25 February 2009

Here's an idea: tax marijuana

California is in deep financial trouble. Like many states across the U.S., its coffers are almost empty. State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has a solution. He has introduced legislation in the California legislature that would legalize and tax marijuana. He would have growers and wholesalers charged a $5,000 franchise fee with a $2,500 annual renewal fee, and would levy a $50 per ounce fee on retailers. He estimates this would contribute $13-billion a year to the government's revenue. "It is simply nonsensical that California's largest agricultural industry is completely unregulated and untaxed," said Marijuana Policy Project California policy director Aaron Smith. The bill probably won't pass, even if it gets out of the committee stage, but what an idea. And proponents haven't even included the huge costs to the justice system that will be saved by legalizing the drug.

Canadians should take note. Marijuana is B.C.'s biggest cash crop, making up over five per cent of the province's GDP and employing around 100,000 workers in full or part-time cultivation, distribution, smuggling, and retailing -- almost double the employment in logging, mining and oil and gas combined. Estimates suggest that in Nelson as many as 30 per cent of households are involved in grow ops. I doubt many of these citizens are reporting their pot revenue on their income tax.

Here's an opportunity for Canadian governments to jack up their revenues in these deficit days. Think of what B.C. could do with franchise fees, retail licenses, and income and business taxes on an industry that makes up over five per cent of its GDP, while at the same time relieving itself of the major legal expenses of prosecuting marijuana crime. These are times for innovative thinking on the economic front. So come on Canadian legislators, Assemblyman Ammiano has offered you an idea. Go for it.

23 February 2009

Reining in the rogues: Europe calls for global financial reform

Let's face it. The world's financial system is a mess. Unencumbered by appropriate regulation it has run amok for years. It has finally crashed and taken the economy down with it. Europe's leading nations are now serious about fixing it.

A few hundred international currency traders, including big banks, mutual fund managers and other investment dealers, shift trillions of dollars around the world every day enabled by the modern miracle of telecommunications. Their influence is impressive. In 1992, one trader, George Soros, almost single-handedly drove down the British pound, forcing it out of the European Monetary System. The British public’s respect for their government went down with it. The power of money traders is on a par with nations. Soros himself has said, “The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.” He predicted a global system dominated by finance would disintegrate. He was right.

These transient trillions are primarily speculative. Only a small portion of foreign-exchange transactions go into world trade. We have become captive to the vagaries of the world’s largest lottery. Quite aside from its inherent arbitrariness and instability, it is tailor-made for gangsters, money launderers, terrorists and tax evaders.

Other observers than George Soros have recognized the need for action. James Tobin, a Nobel Prize-winning American economist, has suggested a one per cent tax on all foreign currency exchange transactions. When Paul Martin was Finance Minister, he pushed finance ministers in other countries to give the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank greater supervisory powers over international financial markets. He observed, “I’ve felt we had to go much further in terms of supervision and international regulation and that has been borne out by the Asian crisis.” Germany has for years attempted to tighten controls on hedge funds but has been stymied by Great Britain and the United States.

It is now clearly time governments reined in the rogues of finance. Government’s right, if not obligation, to regulate markets has been recognized even by free-marketers back to Adam Smith. If we can extend this right to negotiate a world-wide General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, we can negotiate supranational regulations for financial markets. This, the Europe Union's most influential nations plan to do. Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg have issued a joint statement that they will push for international standards requiring banks to hold larger reserves, requiring market participants to exercise greater transparency, and allowing international authorities to clamp down on tax havens.

The Americans, whose inclusion is essential to such a plan, may resist. They are ambivalent about international financial regulations. They would like to track the financial arrangements of terrorists, gangsters and tax evaders, but on the other hand they are reluctant to interfere with their own investors and havens for shady operators -- Dubai, for example -- are helpful to the U.S. for other reasons. Needless to say our government, still largely driven by its neocon ideology, will support the Americans in any opposition. But the U.S. has a new man at the helm, a man of progressive persuasions, and the crisis is dire indeed, so perhaps good sense will prevail and global finances will finally be subjected to transparency and responsibility.

21 February 2009

Will we ever see environmental leadership in this country?

"[The oil sands] massively increases Canada's geopolitical importance, above all, to the United States. ... This is a very important partnership and they should balance their legitimate environmental concerns with an understanding of just how important the oil sands are to the future of the American economy."

This is not Prime Minister Stephen Harper extolling Canada as a world energy power, it is Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff extolling the value of the Alberta tar sands. Ignatieff goes on to say, ""The stupidest thing you can do [is] to run against an industry that is providing employment for hundreds of thousands of Canadians." So there, Stephane Dion. It would appear Ignatieff has set aside follies such as a carbon tax and embraced the Conservative environmental policy, which can be summarized as "protect the tar sands at all costs." Ignatieff reinforced Liberal acceptance of the Conservatives' cavalier approach to global warming with his support for their budget which ignored a huge opportunity for a major green shift.

We can appreciate the politics of Ignatieff's position. He sees pandering to the energy industry as the political reality of rebuilding the Liberal party in the West. Unfortunately, in this instance political reality and environmental reality may simply be incompatible. Environmentally, the reality is global warming and the tar sands are a major contributor to global warming.

During Obama's visit, Harper made the odd comment, "The fact that we have a President and an administration that wants to see some kind of regulation on this is an encouragement." So it's all George Bush's fault that Canada doesn't have a meaningful policy on global warming? We Canadians are incapable of developing a policy ourselves? Not very convincing when you keep in mind that, despite Bush, the Americans have reduced greenhouse gases more than we have over the last eight years.

Harper is right about Obama, though. Expectations for Obama generally are probably running much too high; nonetheless, he has moved firmly in a green direction with his stimulus package. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act invests heavily in renewable energy, energy efficiency and green transportation. "We've never had a jobs program before in American history where the heart and soul of it was a commitment to clean energy," remarked former president Bill Clinton.

As for us, apparently we will continue to do next to nothing while the two governments explore ways to co-operate. And how optimistic can we be about that? Obama has said he wants to work closely with Canada to come up with a new strategy to reduce emissions. That may or may not be a good thing. If it means he will take Michael Ignatieff's advice and accept our tar sands friendly policy, either because of American lust for oil or because he wants to be nice to us, the new strategy may be full of holes. We must hope he will cleave to what appears to be a solid commitment to a greener future and drag us willy-nilly along. Sadly, when it comes to dealing with global warming, the great challenge of our age, we have little to offer.

Looking forward to CanWest bankruptcy

I hate to wish anyone bad luck, but I'll make an exception for media giant CanWest as it plunges into a debt crisis. CEO Leonard Asper is desperately seeking financial help as the family-run media empire inches toward bankruptcy. The good news is that even if he gets it, the financial benefactors may demand he step down as CEO and the family eliminate the dual-class share structure that allows them to control the company. That one family can control over a quarter of the daily newspaper circulation in the country, along with a host of other media outlets, is an insult to democracy. Indeed it isn't democracy, it is plutocracy, or oligarchy if you prefer. To a democrat, the Asper empire's financial problems are promising news. The icing on the cake would be to see the empire broken up into a number of smaller media companies with a variety of editorial positions.

The power of such a vast media network has corrupted political debate in this country. Middle Eastern coverage serves as an example. CanWest's unequivocal support of Israel combined with the extensive reach of its propaganda makes criticism of Israel a dangerous business for politicians aspiring to high office. The result is a highly one-sided debate.

I would not of course wish ill to any employees of the empire as it suffers through the crisis. I wish them all gainful employment in the reincarnation whatever that may be, although columnists with a broader range of philosophies would be welcomed.

CanWest may very well fall into the hands of yet another right-wing media baron, of course -- certainly no one on the left has the necessary cash to buy a daily newspaper, much less a chain -- but it's hard to imagine a more stifling media presence than the Aspers.

18 February 2009

Crime: prevention or punishment?

With the recent spate of gang shootings in Vancouver, the hue and cry for tough measures is in full force. One is hard pressed not to join the chorus. When shooting people in broad daylight seems to be turning into a street sport, forceful action is called for. More police might be a good idea. The mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, has pointed out how understaffed his police force is compared to Toronto and particularly to Montreal.

The federal government focuses on stricter laws. Ottawa has already introduced mandatory minimum sentences for weapons offences. Public Safety Minister Perter Van Loan would now like to go further and introduce mandatory minimums for drug crimes, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the major contributor to drug violence is the illegality itself. Just how much tougher sentencing will help is moot. The United States incarcerates seven times as many people as we do, mostly because of drug offences, and Americans are hardly safer because of it. The only result is the world's largest prison bill.

Ultimately, the solution is prevention, dealing with the roots of criminal behaviour. Essential to that is understanding those roots. Here surprisingly, the federal government is reducing its efforts. One of Canada's top researchers in identifying why children develop serious behavioural disorders, McGill University's Michael Meany, has seen his federal funding dry up. Meany is recognized as a a world leader in investigating the interaction between genes and the environment. His research, investigating why some children survive impoverished, stressful childhoods unscathed while others develop serious problems, should ultimately be able to determine the conditions that lead to psychopathological behaviour, i.e. to crime. Meany has recently been asked to set up a similar program in Singapore, for which he will receive eight times the funding he received here, funding that has now been discontinued.

This kind of knowledge won't prevent gang shootings on the streets of Vancouver today. It will, however, assuming it's acted upon of course, provide solutions in the long term. But the long term begins today. Unfortunately our federal government seems reluctant to take the first step.

17 February 2009

On commemorating folly

The battle about the battle is over. The plan to reenact the battle of the Plains of Abraham has been canceled, announced Andre Juneau, head of the National Battlefields Commission. While the idea quite naturally outraged many Quebecois, the organizer of the event, Horst Dresler, who has been involved in a series of reenactments of battles of the British conquest of North America, claims the motive of the organizers was innocent. "We're just celebrating history," he insisted, "We're not actually celebrating who won, who lost, whatever. It's to commemorate and honour the people who were there." Mr. Dresler, now a resident of Vermont, was born in Quebec and should have understood the sensitivities involved.

But there's a bigger question here. Why on earth was celebrating this battle considered seriously in the first place? Is war not the bottom of the barrel of human behaviour? And the British and the French killing each other over a continent that didn't belong to either of them certainly wasn't one of humanity's finer moments. Not that I'm suggesting we forget our history. On the contrary, it's important we remember the foolish things we do so we don't do them again. But how do we avoid repeating our stupidity if we commemorate war and honour the men who engage in it?

The planned restaging was apparently canceled because of a fear that demonstrations at the event might turn violent. A celebration of violence canceled because it might turn violent -- now there's irony.

If Mr. Dresler and his merry band of reenacters want to pursue their hobby privately, that's their business, but it should not involve public expense. The cancellation was most appropriate. On the other hand, if they want to conduct a memorial to the pointless deaths of foolish men and to the suffering of their innocent victims, that's a different matter.

11 February 2009

Less globalization? More self-reliance? More Keynes?

John Maynard Keynes, commenting on internationalism, once said, “Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel — these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible; and, above all, let finance be primarily national.” Keynes was talking about the conservative value of self-reliance. Let us be open to the world, but let us take care of our own needs. Self-reliance now seems almost quaint in light of international currency trading, global corporations, the NAFTA and the WTO.

We are, however, paying a price for the globalization of goods and finance. Some gross irresponsibility takes place in the United States -- the lending of money to people who can't afford to pay it back -- and the world economy topples into free fall. If Keynes advice had been heeded, and finance kept national, a global collapse would have been unlikely.

More and more, it seems, we must call on Keynes to understand our economic problems and to seek out solutions. Countries around the world have abandoned reliance on unrestricted free markets and adopted Keynes advice for governments to spend their economies out of recession. Now perhaps we should also consider his advice to "let goods be homespun" and "let finance be national," at least as best we can in an increasingly connected world.

This must not mean throwing up walls between nations. We are all aware that when the U.S. passed the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in June, 1930, the world was plunged into an international tariff war that dramatically reduced trade, contributing to the Great Depression. The last thing we want to do is completely crash the current system, dysfunctional as it may be. The first order of business is to restore it to working order. Then we can begin to work toward a more humane, more sustainable system.

We might start by entrenching in our collective minds the lesson that unfettered capitalism is a recipe for economic disaster. Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006, believed we could let a bunch of aggressive males run loose in the economy without binding them to strict rules and they would behave responsibly. The American government allowed him to guide their economy on that gravely flawed assumption. This sort of naivete we cannot afford to repeat.

Letting finance be primarily national, as Keynes suggested, is difficult in an electronic world, but we need at least to develop a system of international regulations that prevent currency speculation and irresponsible financial behaviour from wreaking havoc throughout the world. In short, we need to rethink the global financial infrastructure.

Letting goods be homespun involves a variety of issues. We should insist that homespun be at least able to compete fairly. This means building labour rights into trade agreements so that countries such as China can't profit from coerced labour. It means building environmental responsibility in as well to prevent nations using lax environmental laws to provide a trade advantage. Trade must be fair as well as free. Governments must be allowed to encourage local products and industry, including co-operatives. Trade agreements as we know them have been designed to advantage global corporations, particularly to provide them with cheap labour; trade agreements in the future should be designed to favour local and co-operative enterprise. And distributing the wealth fairly must be at least as important as creating it. The goal should be to create self-reliant communities within an open, tolerant and equitable global society. It means changing our emphasis.

We are social animals and we achieve things as societies, as communities. But we also want each member of the community to achieve a reasonable degree of self-reliance. This makes the community stronger because it has greater flexibility, greater resilience. A society that is too interdependent, too communal, is brittle. If one part breaks down, the whole community is threatened. This is what has happened with our global system. It has become too interdependent. One part, the American financial system, breaks down, and the entire global economy is in serious trouble. We have strayed too far from the optimum balance of interdependence and self-reliance.

Now is the opportune time to redress the balance. Strong, independent local communities are no more inimical to a healthy global society than strong, independent citizens are to a healthy local community. Independence and self-reliance won't weaken global society, they will strengthen it. They will create a more flexible, resilient, stable world, and we will all be better off.

09 February 2009

Working less -- the overlooked solution

As the economy worsens and unemployment increases, it is time to take yet another look at an overlooked approach to work that will maintain high employment while improving quality of life. I refer to shorter work times.

Early in the 19th century, people worked on average about 3600 hours a year -- 70 or 80-hour work weeks. Since then, workers have struggled to reduce working hours to a level compatible with the increasing ability of machines to do our work for us, to 60 hours a week early in the 20th century and to 40 by the 1960s. Despite working less, we prospered more, by replacing manpower with machine power.

Since the 1960s, however, despite extraordinary technological innovation, the average work week has hardly changed at all. Indeed, we are working harder than ever. In 1960, 70 per cent of families consisted of two adults with one working full time outside the home, the other full time inside the home -- two people, two jobs. Today, in most two-parent families, even those with small children, both parents work outside the home. But the home work still has to be done, so the situation now is two people with three jobs, or in the case of single-parent families, one person with two jobs. And of course many people, particularly salaried people, work more than the standard 40 hours, often in fear of losing their jobs if they don’t.

Our challenge during the current crisis is to increase time for the overemployed and increase work for the underemployed to create a balance of meaningful work for all. In other words, share the work. We can do this in various ways. Longer holidays, reducing overtime, mandating a four-day work week, are all possibilities.

The French, Germans and Scandinavians already work far fewer hours per year than North Americans do, yet enjoy a comparable prosperity. And of course they have more time for family, recreation, politics – whatever – to live fuller lives.

As far back as 1930, W. K. Kellogg, a truly visionary capitalist, went to a thirty-hour week by shortening the work day in his plants from eight hours to six in order to save jobs. Kellogg was later able to say, “The efficiency and morale of our employees is so increased, the accident and insurance rates are so improved, and the unit cost of production is so lowered that we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight.” Kellogg’s idea would be overdue today even if we weren't in the middle of an economic meltdown.

Everything to date in both the American stimulus plan and our federal budget has been about spending more – much, much more. And that may be necessary to keep as many people as possible employed. But we need also to hear about working less – much less – to keep as many people as possible employed. In the long run, this will be the best basket to put our eggs in.

05 February 2009

Will the Taliban return to Texas?

While cruising the Web, I stumbled across a BBC article from December, 1997, that nicely illustrated what a fast-moving world we live in. The article, entitled Taliban in Texas for talks on gas pipeline, began with, "A senior delegation from the Taliban movement in Afghanistan is in the United States for talks with an international energy company that wants to construct a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan."

The company was Unocal, headquartered in Sugarland, Texas. A competitor, the Argentinian firm Bridas, was claiming it was close to signing a deal with Afghanistan to build the pipeline; however, Unocal thought it was still in the running and in fact was already training staff.
It had arranged with the University of Nebraska to train Afghan men in the skills required for pipeline construction and was planning to train women in administrative skills. Surprisingly, the misogynistic Taliban had not objected to the latter.

Unfortunately, as Robbie Burns said,
"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley." And these schemes did indeed "gang agley." Civil war persisted in Afghanistan, then came 9/11 and the Taliban haven't been invited to Texas since.

But can they look forward to an invitation sometime in the future? Don't count it out. Events in Afghanistan suggest a real possibility that they could form part of a future government. And their theological soul mates the Saud clan of Saudi Arabia are welcome in Texas any time. At the Bush ranch, no less. The Taliban's religious thuggery is offensive to just about every Western value, but oil and gas trumps principle every time. It certainly does for the Sauds. So, yes it's possible. Unocal may yet get its pipeline.

04 February 2009

Why are MPs treated like children?

Michael Ignatieff is being criticized because he "allowed" his Newfoundland MPs to vote against the federal budget. "Allowed." As a democrat, I cringe at the word. The elected representatives of the people of Newfoundland are "allowed" to represent the people who elected them, and this is subject to criticism? Is that not the precise purpose of them being in the House of Commons? To represent their constituents?

Ignatieff explains: "I decided to permit them ... a one-time vote of protest." How nice of him to "permit" them to serve the Newfoundlanders who elected them in the legislature they were elected to. Are they children to be "permitted"? It seems so. One MP, Scott Andrews, said he had been prepared to be punished for his vote.

University of Calgary political science professor and former Stephen Harper mentor, Tom Flanagan, insists Harper would never have done anything similar. Harper, says Flanagan, would have told such MPs, "It's my way or the highway." Of course he would, he's an autocrat. I'm surprised he doesn't insist his MPs click their heels and salute when they approach him. He is not exactly an exemplar of democratic leadership.

This is all about caucus solidarity, of course. The tradition that MPs have their say in caucus and then proceed into the House where they are to be seen and only heard to mindlessly cheer on their egocentric leaders. It is long past time to get beyond archaic customs like caucus solidarity and allow MPs the respect due elected representatives of the people, to say nothing of the respect due adult human beings. The Newfoundland MPs were elected in part at least on the issue of equalization payments. How can their constituents judge if they are doing what they were elected to do if their views are buried in caucus?

What Ignatieff did, albeit with obvious reluctance, was respect democracy, freedom of conscience and the maturity of his MPs. A lot more of this would do democracy in this country a world of good.