29 October 2010

Whoops! -- the day Bill Clinton lost the nuclear codes

What happens if the president of the United States loses the codes that authorize him to order a nuclear attack? Apparently not much. When one of Bill Clinton's aides lost track of the codes in 2000, no one (except the aide) noticed for months. Not until the codes were due to be replaced did the Pentagon learn of the oversight. This was recently revealed in a memoir published by Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Actually the codes cannot in themselves be used to launch an attack. They are required to open the briefcase holding yet another set of codes needed to launch nuclear missiles. The briefcase is always accompanied by a military officer and kept close to the president.

It's a relief to know that the aide's incompetence couldn't have resulted in nuclear war. In fact it would have made it more difficult to start one. One can imagine a darkly humorous, Strangelovian scene with the military officer and the president desperately trying to pick the lock on the briefcase so they can fire the missiles.

That just one set of codes can't plunge the world over the edge is reassuring, but one wonders nonetheless just how many mistakes we are from nuclear Armageddon. And if an efficient country like the U.S. can fumble the codes, just thinking about what goes on in an unstable, disorganized nuclear power like Pakistan is the stuff of nightmares.

27 October 2010

Oh, Toronto, is Rob Ford really the best you've got?

I'm a Calgarian but I am definitely not one of those Westerners with a chip on his shoulder about Toronto. I lived in Toronto at one time, loved the place and have always had a soft spot in my heart for it. However, those folks out here who think Torontonians are a bunch of smug elitists have been smirking a lot this week.

While Calgary flaunted its cosmopolitan credentials by electing an articulate, progressive, well-educated Muslim as mayor, Toronto elected a redneck buffoon. Really, people, is that the best you can do? Rob Ford? Are you kidding me?

I'm one Westerner who's willing to concede Toronto is the major centre of Anglophone culture in this country, so please don't embarrass me. Next time, try a little harder. If you need help, look to Calgary.

25 October 2010

Calgary needs Winnipeg's election rules

With the election now behind us, this is a good time for Calgarians to reflect on the rules that govern the choosing of their civic leaders. Democracy requires, indeed essentially is, political equality, and a key factor in determining political equality is money. Sound campaign rules will therefore ensure equitable funding for candidates.

Unfortunately, the rules governing Calgary elections fail miserably to do that. Crafted by the province—cities being creatures of the provinces—the rules echo those applying to provincial elections which are the most lenient in the country. The Conservative government, beneficiary of major corporate largesse, has no intention of killing its golden geese. The most prolific of those geese is the development industry, the largest donor to both the provincial conservatives and to amenable municipal candidates.

Big spending doesn't guarantee victory, of course. In the recent Calgary election, the winner, Naheed Nenshi, was heavily outspent by his major rival, the development industry-backed Ric McIvor. Nonetheless, it is a significant factor.

Calgary might look to Winnipeg to see how to minimize the corruption of local politics by vested interests. Actually, we have to look beyond Winnipeg to the Manitoba government which recently passed the Municipal Conflict of Interest and Campaign Financing Act. Article 93.6(1) of the Act states "No person or organization other than an individual normally resident in Manitoba shall make a contribution to a registered candidate," thus taking corporations out of the election picture. The Act also amended the City of Winnipeg Charter to limit contributions to $1,500 for candidates for mayor and $750 for candidates for councillor.

If candidates collect surplus funds, the Act requires those funds be paid to the municipality and held "in trust on behalf of the candidate for use by the candidate in the next general election." In Calgary, candidates are allowed to keep their surplus funds for any purpose they like, an unfortunate incentive to exploit elections in order to line their pockets.

In order to encourage election contributions from citizens, Article 93.17(1) of the Act allows city councils to pass a bylaw that entitles donors to a credit on their municipal taxes or a rebate of part of their donation. Winnipeg offers
a 75 per cent rebate on contributions under $300. Councils are also allowed to establish programs that reimburse candidates for a part of their campaign expenses.

As Manitoba's Municipal Conflict of Interest and Campaign Financing Act demonstrates, improving democracy is possible if the will is there. In Alberta, it doesn't seem to be. Calgarians who want fair election rules must wake up their provincial politicians and point them east.

22 October 2010

Joel Francis puts Charles Koch on notice -- I like this kid

Charles Koch and his brother David have spent many millions attempting to undermine government, particularly any government effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The brothers own virtually all of Koch Industries, a Wichita, Kansas, based conglomerate with annual revenues estimated at a hundred billion dollars. Koch Industries is also
one of the top ten air polluters in the United States.

True to form, the Koch boys have donated at least a million dollars to support Proposition 23, an initiative on the California ballot this November designed to stall California's landmark global warming legislation.

Now, Joel Francis, a senior at Cal State Los Angeles, has challenged Charles to a debate on his support for the Proposition. Francis has offered to take him on "anytime, anywhere in the state before election day" to give him the opportunity to explain why he is meddling with democracy in a state he doesn't live in. If Koch fails to respond by next Tuesday, Francis says he will show up at the door of Koch's office in Wichita, Kansas, to reissue the challenge in person.
So come on, Mr. Koch, stop hiding behind your corporate mask, put your mouth where your money is, and debate the kid.

Climate change and fundamentalist religion -- bridging the gap in Kansas

The New York Times reports on an innovative approach Kansas environmentalist have taken to get climate change deniers involved in reducing energy use. Kansans tend to be religiously and politically conservative, and suspicious of "big government," climate change scientists, and Al Gore. They have, therefore, been reluctant to respond to the challenge of global warming, many considering it just a natural cycle or even a hoax perpetrated by scientists.

Rather than give up on this benighted population, a small nonprofit group, the Climate and Energy Project, has developed an ingenious approach to gain their co-operation in reducing fossil fuel emissions. To begin with, as Nancy Jackson, chairwoman of the group, says, “ [we] don’t mention global warming, and don’t mention Al Gore.” Instead, they talk about reducing energy consumption for other reasons, such as thrift, patriotism, economic advantage or spiritual conviction, thus divorcing the issue from climate change politics.

The group initiated a competition among six Kansas towns to improve energy efficiency. They pointed out the value of keeping costs, thus taxes, down. They emphasized reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and showed how green jobs can help support the economy and even prevent the decline of small towns. Ms. Jackson talked to local ministers about “creation care,” the obligation of Christians to act as stewards of the world that God gave them, and even provided sermons they could download from the Web.

The towns included in the competition reduced their energy use up to 5 per cent relative to other areas, a considerable success. One farmer, a climate change doubter, was so taken by the possibilities of wind power, he organized a group of local leaders who then convinced the Siemens energy company to build a wind turbine factory in the area. Siemens has promised to create up to 400 local jobs, farmers in the area will gain another source of income by leasing land for wind turbines, and land prices are rising.

What is most encouraging, even inspiring, about this breakthrough in Kansas, is not simply the benefit for the environment, although that is of great importance, but rather what appears to be two irreconcilable positions coming together by finding common ground and going on to achieve something of real value. We need a great deal more of this in all areas of public concern.

Unfortunately, it's much easier to self-righteously rant (as we bloggers tend to do) than sit down with people you generally disagree with and work out something that will work for everyone, albeit for different reasons. And unfortunately politics tends to increasingly focus more on division than compromise, with its exploitation of wedge issues, attack ads, and other instruments of hostility. Politicians and political junkies can learn from the Kansas example, both about turning people on to politics and about getting things done.

19 October 2010

Election Calgary 2010 -- my choices confirmed

Thank you, my fellow Calgarians, for confirming my choices in yesterday's civic election. For the first time I can remember, everyone I voted for -- school trustee, alderman and mayor -- won. And what a turnout: 53.2 per cent compared to 32.9 per cent in 2007. Not the 100 per cent it should be, but a huge improvement, nonetheless.

I was particularly pleased to see the development industry's man for mayor, Ric McIvor, go down to defeat, despite the big bucks they threw in his direction (to say nothing about the support he had from Stephen Harper’s campaign team and that he's been running practically since the last election). The possibility of doing something about sprawl, Calgary's biggest challenge, is now greatly increased.

City Council should also function much more effectively with the departure of both parties to the feuding between McIvor and former mayor Dave Bronconnier.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi is truly a fresh face in the Calgary civic arena and his progress will be followed closely by his fellow citizens. So, welcome, sir, and the best of luck ... for you and us.

18 October 2010

The need for a World Environmental Organization

An article in mondial, the newsletter of the Canadian branch of the World Federalists, makes an excellent case for a World Environment Organization (WEO) comparable to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The authors, Larry Kazdan and Fergus Watt, suggest a WEO could fulfill a number of functions including:

• monitor environmental agreements for compliance
• provide technical advice and support to help agreements
• establish a dispute settlement mechanism
• establish a world environmental court with powers to take legal action against offenders
• set international norms for environmental responsibility

Their argument is unassailable. Dealing with climate change and the myriad other assaults we make on the planet is our number one challenge. If our economy continues to exceed the capacity of our environment, our civilization will eventually collapse. That is the magnitude of the challenge. This means caring for the environment must precede caring for the economy. A WEO should therefore take precedence over the WTO. Yet, as Kazdan and Watt point out, while the WTO has powers to enforce trade rules on national governments, environmental standards are ignored with impunity.

International environmental governance is currently provided by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and various treaties. Unfortunately, UNEP is a rather isolated body with a trivial budget. According to Kazdan and Watt, the result is a global environmental governance that is, by design, "weak and fragmented."

One of the major themes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 will be establishing an institutional framework for sustainable development. A WEO would seem a natural outcome. If our government wants to be perceived as a leader on the world stage, perhaps even be deemed worthy of a seat on the UN Security Council, here is the best possible arena in which to prove itself.

15 October 2010

Old Commies promote free speech in China

The Chinese government has not distinguished itself with its furious reaction to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned campaigner for human rights and democracy in his country. The reaction was expected of course from a government that remains afraid of its citizens freely speak their minds. It is encouraging therefore to see opposition to the government's approach coming from elders of the Communist Party.

Even as Liu's wife, Liu Xia, is placed under house arrest, presumably to prevent her from reporting her husband's thoughts or collecting the prize, a group of senior officials has written an open letter demanding freedom of expression in China.

The letter, addressed to "Dear members of the standing committee of the National People's Congress," begins by stating that Article 35 of China's constitution, which guarantees "freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration," has been "negated by detailed rules and regulations." This, say the authors, amounts to a "scandalous mark on the history of world democracy."

The letter concludes by making a series of demands including "the right of journalists to carry out reporting freely throughout the country;" ending "taboos concerning our party's history;" permitting "the free circulation within the mainland of books and periodicals from Hong Kong and Macao;" and transforming propaganda organs into "agencies that oppose power and protect media and journalists."

The distinguished signatories included Li Pu, former deputy director of Xinhua news agency: Wang Yongcheng, professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University; Du Guang, former professor at the Central Party School; Yu You, former editor-in-chief of China Daily; Sha Yexin, former head of the Shanghai People's Art and Drama Academy; and Li Rui, former vice-minister of the organization department of the CCP central committee and once secretary to Mao Zedong.

The letter can be read in full here -- a breath of fresh air from that oppressive nation.

14 October 2010

Gender gap narrows

The World Economic Forum has released its latest report on the global gender gap and the news is encouraging. In the five years the Forum has been conducting the survey, 86 per cent of the countries covered have narrowed the gap. The survey measures equality between men and women in four areas: employment, education, health and politics.

The 134 countries included in the report, representing over 90% of the world’s population, have closed almost 96 per cent of the health gap and almost 93 per cent of the education gap. However, only 59 per cent of the economic gap has been closed and only 18 per cent of political inequality.

Needless to say, the Nordic countries do best, with Iceland ranked number one, followed by Norway, Finland and Sweden. Canada ranks 20th in equality, up from 25th last year but still well down from the 14th we placed in 2006. That we are outranked by the Scandinavians is not surprising; however that we are behind Third World countries such as the Philippines and South Africa is both surprising and disappointing. We do very well in health and education, scoring near 1.0 where 1.0 is equality, but only .59 in economic participation and opportunity, and a lamentable .18 in political empowerment. With women making up only 22 per cent of the House of Commons and 27 per cent of the Federal Cabinet, we have a long way to go to properly include women in our governance.

Iceland's superior performance is due in large part to its government's powerful commitment to equality. For instance, this year it introduced laws requiring companies with more than 50 employees to ensure their management consists of at least 40 per cent women by 2014. We could do with some of that kind of affirmative action in this country. It is doubtful patience and merit alone will ever overcome the ingrained macho nature of our business and politics, and the resulting prejudice against women.

13 October 2010

Jon Stewart and liberalism's original sin

I have the greatest respect for Jon Stewart as a man and as a comic. And his Rally to Restore Sanity is brilliant — and long overdue. But Stewart is, nonetheless, a liberal guilty of that philosophy's original sin.

I refer of course to the obsession with balance. In the pursuit of tolerance, liberals have a tendency to insist that each side in an argument is equally worthy, or equally unworthy, as the case may be. Listening fairly to all sides is important, of course, but that doesn't mean all sides have an argument of equal merit. Often they don't, and it may be both unfair and dangerous to act as if they did.

For example, when Stewart talks about the toxic atmosphere in American politics today, he suggests that both sides, liberals and conservatives, are equally to blame. But this is not true. The great part of the toxicity in American politics comes from the hard right.

When that icon of the hard right, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, has guests on his show with which he disagrees, he has been known to bully them, shout them down, even threaten to throw them off the show. By contrast that icon of liberalism, Jon Stewart, consistently treats his guests with respect, whether he agrees with them or not. And he invites many guests he disagrees with. It is not only unfair to say progressives are equally responsible for the toxicity, it is dangerous. Dealing with a problem is difficult if you refuse to recognize the cause.

Another example is Stewart's approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He seems to take the position there are two equal sides — Arabs and Jews — equally responsible for the disagreement over land. But there aren't two equal sides. There is a conqueror and a conquered, victors and victims, and the victims are the Palestinian people. To blame the victims equally with the victimizers is grossly unjust and makes it almost impossible to bring justice to those victims.

Jon Stewart is a wise, thoroughly decent, and very funny man. His intrinsically liberal desire to take a balanced approach is admirable, even noble. But pretending there is balance where there isn't is wrong. Even sinful.

08 October 2010

Clinton admits Israel-Palestine conflict is major cause of terror

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, speaking in Cairo, made a remark on the Israel-Palestine conflict that his fellow Americans should pay close attention to. He said that settling the conflict would "take about half the impetus in the whole world — not just the region, the whole world — for terror away." It is remarkable to hear a former president of the United States admit that this issue is the major cause of Islamic terrorism. I use the word "admit" advisedly — he is in effect saying that those responsible for the failure to resolve the conflict are also responsible for 9/11, and his country holds a great deal of responsibility for that failure.

Clinton blames the Israelis and the Palestinians for not settling the issue, specifically along the lines of the version of the Oslo accords that he authored in 2000. But he overlooks a few simple facts. The U.S. unequivocally supports Israel, and while Israel has little reason to negotiate, the Palestinians have no leverage to negotiate. The Israelis steal more land every day and more effectively sequester the Palestinians every day with no more than token opposition from the U.S. Meanwhile, the Americans continue to supply Israel with more aid than they provide any other country in the world, much of it in the form of weapons. Until they exploit this largesse to do some serious arm-twisting with Israel, the chances of an equitable settlement are slim indeed.

Meanwhile, the conflict continues to generate hostility to the United States throughout the Middle East and, as Clinton admits, acts as a major recruiting tool for organizations such as al-Qaeda. And the United States responds by spending more on arms than it can afford, waging foreign wars that generate even more hostility, and living in a state of paranoia. Yes, indeed, the Americans would do well to seriously reflect on the ex-president's remarks.

07 October 2010

The Aftican National Congress raises the media issue: should we?

The ruling party of South Africa, the African National Congress (AFC), is alarming many South Africans by proposing legislation that would restrict the media. The alarm is justified. It's justified when any government starts talking about restricting the media and perhaps even more so with African governments. They have not been known for their commitment to the basic freedoms.

Nonetheless, a debate about the mass media is overdue in this country as well, at the very least to consider the question "Is ownership of the daily press, the major public forum in a modern society, by a small group of corporations and oligarchs compatible with a healthy democracy?" These owners have their own agenda which often subverts the public interest, an agenda that leads to many critical questions lacking full and proper discussion. The corporate press either isn't interested or would rather not have the discussion at all.

The first question that springs to mine is, "Who should own the public forums in a democracy?" In the democracy of ancient Athens, there were two public forums, the Assembly and the marketplace. Every citizen could go to either, and hear and debate the news of the day. These forums were owned and controlled by the citizens. In our society, the major public forum, the daily press, is owned by one tiny special interest group. This group quite naturally has little interest in a debate about its control of public discourse.

Another critical question is "What is the appropriate level of taxes for the kind of society Canadians want?" The daily press, faithfully following the agenda of their corporate colleagues, want taxes to go only down. They persistently indoctrinate us in this policy and appear to be having considerable success. A proper debate is long overdue, but again this is a debate the corporate sector would rather not have.

Then there's the question of environmental responsibility, particularly in regard to energy and climate change. The daily press took a long time to open a discussion and then only with reluctance. When 97 per cent of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring and we are causing it, the shape of the discussion should be clear, but you'd never know that from reading the daily press. Science deniers have a far greater say than the three per cent they deserve, but we can hardly be surprised when massive corporate interests oppose dealing sensibly with climate change.

So the African National Congress is right at least in insisting that governments should concern themselves with the media. Indeed, I would go so far as to say governments have a responsibility to ensure that citizens are well-informed and discussions of issues are thorough. What could be more important in a democracy? But the AFC is very wrong if it believes the answer to media bias or excess is to restrict speech. The answer is to ensure that the media include a full complement of news and a full range of opinion that emphasizes the reality of issues not the promotion of special interests.

In Canada, this would require a left-wing press to counter the current corporate dominance. Unfortunately, nobody on the left has the kind of money it takes to own daily newspapers. We could perhaps complement the CBC, our only independent mass medium, with a national, daily newspaper owned by all of us. It would be a start. No doubt there are other worthy ideas out there.

But first we need the debate. With the owners of our major public forum uninterested or even adverse to the idea, it would be useful for one of our national parties to follow the lead of the African National Congress and get it started.

I will watch closely to see where the current debate within the AFC leads South Africa.

06 October 2010

Buying democracy - in Alberta and the U.S.A.

We really do deceive ourselves when we think we live in a democracy. At least we do in Alberta, rather like our cousins to the south.

Alberta has the least restrictions on electoral spending of any province in the country. The result is something resembling a plutocracy more than a democracy. In 2009, corporations contributed almost as much to the Progressive Conservatives as the other parties combined raised from all contributions. Donors contributed $2,337,252 to the Conservatives, over 60 per cent from corporations. The Liberals came second with a mere $666,983 in contributions, 17 per cent from corporations.

The major corporate benefactor of the Conservatives was the development industry, followed by energy and finance. The energy industry alone donated more than ten times as much to the Conservatives as it did to the Liberals.

That's about the same ratio of money pouring into Republican and Democratic coffers in the upcoming elections in the U.S. With corporate spending unleashed by Supreme Court rulings, the Republicans are expected to be receiving up to ten times as much in campaign donations as the Democrats by election day. The Court gutted regulations designed to protect American democracy with rulings that banned restrictions on contributions from corporations, other special interests and billionaires, while allowing them to contribute anonymously. The result is massive slush funds called Super PACs (political action committees) dedicated to smearing Democratic candidates with attack ads.

Saddled with a Supreme Court that seems incapable of distinguishing money from speech, the Americans face a considerable challenge in restoring democracy to their nation. Alberta has no such excuse. Our Supreme Court has ruled that restrictions on corporate election spending are quite within the Charter, and the federal government and two provinces have instituted strict regulations accordingly. If we want more democracy and less plutocracy in Alberta, i.e. less buying of elections, we need to take note.

04 October 2010

The new look Globe helps break my daily paper addiction

I have little to say about the new design of The Globe and Mail except that it’s ... well, colourful.

My concern is the eviction of my two favourite columnists. The two issues I always looked forward to the most were Friday’s, because of Rick Salutin, and Saturday’s, because of Tabatha Southey. With both gone, I now find it difficult to look forward to reading the Globe at all.

I have been addicted to reading a daily newspaper for more years than I can remember. For a social democrat in Calgary, this presents a challenge. We have four daily papers: two national, two local, all conservative. That’s the choice the vaunted free market offers me, something like the choice Henry Ford offered buyers of his Model-T -- any colour you like as long as it’s black. I can buy any philosophy of newspaper I like as long as it’s conservative. I have long chosen the Globe because it’s the least conservative. However, with the dismissal of their only left-wing writer with a regular column, I feel I’ve been squeezed out of the market entirely.

The Globe got a new editor-in-chief last year and I suppose a new boy always feels he has to put his stamp on the paper. Mark his territory, lift his leg on it, so to speak. In a rather presumptuous tone, John Stackhouse announces the new look Globe will launch a discussion that will "strike at the heart of how Canadians define ourselves, and our nation. It is meant to go beyond words. We hope it will become a turning point."

Well, sacking my two favourite columnists is a turning point for me. I am turning entirely to the Web. Not a difficult decision really. The Web has lots of choice, most of it free, and unlike the Calgary market it even offers some progressive dailies. I'll miss the rustle of newsprint and the ink on my fingers, but I'll adapt.