30 April 2009

"Taxes are the price we pay for civilization"

It's April 30th, a day occasioning two things to smile about: the death of Hitler in 1945 and the filing deadline for your income taxes. As for Hitler shooting himself in the head on April 30th, 1945 ... well, enough said. But paying your income taxes is worth a few words outlining one of our country's best bargains.

At least that's what authors Hugh Mackenzie and Richard Shillington call it in their report, "Canada's Quiet Bargain: The Benefits of Public Spending," published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The report is full of intriguing observations such as the fact that, depending on the type of tax cut, the vast majority of Canadians are better off with improvements in public services rather than tax cuts, and benefits from public services adds up to more than 50% of the household earned income for more than two-thirds of Canadians.

These conclusions support the opinion of the great American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that "taxes are the price we pay for civilization." Taxes allow for not only the basic infrastructure of a society but also for a more equitable, more compassionate society, i.e. a civilization.

As for the argument high taxes diminish a society's prosperity, an argument endlessly repeated in the corporate press, that is a lie. Sweden has the world's highest taxes, and it also has one of the world's highest GDPs per capita, higher than any country in North America. This is hardly a surprise. We should expect a healthy, well-educated population and good physical infrastructure to contribute to a successful economy. Quality is expensive and high quality public services require relatively high taxes. The price is high but the product is, as Mackenzie and Shillington report, a bargain.

The press will continue to push for lower taxes. They are good and faithful servants of the corporations who own them and corporations, focused solely on profit, always want lower taxes. We would all like to pay lower taxes, of course. I would like to pay less for bread, too, but not if it's mouldy. I'm willing to pay the price for good, tasty bread not past its due date, just as I'm willing to pay for high quality public services. I suspect most Canadian feel the same way, both about the bread and the taxes. Best then, to ignore the corporate propaganda.

So send in your taxes and smile; you're about to pay for the biggest bargain in the country. As the report says "For the vast majority of Canada’s population, public services are, to put it bluntly, the best deal they are ever going to get."

29 April 2009

When torture worked

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

These immortal words of Pogo have been used a lot lately in the U.S. in the heated debate about the use of torture. Pogo was referring to pollution of the environment, of course, whereas current use refers to the Bush administration's pollution of American values.

Whether or not torture worked for American intelligence continues to be debated, but it certainly worked for the bad guys. I wouldn't attempt to get inside the heads of people who fly planes into tall buildings, but if I had to guess what their objectives were I would suggest two. One, to undermine American values, and two, to ignite a war between the West and Islam.

As far as the first objective is concerned, once the Americans turned to torture, they eroded one of their fundamental principles: respect for human dignity. The Eighth Amendment to the American constitution forbids the use of "cruel and unusual punishment." American values had been successfully undermined by the Americans themselves.

Regarding the second objective, there too, torture proved useful. When Colin Powell made his now-infamous speech at the United Nations to justify to the world an invasion of Iraq, he claimed Saddam Hussein was assisting al-Qaeda in obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and the U.S. knew this because of information they had received from "a senior terrorist operative" who was "now detained." The Americans had indeed obtained such information from a captured member of al-Qaeda, but it was obtained under torture, and it was a lie. The terrorist later recanted his confession, saying he had only wanted to stop the pain. Be that as it may, his information helped achieve exactly what his comrades wanted, to start a war between the West and Islam. Once again, the U.S. had followed the terrorists' script.

The Bush administration had met the enemy and it was themselves.

27 April 2009

Jeffrey Simpson, anti-American?

Although I read a daily paper, I don't pay a lot of attention to columnists. Not that their opinions don't matter -- everyone's does -- it's just that, with a few exceptions, most of them are neither entertaining nor informative nor thoughtful enough to spend time on. Their prose is no more rewarding than chatting with the anonymous guy at the bus stop.

I do routinely read Jeffrey Simpson, however. Why I'm not sure, perhaps he's just become a habit. His comfortable, middle-of-the-road style is somehow relaxing, addicting even. That's why his column in last Saturday's Globe "Can We Reduce Our Dependence on America?" caught me off guard. Like many liberal and conservative writers, Simpson feels obliged from time to time to accuse the left of being anti-American. In this column he surprisingly took on task himself. Catch a load of this:
The U.S. got itself massively indebted through terrible government decisions. lax regulation, private-sector greed and a political culture that refused to face elementary facts.
Or this:
... the United States, a country whose share of world trade and general economic activity is declining, whose massive indebtedness and self-indulgence are weakening its power, and whose overstretched military is bleeding the country's resources.
Wow! Let's see a run of the mill anti-American top that. Of course, everything he says is simply the truth, but still, it's quite the rant. And what's this all about? Well, here's the point -- and it's sharp:
It's one thing to be an appendage of a country in the ascendancy; it's quite another to be one of a country that has screwed itself up. Such is Canada's fate.
When even an anti anti-American tees off like this, a mere anti-American may be inclined to think he was right all along.

23 April 2009

Tough choice in BC

As much as I appreciate exercising my right to vote, I'm not unhappy I won't be required to exercise it in the coming B.C. election. I would face a choice I would rather avoid. My usual party of choice, the NDP, are on the wrong side of one of the issues of greatest importance to me and sitting on the fence on another.

I believe electoral reform is an essential step toward improving our democracy. The egregious weaknesses of our current voting system, first-past-the-post, are well known. In the upcoming May 12th election, B.C. voters will have the opportunity to dump first-past-the-post and replace it with an excellent proportional system, single transferable vote (STV). To my chagrin, the NDP is not officially taking a position on the referendum even though the great majority of its members support the need for reform. The party of the people is not, it seems, unduly concerned about ensuring the people are fairly represented in their legislature.

An even bigger issue is global warming. Indeed this is the mother of all issues, the one that has to be dealt with if any other issues are going to matter at all. (I don't much like single-issue voting, but when it comes to the most important issue facing humanity, I could make an exception.) One of the key instruments in dealing with global warming is a carbon tax. We, all of us, should pay for our pollution. The B.C. NDP thinks otherwise and promises to rid the province of its carbon tax if elected. After Dion's hapless promotion of it in the federal election, this could fatally harm one of the best tools we have to deal with the greatest challenge we face.

All is not lost however. The B.C. Green Party supports both STV and a carbon tax. As a B.C. voter, I would have an alternative without having to support Gordon Campbell and his Liberals (mind you, they deserve credit for introducing a carbon tax in the first place). Only with reluctance would I abandon the party of which I am a member, but on two issues of this exceptional importance, I would feel forced into it. The NDP complains about the Green Party undermining the left by taking votes away from them --- in B.C. they are handing the Greens votes on a platter.

George W. Bush and Lady Justice

The United States Senate released a report yesterday that directly implicates senior members of the Bush administration in the use of torture. The report, the most detailed investigation yet into the background of "harsh interrogation," undermines the claim of administration officials that the abuse of prisoners in Iraq was solely the work of rogue military personnel. The report connects the dots from former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Guantanamo to Afghanistan and to Iraq. It states, "The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees." It also claims the administration rejected advice against the techniques from the military, who questioned both the morality and the reliability of information gained. The release of the report coincides with President Obama's setting the stage for possible prosecution of Bush officials.

Bush and his colleagues stand accused of a number of violations of American and international law, but the biggest offence goes deeper. It is the violation of the Rule of Law itself, one of the pillars of our civilization. The Rule of Law simply says we are ruled by laws, not men. Laws are made by men, of course, but once made, they are supreme, even over those who made them. Justice is blind, and therefore does not distinguish between the great and the small. We are, each and every one of us, equally subject to the law. Nowhere is this more important than at the top. The greatest benefit, indeed the prime purpose, of the Rule of Law is to protect society against arbitrary rule. And the Bush administration was very arbitrary, making up the rules as it went along and abandoning U.S. and international law on the way.

Now Americans must decide. Will they allow George W. Bush and his constitutional bandits to get away with breaking not only the law but with fracturing its very foundation? Will they allow the murderers of 9/11, who no doubt intended to assault American values, succeed in undermining one its most fundamental principles? It appears President Obama may be preparing to say no.

22 April 2009

Is Ahmadinejad entirely wrong?

Yes, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does shamelessly grandstand, and yes, once again he has set the cat among the pigeons on the racism front, but is much of what he says not true? In his tirade at the UN anti-racism conference, he is quoted as calling Israel a "cruel and repressive racist regime."

Let's parse that phrase in terms of Gaza. Wasn't the slaughter of 400 children during Israel's invasion of the strip earlier this year "cruel"? Is not the continuing blockade of Gaza "repressive"? And is denying the one million Palestinian refugees in Gaza the right to return home simply because of their race and religion not "racist"? So where in that phrase is Ahmadinejad wrong or anti-Semitic?

The problem is that Israel wants to maintain its racial integrity -- its very purpose -- and when you do that in a heterogeneous region you wind up doing unpleasant things. Like ethnic cleansing. like apartheid, like collective punishment akin to terrorism, all of which Israel has done. We in the West have great difficulty saying these things because our collective guilt over our mistreatment of the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, has made Israel by far the most politically correct issue around. Serious criticism just isn't on. Ahmadinejad is not bound by this political correctness and says what he thinks, much of which is nonsense, but some of which is inconveniently true. He says that the Holocaust was a "pretext" for the dispossession of the Palestinians, and wasn't it? It is certainly used by us in the West to justify the state of Israel.

Various motives are ascribed to Ahmadinejad for his attacks on Israel. He is accused of playing to the home crowd with an election coming up, of trying to establish Iran as the leader of the Arab World, of appealing to European anti-Semitism, and maybe some or all of these accusations are true. But is it not also possible he is simply very angry about the suffering of the Palestinians? A great many people in the Middle East are, a sentiment we in the West do not seem willing to accept.

Worth noting is that while European diplomats boycotted the conference or walked out on Ahmadinejad's speech, the representatives of Third World nations stayed to listen, many to applaud. I suspect this is because his views are close to the Arab people's, many of whom understandably see Israel as a colonial imposition, and Third Worlders generally are much more sensitive to colonialism than we are. If we want to contribute to peace in Palestine, and in the Middle East generally, while removing one of the major catalysts of hostility toward the West, we might try listening to Ahmadinejad. Filtering out the chaff, certainly, indeed condemning much of it, but paying attention to the kernels of truth, and certainly appreciating the passion of a Third World voice more broadly representative than we might like to think.

20 April 2009

Chavez as Oprah

Look at this picture. It is not a fake. That is the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, presenting a book to the president of the United States, Barack Obama, who is graciously accepting it. And yes, I am not making this up, Chavez is quoted as saying to Obama, "I want to be your friend." Hell may not have frozen over, but relations between the U.S. and its nemeses in Latin America appear to be thawing out. To quote the Venezuelan leader again, "President Obama is an intelligent man, different from the previous one." Yes, indeed, Mr. Chavez, very different indeed.

The book, "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent" by Eduardo Galeano, has already surged to sixth place on Amazon's U.S. paperback sales chart. Three years ago Chavez praised a book by Noam Chomsky, "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance," and it too shot up to the top of Amazon's bestseller list.

No word yet if Obama is reading his book.

16 April 2009

India does democracy proud

Democracy has sometimes been considered a luxury reserved for rich nations. India has, for over 60 years, proved that notion wrong. Despite great poverty and illiteracy, a huge, almost unmanageable, population, and a vast range of ethnic groups and languages, India has remained steadfastly democratic for three generations.

Today, it embarks on its 15th election. It will be, as it always is, the largest democratic ballot in history with over 700 million voters eligible to troop to the polling booths. In order to manage the massive vote, the election will be held in five phases over 28 days. Candidates of over 1,000 registered political parties, from untouchables to members of the upper castes, from cricketers to Bollywood stars, will contest 543 parliamentary seats.

That such a populous, diverse and poor country can succeed at democratic governance is encouraging to democrats everywhere.

Calgary rides the wind

Considering it's a conservative city and home of Canada's oil industry, Calgary is establishing an impressive independence from fossil fuels. The C-Train system already runs entirely on power generated by the wind, and the city is now committing $250-million over 25 years to have all of its operations run by green power. An agreement with city-owned utility Enmax Energy will ensure all municipal operations, from swimming pools to city hall, follow the C-Train lead and are powered by the wind. Enmax will use the $250 million to build more wind farms. "We will become the largest green power consumer of any municipal government in Canada," boasts Mayor Dave Bronconnier. Calgary expects to reduce corporate greenhouse gas emissions to 50 per cent of 1990 levels by 2012.

Environmentalists are quite naturally pleased. Alex Doukas of the Pembina Institute sees this as an example for the province as a whole. "Alberta could go from 70 per cent coal-fired electricity, which is what we have today, to 70 per cent clean electricity in 20 years," he observed.

If the oil capital of Canada can do it, any city can.

Buying a financial crisis

Financial deregulation, the root cause of the current economic crisis, did not occur spontaneously. It is thought of as a product of the ascendancy of neoconservative philosophy since the Reagan/Thatcher era, and of course it is, but it took more than the intellectual force of neoconservatism to make it real. It took cash, and lots of it. According to the report "Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America," by Robert Weissman and James Donahue, it took at least $5.1-billion US.

That's the amount the financial sector spent on federal lobbying ($3.4-billion) and political campaign contributions ($1.7-billion) in the U.S. in the decade leading up to the meltdown. Merrill Lynch alone spent $68 million and Citigroup $108 million. Big money for big rewards. In 2007, the financial sector was engaging 3,000 lobbyists to influence the federal government, more than five for each Member of Congress, and that only includes those officially registered. It doesn't include corporate PR campaigns or state lobbyists. The crisis was well and truly paid for.

This buying of Washington reveals a truth about our North American political systems. They aren't democracies, they are hybrid systems -- part rule by the people at large, part rule by the rich; part democracy, part plutocracy. The plutocratic part not only buys great influence over politicians, but through its control of the mass media, controls political discourse. And this aside from the power it exerts through domination of the economy.

The crisis has once again reminded us of the greatest challenge facing democracy in the 21st century: the struggle to diminish the power of the plutocracy. We need reminding because the plutocracy often exercises its influence in opaque and insidious ways: lobbying in backrooms, for example, and subtly requiring fealty from its media servants. We are currently paying the price for allowing this plutocratic mischief.

13 April 2009

Growth: recipe for salvation or catastrophe?

One thing the nations of the world agree on during the current economic crisis is a need for growth. "The message is growth first," says John Kirton, director of the G20 research group at the University of Toronto. Some world leaders, like U.S. President Barack Obama and British PM Gordon Brown, emphasize stimulus, and others, like German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, emphasize regulation, but all support growth.

The need for a rejuvenated economy is overwhelmingly obvious, but is growth the panacea world leaders, uncritically supported by the mass media, think it is? They seemingly refuse to recognize that growth has limits. The planet is finite. And we are exhausting it. We are well past the point where it can sustain itself against our ravenous demand for growth.

Actually, growth hasn't been doing us all that much good lately. At least not us rich folks. Inequality is higher in the OECD countries than it was 20 years ago, and middle-class incomes in Western countries were stagnant in real terms long before the recession. Growth has, however, benefited poor nations. In China and India, for example, it has lifted millions of people out of poverty and we in the West can hardly criticize that. Nonetheless, we are left facing the outcome of billions more people aspiring to the level of affluence of the wealthier nations. To achieve that equality, the world economy will have to increase 15 times by 2050 and 40 times by the end of the century. At that rate, we will soon have an environmental crisis that will dwarf the existing economic crisis ... if it doesn't already.

The challenge, therefore, would seem to be less about restoring the destructive economic model of the past and more about replacing it with a sustainable yet balanced model, a world economy that reduces exploitation in the West while allowing undeveloped countries to catch up, an economy less about growth and more about sharing. The current crisis presents an opportunity to take up this challenge, to take a serious look at the structure of the world economy and consider serious changes.

An essential start is redefining prosperity. We seem to rely solely on GDP to measure our economic status even though it's more a yardstick of exploitation than of human welfare. There are a number of indexes out there that focus on human well-being generally, including the state of our environment, rather than solely on consumption as the GDP does. Any new definition must in its international application redefine prosperity so as to allow room for much-needed growth in poorer nations.

A recent report entitled "Prosperity Without Growth: The Transition to a Sustainable Economy," issued by the Sustainable Development Commission, the British government's "independent watchdog on sustainable development," presents a thorough analysis on how to shift to a world economy the planet can live with. The report recommends 12 steps to achieve a sustainable economy. These include investing heavily in jobs, assets and infrastructure for a green economy, increasing financial prudence, developing more environmentally sound measures of economic accounting and prosperity, sharing work and improving work-life balance, reducing economic inequality, creating healthier and more resilient communities, reversing the culture of consumerism, imposing clear global limits on resource use and pollution, creating ecological-based tax systems, promoting technology transfer to undeveloped countries, and funding investment globally in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the protection of carbon sinks and biodiversity in developing countries. Each of these steps is expanded upon in detail in the report.

Economic growth has become discordant with both environmental sustainability and human well-being, and it is time for world leaders to seek economic structures that are compatible with these elements. Unfortunately, they are rising to the challenge only with reluctance ... if at all.

10 April 2009

Woe is us, we may have to go green

Our federal government's malingering when it comes to action against global warming is becoming an embarrassment. Yesterday's headline in The Globe and Mail is an illustration. "Ottawa faces pressure to align with U.S. on green plans," it reads. Our neighbours have to force us to accept our environmental responsibilities? How sad.

The U.S. Congress is proposing legislation that would include border duties on imports from countries considered lax on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and God knows we are lax. Leading Democrats, with President Obama's support, intend to strictly limit the emissions that industries are allowed. In order to protect their industries against competition from countries with lower standards, the proposed legislation would require the U.S. government to take action when American manufacturers lose market share to foreign companies that enjoy an unfair environmental advantage. This approach is essential if global warming is to be dealt with. Without counter measures, countries with low standards will not only have an unfair trade advantage but will be more attractive to investment and thus undermine environmental efforts. The only alternative to unilateral action is strong international standards.

Needless to say, the legislation will be opposed. Republicans and conservative Democrats, particularly those from coal-mining states, will seek compromise. Predictably, the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters association is complaining. China is not happy with the legislation, particularly about suggestions it will protect American jobs. China has profited greatly from both low labour and low environmental standards; perhaps the American action will put pressure on them to at least raise the latter.

It will certainly put pressure on us. Even our reluctant Minister of the Environment, Jim Prentice, admits as much. "There are clearly measures that would have trade related consequences for Canada if we don't have equivalent environmental legislation in place," he says. So there you have it. The Conservatives may not care unduly about threats to the planet, but threats to trade get their attention in a hurry.

I would prefer to see us leading the way in the fight against global warming rather than being whipped along by economic threats, but if threats are the only way to get us to do the right thing, then I welcome them.

07 April 2009

The RCMP encounters democracy

Democracy and uniforms are often incompatible. Institutions whose members wear uniforms tend to be rigidly hierarchal and therefore resist the democratic impulse. This, however, has not prevented police forces across the country from adopting the workplace's major instrument of democracy -- the labour union. Unions are in themselves run democratically while allowing workers to be fairly represented independent of management and collectively bargain for their working conditions. Indeed, collective bargaining is a major manifestation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms Article 2(d): freedom of association. It is rather remarkable, therefore, that it has taken so long for the Mounties to have this right recognized in the courts.

On Monday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian MacDonnell struck down a section of the RCMP Act that precludes unionization. Finally the Mounties have the right to join their brothers and sisters in other Canadian police forces and enjoy the privileges of a democratic workplace. "Why," asked Judge MacDonnell, "does the wider jurisdiction of the RCMP, or its status as a unique Canadian institution, make the labour relations modes in place for other police forces inappropriate?" Why, indeed.

The Mounties have experienced some bad patches lately, in part at least due to a seeming breakdown in communication or rapport between the members on the street and the brass in head office. A union will clarify that relationship, and will offer security to those members who are critical of upper management. As for the force going out on strike, the public needn't worry; Canadian police forces generally give up that right. We may freely welcome the redcoats to the world of democratic governance.

Should we bail the bastards out?

Initially, I supported the bailout of the auto companies. The idea of GM and Chrysler crashing and tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs was too much to contemplate. Then I watched the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and I changed my mind. The documentary, a remarkable tale of corporate chicanery, details how General Motors trashed their own car. They hadn't wanted to make an electric car because the big money in the auto industry is in service and electric cars require very little service. However, California was threatening stringent emission standards which GM, supported not surprisingly by the Bush Administration, was fighting in court, and they needed a plan B in case they lost. The electric car was Plan B. As it happened, they won. They then proceeded to call in all the electric cars they had leased and crush them. That, of course, is why they leased the cars rather than sell them. The lessees loved their cars and vigorously protested their destruction, but to no avail. GM, the Bush Administration and the oil companies won; California, the drivers of the electric cars, and the environment lost. The "free" market got hustled as it frequently does. And now GM wants a handout, a reward so to speak, for its malfeasance.

So should we help them out of their self-imposed misery? It's not as if people are going to stop driving cars. The automobile market will still be there although possibly for different types of vehicles. Workers would suffer, but then GM's manufacturing work force in Canada is predicted to fall to 6,000 from 22,000 a decade ago anyway. A collapse of GM and Chrysler may simply make room for other companies to step in and start making cars for the 21st century. They will probably be foreign, of course. Japan, South Korea and China are all well ahead of North American companies in producing green cars. China's BYD is building a car so appealing to investors that Warren Buffet's MidAmerica Energy Holdings has bought ten per cent of the company and will help distribute its cars in the U.S. China intends to make electric cars its forte. The answer to job loss may be to encourage companies like BYD to set up shop in North America, as Honda and Toyota have done. We might have to pay out a lot of unemployment insurance in the meantime, but will it be more than the $3-billion we are offering to bail out GM and Chrysler? And would it not be worth it if the result was a much greener automobile industry?

Foreign car-makers have honed the art of making a profit from small, efficient cars while the North American giants intend to continue to rely on bigger vehicles, crisis or no crisis. GM has shown no interest in building electric cars in Canada and I doubt very much the environmentally-challenged Harper government will pressure them to do it. So maybe it's time to let market evolution take its course. Let the dinosaurs die out, or at least restructure themselves into viable enterprises, while we welcome the new species of auto-makers that are better adapted to their environment.