaded anybody in two centuries while Britain has invaded other people all over the map, including Iran, fairly regularly during the same period.

It would seem, Mr. Cameron, that your country is rather more a part of the problem than Iran.

02 October 2014

It will be lonely without the animals

We are a rapacious species. Since we first walked out of Africa we have been decimating our neighbours. Today, according to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report 2014, we are annihilating other species on a grand scale. The report claims we have reduced the numbers of other animals in the world to half what they were 40 years ago. The numbers are based on measuring representative populations of more than 10,000 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish around the globe.

And how do we do this? Where to begin. We do it by destroying their habitats.We clear too many forests for lumber and for farms. We exhaust too many rivers to irrigate crops, and we spray too many pesticides and fertilizers. We pave over too many meadows for streets and parking lots. We introduce too many alien species that overwhelm local species. We poach and hunt and fish excessively.

We just demand too much, much more than our fair share, and the Earth can no longer satisfy our demands. According to the report, it would take 1.5 Earths to satisfy our current appetite for the planet's resources. Unfortunately, we only have one at our disposal. Some of us are much more demanding than others. For example, if everyone on the globe lived at the same standard as Canadians, we would need more like four planets.

As other species' numbers decline ours steadily increase. Not only do we demand more and more, but there are more and more of us demanding it. Yet one thing never changes—human society depends entirely on the environment. If we don't come to terms with the other species on Earth, we have no future.

Hong Kong—a people who actually care about democracy

North Americans don't seem to care much about democracy. Canadians don't, and our good neighbours the Americans don't. We enjoy considerable freedoms along with our electoral systems of government, but our systems are hardly democratic, and it doesn't seem to bother us. If it did, we would never tolerate them.

Observation of the American system suggests a plutocracy, not a democracy. A recent study entitled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, by Martins Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, which analyzes what influences the U.S. federal government, confirmed this. The study states, "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

The rich have excessive influence in our governments as well, if not to the same extent as with our southern neighbour, and even our method of choosing leaders is undemocratic. Our federal government, for example, is run by a political party that over 60 per cent of voters did not want running the country. This condition of governments being run by parties who have the support of only a minority of the people is also endemic among the provinces. A people who truly cared for democracy would never put up with this mockery of democratic process.

This lack of concern about the lack of democracy is depressing. It is therefore refreshing to observe the passionate interest in democratic process currently being displayed by the citizens of Hong Kong. A decree by China that candidates for chief executive must be endorsed by a special nominating body in Beijing before before they are allowed to run for office has brought massive numbers of Hong Kong citizens into the streets. The protesters, led not surprisingly by students, demand fully democratic elections.

This pro-democracy movement, known as the "umbrella revolution," is gathering international support, with solidarity demonstrations popping up in Australia, Canada and the U.S. Yes, even in Canada and the U.S. Perhaps if Hong Kong residents ever escape the autocratic clutches of Beijing, and that may take a very long time, they will ultimately become as jaded about democracy as we are, but in the meantime their enthusiasm warms the heart of this old democrat.

30 September 2014

Greyer is greener

As I slip slowly into my dotage I have at least one consolation—I'm less of a burden on the planet. A study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany found that per-capita carbon dioxide emissions in Western countries rise steadily as children become adults and as adults become more affluent, but after the age of 60 emissions decline by roughly 20 per cent.

The German study indicates that since 1950, aging has caused a 30 per cent increase in German emissions, as the baby boomers grew into middle age. But after 2020, "as the proportion of people older than 80 continues to increase and the population size shrinks, emissions will decrease and reach pre-1950 levels by 2100."

Health costs will rise, but even that will be less of a problem than often thought. Studies show that most of the bills for looking after old people occur in the last two years of life, regardless of their age, and healthy life expectancy is rising as fast as total life expectancy.

So you may become a little more demanding of society as old age creeps up on you, but more importantly you are less demanding of mother Earth.

National Post climate change deniers "paranoid"—so says their own editor

The prattling of climate change sceptics/deniers in the National Post has been ridiculed by one of its own editors. In recent comments on the CBC's The National, Jonathan Kay repeated observations he made in a column some years ago in which he accused deniers of being "a liability to the Conservative cause." In his article he observed, "In the case of global warming, this [cognitive] dissonance is especially traumatic for many conservatives, because they have based their whole worldview on the idea that unfettered capitalism—and the asphalt-paved, gas-guzzling consumer culture it has spawned—is synonymous with both personal fulfillment and human advancement. The global-warming hypothesis challenges that fundamental dogma, perhaps fatally."

Referring to the blather of such journalists as Terence Corcoran and Rex Murphy, he declared that it was "Fine-sounding rhetoric—but all of it nonsense." One wonders why the National Post persists in publishing what one of its own editors thinks is nonsense.

Particularly when he believes "the impulse toward denialism must be fought if conservatism is to prosper ... Otherwise, the movement will come to be defined—and discredited—by its noisiest cranks and conspiracists." What with Stephen Harper's enemies' list and Joe Oliver's ranting about environmentalists hijacking our regulatory system with the help of foreign interests, one wonders if that isn't already the case.

29 September 2014

Will capitalists save us from global warming?

In her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein argues that if we are to defeat climate change we must defeat capitalism. At this week’s UN climate summit in New York, a number of corporate leaders seemed determined to prove her wrong.

For example, a group of investment institutions that included pension funds and corporate asset managers promised to "decarbonize" their investment portfolios by $100-billion by 2016. This would mean divesting from investments in fossil fuels and palm oil plantations. Their motivation wasn't so much altruistic as pragmatic. According to Mats Andersson, CEO of AP4, a Swedish pension fund, "Climate change is more and more recognized as a financial risk." His conclusion echoes the report Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy issued by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate which came out just before the summit and claims that a low-carbon economy offers faster economic growth.

Another group of investment companies that manage $24-trillion in assets called for a global system of carbon pricing to reflect the environmental cost of emissions. Such a system, they claimed, would force them out of fossil fuels and into low-carbon energy.

And not only bankers were committing to a new world order. A number of companies that trade in agricultural commodities—including Unilever, the world's largest supplier of supermarket products, and palm oil suppliers Wilmar and Cargill—have recently committed to avoid crops grown on newly deforested land. At the New York summit, these companies joined governments in signing the New York Declaration on Forests, pledging to halve forest loss by 2020 and reach "zero net deforestation" by 2030. This is no small deal. Nigel Sizer, forest director at the World Resources Institute, said the declaration, "could result in more emissions reductions than removing every car, bus and plane from the U.S., China and India combined."

So let's not write off capitalism as a climate villain yet. When profits are at stake, and with climate change they are, capitalists will act in their own best interests. And as we all know, nothing speaks louder in the halls of government than big money. The corporate sector will almost certainly wield a bigger environmental stick with politicians than the 300,000 marchers in the streets of New York.

25 September 2014

Homeowners opt out of sprawl

Homeowners, it seems, at least in the Greater Toronto Area, are opting out of sprawl, or they would like to. So says the Royal Bank of Canada, the country's largest residential mortgage lender, and the Pembina Institute, an environmental NGO, in a new report on the preferences of GTA homeowners. The conclusions were drawn from a survey conducted by Environics Research Group in May.

According to the report, “When housing costs are not a factor, 81per cent of respondents would choose to live in an urban or suburban neighbourhood where they can walk to stores, restaurants and other amenities, and where they can access frequent rapid transit. They would choose these neighbourhoods even if it meant trading a large house and yard for a modest house, townhouse or condo.”

Unfortunately, price is a factor, a major one—over 80 per cent of respondents choose a neighbourhood because of affordability. In other words, they opt for price over preference. Interestingly, however, the young buyers (18-34) and the older buyers (over 60), the two groups most interested in location-efficient living, would pay more for a smaller home in a neighbourhood that was walkable and transit-accessible than a larger home with a yard in a neighbourhood that was car-dependent.

The challenge here is obvious—build more location-efficient communities. A more compact, efficient city is not just the dream of city planners, it is the preference of most homeowners. Build it and they will come.

Congratulations, Edward, well-deserved

If I had heroes, Edward Snowden would be among them. Sacrificing his career, accepting exile from his homeland, and risking long years in prison, Snowden revealed to the world the lies behind our intelligence agencies’ claims they did not spy on us, that they did not engage in egregious invasions of our privacy. This act of great courage and great importance has earned him the 2014 Right Livelihood honorary award from the Swedish charity the Right Livelihood Award Foundation. The foundation recognized Snowden for his “courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights.”

He shared the award with Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper, who was recognized for his role in “building a global media organization dedicated to responsible journalism in the public interest, undaunted by the challenges of exposing corporate and government malpractices.” The Guardian published a series of articles based on documents leaked by Snowden.

The Right Livelihood Award, often referred as the “Alternative Nobel,” is awarded to “honour and support those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.” Established in 1980 by philanthropist Jakob von Uexkull, it is presented annually in a ceremony at the Swedish parliament.

Snowden and Rusbridger are deserving winners. They delivered a blow against big brother at a most appropriate moment.

24 September 2014

Instruct your MP to support Bill C-621

When it comes to taxes, corporations can be shifty. For example, some shift profits by setting up a storefront office in an offshore tax haven and then sending large invoices back to the Canadian head office charging “management” or “licensing fees.” Another gimmick is for a company to sell a patent to an offshore subsidiary and then charge itself licensing fees for use of the patent. Profit shifting has been made famous by corporations such as Apple, Google and Starbucks, but Canadian companies such as Cameco and Gildan are also playing the game.

This week, NDP National Revenue Critic Murray Rankin proposed legislation (Bill C-621) that would make it easier for government and the courts to bring such tax avoiders to heel. His bill focuses on proving “economic substance,” i.e. corporations must be able to prove that a transaction has an economic purpose other than reduction of tax liability in order to be considered valid for tax purposes.

Taxes the corporations are unfairly avoiding have to made up by the rest of us. In order to help ensure they pay their fair share and lighten our load a little, send a message to your MP here. And you can read the bill here (it's very short).

ISIS—a force for peace?

A juxtaposition of two articles in the Guardian this week suggested a very odd development indeed in the Middle East—the barbaric hordes of ISIS currently marauding through Syria and northern Iraq may actually be, in the longer term, a force for peace.

The first article referred to a meeting in New York between British PM David Cameron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The meeting, to discuss the support Iranians can offer in the fight against ISIS, is the first between British and Iranian heads of state since the 1979 revolution. It represents a significant thaw of the relations between the two countries. Cameron, while remaining critical of Iran's nuclear program and its support for Syia's President al-Assad, stated, "If Iran is willing to join the international community to defeat ISIS then we will work with them on that."

The other article concerned a foreign minister-level meeting between Iran and Saudi Arabia, indicating another possible thaw in some deeply frigid relations. Shia Iran and the conservative Sunni Sauds have been bitter rivals for influence in the region. After the meeting, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted as saying, "Both my Saudi counterpart and I believe that this meeting will be the first page of a new chapter in our two countries’ relations. We hope that this new chapter will be effective in establishing regional and global peace and security and will safeguard the interests of Muslim nations across the world." Prince Saud, for his part, referring to the advancing ISIS, added, “We are aware of the importance and sensitivity of this crisis and the opportunity we have ahead of us. ... These two countries are influential in the region and cooperation between them will have clear effects on the establishment of regional and global security." Amen to both of you.

A common enemy often unites the strangest of bedfellows. The trick is to remain united after the crisis passes. If these bedfellows can achieve that, or at least be less divided, this would be an ironic but most welcome outcome—the emergence of a silver lining from a very dark cloud indeed.

20 September 2014

Good use of the American military

As a frequent critic of how the United States uses its military in the world, I was delighted to hear that President Obama has made a major commitment to use the U.S. Army against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Many nations are responding to the crisis—Cuba is sending 165 health workers, China will send 59, the U.K. is building a 62-bed hospital, etc.—but all these are dwarfed by the American military response. Up to 3,000 army personnel will provide logistics, supplies, engineering and transport of supplies and personnel to the epidemic, and construct at least 17 new hospitals. They will also build a training facility to instruct up to 500 local and foreign health workers a week in infection control and self-protection.

With the epidemic now out of control in three countries, the assistance is badly needed. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, science writer Laurie Garrett reports, "Nothing short of heroic, record-breaking mobilization is necessary at this late stage in the epidemic. Without it, I am prepared to predict that by Christmas, there could be up to 250,000 people cumulatively infected in West Africa." The disease has a fatality rate of over 50 per cent.

Full credit goes to President Obama for recognizing the severity of the threat and taking strong action. By using his military for constructive purposes—a very welcome change—he shows the U.S. at its best. Our current government has been quick to support American initiatives, so might we assume it will direct our military to follow the U.S. Army into battle against ebola? We are waiting, Mr. Harper.

18 September 2014

Why are Americans so frightened?

ISIS has thrown the fear of God into Americans. According to a poll conducted by the Opinion Research Centre, ninety per cent of Americans believe the group is a direct threat to the U.S. with over seventy per cent believing it already has cells inside the country.

All of this might make sense—ISIS is a really scary outfit—if it were true. But it isn't. At least not according to the man who is paid to know about these things. Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, stated categorically, “At present, we have no credible information that ISIS is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.”

So why the rampant fear? Partly, perhaps, because of the gruesome videos showing the decapitation of two American reporters. Or perhaps just the general brutality ISIS displays. And then there is the hysterical cries for revenge from various media and political quarters. But none of this justifies fear of a threat that according to the country's best-informed official doesn't exist. The bogeyman is real but he isn't under Americans' beds.

The Iraq war was justified in part to end a terrorist threat to the U.S. and as it turned out, that threat didn't exist either. The invasion, however, contributed to the emergence of ISIS, the biggest, baddest bunch of terrorists yet seen. This time, the Americans would be well advised to proceed with great caution lest their irrational fears lead them once again to create a dragon even more fearsome than the one they hope to slay.

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.