30 April 2011

Measuring democracy

It wouldn't surprise anyone if they were told that the rich have more influence on government than the rest of us. Some scholars in the U.S. have gone further than assume this, they have actually measured it, and the results are intriguing.

Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University, writing in the Public Opinion Quarterly, says, "when Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans." He goes on to conclude, "Although perfect political equality is an unrealistic goal, representational biases of this magnitude call into question the very democratic character of our society."

Professor Gilens applied a detailed statistical analysis to quantify the results of a variety of policy questions asked of Americans in surveys taken between 1981 and 2002. Responders, categorized by income, education, race, sex age and partisan politics, were asked whether they supported or opposed such issues as raising the minimum wage, sending troops to Haiti, allowing gays to serve in the military, requiring employers to provide health care, and so on. Note was taken of whether the policy change occurred or not.

Gilens work substantiated a number of previous studies. In an article published in the Cambridge Journals, based on the construction of  several "Material Power Indices," Jeffery Winters and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University reported that “the wealthiest Americans may exert vastly greater political influence than average citizens and that a very small group of the wealthiest (perhaps the top tenth of 1 percent) may have sufficient power to dominate policy in certain key areas."

Page and Lawrence Jacobs from the University of Minnesota wrote in the American Political Science Review that "The results of cross-sectional and time-lagged analyses suggest that U.S. foreign policy is most heavily and consistently influenced by internationally oriented business leaders, followed by experts (who, however, may themselves be influenced by business)."

A study by Princeton's Larry Bartels found that on issues such as civil rights, the minimum wage, government spending and abortion, U.S. senators "appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes."

What these scholars are describing with their scientific analyses is more of a plutocracy, or perhaps oligarchy, than a democracy. They are saying, in effect, that when you bring out the yardsticks, American democracy doesn't measure up. Does ours, I wonder? We await the analyses.

28 April 2011

Allan Blakeney ... death of a statesman

As politicians of all sorts battle another election down to the wire, I'd like to pay my respects to one of the best. Allan Blakeney died April 16th leaving behind an impressive legacy.

Blakeney was an achiever from the beginning. He followed a gold medal graduation from Dalhousie's law school with a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.

Following his education, he became a senior civil servant in Saskatchewan before winning political office and joining the cabinet of Premier Tommy Douglas. He played a key role in the introduction of Medicare in 1962 and was subsequently appointed Minister of Health. He became leader of the NDP and ultimately Premier of Saskatchewan from 1971 to 1982. As premier he worked to improve the province's social programs with a dental program for children, a prescription drug program, subsidized housing, home care, and a guaranteed income supplement for the elderly poor. To ensure control of the province's resources remained in the hands of its people he created Crown Corporations such as SaskOil and the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan.

After leaving politics he occupied the Bora Laskin Chair in Public Law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto for two years, then later settled in Saskatoon where he accepted the Law Foundation Chair at the University of Saskatchewan. He has been appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, and made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is also a past president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

His interests went beyond provincial and national to the international. He had a long-term interest in the World Federalist Movement and served as the Canadian branch's National President from 1992 to 1996. He was intensely involved in South Africa where he helped develop the structures for democratic government following the dismantling of apartheid.

Blakeney's appointment to the Order of Canada read:
A former Premier of Saskatchewan, he has contributed enormously to the field of public administration and was a key player in introducing the first comprehensive public medical health care plan in Canada. Throughout his distinguished career, his patriotism and loyalty to the nation have transcended party politics. His integrity and sense of social responsibility as a statesman, lawyer and teacher are an inspiration to all Canadians.
The candidates in the current federal election could do worse than model themselves after Allan Blakeney.

26 April 2011

Murdoch's mischief ... the excesses of freedom

If you were to suggest that the most powerful man in British political politics today was Prime Minister David Cameron, I would respectfully disagree. I would suggest it is Britain's most powerful press lord, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch's News International owns four British newspapers, including the nation's two biggest, News of the World and The Sun, and controls BSkyB, the country's biggest private TV broadcaster.

When Tony Blair first ran for prime minister, one of the first things he did was fly half way around the world to genuflect before Murdoch in his native Australia. In the nine days prior to the Iraq war, Blair consulted with Murdoch on at least three occasions.

And when David Cameron became prime minister, one of the first visitors to Number 10 was of course Rupert Murdoch. At least on this occasion the mountain came to Mohammed. Cameron had already done Murdoch a big favour. In 2007, News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned after one of his reporters and a private investigator went to jail for tapping the phones of the royal family. Six months later Cameron hired Coulson as his communications director (chief spin doctor).

It turns out Coulson wasn't alone. News International has admitted the hacking was widespread, including not only celebrities but also politicians, including Labour MP Tessa Jowell, who was culture secretary in the former Labour government, responsible for decisions that could have affected Murdoch's business interests.

Even the British police may have been subject to Murdoch's influence. Most of the work to expose the hacking has been done by his rivals in the press, particularly the Guardian newspaper. The police stated in 2009 "no further investigation was required" even though it is now obvious it was. Following the revelations of the Guardian, the police have been forced to reactivate the case.

Murdoch's excessive power is not the only problem he presents. He has also systematically lowered journalistic standards. Not content to pollute the press in the UK, he has brought his toxic influence to North America, most notably with Fox News whose standards are not so much in the gutter as in the sewer.

Freedom is essential to democracy, but like all good things there can be too much of it. And when individuals such as Rupert Murdoch are allowed the liberty to dominate news and opinion, and subject elected representatives to their will, freedom of the press has gone too far. It has gone from liberty to license.

Democracy requires a broad and equitable dissemination of news and views. Restricting what is said is dangerous, but restricting who controls the dissemination of what is said is essential. Leaving control in the hands of autocrats such as Murdoch is oligarchy, not democracy. The media—the public forums of the modern state—must answer to the democratic process just as government must. The British need to be reminded of this. But then, perhaps, so do we.

19 April 2011

One man's hero ...

Two items in the news recently underlined the old difficulty of agreeing on who is a terrorist.

Last week a court in The Hague found Ante Gotovina, a Croatian commander in the 1990s war against the Serbs, guilty of waging a campaign of terror, bombing and murder aimed at ethnically cleansing the Serbian minority, and sentenced him to 24 years in prison. Gotovina was convicted of responsibility for shelling civilians, torching Serb homes, slaughtering hundreds of elderly Serbs and forcing at least 20,000 Serbs from land they had occupied for centuries.

Gotovina may be a monster, but not in Croatia. There, he is a hero. Croats are outraged at the court's decision. Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor declared, "Our view of the operation is absolutely clear: it was a legitimate military and police action to liberate Croatian state territory from occupation." President Ivo Josipović said the verdict was "shocking."

Some might puzzle at the intense hostility between two such similar peoples. After all, both are Slavic and speak the same language. But once you are informed they belong to different religions, all becomes clear. Serbs are Orthodox, Croats are Catholic. Catholic bishops denounced the court, accusing it of deliberately confusing victim and aggressor. The Catholic god apparently approves of Gotovina while the Orthodox god loathes him.

Another ideological division explains the contrasting attitudes toward Luis Posada Carriles. Posada, a former CIA operative and long-time enemy of Fidel Castro, was recently acquitted of a series of terrorism-related charges by an El Paso jury. His acquittal may have been influenced by the fact he once served in the American military and El Paso, home of a major military base, is highly sympathetic to veterans. Posada was given a hero's welcome by the Cuban exile community in Miami following his acquittal and congratulated by U.S. Congressman David Rivera.

But again, Posada is not everywhere a hero. He is wanted in Venezuela for the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people; he did time in Panama for trying to assassinate Fidel Castro; and in an interview with a New York Times reporter claimed responsibility for a string of hotel bombings in Havana. The U.S. government would like to get rid of him but won't extradite him to either Cuba or Venezuela.

So, Gotovina and Posada, terrorists or heroes? Both mass murderers for political ends, yes, but in the minds of many, it isn't mass murder that decides, it's who you mass murder.

18 April 2011

Pembina Institute evaluates party posltions on the environment

For a capsule look at the various parties' environmental platforms from the perspective of an environmental research group focusing on energy, the Pembina Institute offers the following:

Bloc Québécois:
The party supports a science-based 2020 target, a cap-and-trade system and an end to fossil fuel subsides — all important tools for reducing greenhouse gas pollution in Canada. However, once again the platform provides few details about when these policies should go into effect or how stringent they should be.
Overall, we're happy to see this platform commit to the kinds of policies that would help move clean energy to the centre of Canada's economic future. Strong action on climate change can create more jobs than 'business as usual,' so the NDP's clean energy commitments would be good news for Canadian workers and the environment.

While the platform leaves some unanswered questions about the NDP's plans, the NDP's proposals would help to make a clean energy transformation in Canada a reality.
Conservative Party:
The Conservative Party came to today's announcement with a five-year track record of failing to meaningfully tackle greenhouse gas pollution and avoiding federal responsibility for oilsands development. The result is that Canada now risks falling further behind other countries in capitalizing on the rapidly growing global clean energy market.

Today's platform would do nothing to reverse these trends.
Green Party:
The Green Party puts tackling climate change at the heart of its platform. The result is a commitment to a suite of strong policies to cut greenhouse gas pollution, along with national emission reduction targets based on up-to-date climate science. More clearly than any of the other parties have to date, the Green Party's platform makes the case for urgent action to prevent dangerous global warming.
Liberal Party:
Overall, we're happy to see this platform put clean energy at the centre of Canada's economic future. While countries such as China and the U.S. are taking steps to succeed in the clean energy economy, Canada has been lagging behind. Strong action on climate change can create more jobs than 'business as usual,' so the Liberal Party's decision to make clean energy a priority would be good news for Canadian workers and for the environment.
While Michael Ignatieff's platform takes important steps to make that clean energy transformation a reality, it also leaves some gaps.
More detailed summaries can be found at http://www.pembina.org/.

13 April 2011

Vermonters tackle corporations-as-citizens issue

According to a poll by ABC News, 76 per cent of Americans oppose their Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to grant corporations the same rights as individuals when it comes to political speech and can therefore freely use their profits to support or oppose electoral candidates. The opposition is unanimous with solid majorities of both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans opposing the ruling and favouring congressional efforts to limit corporate and union spending.

While Democrats craft legislation to limit the impact of the court's decision, Vermont politicians, ever ready to stand up to corporate power, have presented an anti-corporate personhood resolution to the state legislature that proposes "an amendment to the United States Constitution ... which provides that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States."

This echoes the words of Justice Paul Stevens, one of the four judges able to distinguish speech from money, who wrote for the dissent, "Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their 'personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."

Of course they aren't. And now the court's bizarre decision may make it necessary to amend the U.S. Constitution to re-establish common sense. Vermont, to its credit, is leading the way.

Bolivia calls on Pachamama to enshrine Nature's rights in law

According to ancient Andean spirituality, the fertility goddess Pachamama is at the centre of all life. Pachamama has inspired the Bolivian government to pass legislation, entitled the Law of Mother Earth, which will grant all nature equal rights to humans. According to the Guardian, the laws "will establish 11 new rights for nature. They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered."

The Law, strongly influenced by resurgent spiritual world views, is part of Bolivia's restructuring of its legal system following changes to the constitution in 2009. The government is expected to establish a ministry of mother earth and to appoint an ombudsman, as well as give local communities legal powers to monitor and control polluting industries. According to Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, "Our grandparents taught us that we belong to a big family of plants and animals. We believe that everything in the planet forms part of a big family. We indigenous people can contribute to solving the energy, climate, food and financial crises with our values." These may be indigenous values, but they are also good biology. Unfortunately, all too many of the modern world's science-informed business and political leaders fail to grasp the simple truth that "everything in the planet forms part of a big family."

I have little use for religion, whether it be the mumbo-jumbo of Andean spirituality or the mumbo-jumbo of Christian theology, but if Pachamama can help save us from the folly of wrecking our own environment, then good luck to Her and Her disciples.

08 April 2011

Homo sapiens and the sixth great extinction

What kind of creature are we, we Homo sapiens?

According to a recent study by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, we may be among the half dozen most destructive forces ever to assault life on the planet Earth. Since life began on our planet, there have been five great extinctions, defined as events when over 75 per cent of species disappear. By applying new statistical methods to a new generation of fossil databases, the Berkley scientists tested the hypothesis that human activity is causing a sixth great extinction. The results indicate that the current rate of extinctions is far above normal and if it continues we are indeed on the road to another great extinction.

The scientists warn that, if anything, the study may grossly underestimate the number of species that will disappear. To date, we have pushed species into extinctions through hunting, overfishing, deforestation and other means, but global warming is only beginning to have an effect and could greatly add to the devastation. All this is not entirely new. Suspicion that we are causing a sixth extinction has been around for years. The Berkeley study simply provides more scientific reinforcement.

So I ask again, what kind of creature are we? An intelligent, moral creature or a mass murderer of species? If we were the former, even the possibility we are also the latter would horrify us. Yet it seems to be hardly more than a peripheral issue with us.

Not that concern doesn't exist. For example, the United Nations Environment Programme established the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993 with the signatures of 168 nations. The Convention establishes three main goals: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources. Parties to the convention are required to develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and report on measures taken for the implementation of the provisions of the convention.

So meetings are held, studies are done and plans are formulated, yet species continue to disappear and political leaders rarely allow the word "biodiversity" to cross their lips. Where is their concern, or even their consciousness, about the devastation their economic policies—our economic policies—are wreaking upon our fellow species? They—we—ought to be horrified.

True, we are a murderous species. We have, after all, been slaughtering members of our own species for economic and other purposes, even to the point of driving whole groups into extinction, since we first walked the Earth, so why should we be expected to behave any better toward those we consider our inferiors? Is this, then, our defining characteristic? Will it be our legacy? Does it override our intelligence and our morality? If not, where is the outrage?legacy

06 April 2011

Canadians show compassion in straw poll on Bradley Manning

Whether you think Bradley Manning is a good guy or a bad guy will depend to a large extent on your political persuasion, those on the left opting for the former and those on the right for the latter. Manning is the American GI accused of providing WikiLeaks with classified information. But whether what he is accused of was right or wrong, he deserves to be treated humanely. The U.S. military now stands accused itself, specifically of violating humane standards by subjecting Manning to unconscionable abuse.

They are accused of keeping him in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day; stripping him naked each night and giving him a suicide-proof smock to wear to bed; forcing him to answer a call every five minutes; not allowing him to sleep between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. and forcing him to stand or sit up if he tries; requiring him to be visible at all times, including at night; allowing him only one blanket and one book or magazine in his cell; and not allowing him any contact with other prisoners even during the hour he is allowed out of his cell. All of this—which some would call torture—to a man who has never been convicted of a crime.

In reporting the story, the CBC ran a straw poll asking Canadians if they thought Manning is being treated fairly. To the respondents credit, and my relief, the response was 15 per cent yes and 82 per cent no. Straw votes, being hopelessly unscientific, don't mean much of course, but 82 to 15 seems significant.

And what is my response to the question? Of course I think his treatment is unfair, indeed far worse than unfair. Furthermore, I think that if he did what he is accused of, he did the right thing. Caught in a war based on lies, he made a decision at least as moral as the decision to start the war in the first place. He may have violated the oath he took when he joined the military, but when his commander-in-chief lies to him and he is forced to witness evil generated by that lie, one might argue he no longer owes that oath any loyalty. If he is in prison, justice would demand the liar, George W. Bush, sit in the next cell.

04 April 2011

No jasmine revolution for China—Pew survey

With revolution all the rage, so to speak, in the Middle East, pundits have been pondering the prospects of similar passions being sparked elsewhere. Inevitably China, the blossoming superpower on everyone's mind, comes up for consideration. To examine the possibility of an uprising there, the U.S.-based Pew Research Center compared the results of surveys taken in 2010 in China and Egypt to compare attitudes in the two countries. The results strongly suggest the Chinese won't be taking to the streets en masse any time soon.

Whereas the number of Egyptians who where satisfied with the direction their country was taking was low and dropping, 28 per cent down from 47 per cent in 2007, the number of satisfied Chinese was high and rising, 87 per cent up from 83 per cent in 2007. Their hopes for the future also varied starkly. Seventy-four per cent of Chinese were optimistic about making personal progress in the next five years while only 23 per cent of Egyptians were.

According to the Pew Center, "While the Egyptian and Chinese publics rated their current lives comparably, Chinese reported much more personal progress over the past five years and much more optimism looking ahead. The prevailing feeling in Egypt was one of losing ground." This suggests "that in the lead-up to this year's popular revolt frustrations may have been mounting not only with respect to democratic yearnings, but in terms of personal aspirations."

It is reassuring to know that China isn't about to explode in violence like say, Libya, yet one can't help despairing at the ruthless persecution of critics of the regime. According to human rights campaigners, China has just recently launched the most severe crackdown on dissidents and activists in years following anonymous online calls for "jasmine revolution" protests. Despite little sign of support for the appeal, the Chinese government began detaining and harassing people within hours of its appearance. The word "Egypt'' has been blocked from the country's wildly popular Twitter-like service, and a search for "Egypt'' on the Sina microblogging service brings up the message, "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown."

One might think that with a generally contented population, Chinese officials might be less paranoid, but then paranoia is always the close companion of dictators. As long as the Chinese government can keep the good economic times rolling they should be secure, but if the economy falters ... who knows. After all, they have little else to offer.

01 April 2011

Republicans wage war on the environment (with a little help from the Democrats)

If anyone still believes we are going to save ourselves from environmental catastrophe, the U.S. Congress is doing its best to disabuse us of our optimism. It has mounted a wholesale effort to preclude any serious efforts by the American government to deal with climate change.

The Republicans have introduced bills that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from  regulating carbon emissions from power plants and factories and would allow no further reductions in emissions from cars after 2016. Their budget spending proposals reserved the biggest cut of any government agency for the EPA—30% of its budget. The cuts would do away with funds for such items as protecting salmon in San Francisco bay, treating sewage going into Florida's lakes, and weaken rules for mercury pollution from cement kilns. They would even eliminate funding for the president's energy and climate adviser and the state department envoy to UN climate negotiations. Democrat representatives from coal and oil states, although generally more moderate than the Republicans, have nonetheless shown support for anti-environment legislation.

All this is aided and abetted by similar measures in various states. Republican governors in New Mexico and Maine are attempting to reverse air and water pollution laws as well as efforts to promote alternative energy. Wisconsin's infamous governor, Scott Walker, intends to cut funding for local recycling programs.

According to Bill Becker, secretary of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies,"It is as if they are trying to throw as much slop against a wall as they can and hoping some of it sticks in the end. The more they throw the more they feel may stick, and they are throwing quite a bit." Joe Mendelson, director of global warming policy at the National Wildlife Federation, adds, "They are using the budget process as a costume to hide what they are doing, which is a full-on assault against our fundamental environmental protections."

Obama can veto federal bills, of course, but even his stance on the environment is weakening. He has, for example, downgraded the post of climate adviser. He has expanded offshore drilling rights, extended $36-billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear plants, and opened up 7,500 acres for coal mining in Wyoming.

How the American people will react to all this is hard to predict. On the one hand, 83 per cent consistently agree that stricter laws and regulations are needed to protect the environment. On the other hand, the number who consider protecting the environment is a priority even if it means slower economic growth and job losses has fallen precipitously from 69 per cent in 2002 to 51 per cent in 2009. In other words, support for environmental protection is widespread but soft which makes it easy for polluters to manipulate. And, of course, they do, with coal, oil and chemical companies spending multi-millions to support climate change deniers such as the Tea Partiers and amenable politicians. 

If the world's largest economy does nothing to reduce its assault on the environment, the global prospects are grim. I post this on April 1st, but it is no April Fool's joke. The future of our civilization is at stake.