30 September 2009

Equality is good for everyone

I normally don't recommend books. Other people's tastes are just too easy to misinterpret. You think you know what they'd like but you're just a bit off and that bit is critical. However, there is one book I will recommend, not to specific readers but to everyone who is concerned about dealing with the social ills that plague our society. The book is The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The book, based on thirty years of research, discusses two profoundly important discoveries about human societies:
  • More equal societies have lower rates of heart disease, crime, drug abuse, obesity, mental illness and other social ills than less equal societies, and
  • The rates are lower not only for the poor but for the rich as well, i.e. everyone benefits from equality.
The authors graphically illustrate that in those societies with the most unequal incomes, health and crime rates are much higher than in more equal societies. Furthermore, they show that the rates aren't determined by absolute levels of poverty but by relative levels within a society. The reason, they argue, is that in more unequal societies, there is less social cohesion, less trust. There is increased insecurity, more stress and a greater obsession with status.

The authors determined that if the United States, the most unequal of the rich countries, reduced its income inequality to the average of the four most equal of the rich countries (Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland), the proportion of Americans who felt they could trust others might rise by 75 per cent, rates of mental illness and obesity drop by two-thirds, teenage birth rates by half, the prison population by 75 per cent, and people could live longer while working less.

The most mind-expanding book I have ever read is Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene, which astonished me by revealing the purpose of life. This book isn't that astonishing but it is a groundbreaking work that challenges governments to seriously rethink their social policies based on a paradigm of equality. Apparently the authors had considered calling it Evidence-based Politics. They certainly provide the evidence.

26 September 2009

The elephant will dance

This one's too good to miss. Concerned Christians Canada has complained to the Calgary Zoo that a statue of a dancing elephant in front of the Asian elephant compound was showing "selective religious partiality," and should be removed. The statue is apparently modeled after the Hindu god Ganesh.

The zoo, however, says the statue contains no religious symbols and simply illustrates the connection between Asian culture and elephants. The statue is a popular background for picture-taking. Angie Thomshaw, visiting the zoo with her children, commented, "We like it. We think it's cute. And I'm Christian."

A spokesman for Concerned Christians Canada insists the Zoo should not be "a place of religious expression," but in fact it is. It features carols and a light display at Christmas, as well as events at Easter. Apparently, there have been no complaints from Hindus.

So dance on, Ganesh.

25 September 2009

Today is Earth Overshoot Day

It is well-known that we are using up the Earth's resources faster than they can be replenished. In order to remind us of that fact, the Global Footprint Network has created the concept of Earth Overshoot Day, "the day when humanity begins living beyond its ecological means."

This year, Earth Overshoot Day occurs today, Friday, September 25th. Tomorrow, according to the Network, "we move into the ecological equivalent of deficit spending, utilizing resources at a rate faster than what the planet can regenerate in a calendar year."

By the Network's calculations, we first went into overshoot in 1986. Until then we were consuming resources and producing waste consistent with what the planet could produce and reabsorb. By 1996, we were using 15 percent more resources per year than the planet could supply. Now, we use up resources 40 percent faster than the planet can produce them. We are devouring the Earth.

Today is a good day to pause and reflect on our dissolute ways. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the First World live a life of great indulgence. None of us, I think, would want our young people to be the last, or perhaps the second last, generation to enjoy this life. But that's the direction we are headed. The reminder from the Global Footprint Network is timely indeed.

23 September 2009

The important voices weigh in on climate change

We live in a democracy the theory goes. How nice if it were true. But it isn't. When the mass media is owned by a few media barons and the economy dominated by corporations, the voice of the people is only part, and possibly the least part, of the political dialogue. The plutocracy is at least as important. And now a select group of plutocrats has weighed in on climate change. The prospect of the politicians doing something suddenly looks much brighter.

The Prince of Wales's Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change has issued a Copenhagen Communique. It states, "Economic development will not be sustained in the longer term unless the climate is stabilized. It is critical that we exit this recession in a way that lays the foundation for low-carbon growth." The high-powered group includes over 500 leading global companies including Bombardier, Scotiabank, Sun Microsystems, British Petroleum and Shell. Note particularly the presence of oil companies.

The communique insists that, "These targets will need to be guided by science," and goes on to reference the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It emphasizes that, "Developed countries need to take on immediate and deep emission reduction commitments that are much higher than the global average."

The big dogs have barked. Will the politicians listen now?

22 September 2009

U.S. Medicare battle -- remember Saskatchewan

As Americans wage a verbal war over President Obama's medical care proposals, we Canadians should not be too critical of the unseemly behaviour of some of the participants. We might recall the battle over medicare we waged in this country. As a son of Saskatchewan, where the fighting took place, I remember well the descent into name-calling and fear-mongering.

I don't remember anyone referring to Tommy Douglas as Hitler, or anyone bringing guns to the many demonstrations, but I do remember a prominent Catholic priest removing his collar and loudly proclaiming that Communism was descending upon Saskatchewan. The Medical Care Insurance Act was passed in November, 1961, and came into effect in July, 1962. The same day it came into effect, 90 per cent of the province's doctors went on strike. Keep Our Doctors Committees, supported by the media, launched well-organized and well-funded campaigns against the government. Rallies and petitions fired the political climate to a white heat. The government responded by bringing in doctors from Britain and encouraging others from the U.S. and other parts of Canada to help meet the emergency. Local citizens established medical clinics and hired doctors to staff them.

The struggle in the U.S. is, like the struggle in the early 1960s in Saskatchewan, about much more than medical care. As David Shribman recently pointed out in an article in The Globe and Mail, it is about power, about the relationship between the people and their government.

There is a similarity in the times. The paranoia and economic uncertainty of today reflect the red scare of that earlier period. American individualism and greater distrust of government will give an even greater intensity to their fight than was experienced in ours.

The good news, of course, is that in this country it had a happy ending. Within months of the Saskatchewan legislation coming into effect, the Keep Our Doctors support had dissipated, doctors were returning to work, and the government had amended the Act, including giving doctors the right to practice outside the plan. Mistrust lingered, but by 1965 most doctors supported the plan and within ten years every province had one of their own. Today it is an integral part of Canadian culture.

It will be much more difficult for the Americans to come to terms with the patchwork efforts they are being offered. We can only wish them the same happy ending.

18 September 2009

Bill C-435 suggests a route to fair trade

On Wednesday, New Democrat International Trade Critic Peter Julian tabled a Private Member’s bill in the House of Commons which suggests a way "free" trade agreements might be turned into fair trade agreements. The bill, the Made in Canada Procurement Act (C-435), intended to ensure Canadian companies and industries are given top priority on all government procurements and services, calls on Ottawa to purchase goods and services from countries and companies that adhere to the International Labour Organization (ILO)'s core labour standards.

The bill's requirement of preferential treatment for Canadian companies and industries could be argued as interfering in free trade, but the requirement that countries and companies meet ILO labour standards could not. On the contrary, it would ensure freedom for workers and could, therefore, be argued more sensibly as contributing to free trade as well as fair trade.

The core labour standards of the ILO are contained in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The section on freedom of association states, "The right of workers and employers to form and join organizations of their choice is an integral part of a free and open society. It is a basic civil liberty that serves as a building block for social and economic progress. Linked to this is the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. Voice and representation are an important part of decent work."

Not that trade agreements ignore worker rights entirely. NAFTA, for example, has a side agreement on worker rights; unfortunately, it is toothless. For the most part it simply insists that countries enforce their own labour laws, whatever those might be, and only three out of 11 principles can be enforced by sanctions. Freedom of association and the right to organize can only be enforced by discussion which pretty well reduces them to nothing more than talking points.

Including ILO standards in trade agreements, along with rigid enforcement mechanisms including sanctions, would be a good start to ensuring the agreements serve workers as well as corporations.

16 September 2009

Tire tariff tiff

So the United States and China are going to war. Well, a trade war ... a little one. President Obama ticked the Chinese off rather severely it seems by imposing a 35 per cent tariff, on top of an existing four per cent duty, on tires from China. The tariff was in response to a surge in Chinese tire imports and pressure from the United Steelworkers Union.

The union's concern is understandable. From 2004 to 2008, U.S. imports of Chinese tires more than tripled and China's market share in the U.S. increased from 4.7 percent to 16.7 percent. Four American tire plants closed in 2006 and 2007 and three more are closing this year with just one new plant opening. The Steelworkers claim 5,000 American jobs have been lost as a result.

The U.S. tire companies, on the other hand, are not complaining and don't support the tariff. And why would they? They have been busy shifting their production from the U.S. to countries such as China to save on labour costs. Their factories in China will be subject to the tariff if they export products to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are retaliating with a complaint to the World Trade Organization and an "anti-dumping and anti-subsidy" investigation into imports of U.S. vehicles and chicken products. China claims to be "consistently and resolutely" opposed to protectionism, yet its market advantage depends heavily on a workforce denied the basic freedoms of association and speech, a work force that cannot organize itself to protect and promote its interests. This coerced labour, which reduces Chinese workers to little better than serfs, certainly serves to protect Chinese export advantage, but is not precluded under trade rules.

The contrast in views between American workers and their companies illustrates what global trade agreements are all about. Touted as mechanisms for free trade, they are really mechanisms for cheap labour for corporations. Global trade is in no small way a continuation of the old struggle between capital and labour brought to the world stage.

The world frets that the dispute will slow economic recovery from the recession. The world should instead fret about "free" trade agreements that insist on freedom for corporations but not for workers. It is a perverse system that punishes a country for a tariff but has nothing to say to a country that ruthlessly exploits it work force, even though both are clearly protective measures as well as hindrances to any meaningful concept of free trade.

This time workers are fighting back and, surprisingly, their country's leader has supported them. I wish them and their president the best of luck.

15 September 2009

Patriotism, political loyalties, and citizenship

At this point in the Canadian story we have the strange situation where the leaders of the two major parties are suspected of being less than committed to the country. Conservative attack ads portray Michael Ignatieff as a political dilettante who has just dropped by to be prime minister for a while before he goes on to other adventures abroad. Stephen Harper, who famously refused to say he loved this country, at one time wanted to firewall his home province of Alberta from the insidious feds.

This perceived lack of patriotism raises some intriguing questions about political loyalties. For example, how important is love of country to political responsibility? Traditionally, political loyalties are exercised primarily within the nation-state. We may be conservatives, liberals or socialists but we are first and foremost Canadians. We emphasize that mightily with flag-waving, anthem-singing and other exercises in patriotism. Indeed we fight wars on that basis.

Patriotism is simply tribalism in modern guise, the last refuge of a scoundrel according to Samuel Johnson. Tribes needed ceremony and tradition to ensure collective security in a dangerous world, but today, in a modern, globalizing world, the biggest danger is often tribalism itself. Patriotism may not only be unnecessary for the good of the state but a threat to the good to the state, or at least to its people. The globalizing world, with communications now instantaneous, has at the same time allowed political loyalties to break out of the nation-state. And so they should. After all, conservatives in Canada may well have more in common with conservatives in the U.S., or indeed anywhere else, than they have with Canadian socialists or liberals. Political loyalties now have the opportunity to form natural alliances rather than alliances constrained by geography.

What then should our political relationships with the nation-state be based on if not love of country? I would suggest citizenship -- the idea that we owe a responsibility to any community we are a member of to be good citizens, whether that community be local, provincial, national or global. Treating our fellow citizens with respect and participating in the governance of our communities at all levels can be the basis of a fine relationship.

So perhaps neither Ignatieff's nor Harper's seeming lack of patriotism is of any particular relevance. If they are committed to serving the community of Canada well, what difference does it make if Harper doesn't adore the place or if Ignatieff has spent much of his life elsewhere? Affection for the people they serve is, on the other hand, of very great importance ... but that's a different story entirely.

11 September 2009

A harem for the shoe-thrower?

"This is your farewell kiss, you dog. This is for the widows and orphans of Iraq." With those immortal words, Muntazer al-Zaidi hurled his shoes at then-president George W. Bush and claimed his place in history. And quite a place it is. Al-Zaidi, who will be released from prison on Monday, is a hero to millions of Arabs who believe he stood up for them with the courage their leaders lack.

On his release he has been promised a new house, cars, money and the hands of many lovely maidens in marriage. Ahmed Jouda, a Palestinian farmer who convinced his relatives to contribute tens of thousands of dollars to al-Zaidi's defense, said, "We are willing to present him with a bride loaded with gold." He added, "We are people who have tasted the bitterness, sorrow and agony of occupation, too. What he did, he did for all the Arabs, not just the Iraqis."

Al-Zaidi's fame in the Middle East not only illustrates Arab animosity toward the United States but also the need for leaders that truly represent the sensibilities of the Arab street. At least, for the moment anyway, they have the shoe-thrower.

09 September 2009

Vote? Don't think I'll bother

Such a lot of talk about elections these days. Politicians posturing left and right. Michael Ignatieff suddenly getting all antsy. I should, I suppose, be gearing up to exercise my sacred right to cast a vote. And I would if it would make any difference, but it won't, so I'm not.

I vote in Calgary Centre. Lee Richardson, the Conservative candidate, will win this constituency. He will win with 15-20,000 votes over his nearest opponent. My vote will make absolutely no difference, not in my constituency, not in the overall result of the election. Not one whit. My vote simply won't count. It would if we had a proportional representation voting system. Then it would help elect an MP for the party I support. It would count the same as each and every other voter's. But we don't, and it won't.

I have debated this with a good friend of mine who has seen no point in this futile exercise for some time. I have insisted, with decreasing conviction, that he should vote because after all we are lucky to live in a democracy. I'm afraid this time the conviction has faded away, not enough left to even convince myself to vote.

Democracy is political equality manifested in one citizen/one vote. But when your one vote doesn't count, where's the democracy for you? You've been hustled. I accept my democratic responsibility to attempt to change the system if I don't agree with it. I support Fair Vote Canada, and I pressure my elected representatives to support proportional representation, but progress is glacial. So I've decided not on a protest vote, but on a protest non-vote. Perhaps if enough of those electors whose votes are rendered irrelevant by our corrupt first-past-the-post system stop co-operating with the system, our legislators will take notice and fit democracy into their agendas.

I will continue to vote municipally and provincially. My ward and provincial constituencies are sufficiently competitive that my vote matters. But the idea of voting in the next federal election increasingly makes me feel like I'm participating in a charade, a democratic fraud. So I will not waste my time.

08 September 2009

Is the war on drugs winding down?

Prohibition made criminals rich. Prior to 1920, the year the United States decided to cure Americans of the drinking habit the hard way, crime wasn't a particularly lucrative business. Prohibition didn't stop Americans drinking, of course, but it did make large sums of money available to the criminal element. They could sell a product to millions of normally law-abiding citizens at prices made artificially high by the product's illegality, and crime became a very big business indeed. The newly created crime syndicates protected their turfs diligently and violently -- the murder rate increased tenfold.

Prohibition in the U.S. was repealed in 1933, but the damage had been done. The syndicates had branched out, using their immense profits to move into legitimate businesses and invest in gambling, loan sharking, labour racketeering and other criminal enterprises.

History now repeats itself. Prohibition on drugs has created a similar bonanza for criminals. The Mexican drug trade alone offers profits of an estimated $35-billion US a year. Head of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin Guzman, is on the Forbes List of Billionaires (ranked 701). Guzman makes Al Capone look like a pickpocket and his hired killers, including military deserters professionally trained in counterinsurgency warfare by the United States, would send shivers up Mafia spines. Drug authorities estimate the Mexican cartels now operate in 230 American cities. And, as with Prohibition, the bloodshed follows the money. Last year Mexico's drug wars cost 6,000 lives.

The "war on drugs" was declared by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1969, and the Americans have prosecuted it vigorously ever since, nationally and internationally, bribing and cajoling allies as necessary. Now it appears some of those allies, and perhaps even the U.S. itself, are beginning to recognize the futility and destructiveness of the war and are considering alternatives. The final report issued by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, evaluating current drug policy and its affect on Latin America, concludes, "The orientation of battling drugs with prohibition, repression, sanctions and punishment not only does not resolve the problem, but generates new and more serious ones."

Three former Latin American presidents -- Fernando Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gavira of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico -- declared in a Wall Street Journal article that the war on drugs is a failure and are demanding that U.S.-inspired drug policies be reexamined.

Argentina's supreme court has ruled that punishing people for using marijuana for personal consumption is unconstitutional, freeing the Argentine government, which favours decriminalization, to amend its drug laws. Mexico has decided to stop prosecuting people for possession of small quantities of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs, instead referring them to clinics. Brazil and Ecuador are considering partial decriminalization

So far, the U.S. response to all to this has been mild. Indeed, glimpses of a changed attitude are appearing there as well. Some states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana while the Obama administration has emphasized public health solutions to drug abuse. The US. Attorney General has announced the federal government will no longer pursue groups that supply medical marijuana. In California, this amounts to legalization. A federal government led by a confessed former toker might be expected to open a new era in drug policy.

The sum of these changes is modest, but a clear shift nonetheless toward more enlightened drug policies. Ending prohibition of drugs won't end problems of abuse, but it will cut the financial feet out from under drug barons like Joaquin Guzman.

03 September 2009

Doing better for Canadian children

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has released its first-ever report on child well-being in the 30 countries that make up its membership. Canada receives solid marks, but there are areas which need attention.

The report compares child well-being using six yardsticks, chosen to cover the major aspects of children's lives: material well-being, housing and environment, education, health and safety, risk behaviours, and quality of school life. Canada does particularly well in education, ranking third out of 30. The performance of Canadian 15-year olds is high and the gap between good and poorly performing students is small. Only Finland and South Korea showed better outcomes.

Our child poverty rates are less impressive, however. Fifteen per cent of Canadian children live in poor households compared to the OECD average of 12 per cent. Two other weak areas are immunizations and suicides. We immunize less than many other countries and our suicide rates for 15-19 year olds are 50 per cent higher than the OECD average.

Risk behaviour is a mixed bag. While the smoking rate of Canadian teenagers is half the OECD average, only Britain, Denmark and Finland have higher rates of drunkenness.

Indeed our overall performance is a mixed bag. We do well by our children in some respects, not in others. Obviously we can do much better.