30 March 2011

Daylight saving time year-round ... If the Russians can do it, so can we

If George W. Bush did anything worthwhile as president, it was extending daylight saving time (DST) for an extra few weeks. Now the Russians have gone him one better—much better. They are extending DST for the whole year.

On Sunday, Russian clocks sprang ahead for the last time. The country is now on summer time permanently. President Dmitry Medvedev claimed the time changes caused "stress and illnesses" and "upset the human biorhythm." From a more scientific standpoint, geography professor Arkady Tishkov, a member of the working group that advised cancelling the biannual changes, said they created a number of problems including disruption of sleep patterns, aggravation of chronic diseases and increased traffic accidents. "During the period of the clocks changing, the number of heart attacks increases by 50 per cent and the number of suicides by 66 per cent," he said, "Crime will also drop when the clocks are not put back in October because thieves are less active during daylight hours."

The British group Lighter Later wants to go even further, adding an hour throughout the year plus changing the clocks in spring and fall to get yet another hour for the summer months (sort of like Saskatchewan with DST). Their argument is for more sunshine when people are awake to enjoy it as well as the environmental benefits from reduced electrical use. In Queensland, Australia, advocates for permanent daylight saving time have even formed a political party—Daylight Saving for South East Queensland—that seeks a referendum on the issue.

I, too, would like more light when I'm awake and doing stuff. I freely confess to a bias. I have always been a late-night, late-morning person, something my retirement has given me full opportunity to enjoy; nonetheless, I am confident most Canadians, suffering through our seemingly interminable winters, would prefer a little more light in the evening at a cost of a little less in the morning. Anyway, let's ask them. Let's take a page out of Daylight Saving for South Queensland's book, and hold a referendum. My bet is a sweep for DST year round.

29 March 2011

I'd like to vote, but my conscience objects

So we are to have yet another election. On May 2nd we will have the opportunity to exercise our democratic franchise. We will have the opportunity as free and equal citizens to elect representatives to govern us. Well, actually, we won't. If I were to cast a vote, for example, it would count the same as it has for the last many federal elections I've voted in—absolutely nothing. It would elect no one to represent me. Voting will, therefore, be a waste of my time, so I am not going to bother.

I have always voted in the past. A close friend has consistently asked me why, seeing as it has never helped elect anyone to carry my views to Ottawa, and I have consistently come up with some vague justification about performing my democratic duty, about how so many people elsewhere lacked the right, etc. My reasoning increasingly seemed to sound like my mother telling me why I should eat my vegetables when I was a kid. "Children in China are starving," she used to say, "they would be grateful for those peas." Of course me eating my vegetables made not the slightest difference to Chinese kids. Similarly, me voting in a federal election won't make the slightest difference to who represents Canadians in Ottawa.

I already know who will win in my constituency and by how much. Lee Richardson, Conservative, will win by between 15 to 20,000 votes. Lee is a nice enough fellow, and probably a good representative—if you're a Conservative. But I'm not. Lee and I disagree on probably 19 issues out of 20, so he doesn't represent me in any meaningful way. And my vote will not help elect anyone who does. It should, but it doesn't.

The reason it doesn't is because of our shabby electoral system. A democratic system would ensure that every vote counted and that it counted equally in electing someone who represented the individual voter's views. This could easily be done. There would, thank god, be no need to amend the constitution. There are many electoral systems that ensure each vote contributes to the election of a legislator who meaningfully represents the voter. The federal government need only choose a system that best fits Canadian circumstances—and proportional systems can be tailor-made to fit a wide range of circumstances—and legislate it into effect.

Until that happens, I will feel that if I vote I am participating in a fraud, acting as if my vote counts, being told it counts, when in fact it doesn't. Democracy means political equality—every citizen has the same power in electing his or her representative. Our antiquated first-past-the-post system betrays that equality. It deprives me, and millions of other Canadians, of their democratic right.

This should be unconstitutional and may very well be. A case winding its way through the courts in Quebec which will probably wind up in the Supreme Court is challenging the constitutionality of first-past-the-post. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the courts will rule that to be meaningful under Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms there must be a strong (I'm thinking at least 95 per cent) correlation between the popular vote and representation in the House of Commons. If the case is successful, I may finally get to cast a meaningful vote in a federal election.

In the meantime, I will continue to support Fair Vote Canada and hound the political parties to promote a democratic voting system. But vote? No point.

24 March 2011

Bertrand Serlet (father of Mac OS X) leaves Apple

In one of those curious twists of fate, when Apple fired Steven Jobs in 1985, it couldn't have know that this would lead to the salvation of the company. Jobs formed another company, NeXT, to build a new computer with which he hoped to beat Apple to death. Joining his team from Xerox was a French-educated computer scientist named Bertrand Serlet. When Apple, on the brink of bankruptcy, acquired NeXT in 1996 to build a new Mac operating system, they acquired as well Jobs and Serlet.

The latter turned out to be the company's saviour. His was the main brain behind Mac OS X, which not only powers Apple’s Mac computers, but the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch as well, all huge money-makers for Apple.

Now Serlet is moving on. A day before OS X turned 10 years old, he announced he was departing Apple. "At this point, I want to focus less on products and more on science,” he explained. All Mac users, of which I am one—I've never owned another computer—owe Serlet a big thank you. Apple's loss will be science's gain.

23 March 2011

The U.S. destroys one Arab dictator's air force while it builds another's

While the Americans join in the destruction of Muammar Gaddafi's air force, they mount a major effort to build up the Saud family's air force. Strange are the ways of American diplomacy.

As part of a $60-billion arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon is planning to bring dozens of Saudi pilots to an air base in Idaho to train them to fly the 84 new F-15E Strike Eagles—advanced fighter aircraft—that the Saudis received in the deal.

So many questions spring to mind: Why is the United States, a freedom-loving nation, honing the instrument a family of dictators will use to maintain their power? Why are the Americans training the very men whose ruler may call upon to kill their own people? Why do the Americans keep arming those who may be their future enemy? Do they not realize that if the Sauds' are overthrown—and that is probably only a matter of time—the United States could face a new, hostile regime armed with U.S.-trained pilots flying U.S.-made planes?

There are two obvious answers to these questions of course: oil and money. The Sauds, unlike the unpredictable Gaddafi, have been reasonably reliable providers of oil to the U.S. And conversely, the Sauds have been major buyers of American arms. Interestingly, three Idaho politicians who strongly opposed the building of an Islamic cultural centre two blocks from ground zero in New York, congressman Mike Simpson and senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, are all in favour of bringing the Saudi pilots to their home state. The Saudis are paying for the required enhancement of the air base and the influx of the Arabian pilots, support staff and their families will bring a lot of revenue to Idaho. Oh, what a difference a dollar makes.

And then there's just ideological ignorance. Retired air force officer Edmund O'Reilly, president of the local chapter of the Military Officers' Association of America opined, "From a military standpoint, I think it's an awesome thing for the free world forces." Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most oppressive dictatorships, and probably its most misogynistic, is now part of the free world?

Not all Idahoans, or all Americans, are so sanguine, however. Some have pointed out that it was mostly Saudis trained to fly in the United States who flew planes into the twin towers. To date, most of the outrage has been expressed by conservatives, but if there is a bright side to this folly, it may be that here at last is an issue that American conservatives and liberals can unite on.

21 March 2011

Suicide bombers—why do they do it?

Why do suicide bombers do what they do? Not for religious reasons apparently. According to political scientist Robert Pape and defense policy analyst James Feldman in their book Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It,  it is the result of foreign military occupation, not religious extremism. According to Pape, who has studied suicide attacks for 30 years, “What over 95 per cent of all suicide attacks since 1980 have had in common is not religion but a specific strategic objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists consider their homeland or prize greatly.”

Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, works from a database of over 2,000 incidents to analyze recordings that bombers left behind, information about their religious affiliations and socioeconomic status, and other personal details. He notes that prior to 2003, the year the Americans invaded Iraq, fewer than 15 per cent of such attacks around the world were directed against American interests. Since 2003, 92 per cent have been aimed at U.S. targets.

In Afghanistan, there were fewer than 15 suicide attacks from 2003 to 2005, but the number rose to 87 in 2006 and 128 in 2007. According to Pape, the rise was the result of the arrival of  international forces in increasing numbers.

In Lebanon, there were 30 suicide attacks between 1982 and 1986, including a truck bomb that killed 241 U.S. Marines. The number of attacks declined as foreign troops left the country—first the United States, then France, then Israel. Since Israel’s military withdrawal in 2000, there has not been a single Lebanese suicide attack.

“Foreign occupation," says Pape, "is the trigger for suicide terrorism much like smoking is the trigger for lung cancer.” It appears that if the U.S. wants to put an end to suicide attacks against its interests, it should simply stop occupying other people's countries. And our government's argument we are in Afghanistan to protect Canadians against terrorism would seem to be a bit threadbare. But then we knew all that, didn't we?

19 March 2011

Saudis send a message in Bahrain

While the West moves to use force against Muammar Gadhaffi, Saudi Arabia marches into Bahrain. The goals, however, are not quite the same. The West supports the Libyan rebels desire for democracy and freedom, the Saudis motives are likely less noble. The Saudis are no doubt unnerved by the threat the massive protests pose to the power of the Al Khalifa family who have ruled Bahrain for over two hundred years. The Saud family, with a lot shorter pedigree than the Al Khalifas, are looking over their shoulders at the demand for democracy in the Middle East with its threat to absolute power and can hardly be amused.

Invited by the Al Khalifas, and under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, hundreds of troops from Saudi Arabia and police officers from the United Arab Emirates have poured into Bahrain, marking the first time Arab nations have intervened in another country's affairs amid the current unrest in the region.

Not only do the protests in  Bahrain threaten royal power but they threaten Sunni power. The Al Khalifa monarchy represents a Sunni tyranny ruling over a population 70 per cent Shia. The Saudi monarchy, also Sunni, faces only a minority Shia population but a population that is becoming increasingly restive.

So the Sauds have good reason to send a message in Bahrain: the tsunami of revolution sweeping across the Middle East will not be allowed to reach the shores of Saudi Arabia. And, given the military hardware the West has put in their hands, they will no doubt be able to enforce that message—for a while.

17 March 2011

Peaceful revolution the most successful

At at time when the world is comparing the outcome of violent revolution in Libya to the outcome of peaceful revolution in Egypt, it may be worth examining which approach has the best chance of success. Actually, that examination has already been made. A study by Erica Chenoweth, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, and Maria J. Stephan, a strategic planner at the U.S. State Department, showed that "major nonviolent campaigns achieved success 53 percent of the time compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns." The study, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” suggests two reasons for this:

First, nonviolent methods offer a campaign greater legitimacy, both domestically and internationally. This offers broader recognition of the group’s grievances and translates into greater support, internally and externally, and greater alienation of the target regime, undermining the regime’s political, economic, and even military power. In Ms. Chenoweth's words, "People don’t have to give up their jobs, leave their families or agree to kill anyone to participate in a nonviolent campaign. Such movements tend, therefore to draw a wider range of participants, which gives them more access to members of the regime, including security forces and economic elites, who often sympathize with or are even relatives of protesters."

Second, while regimes can easily justify violent reaction against armed insurgents, violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to backfire. Oppressive regimes need the loyalty of their bureaucracy and military to carry out their orders. Violent resistance reinforces that loyalty, while civil resistance undermines it. Potential sympathizers, at home and abroad, see violent militants as having extreme goals, but they perceive nonviolent resistance groups as more accommodating, thereby enhancing their appeal and the possibility of concessions through negotiation.

The study compared the outcomes of 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006.

The strategies and tactics of dissent will will always depend to some extent on circumstances, of course, but it is encouraging to know that civil resistance is much more effective than the uncivil kind. Give peace a chance, indeed.

16 March 2011

From the GDP to Norway's Index of Nature

A number of indexes have been suggested—some written about on this blog—to replace the GDP as a measure of societal well-being. The GDP is not a measure of a nation's health, after all—only of its national income—yet it continues to be used in the more general sense as a gauge of how well a society is doing. More meaningful, and less dangerous, indexes include the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW). Now, Norway has come up with a yardstick to measure the health of the natural environment—the Norwegian Nature Index.

Based on 309 indicators covering nine major habitats, the index was designed "to provide an overview of the state and development of biodiversity in the major ecosystems in Norway." According to Vivian Pharis, director of the Alberta Wilderness Association, the Nature Index "will help Norway to halt deforestation, complete its parks system, protect fresh and marine waters and to build a model for global biodiversity monitoring." The latter is of particular importance in a world facing the worst rate of species extinction since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago.

The index will not be a yardstick for the overall health of a society, of course, but it will measure a critical aspect of that health—the state of  the environment—and as such make a valuable complement to indexes such as the GPI and the CIW. It could be a first step toward officially placing a value on "free" services such as insect pollination and forest growth that make a huge contribution to the economy.

A recent UN report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, estimated that damage to natural capital from wetlands to coral reefs totals $2-4.5-trillion every year, losses not included in GDPs. Norway plans to follow up the UN report with a review of the value of services provided by nature in Norway. The work could lead to a radical shift in the way we view economics. Ultimately, of course, our entire economy depends on nature directly or indirectly.

Although various countries use bioindicators to assess nature, few have attempted to aggregate their indicators into a single index as Norway has done. Bravo to the Norwegians.

15 March 2011

Conservatives create a project that could actually reduce crime

Progressives despair at the federal government's emphasis on tough law and order measures to reduce crime, particularly spending oodles of money on building more prisons for more and longer incarcerations. On the bright side, the Alberta Conservative government has created a program that will incur a modest cost but offer major potential for reducing crime and saving youngsters from wasting their lives on anti-social behaviour.

The government has established the Alberta Vulnerable Infant Response Team to assist at-risk Calgary families with babies. The team will consist of Children and Youth Services caseworkers, nurses and police officers and will offer intensive guidance and support for the first three months of a child's life. The initiative was in response to a significant increase in the city of infants reported to be at risk of neglect and abuse.

That criminals are the product of dysfunctional homes is well-known. Interventions that assist young mothers in proper parenting have been shown to pay off many times over with reduced crime and by the productivity, including payment of taxes, of young people who were steered onto the right path. Better socially and economically, for the individuals involved and society generally, to have people working and paying taxes rather than languishing, at the taxpayers' expense, in prison. A penny of prevention is worth thrupence of cure.

The team will work with parents to teach parenting skills and provide addiction and family violence counseling. The program, to be followed by a similar initiative in Edmonton, will cost $1-million, about the cost of keeping one man in prison for a dozen years.

Limiting assistance to children under three months seems unduly restrictive, but it's a start. These are the kind of programs that will significantly reduce crime. If the federal government is interested in protecting the public and not just in revenge, it should take notice.

10 March 2011

Europe moves toward a Robin Hood (Tobin) tax

In 1972, Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin suggested a currency transaction tax to be leveled on all spot conversions of one currency into another. He intended the tax to penalize currency flipping, thereby modifying currency volatility. In his words, "National economies and national governments are not capable of adjusting to massive movements of funds across the foreign exchanges, without real hardship and without significant sacrifice of the objectives of national economic policy with respect to employment, output, and inflation." In other words, currency speculation undermined the democratic process.

Since then, the idea of a Tobin tax has grown well beyond Tobin's original intention of "putting a brake on foreign exchange trafficking." The global justice movement promotes application of a tax on financial transactions as a means of generating revenue for the fight against global poverty and protection of the environment. A means, in other words, to allow governments, i.e. citizens, to reclaim part of the democratic space that global trade agreements have conceded to markets. Thus the Tobin tax becomes the Robin Hood tax. You can read much more about this at http://robinhoodtax.org/. The idea is that, due to the vast number of financial transactions in today's globalized world, a tiny tax on such transactions could generate large amounts of revenue for the public good.

The Robin Hood tax campaign has now received a boost from the European Union. Earlier this week, the European Parliament voted in support of a financial transactions tax on banks. They estimate the 0.05 per cent levy on financial transactions will raise  $270-billion a year. The Members want Europe to press ahead unilaterally with the tax to discourage speculative trading and to raise money to protect public services, fight global poverty and tackle climate change. The vote is not binding, so the challenge now is to get national governments on board. A number already are, including France who chairs the G20 this year. The German, Austrian and Spanish governments are also in support.

This bold move by the European Parliament has put paid to the argument that nothing can happen without global agreement and sets a global standard for pressing ahead with action on the banks. An idea, as they say, whose time has come.

09 March 2011

Egypt - a revolution for men?

The Egyptian revolution has captured the hearts and minds of freedom and democracy-loving people around the world. The largely peaceful overthrow of a tyrant with the hope of establishing a democracy is inspiring. It will be less inspiring, however, if it turn out to be a revolution for men only.

Women were in the forefront when the people took to the streets. But now that the tyrant has packed his bags, women, it seems, are being pushed aside. When the military selected a 10-member committee to make constitutional reforms, they selected not one woman. When a new cabinet was sworn in earlier this week, it contained only one woman. Particularly disturbing to many Egyptian women is the return of sexual harassment in the streets, a practice for which Egyptian men are notorious but which seemed to be suspended during the protests. All of this surrounding international women's day is not encouraging for the women of Egypt.

The new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, has announced the creation of a committee to deal with the advancement of women, which is all well and good but does nothing for women now. As one woman remarked, "It's like saying you women can have your little committee while we men do the serious business."

Women nobly set their struggle for gender equality aside while they fought for the political and social rights of all Egyptians.What a betrayal it will be if their political and social rights are now set aside by men.

07 March 2011

Globalization and the race to the bottom in Wisconsin

The globalization of economics as we have come to know it is revealing itself rather dramatically in Wisconsin. It has ravaged the market for well-paying blue-collar jobs in the U.S., reducing the wages and benefits of middle class Americans in the bargain. Now right-wing politicians are exploiting the wreckage to slash the wages and benefits of public sector workers. It's called the race to the bottom.

The race does not, however, include the corporate sector. Just as politicians like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker use the new global order to justify union-bashing, they use it also to justify cutting taxes for corporations, citing the need for ever more investment. Ah, the symmetry of global capitalism!

Now don't get me wrong. I support globalization. I support the breaking down of barriers. But what we have seen isn't globalization, it is—for lack of a better word—corporatization. It is drawing up agreements that advance the interests of corporations, particularly in their relentless search for cheap labour, while dismissing or even undermining the interests of workers, the environment and democracy generally. For example, under NAFTA American corporations are free to seek out cheap labour in Mexico but Mexican workers are not free to seek out high wages in the United States.

The theory of corporatization is that we will all benefit ultimately by trickle-down from the prosperity of corporations. As workers in Wisconsin are finding out, there isn't much trickling going on.

A humane globalization would ensure that the rights of workers and respect for the environment were internationalized no less than trade. If tariffs were not allowed to protect a country's industries, neither would the exploitation of workers nor the abuse of the environment. But such is not the case. Blue collar jobs in places like Wisconsin can be farmed out to the coerced labour mills of China, dragging American wages down in first the private sector, then the public. It is a sad spectacle to see a noble idea—globalization—corrupted into a vehicle for exploitation and the undermining of human rights.

05 March 2011

Not so conservative times in U.S.

After the November elections in the U.S. swept Republicans into power in the House of Representatives and a number of state legislatures and governorships, to say nothing of the exuberance of the Tea Partiers, one might have thought Americans were swinging hard to the right. The Pew Research Centre begs to differ. In a recent survey, the prominent research group revealed some intriguing drifts toward moderation in our southern neighbour.
  • Opinion on gay marriage, still strongly opposed only a few years ago, is now evenly split.
  • Support for the view that abortion should be legal in all or most cases has recovered from a low in 2008, and is now at 54 per cent as opposed to 42 per cent who think it should be illegal.
  • Support for legalizing marijuana has continued to increase to 45 per cent, closing in on the support for maintaining its illegality which has dropped to 50 per cent.
As the graphs below indicate, some significant trends in American attitudes are clearly moving in a progressive direction. Encouraging stuff.

04 March 2011

Americans strongly support public-sector unions

While various governors and legislators of various American states exploit state budget deficits to do some union-busting, Americans at large remain staunchly supportive of public-sector unions. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, most Americans not only oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions but also oppose cutting the pay or benefits of public workers to reduce state budget deficits.

The support is  convincing. Respondents opposed weakening public-sector union rights by a margin of almost two to one (60 per cent to 33 per cent). Even among Republicans the margin was nearly 50-50. Opposition to cutting the pay or benefits of civil servants to reduce deficits was also strongly opposed—by a margin of 56 per cent to 37 per cent. Sixty-one percent of those polled, including just over half of Republicans, thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees was either “about right” or “too low,” directly contradicting those politicians who have been making the case that public-service workers are overpaid or have overly generous benefits. The disagreement extended to dealing with budget deficits: raising taxes was twice as popular as benefit cuts for state workers.

This strong support by the American people for both civil servants and unions is encouraging. Aside from worker co-operatives, unions are the sole component of democracy in the workplace. If we are to have a democratic society, self-governance must inform all public institutions, not just government, and to many citizens, the most important institution is their workplace. Americans likely support public-sector unions for various reasons—fair play, respect for the work they do, etc.—but one hopes also because they support democracy.