29 April 2010

If Parliament is paramount, why not let it govern?

"The fundamental role of Parliament is to hold the Government to account." - Peter Milliken
"The parliamentary system means government in Parliament and with Parliament, but not by Parliament." - C.E.S. Franks

Speaker of the House Peter Milliken's ruling for primacy of Parliament over the government seemed somehow inevitable even if it produced a sigh of relief. To rule in favour of the government would have in effect reversed the order of our parliamentary system, placing government above the elected representatives of the people rather than at their pleasure. Or, perhaps more correctly, given the grossly excessive power of the position, placing the Prime Minister above the elected representatives of the people.

Despite this reaffirmation of Parliament's supremacy, as C.E.S. Franks, Professor of Political Studies at Queen's University, reminds us, it does not govern. Its function, in Milliken's words, is rather to hold government to account. This is something that deserves great consideration. Why should the elected representatives of the people not govern, or at least be intimately involved in governing? Why should legislation not emerge from legislative committees rather than from Cabinet? And why should the heads of these committees, elected by their members and approved by the legislature at large, not become the cabinet ministers? And why should the legislature at large not choose the Prime Minister? If we adopted a proportional representation voting system to ensure Canadians were fairly represented, such a system would in effect be involving all Canadians in their governance. What an idea -- a people effectively governing themselves! The democratic ideal achieved.

At this time, one of those rare moments when thoughts of democracy are uppermost in the public mind, it seems appropriate to dream of such things.

Industries gang up on green

That elements of the oil and coal industries oppose Obama's green agenda is not news. The efforts of ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company and Peabody Energy Corp, America's biggest coal company, to undermine the science of climate change are notorious. The coal industry is leading the campaign to defeat the climate and energy bill currently before Congress and to prevent the Obama administration from using the regulatory powers of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to curb emissions.

Now it appears the chemical industry is joining the battle. A secretive group linked to Solvay Chemicals is joining other corporate groups and their supporters in legal challenges to the EPA's authority to act on greenhouse gas emissions. Solvay produces sulphur hexafluoride, an industrial cleaner that just happens to be an extremely potent greenhouse gas, 23,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Last year, the EPA proposed regulating sulphur hexafluoride.

The secrecy of the group is typical of corporate efforts to suppress the regulation of greenhouse gases. Corporations that like to present an environment-friendly face to the public prefer to keep their environment-unfriendly activities private.

Opposition in the U.S. to dealing responsibly with climate change is formidable. It includes members of the above industries and others, the legislatures of oil and coal states, right-wing think tanks, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They are powerfully organized, filthy rich, and equipped with all the propaganda tools, lawyers and lobbyists money can buy. This raw power, imposed largely out of the public view, seriously undermines the possibility of honest democratic debate on the climate change issue. It does explain the laggard nature of U.S. efforts to deal with the most important challenge facing all of us, a lagging we cannot afford from the world's major emitter of greenhouse gasses.

23 April 2010

Tea parties, power to the people, and the illusion of small government

According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, one of the three major concerns of members of the U.S. tea party movement is that they are not being fairly represented in Washington. They have a point. Citizens in the United States are not being heard the way they should be. Obama's health care bill, seemingly a focus of their anger, is a good example. Obama dropped the idea of a single-payer system, the most important item in reducing health care costs, to appease the insurance industry, and he dropped the idea of bulk-buying of drugs by government to appease the pharmaceutical industry. It seemed more important to cater to corporations than to cater to the American people.

However, reducing the size of government, which according to the poll is the tea partiers major goal, will not solve their problem. It won't reduce the influence of the plutocrats. Indeed, it will probably increase it. When power is taken away from government, unfortunately it doesn't always equitably redistribute itself among the citizenry. If it did, even socialists might support downsizing government. What tends to happen is something quite different. For example, when successive American governments reduced their power over the financial industry, with less regulation and weaker regulators, that power did not seep out into the general public. To the contrary, it was absorbed by those best-situated to grab it -- the bankers and financiers. And with diminished government oversight, they exploited and trashed the system.

Another major concern of the tea partiers is excessive government spending. A major contributor to this sin in the U.S.,  as well as a major contributor to the size of government, is the largesse lavished on a bloated military, by far the largest single item of discretionary spending in the federal budget. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against the power of the military-industrial complex, but his warning was ignored and now the military-industrial complex, or more appropriately the military-industrial-congressional complex is a giant leech on the American body politic. It is, however, a leech the tea partiers support.

They fail to recognize their system is as much a plutocracy as a democracy. Consider the issue of climate change. While tea partiers gather in public places, as concerned citizens do, the oil-coal-chemical industrial complex conspires in private to array their lawyers and lobbyists against green legislation and the Environmental Protection Agency. They, not citizens, dominate the debate. Yet this, too, seems not to bother the tea partiers.

Most of them blame Congress, not Wall Street, for the current state of the American economy. If they want their voices to continue to ring out in Washington after the current passion for tea parties fades away, they will have to reset their sights. They will have to present policies that dramatically reduce the power of Wall Street -- the patrons of Congress -- not reduce the size of government.

20 April 2010

The Anglican Church ... selling indulgences?

If there was one thing about the church of his day that really ticked off Martin Luther it was the sale of indulgences. For a price, you could reduce your time spent in purgatory. It was apparently in reaction to the indulgence-peddling friar Johann Tetzel that Luther wrote his "Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" and triggered the Reformation.

So has the Anglican Church revised indulgence-selling in a new form? It is inviting corporations to sponsor its national convention, offering everything from corporate logos on documents to a showcase booth at the convention. As other sources of revenue dry up, the fastest-declining Christian denomination in the country has appealed to Mammon for salvation. It may be harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but for $30,000 he can enjoy a private luncheon with Archbishop Fred Hiltz of the Anglican Church. And that must at least be close to the Kingdom.

I wonder if Luther could have done 95 theses on the power and efficacy of corporate sponsorship.

19 April 2010

Women cause earthquakes -- wouldn't you know it

With the excess of faux pas coming out of the Vatican these days, it's time to give another religion a chance to display its ignorance. Enter senior Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi. According to Sedighi,  "Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes." So there you go, seismologists, put your silly instruments away and dress your wives and daughters up in burqas. You will be way ahead of predicting earthquakes, you will be preventing them.

I'm curious, though, Mr. Sedighi. Why is it just the women? Don't men ever lead young women astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society? And what about all the wars men start? Doesn't that shake the Earth a little?

And why is Iran so much more earthquake-prone than Canada? We've got a lot more women "who do not dress modestly" than Iran does. The walls in Canadian cities ought to be tumbling down.

So homosexuality causes Catholic priests to diddle little boys, and women in short skirts cause earthquakes in Iran. Ah religion. The wisdom of the ages.

17 April 2010

Thank you, Paul Martin

According to Statistics Canada, the recent global recession was "less severe and shorter in Canada." While our southern neighbour suffered its worst economic decline since the Great Depression, ours was shorter and milder than the recessions of 1981-82 and 1991-92 . Exports and corporate profits fell sharply but, a report released Thursday states, "domestic spending was sustained by strong balance sheets and savings built up in previous years and a financial system that emerged largely unscathed from the crisis in the U.S. and Europe."

Of course, Harper caught a break, too. If he had got a majority in 2006, freeing him to institute the failed policies of the U.S., he would have had to take the fall for the results. As it turned out, he has only had minority governments, confining him to moderate measures, and now he gets to walk tall on the world stage as the leader of the country with the model banking system. He was, you might say, saved from his own folly.

As were we. Looking good because of the astute Mr. Martin. I thank you, sir.

Mexico -- drug war or civil war?

What is usually described as Mexico's drug war is beginning to look like something rather more serious. Despite the deployment of 50,000 troops and the detention of 121,000 drug suspects, the situation worsens. Since 2006 when President Felipe Calderon launched a government crackdown on drug gangs, almost 23,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence. In Ciudad Juarez, a centre of drug violence, 10,000 businesses have closed down in the last 18 months with over 100,000 jobs lost.

Now the violence has taken on an even deadlier turn. Three of the cartels have joined forces to fight the infamous Zetas. The Zetas are former members of elite military units in the Mexican and Guatemalan armies who went rogue to work as enforcers and hit men for the Gulf cartel. With members who received training from American, French and Israeli counterinsurgency experts and the recruitment of federal, state, and local police officers, they are considered the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and violent paramilitary group in Mexico. Their victims include the police chiefs of three Mexican cities and the Secretary of Public Safety. After killing the police chief of Nuevo Laredo, they told his replacement they would kill more and more people until he stepped down. After personally discovering three bodies on the side of a city street, he resigned.

Earlier this year, the Zetas decided to set up shop on their own and have become arch rivals of their former employers. Now, as their range expands, they have become a threat to all the cartels. They have established a presence in the U.S., contacts with the 'Ndrangheta in Italy and training camps in Guatemala. The cartels, normally deadly enemies, are collaborating to deal with the threat. Banners have appeared in the border state of Tamaulipas, announcing the unity of the cartels against the common enemy, one going so far as to urge Mexico's army to get out of the way and let the cartels exterminate the Zetas.

Aside from the Zetas, President Calderon's military approach seems to be failing. Most Mexicans believe the cartels are winning and the army is now contributing to public insecurity rather reducing it. Many are demanding he focus more on crime generally and less on the drug trade which they see as primarily an American problem. The Zetas, picking up on this, have boasted they will eliminate petty crime if left alone to conduct their business to the north. Nor is Calderon immune to the public mood. In Ciudad Juarez, for example, he announced a shift toward investing in social programs and job creation to address the underlying causes of crime. He seems to be shifting focus, and well he might ... before his country is torn apart.

15 April 2010

Liberating the barbers

Does it start with the barbers? The Cuban government is turning over hundreds of state-run barber shops and beauty salons to employees in what may be the start of an overhaul of state retail services. Instead of receiving a wage, the barbers and hairdressers will be able to rent their space and pay a fee based on the revenue they generate. They will be required to pay for their own water, electricity and supplies but will be free to charge whatever the market will bear.

This is the first time since they were nationalized in 1968 that state-run, retail-level establishments have been handed over to employees. The action is long overdue for a sector notorious for poor service.

One Cuba-watcher, Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, suggests that although this is but a small step, it has considerable potential if more broadly applied. "If carried out fully," he stated, "it would convert small state enterprises into leasing arrangements and urban co-operatives." The idea of an abundance of co-operatives sounds very progressive indeed and could set an example for other countries, including ours, something for our governments to consider when they privatize things like liquor retailing.

If this small taste of free enterprise doesn't prove too much for the Castros, it might even lead to larger freedoms for the Cuban people.

14 April 2010

Spanking kids: apparently violence does indeed beget violence

According to an article published this week in the journal Pediatrics, if you want children who are defiant, get frustrated easily, demand immediate attention of their wants, lash out physically at others, hurt animals and refuse to share, one thing that will help is spanking them. Social work and public health researchers at three American universities studied 2,500 parents over seven years and discovered that those who were spanking their three-year-olds produced kids that were much more aggressive at age five than unspanked kids. The study accounted for a number of factors including the children's level of natural aggression, parental maltreatment and neglect, family violence, stress, depression and substance abuse.

This is no surprise. Parents are, after all, kids' primary role models. Children learn principally from their parents and principally from example. They model themselves after mommy and daddy. If their parents teach them violence is acceptable, they absorb the lesson. Furthermore, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, corporal punishment becomes less effective with repeated use and also makes discipline more difficult as the child ages. Investing time earlier on to instruct a child why its behaviour is wrong may result in a young person that is more self-aware and in-control later.

Unfortunately, corporal punishment of children is still legal in Canada, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2004. The Court did at least insist that the person administering the punishment must be a parent or legal guardian, the force must be used as a correction which the child must be capable of benefiting from, and the force must be reasonable. Slaps to the head were deemed off limits.

Many countries, including Germany, Israel, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Ukraine and Venezuela, have banned the striking of children. A host of institutions in spanking countries state it is associated with negative outcomes and recommend against it. These include the Canadian Pediatrics Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Australian Psychological Society, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the U.K., and The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In light of all this expertise, capped by the most recent study, a particularly convincing one, it's time Canada took one more step toward a fully civilized society and joined the ranks of the non-spankers.

10 April 2010

Ecocide -- an international crime?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. British lawyer/campaigner Polly Higgins would like to add a fifth: the crime of ecocide.

My Oxford dictionary defines ecocide as "destruction of the natural environment, especially when willfully done." Ms. Higgins would like to define it, for the purposes of international law, as "The extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished." The inhabitants she refers to are any species, not just Homo sapiens.

Ms. Higgins justifies adding ecocide to crimes under the jurisdiction of the ICC by claiming it is essentially a crime against peace. "Ecocide is in essence the very antithesis of life," she says. "It leads to resource depletion, and where there is escalation of resource depletion, war comes chasing behind." Her argument has considerable merit. Sir David King, Great Britain's former chief scientist, predicts a century of "resource wars," and a report on resource conflicts entitled Lessons UNlearned by the group Global Witness has convinced many skeptics of the threat of resource depletion.

Higgins has already achieved success in her environmental efforts. In 2008, she launched a campaign for a Universal Declaration for Planetary Rights, modeled on the human rights declaration, and the Bolivian government plans to propose a full members' vote on the idea in the United Nations.

Her proposed ecocide law has support in the United Nations and the European Union, among climate scientists, and among environmental lawyers and organizations. If successful, it would have a major effect on energy, farming, mining, forestry and chemical industries. The effect almost seems to overwhelm Higgins herself when she says, "I'm only just beginning to get to terms with how enormous that change will be."

But it's an idea whose time has surely come. Our offences against nature are so immensely destructive, it seems perverse not to call them crimes when offences against members of our own species that are trivial by comparison are subjected to severe criminal prosecution.

Anyone with a desire for justice toward our fellow species will wish Higgins success in her mission. You can follow her campaign at http://www.thisisecocide.com/.

09 April 2010

Sad news from Ward 9

I was sorry to hear Alderman Joe Ceci announce his decision yesterday not to run for reelection in this fall's Calgary civic elections. Alderman Ceci's moderate, progressive approach has been a credit to politics and leadership in this city for 15 years. He doesn't represent my ward but, no matter, he has represented my views on how a city ought to function. I will, therefore, genuinely feel I've lost a representative after October 18th.

Alderman Ceci rejected the law and order mantra that has captivated too many Calgary politicians in recent years in favour of creating a more compassionate and equitable city, the best antidote to crime. His has been a strong voice in favour of affordable housing and sound social infrastructure. He has served Calgary well at the local, provincial and national levels, acting as the city's representative on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for a number of years.

In any case, Ward 9 will be the poorer.

03 April 2010

Religion and dysfunctional society

"Irish Catholics are in a dysfunctional relationship with an abusive organization." So says Irish singer and activist Sinead O'Connor, who describes herself as a "Catholic by birth and culture [who] would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation."

That the Irish are plagued by a dysfunctional relationship with their religion is hardly surprising at a time when the Catholic Church sinks deeper into pedophilic scandal. The larger question is whether religion brings dysfunction to society generally. Evidence suggests it does.

A paper by Gregory Paul in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, entitled The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions, shows a powerful correlation between the strength of organized religion and social dysfunction. Paul constructed a "Successful Societies Scale," a broad-based measure of socioeconomic conditions, from 25 indicators and applied it against various measures of religiosity and secularism for a number of First World democracies. The Scale included such indicators as homicide, incarceration, lifespan, venereal disease, teenage births, suicide, divorce, life satisfaction, alcohol consumption, income disparity, poverty and employment. The results showed a strong and consistent relationship between the dysfunction of a society and its religiosity. The relationship between social dysfunction and a strong belief in God is shown on the attached graph. Dysfunction increases (social success declines) as the proportion of the population who hold a strong belief in God increases. The "U" toward the lower right represents the United States. This was a typical result.

But correlation is not causation. Perhaps other factors are at work here. Paul discusses other possible causes of the dysfunction, including immigration, population diversity, frontier heritage and the media, and concludes they could not explain the relationship. It would seem religion and dysfunction are indeed cause and effect. But which is the cause and which the effect?

It seems to work both ways. A highly stressed society tends to seek sanctuary in religion, while religion in turn tends to create stress in society. The United States, both the most dysfunctional and the most religious of the Western nations, serves as a good example. The unusually high rates of mental illness in the United States are indicative of high levels of stress and anxiety, caused by such factors as a lack of universal health care, high income disparity and an excessively competitive economic environment. Poorer social infrastructure, a result of Americans' greater preference for faith-based charity over secular government programs for improving social conditions, creates greater poverty and in turn greater social dislocation and crime. Problems such as venereal disease and teenage pregnancy are aggravated by religious opposition to sex education. The United States is caught up in a circular dance of conservative religiosity, stress and social dysfunction.

Ms. O'Connor is certainly right about Ireland being in a dysfunctional relationship with an abusive organization, but that would seem to be the norm for societies and their religions, at least those of a conservative variety.