30 November 2010

Iceland - writing a new constitution the right way?

One could make a good argument that a constitution should be written by the people it will govern. And this, in essence, is what Iceland is doing. To help with a fresh start after their country's economic collapse, Icelanders are writing a new constitution which they hope will, according to Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, lead to "reconstruction and reconciliation." The new constitution will replace the one adapted from the Danish constitution when Iceland gained its independence in 1944.

Not all the people will participate of course. It would be difficult to get all 319,000 Icelanders around a table. Instead, they have elected 31 citizens to a Constitutional Assembly to do the job. Anyone except the president, MPs and the committee appointed to organize the assembly, was eligible to run. Candidates from truck drivers to IT experts and university professors, 523 in all, were given equal airtime on Icelandic radio to make their pitch.

Berghildur Bergthorsdottir, who is entrusted with organizing the assembly, claims "This is the first time in the history of the world that a nation's constitution is reviewed in such a way, by direct democratic process." That may be, but the method of choosing the assembly is nonetheless flawed. If the people are to be represented, they should be represented accurately, and that demands certain criteria.

First, they must be chosen by random selection. Electing an assembly is no better than electing a legislature, i.e. you might as well let your legislators do the work.
And second, once chosen for the assembly, attendance must be mandatory, as with jury duty. If it is voluntary, as is the case if it is elected, the process runs a high risk of being skewed toward those who have more time on their hands or more interest in the process.

Only with such constraints can Icelanders be assured their assembly truly represents the population, that it is the people in microcosm, so to speak.

In the end, what matters of course is whether or not the Icelandic people believe the process was legitimate. If they do, my quibbles will hardly matter. After all, as owners of what is probably the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world, they ought to have a pretty good feel for such things.

26 November 2010

Dissent from the Alberta government? You must be insane

Alberta MLA Raj Sherman got the boot the other day. Former parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Health, Sherman was ejected from the Conservative caucus for publicly criticizing Alberta's handling of the backlog in the province's hospital emergency rooms. He also accused former Minister of Health Ron Liepert of being "rude and offensive" to front-line medical staff. Sherman is himself an emergency room physician and former president of the Section of Emergency Medicine for the Alberta Medical Association.

Sherman's dissent will not be tolerated by the government. Not only has it brought his political career in the Conservative Party to an end, but the new parliamentary assistant for health, MLA Fred Horne, has questioned his sanity. Apparently Horne called Dr. P.J. White, president of the Alberta Medical Association and a psychiatrist, about Sherman's heresy. Horne explained the call by saying he was simply rallying "support around a friend who's been very courageous but is also doing so under a great deal of stress." Far from an act of friendship, Sherman finds Horne's behaviour "personally offensive."
Wasn't there another government somewhere that accused dissenters of being mentally unstable?

24 November 2010

Ireland collapses into the capitalist maw

Poor little Ireland. So successful for so short a time, now back into the doldrums. Unlike Greece, its companion in misery, its government ran hefty surpluses for years up to the time of the financial crisis. Nonetheless, it is in a state of economic collapse. It was, of course, undone by its banks, who failed because they doled out billions to developers on the premise that property prices would continue to soar. Then the recession hit, prices collapsed and the banks were left with enormous debts they couldn't pay.

Ireland now faces an austerity budget that is rumoured to include a 12 per cent reduction in the minimum wage and substantial cuts to welfare. What it almost certainly won't include is an increase in the 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate, the lowest in the EU. The Irish don't dare. The corporations won't allow it. Lionel Alexander, head of Hewlett-Packard's Irish operations, categorically threatened, "HP is very clear, if the tax rate increased we would be re-looking at our investment in Ireland." That's clear enough. So the Irish government will demand sacrifices from the poor, but not from the rich whether it likes that choice or not. So much for "we are all in this together."

You can't blame the corporations of course. Global trade has been set up for their purposes and guided largely by their hand, so naturally they exploit it to the hilt. Democratic process has to yield. The Irish government is simply recognizing that.

And it will get worse. The Irish government is talking to those two capitalist-friendly outfits the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The ECB and the IMF are pushing for what the IMF calls an "internal devaluation," a process of shrinking the economy and creating so much unemployment that wages fall dramatically, making the Irish economy more competitive internationally. The increased competitiveness is designed to increase exports thus helping the economy recover. It probably won't work -- Ireland's major markets are the EU, the U.K. and the U.S. and they aren't buying all that much these days -- but it will effectively reduce Irish incomes for years. It will, like reducing the minimum wage, certainly give Ireland another boost in the race to the bottom. Average incomes have already declined by over 20 per cent since 2007 and unemployment more than tripled.

The Irish aren't helpless. The EU can't afford to see Ireland, as small as it is, do an Argentina and default on its debt. And the Irish could always threaten to abandon the Euro (a common currency for highly unequal nations may be the underlying problem anyway).

Nonetheless, between international corporations and their servants the ECB and the IMF, the Irish are largely at the mercy of a capitalism running rampant over democracy and sovereignty. Such is the new world order.

20 November 2010

Would tits deter immigrants?

As far-right political parties pick up support across Europe with their immigrant bashing, the ideas get wilder by the day. For example, Denmark's People's Party, now the third largest party in the country, has proposed applying a new weapon -- bare breasts -- to deter newcomers. Specifically, the Party suggests that the film shown to immigrants as part of the entry test include topless bathers.

The idea is that this display of free-wheeling Danish culture will give potential immigrants from strict religious backgrounds (read Muslims) second thoughts. The thoughts of prospective immigrants may not, however, drift in the direction the People's Party suspects.

Cantor sings an Israeli tune

If there is anything that really offends American Jews, it's the accusation that they put Israel's interests over those of their own country. Nonetheless, it seems there are those who do. And important ones at that. Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for example. Cantor, in a recent meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, apparently told the Israeli prime minister "I'm with you, not my president" and promised Netanyahu that the new Republican majority in the House would "serve as a check on the Administration."

As the only Jewish Republican in the U.S. Congress, Cantor may feel a special responsibility to exploit his position for Israel's purposes, but he should at least be discrete about it. Even his fellow Republicans may balk at the vaguely treasonous act of expressing loyalty to a foreign leader over his own.

16 November 2010

The chickens of globalization come home to roost for the U.S.

The Americans are famously competitive. The free market is their economic god. So naturally they have been leaders in the push for economic globalization, turning the world into one big market. It appears, however, that global competition may be getting a bit too rich for their blood.

After years of buying a lot more from China than China buys from them, they want the Chinese to let their currency rise thus making their products more expensive. Accusing the Chinese of currency manipulation, they pushed hard for this at the recent G-20 summit, but their fellow nations refused to go along. The U.S. case was seriously weakened when it recently printed $600-billion to boost its economy, thereby engaging in a little currency manipulation of its own.

The G-20 did agree to attempt to reduce the gaps between nations running large trade surpluses and those running deficits, or at least they agreed to monitor them by guidelines yet to be determined. In other words, they agreed to measure the problem rather than do anything about it.

The underlying problem, of course, is that the Americans are living beyond their means. For years they have run huge trade deficits with exporters like China, Germany and Japan. These countries understandably lack sympathy for the U.S. Chinese commerce ministry spokesman Yu Jianhua wrist-slapped the Americans with the comment, "If you're sick yourself, don't ask others to take medicine." Germany, the world's second largest exporting nation, was outraged at U.S. plans to limit the current account surpluses of big exporters, pointing out that its trading prowess has nothing to do with currency mischief. "To set political limits on trade surpluses and deficits is neither economically justified nor politically appropriate," said German Prime Minister Andrea Merkel. 

The U.S. push for globalization was a success on its own terms. It is a corporate state and it pushed for a form of globalization that would above all afford its corporations cheap labour. This it has achieved, abroad and at home as well with the systematic undermining of organized labour. But it turns out that what is good for American corporations might not be so good for America.

09 November 2010

Harper is right, our pro-Israel stance did help lose us a Security Council seat

This time Prime Minister Harper has got it right. At first he blamed Ignatieff for losing us a seat on the UN Security Council, but now he is correctly blaming his government's pro-Israel position. Although he is right, it's not so much our support for Israel that contributed to the embarrassing defeat, but rather our unquestioning support.

We have always supported Israel, but in the past it never precluded us gaining a seat on the Security Council. That's because our approach to the Middle East was balanced, favourable to Israel but balanced enough that we were able to maintain the respect of all sides and play a constructive role in the area. Indeed that was where we experienced our finest hour in foreign policy since WWII when Lester Pearson played a key part in ending the Suez war and practically invented peace-keeping.

Today, having committed ourselves entirely to one side, we are utterly useless in the Middle East, capable of contributing nothing (except possibly cannon fodder for a war in Iran). As a result, Middle Eastern countries, excepting Israel of course, can hardly be expected to help elevate us to the Security Council.

The United States follows a similar Israel uber alles policy, but everyone has to pay attention to the most powerful country on Earth. Nobody has to pay attention to us, and obviously they no longer do.

Harper's professed anti anti-Semitism is commendable, however it is misplaced in the case of Israel. It is Palestinians, not Jews, who are incarcerated in squalid refugee camps; it is Palestinians who have been ethnically cleansed and segregated; it is Palestinians who are collectively punished and who see more of their land stolen every day. The Semites we should be concerned about in the Middle East are the Palestinians, not the Jews.

I doubt that electing the Liberals would change our policy much or enhance our credibility in the Middle East. Iggy appears to be as eager as Harper to genuflect before Israel. When that country launched its attack on Gaza, an attack that slaughtered over 300 children, and Harper referred to the atrocity as a "measured response," Ignatieff had little to say. The two gentlemen seemed to agree that Palestinian children could be sacrificed to the greater good of Israel.

So it appears we are wedded to an ineffectual policy in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, a future without a seat on the Security Council.

06 November 2010

The proper level of taxes - Calgary's view

Calgary is generally considered a conservative town and conservatives are generally thought to believe that taxes must always be lower. A recent survey indicated that may not always be the case, at least according to Calgary city hall’s annual citizen satisfaction survey.

Thirty-one per cent of the survey's respondents want council to increase taxes to maintain the current level of services. Twenty-seven per cent would prefer to keep the tax rate steady and cut services if necessary. Twenty-four per cent would raise taxes and improve services while only 10 per cent want to cut services to reduce the tax rate. In other words, over 80 per cent of Calgarians want the tax level maintained or increased.

This raises the question, What is the proper level of taxation? In a democracy, one would assume that to be the level that provides the services citizens want and are prepared to pay for. Finding that level will always require much debate among citizens, among different priorities and differing philosophies about public spending.

Unfortunately, that debate is severely truncated in our public forums, particularly our major public forum, the daily press. The daily press is the property of the corporate sector and the corporate sector wants taxes to go in only one direction—down. Nonetheless, the Calgary example suggests Canadians, even conservative ones, are resisting their propaganda.

05 November 2010

Human Development Index - an improving yardstick of human welfare

That the GDP is a wretched measure of human welfare is now accepted by anyone seriously interested in human welfare. Consequently, other yardsticks have been proposed. Perhaps the most prestigious of these is the Human Development Index (HDI), or the more useful Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI), annually reported in the United Nations Human Development Report. The widespread media attention to the 2010 Report is an indication that alternatives to the GDP as a measure of human progress are being increasingly recognized.

Recognizing the weakness of the GDP in measuring human well-being, the UN Development Report incorporated three dimensions—health, education and income—to create the HDI. This year they recognized that averages in these dimensions could conceal wide disparities within populations, so they adjusted the results to account for inequalities, resulting in the IHDI. This is of critical importance because we know the health of a population depends more on equality of incomes than on the absolute level of incomes. This year, the Report also added measures for gender and poverty.

The world’s average HDI has increased 18 percent since 1990 reflecting considerable improvements in life expectancy, school enrollment, literacy and income with almost all countries benefitting. Of the 135 countries measured from 1970 to 2010, including over 90 percent of the world’s people, only three—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe—have a lower HDI today than 40 years ago. Poor countries are catching up to rich countries overall although incomes have diverged and the progress is uneven.

Health advances have been strong but some countries—such as those from the former Soviet Union and Sub-Saharan Africa—have had dramatic reversals. Progress in education has been widespread. Progress in income has varied considerably: in contrast to health and education, rich countries continue to grow faster than poor countries.

The report issues an important caution: "The main threat to maintaining progress in human development comes from the increasingly evident unsustainability of production and consumption patterns.... The close link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions needs to be severed for human development to become truly sustainable."

Unfortunately, the HDI doesn't include a measure of sustainability, not does it include a measure of progress in democracy and human rights although these issues are discussed in the Report. As the HDI is further refined it will become an increasingly useful yardstick to measure humanity's well-being, relatively and absolutely. It deserves the closest attention of the world's nations.

04 November 2010

The Republican Party - the greatest threat to American security?

A loss of seats in Congress to the opposition in mid-term elections is not uncommon for a sitting U.S. president, so the results of Tuesday's election are not surprising. Presidents from Roosevelt to Truman to Reagan and Clinton took significant hits. Therefore, my reaction to Tuesday's results wasn't concern about Obama and his Democrats but rather for the environment.

Among the Republican winners are some of the most virulent climate change deniers in the country, led by the new speaker of the House, John Boehner, who once said, "The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical." Boehner's comment would be comical if it hadn't been made by an American in a position of great power. In one sentence he combines the loopy idea that the concern about carbon dioxide is that it's a carcinogen with a profound ignorance about its contribution to global warming. This is a very dangerous man.

A leader who denies the reality of climate change is a much greater danger to the United States than a leader who denies the existence of al Qaeda. A Congress with a pack of like-minded Republicans is a very serious threat indeed.

In 2007, a report by the CNA Corporation, a Pentagon-funded think tank, authored by 11 high-level retired military officers, termed climate change a dangerous "threat multiplier." The report warned that global warming could lead to resource wars, environmental refugees and failed states in already vulnerable regions of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, areas where American troops currently operate. All this could pose much greater danger to the United States than anything bin Laden has up his sleeve. And this just covers external threats.

The Republicans are not alone in their benighted approach to climate change, of course. Democratic Congressmen, particularly those from the fossil fuel states, can be equally intransigent toward environmental progress. But the Republican Party easily includes the most and the loudest deniers, and therefore poses by far the greatest threat to American security. And, of course, to ours. The United States is the world's second greatest polluter and where they go environmentally so go we. House Leader Boehner and his colleagues pose a very great threat to all of us.