27 May 2011

Obama and the Middle East—time for the Yankee to go home?

I realize that U.S. President Barack Obama is now campaigning for the 2012 election. And I realize also the importance of Jewish support to his campaign. And I recognize the need for politicians to pander to important constituencies. But did he have to stoop, in the words of an Al Jazeera correspondent, to such a "scandalously obsequious pleading tone" in his speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee?

Pandering is usually fine—no harm done—but pandering to Israel via its zealous American supporters involves victims. Specifically, the Palestinians. Promising unconditional support for Israel, as he did, is nothing less than abandoning Israel's victims. After all, unless the U.S. holds Israel to account, nobody will, and the Palestinians are left to their mercy.

He got, by some reports, 50 standing ovations, and 50 standing ovations from an AIPEC crowd is very bad news for the Palestinians. The crowd knew what he was saying, they can read between the lines: "We really want Israel to do this, but if they do something entirely different, we will support them anyway, and we will support them unconditionally." He reiterated what the Americans have been saying for 50 years.

His speech simply underlines something that is becoming increasingly clear—the Americans are now irrelevant in the Middle East. They won't help the Palestinians rid themselves of their oppressor. They are scrambling to keep up with the Arab people generally as dictators are swept out of power, dictators that were often good friends of the United States. As for peace, they are more the ally of war, currently involved in the largest arms sale in U.S. history to their favourite dictators in the region, the misogynistic Sauds. The Americans are capable of causing trouble while seemingly incapable of causing peace.

Obama is even irrelevant to Israel. Netanyahu scorns him, simply dismissing his blah, blah, blah about 1967 borders, knowing he has more clout with the U.S. Congress than Obama does. The Congress's fawning response to Netanyahu when he spoke to them early this week attests to that. And while Obama has to genuflect to AIPEC, Netanyahu owns it. The dog will be wagged and the tail will do as it damn well pleases. The status quo will continue: Israel will steal more land, the Palestinians will be more intensely segregated, and the victims of this land theft and segregation will continue to suffer poverty and humiliation.

But not forever, despite Israeli and American intransigence. They are taking their future into their own hands. Hamas and Fatah are reconciling—hugely important to the Palestinians who are sick and tired of their feuding. And in unity comes strength. The Palestinians will push for recognition as a state in the UN General Assembly in September. Needless, to say, the Americans, aping Israel, oppose both of these measures, but the Palestinians, supported by the Arab world, will persist. And young Palestinians are learning from their colleagues in Tunisia and Egypt about rising up against an oppressor. Earlier this month, thousands of Palestinian refugees and their supporters marched on Israel's borders with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and more marches are planned.

Help also increases from outside. Support for the Palestinian people grows in the international community, and support will increase particularly from Arab countries should they truly become democratic. Already, Egypt has stated it will permanently open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza.

Where is the U.S. in all this? Increasingly in the background. History is passing them by. Maybe it's time for them to leave the Middle East to the Middle Easterners, and try just minding their own business. They clearly have enough problems in their own house to keep themselves busy. Time, perhaps, for the Yankee to go home.

Sheila Fraser—an honourable public servant

In our habitual government-bashing, we sometimes overlook the splendid contributions made to our society by our civil servants. Such a contribution, manifesting integrity and commitment to public service at its best, has been exemplified for the past ten years by our retiring Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

The CBC  refers to Ms. Fraser as "one of the most important—not to mention popular—Canadian national figures of the last decade." Quarreling with either one of these claims is impossible. Scrupulous, forthright and unflappable, her pointed yet balanced critiques of both Liberal and Conservative government spending practices characterized her tenure and made her one of the most well-known and well-respected of Canadians. Quality civil servants such as Sheila Fraser are, I often think, even more important to government than quality politicians.

Canadians owe her a vote of thanks for ten years of assiduous oversight of our government's use—or abuse—of our tax dollars. She will be hard to replace.

26 May 2011

Dandelions win one!

Finally, a victory for that cheerful harbinger of spring, the common dandelion. The Alberta government has removed the little yellow fellow from the list of noxious weeds in the province's Weed Control Act. Municipal bylaw officers will now no longer be able to fine homeowners who let dandelions overtake their yards. Calgary's pest management co-ordinator Simon Wilkins says officials in Calgary have more serious weed problems to tackle than dandelions anyway.

Of course they do. Indeed, listing dandelions as noxious is pretty noxious in itself. They are edible in their entirety: leaves delicious in salads, flowers good for making wine and roots for making a coffee. And the little plant is more than tasty. Its long taproot brings up nutrients for shallower-rooting plants and adds minerals and nitrogen to the soil. It also attracts pollinating insects and releases ethylene gas which helps fruit to ripen. Noxious indeed!

I have always enjoyed the delightful surprises the dandelion offer the city dweller. That bright yellow head pushing up through a crack in the sidewalk in early spring, for example, sending the heart-warming message that winter is finally over, about the least noxious message a Canadian can get. And to see an ugly vacant lot suddenly transformed by a carpet of yellow—the whole neighbourhood is brightened.

True, they do look a little ratty as they go to seed, but that's a small price to pay for the charm they offer. In any case, I'm looking a bit grey and weedy myself in my old age. So cheers for the dandelions—long may they gladden the hearts of Albertans.

25 May 2011

The Better Life Index is a better measure

The search for a better measure of standard of living just got a big boost with the launch of Your Better Life Index by the OECD. The need for an alternative to the ubiquitous but misleading, if not outright dangerous, GDP is underlined when the prestigious OECD, with its membership of 34 industrial countries, emphasizes the importance of considering a range of criteria to determine a country's quality of life rather than just income.

According to the OECD, the index is part of a "larger Better Life Initiative that aims to measure well-being and progress. The index allows citizens to compare lives across 34 countries, based on 11 dimensions—housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, governance, health, life satisfaction, safety, work-life balance." Perhaps the most unique aspect of the index is that people can weight the dimensions themselves to compare the countries according to their own standards.

The choice of dimensions is arbitrary of course but seems to cover a reasonable range of life quality factors. The index joins a number of other indexes offering superior yardsticks to the GDP for assessing the health of a society, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW). We seem to be well on our way to returning the GDP to the place its inventor, Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuznets, intended for it, as nothing more than a measure of national income. Upon introducing the GDP to the U.S. Congress in 1934, Kuznets immediately warned "...the welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income...." Kuznets would, I suspect, have welcomed the introduction of a yardstick that could reasonably measure "the welfare of a nation," such as Your Better Life Index.

No doubt you are now asking how well Canada does on the index. Well, see for yourself. Check how well we are doing by OECD standards and by your own standards, at http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/.

19 May 2011

Calendar note: Sunday, May 22 is the International Day for Biological Diversity

Recognizing that the Earth's biological resources are essential to humanity's economic and social welfare, yet species and ecosystems are threatened as never before, the United Nations established The Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993. The Convention has 3 main objectives:
  1. The conservation of biological diversity.
  2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity.
  3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.
In order to further increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, The United Nations has proclaimed May 22nd as the International Day for Biological Diversity. Each year the day celebrates a different theme. 2011 is the International Year of Forests, so this year the theme is forest biodiversity.

Events focusing on forests are taking place throughout the year including the International Forest Film Festival earlier this year in New York. On May 22nd, countries throughout the world will showcase their work on forest biodiversity with activities and events to celebrate the International Day for Biological Diversity.

So this coming Sunday, remember to hug a tree or, better yet, plant one.

10 May 2011

Reflections on the murder of Osama bin Laden

At the end of the Second World War, the Americans and their allies captured a pack of Nazis, an assortment of the most evil men on Earth. They could have lined them up against a wall and shot them and there would have been little argument. But, as the Americans have often done, they set a higher standard. They arrested these men, charged them with war crimes, and only after trying them in a court of law did they punish them.

How things have changed. In dealing with their bogeyman Osama bin Laden, they offered no arrest, no charges, no trial. Instead they sent a hit team to break into his house and shoot him down in front of his wife and children. In the last 65 years, it seems the U.S. has descended from the rule of law to extrajudicial murder.

There can be no doubt they could have captured him alive. He was unarmed, and if they could land and retrieve 79 assassins, they could certainly have brought back one prisoner. Instead they decided to wreak simple vengeance.

Summary justice is of course no stranger to the United States. Vigilantes often rode in the Wild West and lynchings were once part of the American landscape, but one might think Barack Obama of all people would be above that sort of thing.

However his poll ratings are up along with American triumphalism, and his military did indeed do their dirty work well, even recording it live for the folks back home. On that score, I must say I find the idea of the President of the United States and his entourage watching a snuff film put on by his military somewhat unsettling.

When asked why he didn't release the photographs of bin Laden's corpse, the President responded, "That is not who we are." That, sir, may now be in question.

09 May 2011

When is bad financial management good financial management?

Consider two events and the responses to these events by two different governments. The events are remarkably similar. A party is elected to government at a time when the economy is healthy and then is blindsided by a recession referred to as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. As a result, the government runs steep deficit budgets.

Thereafter, the similarity ends. One party is punished for its efforts—thrown out in the next election and condemned thereafter as financially incompetent. The other party is rewarded handsomely—re-elected with a solid majority, supported by almost the entire daily press, and praised for its financial acumen.

The first event is the election of the NDP in Ontario in the early 1990s and the second the recent election of the Conservatives federally.

The myth that Conservatives are fiscally responsible relative to the NDP is as persistent as it is wrong. An article by Tony Sanger, Senior Economist with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, in the Progressive Economics Forum clearly illustrate this fact. The attached chart from the article shows that over the past 30 years NDP governments have balanced their budgets 50 per cent of the time compared to Conservative governments' 37 per cent. Sanger also showed that comparing size of deficits as a share of GDP, NDP governments again came out ahead, illustrating that not only did the NDP balance their budgets more often but also ran smaller deficits.

Why this myth persists is an intriguing question. No doubt ownership of the daily press by that good friend of the Conservatives the corporate sector is a large part of the answer.

06 May 2011

First-past-the-post creates a conservative English Canada vs. a progressive Quebec

The NDP scored a number of firsts for itself in the 2011 election: the first time with seats in the triple digits, the first time as Official Opposition, the first time with strength in Quebec, and so on.

This is also the first time it has beaten the first-past-the-post (FPTP) election system. In the past, the NDP has been the major loser in the strange and undemocratic games FPTP plays, consistently receiving far fewer seats in the House than its popular support justifies. But this time it was slightly ahead of the game with 33 per cent of the seats for 31 per cent of the popular vote.

The NDP's more equitable showing resulted from its Quebec performance: 77 per cent of the seats for 42 per cent popular support. In Saskatchewan on the other hand, the province most closely associated with the NDP (even though the original CCF was founded in Alberta), it was shut out despite receiving a third of the vote.

This was in fact the pattern of the election. The NDP grossly over-represented in Quebec and, along with the Liberals, under-represented just about everywhere else. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were under-represented in Quebec, four per cent of the seats with 17 per cent of the vote, but heavily over-represented in English Canada. Overall, with only 40 per cent of the votes, they gained 54 per cent of the seats in the House.

The Conservatives are widely thought to own the West, and they do, although not to the extent the election indicated. If they didn't have the 20 more seats than they deserved in the West, they wouldn't have won a majority.

In any case, we now have yet another polarity in the country—a conservative English Canada and a progressive Quebec—once again aggravated by FPTP. Will we never rid ourselves of this undemocratic beast and adopt an electoral system that accurately represents the Canadian people?

03 May 2011

Massive dual win for Harper—a majority and a Liberal Party in ruins

Stephen Harper has long had two goals, a short-term goal of winning a majority government and a long-term goal of destroying the Liberal Party. Last night he achieved the first and got a good start on the second, both in convincing fashion.

Of course he couldn't have achieved either without a lot of help from the Liberals themselves. They decided to push for an election when they were low in the polls, with a leader who couldn't connect to ordinary Canadians and a platform so vague it seemed indistinguishable form the Tories. Nonetheless, even though I'm an NDP supporter, I take no satisfaction in seeing the Liberals brought so low. Liberalism—the small "l" variety—does after all represent the best in human nature.

In any case, their loss could turn out to be a blessing. Since 2006 they have floundered in their attempts to rebuild their party with another election always looming in the background. Now they have four clear years to concentrate on revitalizing their party, creating a strong grass-roots base, and solidifying their funding.

After all, life is short but politics is long. I can remember when the NDP had so few sears in the House, they lost their party status, and look at them now—102 seats and forming the Official Opposition. They even received a special treat: for the very first time they have more seats than their proportion of the popular vote would justify. And we all remember when the post-Mulroney Conservatives were nearly wiped off the map. And look at them now, or at least the new Reform-leavened version. And then there were the UK Liberals who were overrun by Labour early in the last century. It's taken them decades to recover but now they are back in government, albeit in a coalition.

Rebuilding will be made more difficult for the Liberals  by a mass media in this country that has over the past few decades become increasingly right-wing and partisan. (Witness the sleazy attempt by the Sun papers to halt the NDP surge with a smear of Jack Layton.) Nonetheless, they now have the time and the opportunity. Whether or not Harper ultimately destroys them, as he would dearly love to do—he's just that kind of guy—will be largely up to them.