29 August 2011

Americans pissed at politicians, particularly at the GOP

This has been a summer of discontent in American politics. According to The Pew Research Center, 79 per cent of the U.S. public are dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country and even more are frustrated or angry with their federal government.

The Republicans are particularly out of favour. Since February, the approval rating of their leaders has dropped from a low 36 per cent to an abysmal 22 per cent. Democratic leaders aren't faring much better at 29 per cent. Approval of Republican leaders had jumped ahead of the Democrats by last November's election, but has plunged back below the Democrats since, rather as if Americans regret their decision to elect more Republicans.

The Republican Party's favourable rating has similarly declined, from 43 per cent in February to 34 per cent today. Again the Democrats did better, only dropping from 47 per cent favourable to 43, but still on the wrong side of 50.

President Obama has also seen his approval decline despite ridding the Americans of their nemesis, Osama bin Laden. Since the assassination in May, his approval rating has "declined markedly," and for the first time since he was elected, significantly more Americans disapprove than approve of the way he is doing his job.

This disenchantment with politicians is hardly surprising after the acrimonious budget debate, but it should, nonetheless, alert the two political parties, particularly the Republicans, that their constituents are fed up with politics as usual. Will the upcoming election year see a more civil, constructive political climate? Judging by the current crop of GOP presidential candidates, I doubt it.

27 August 2011

Fukushima—radiation damage that just won't quit

I admit to a love-hate relationship with nuclear power. One day I am all for it because of the large amounts of relatively green power it can provide. I wonder if we can seriously reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without it. And then an incident like the disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan reminds me of what a nasty little friend nuclear power can be.

Fukushima has now claimed another casualty. On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced his resignation, thought to be largely due to his handling of the tsunami and Fukushima disasters. Kan's resignation follows by days the announcement that residents who lived close to the damaged plant are to be told their homes may be uninhabitable for decades, even if the operation to stabilize the reactors by January succeeds.

The government had planned to allow the 80,000 people evacuated from the 12-mile exclusion zone back into their homes once the reactors had been brought under control. However, the science ministry now estimates that radiation accumulated over one year at 22 of 50 tested sites inside the exclusion zone would easily exceed 100 millisieverts, five times higher than the safe level advised by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. "We can't rule out the possibility that there will be some areas where it will be hard for residents to return to their homes for a long time," said Yukio Edano, chief cabinet secretary, "We are very sorry." Entire towns may remain unfit for habitation for decades.

As for nuclear power, the prime minister had won widespread public support for his plan to phase it out, but most of his potential successors oppose the plan. Naoto Kan may be far from the last casualty.

26 August 2011

Busting the union-busting bills

Anti-union legislation has been all the rage in the U.S. following last November's election of a number of right-wing governors. Most notorious is Wisconsin's Scott Walker, infamous for his polarizing union law that strips most public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Ohio governor John Kasich hasn't received similar attention, but his Bill 5 (SB5) has been an equally savage an attack on workers' rights.

Kasich is not, however, having as much success in putting his bill into action. Ohio activists, led by the coalition group We Are Ohio, took advantage of the state's Citizen Veto law that gave them 90 days to collect enough signatures to stop the bill going into effect until voters had a chance to vote on it themselves. They needed 231,149 signatures; they collected 1.3 million, the greatest signature collection drive in the history of the state. The bill will be put on the ballot in the November election. The governor now wants to compromise and called for a meeting with union leaders and others opposed to the bill. They formally rejected any deal with the governor until the bill is repealed.

Public Policy Polling now has Kasich with only 36 per cent approval, lowest in the country except for Florida's Rick Scott. Scott, another right-wing union-basher, is currently besieged with lawsuits attacking his often bizarre legislation. Three unions representing state workers are suing the state, claiming it violated its contractual obligations and broke the law. Scott has already had his wrists slapped by the Florida Supreme Court who ruled he had “overstepped his constitutional authority” and “violated the separation of powers” on another matter.

And as for Wisconsin and Governor Walker, there too the anti-union legislation is facing legal challenges. This summer, two Republican senators were bounced out of office in recall elections because of Walker's bill, the first time in American history more than one state legislator has been recalled at the same time over the same issue.

This vigorous opposition to anti-union legislation is encouraging. A proper democratic society includes democracy in the workplace and unions are the major source of that democracy.

25 August 2011

Goldman Sachs boss lawyers up

Will justice ever be done? This is a question U.S Investors have been asking about the recent financial crisis. Specifically, they have queried why no criminal charges have been laid against Goldman Sachs or any other investment bank whose greed and recklessness led to the crisis. They may finally be getting an answer with the news that Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, has hired one of the country's top criminal defence lawyers to help him address claims his bank misled clients in the run-up to the financial crisis and subsequently misled Congress.

Jake "Jaws" Zamansky, the hotshot U.S. attorney who spearheaded the successful pursuit of investment banks after the dotcom crash, predicts this may indicate the beginning of a series of cases against Wall Street firms. Goldman has admitted executives at the firm are expected to be interviewed by the Justice Department.

The Obama administration cannot be overly enthusiastic about pursuing Goldman Sachs, especially with an election year approaching. The company was a major contributor to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, CEO Blankfein is a frequent visitor to the White House, and a number of former Goldman executives have held senior positions in the Obama administration, including Gary Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

Nonetheless, the Justice Department has a lot to work with, including the support of many ordinary Americans who wonder how a bunch of amoral bankers can crash the financial system, doing serious harm to millions of people, and not wind up in jail. Justice may yet triumph in this sordid story.

18 August 2011

Britain's class struggle and the proclivity to riot

The British lower classes, like those elsewhere, have for a very long time expressed their grievances with riot against the established order, going back to the Poor riot of 1196, and including the Spitalfield and Gordon riots of the 18th century, the Luddite and Bristol riots of the 19th century, and the Luton Peace Day riot of the 20th. Other Western countries have similar histories but, with the exception of the United States, seem to have in recent times achieved greater success at relieving tensions in the social order.

One reason, perhaps the major reason, why social distrust smolders in Great Britain is the persistence of inequality, of class, in that country. Despite considerable progress, Britain remains one of the most inequitable nations in the West.

Inequality can be measured in various ways, but the results are much the same. Consider, for instance, the ratio of the average income of the richest 10 per cent of the population to the poorest 10 per cent. In the more equitable Western countries, that ratio runs at around six (Norway 6.1, Sweden 6.2, Germany 6.9, etc.). For France and Canada, it is higher at 9.1 and 9.4 respectively. Britain's ratio is 13.8, exactly twice that of Germany and almost as bad as the United States at 15.9. The class struggle persists in that green and pleasant land.

We know that inequality in a society equates to dysfunction. The higher the inequality, the less healthy a society is—the higher the rates of crime, drug abuse, mental illness, etc., and presumably the more susceptible it is to rioting. Prime Minister David Cameron can preach moral values until he's blue in the face but until Britain deals seriously with its inequality problem, i.e. its class problem, it will suffer a relatively high rate of social tension, the next riot just around the corner.

16 August 2011

Peter MacKay, "royal" privilege, and the unelected Senate

Canadians can hardly escape the "royal" connection. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Royal Canadian Mint, the Royal Ontario Museum ... the list is endless. To say nothing of the royal visage staring out at us from our currency. All appropriate I suppose as the royal family provides our head of state.

I am bemused, nonetheless, at Defence Minister Peter MacKay's enthusiasm for returning to the "royal" air force and navy. After all, aren't the Conservatives the strongest critics of our unelected Senate? And yet here is a Conservative government applauding our allegiance to not only an unelected head of state but a foreign one at that. At least the Senate is appointed by our elected representatives thus achieving a modicum of democratic respectability. The Queen, imposed on us by an accident of birth, doesn't even have that to her credit. Indeed, democracy is triply insulted—a foreign, unelected head of state chosen by aristocratic privilege.

I suppose I should not be surprised that conservatives support this arrangement. They are, after all, firm believers in privilege. And as to this country cleaving to an archaic institution ... well, that's very conservative, too. So, I am left wondering, why are they fussing about the Senate?

12 August 2011

David Cameron, former Bullingdon bully, criticizes rioters

It is always such a challenge to divorce the class angle from British affairs. Two of the most vociferous critics of the recent rioters in London and other cities have been Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson. As it turns out, these two old Etonians know a little about vandalism themselves. Back in the '80s, during their Oxford days, they were members of the infamous Bullingdon Club.

The club is famous for its misbehaviour, a favourite form of which is trashing restaurants. Their notorious dinners typically involve members booking a private dining room (usually under an assumed name) and drinking themselves stupid before wrecking the place.

On the night the attached photo was taken, the group was strolling through Oxford after dinner when one threw a plant pot through the window of a restaurant. Six of them were arrested and spent the night in a lockup before being released without charge the next morning. Cameron escaped.

We might expect the Prime Minister's personal experience with gangs and vandalism to provide him with some empathy for the wild oat sowing youth of Tottenham, but I wouldn't be too optimistic.

In any case, one thing can be said for the Bullingdons. After trashing a restaurant they characteristically pay for the damages by peeling off high-denomination bills from their fat wallets. A bit of noblesse oblige, if you like. But then the Bullingdons are rich men's sons, they can afford it. The rioters of recent days are hardly equipped to do likewise. The rich are indeed different from the rest of us.

11 August 2011

A lesson in hypocrisy from King Abdullah

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has condemned Syria's Assad regime for its suppression of pro-democracy dissenters and withdrawn his ambassador. This is a very civilized thing to do in the face of the brutality taking place in that country.

Coming from Abdullah however, it is thoroughly unconvincing. The Saudis recently supported a similarly brutal suppression of a pro-democracy movement by the kleptocratic Al Khalifa family, rulers of neighbouring Bahrain, complete with the usual beatings, torture and murder. Comically, Bahrain has also withdrawn its ambassador from Syria.

The king probably had a variety of reasons for condemning Assad: Syria is a secular republic and is friendly toward Iran. He may also have had encouragement from the United States. But the suppression of democracy was certainly not one of the reasons. With the Saud family imposing a harsh, theocratic, misogynistic regime on their own citizens, any criticism of fellow dictators cannot but ring hollow. They could best speak out for democracy by practicing a little themselves.

10 August 2011

Coca Cola sponsors the Pope

What would Jesus do? Would he take a trip to Spain that cost the Spanish taxpayers, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, $80 million while accepting sponsorship from over 100 corporations, including Coca Cola?

Apparently 100 Spanish priests don't think so. That's what Pope Benedict is doing and they are protesting it. The priests represent Madrid's poorest parishes and don't believe that the expense can be justified at a time of massive public sector cuts and 20 per cent unemployment. One member of the group, Evaristo Villar, explained, "We are not against the pope's visit, we are against the way it is being staged." A sore point for many Spaniards is that pilgrims to the event will receive free transport while locals in Madrid are facing a 50 per cent increase in transit fares.

Meanwhile the Church is hoping—or perhaps the appropriate word is praying—that the response this time will be better than the poorly received visit to Barcelona last November when, according to the Guardian, the popemobile was "forced to drive at top speed past small groups of the faithful along mainly deserted streets."

But not to worry. With Coca Cola on side, things will no doubt go better.

08 August 2011

Stability in South Asia?

Suspended because of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, peace talks between India and Pakistan are back on. Foreign ministers of the two countries have held a formal meeting in New Delhi that brought effusive comments from both parties.

The Indian foreign minister, SM Krishna, said his country wanted to see a "a stable, smooth and prosperous Pakistan." while his counterpart, Pakistan foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, said their relationship "should not be held hostage to the past," but that the two countries should move forward as "friendly neighbours, who have a stake in each other's future and who understand the responsibility that both the countries have to the region."

Both India and Pakistan are joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this year, a mutual-security organization which currently includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. With the addition of India and Pakistan, it will represent over half of humanity. Membership will not only create a bond between the two nations, it will offer another forum for dialogue.

Any easing of tensions between these nuclear-armed neighbours is good news for all of us. It is, of course, particularly good news for two poor populations who see far too much of their countries' wealth consumed by their militaries.

06 August 2011

Wealth gap in the U.S.—100 years of progress lost

A lost century—inequality in the U.S. is more extreme than it has been in almost 100 years. The gap between the ultra-rich and the poor and middle class has widened dramatically over the last 30 years. The richest one per cent of Americans now earn almost a quarter of the country's income and control over 40 per cent of its wealth.

The wealth gap between the races is also worsening. According to the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, the most lopsided ratios since the U.S. government began publishing the data a quarter of a century ago.

Everyone's living standards have improved in the last hundred years, of course, but Americans should nonetheless be worried about this relapse into inequality. Quite aside from the lack of decency and fair play, these inequities carry a heavy price. Demographic analysis increasingly shows a powerful link between inequality and social problems. More inequality means more crime, more drug abuse, more mental illness, more obesity, etc. An equitable society is a healthy society. And a healthy society is a more prosperous society.

American politicians have been intensely involved in debate about their federal government's financial situation as the country attempts to recover from the Great Recession. If they want to maximize that recovery, they should be looking at reducing the country's wealth gap. In the long term, this may be the most important component of not only a healthy society but of a healthy economy.

05 August 2011

Former Iranian Guard commander to become OPEC boss

Now this is interesting. Brigadier General Rostam Ghasemi, a senior commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, has been approved by Iran's parliament as the country's next oil minister. This automatically makes him head of OPEC as Iran assumed the presidency of OPEC last October.

The general presents certain problems. He is subject to sanctions by both the U.S. and the European Union. The sanctions bar him from traveling in the EU, making it awkward for him to attend OPEC's quarterly summits in Vienna.

Not that Ghasemi is without qualifications. He has an engineering degree and was head of the Khatam Anbia Troops, the Guard's engineering and construction company that had a major role in the re-construction of the country after the war with Iraq. He has considerable experience in oil and gas production. 

Despite his credentials and his approval by parliament, not all Iranians agree on the wisdom of the appointment. Ali Motahari, a prominent conservative MP who has in the past threatened to impeach Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, opposes involvement of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran's politics, telling parliament, "The integration of the Guard, as a military force, in political and economic power is not in the interests of the system. In neighboring countries, military officials are distancing themselves from politics and power, while it's the opposite in Iran." Motahari is recognizing the simple fact that allowing the military to become a vested economic and political interest is a recipe for military dictatorship and Iran is following that recipe.

In any case, there he is. How the Europeans and the Americans will react to having one of Ahmadinejad's hard line cabinet ministers as head of OPEC, an organization that plays a critical role in determining world oil prices, will be interesting. Take a good look at that handsome face. You may be seeing a lot more of it in the future.