30 May 2012

Putin's popularity prevails

It may be beyond rational explanation, but almost three-quarters of the Russian people approve of Vladimir Putin. The man is a corrupt thug with KGB written all over him, but he remains a popular figure. A recent survey showed that 72 per cent of Russians have a favourable view of their new president, a vote of confidence any politician would envy.

It isn't that they don't support democracy. They do. They just support a strongman more. Fifty-seven per cent believe it's more important to rely on a strong leader to solve problems while only 32 per cent believe it's more important to rely on democracy. Three-quarters also say they would choose a strong economy over a good democracy.

The irony is that Russian democracy has been so corrupted by men like Putin that not surprisingly it leaves people sceptical. Perhaps that is why the street protests were also popular. While 56 per cent think voting is an effective way to express their opinion about government, 64 per cent believe that attending protests or demonstrations is.

The Russians are not alone of course in wanting to be led by a strongman. People everywhere, including those in democracies, seem to have an unfortunate preference for a dominating leader over a collegial leader. One wonders how many Canadians share that preference, and how many, like the Russians, would choose a strong economy over a good democracy. That would be an interesting survey to do—assuming that you could trust the answers.

29 May 2012

May 29—International Day of UN Peacekeeping

At a time when our government seems to prefer militarism to peacekeeping, it is especially important to salute United Nations peacekeepers. Today, May 29th, is the day the UN has set aside for that purpose, to acknowledge the 120,000 “Blue Helmets” who currently serve the cause of peace in 17 missions around the world and to mourn those 3,000 who have sacrificed their lives in that service.

Canada, which once contributed nearly 3,300 peacekeeping soldiers, now supplies only 57 troops and military experts. Our police contribution, 180 men and women, now outnumbers our military contribution, even though Canadians at large remain strongly supportive of peacekeeping.

If we must have a military, considering that we have no substantial enemies in the world this would seem to be its best purpose. The demand certainly remains high. The number and size of UN missions has continued to grow and missions are now more multifaceted and complex. Some western countries, including France, Germany and Italy, have been re-engaging in UN peacekeeping, contributing advanced military capabilities in support of leading troop contributors such as India and Bangladesh. This is a role we could play well, and increasingly can afford as our Afghanistan commitment winds down.

Under the current government, the chances of it happening are not good. However, we can still join peaceniks around the world and celebrate those of our military and others who fight the good fight.

28 May 2012

Rising oil prices will end urban sprawl ... or not?

A popular assumption about rising oil prices is that people will have to drive a lot less and use public transit a lot more. This, in turn, will lead to greater housing density and fewer roads, i.e. less sprawl. And thus will be created the compact city—more efficient both financially and environmentally, and more vibrant in the bargain, a very good thing indeed.

But how valid is this assumption? Can those who recognize the advantages of a compact city count on rising oil prices to create it? I suspect not. People love their cars—I certainly love my old beater—and will therefore create powerful pressure to keep the cost of driving down, in which case rising oil prices may have very little effect on urban sprawl.

Consider the electric car. They are currently far more expensive to buy, largely because of the high cost of the lithium-ion battery that powers them, but as they become more popular and mass production takes over, the battery cost can be expected to drop substantially. And fuel costs are already far lower than for gas-powered cars, about a quarter as high. Industry seems convinced—it is investing heavily in the electric car. All the major manufacturers are producing vehicles with varying degrees of electrification—about 130 models in total.

Not that the internal combustion engine is about to be written off. Some experts believe its capacity to make major improvements in fuel economy, driven by increasingly stringent regulations, will suppress interest in its electric rival. In the U.S., the world's biggest gas guzzler, recent legislation will force fuel economy to double from the current 29 mpg to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Deutsche Bank oil analysts expect that with the electric car and the increased fuel efficiency of gas-driven vehicles, global gasoline consumption will peak as early as 2015 and then "demand will be on an inexorable and accelerating decline." Needless to say, other experts disagree and expect demand will rise for much longer. Either way, it means people will still be doing lots of driving.

So those who promote the compact city should not rely on rising oil prices to sell it for them. They may be depending on a highly flawed assumption, an assumption that isn't needed in any case to discredit sprawl. The greater financial efficiency of the compact city offers lower taxes, the greater environmental efficiency offers a healthier city, and its greater vitality offers a livelier, more exciting place to live. All this should allow for a sufficiently powerful argument to convince people and their politicians that sprawl is the enemy, regardless of oil prices.

26 May 2012

Calgary's RiverWalk gains international recognition

Two main ideas contend for how rivers should be treated as they flow through cities. One says they should be left as natural as possible, bordered by grass and trees and unobtrusive pathways. The other says they should be urbanized with paved walks, viewpoints and other urban amenities. Personally, I believe it depends on the area. Throughout most of their length, natural may be preferable, or at least as "natural" as a river flowing through a city can be, but there are always areas which almost demand to be more urbanized.

Some such areas are famous. For example, the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the United States. Or the banks of the Seine in Paris, declared a World Heritage Site.

In my own neighbourhood—the Mission District in Calgary—we recently worked with the City of Calgary to create a Promenade along a stretch of the Elbow River along 26th Avenue. Across the street from the river is a row of handsome, high-rise apartment buildings. The river side cried out for an urban treatment to create a balanced and harmonious streetscape. The Promenade now ties it all together with the Elbow River as theme. The riverbank itself was left natural and balances the landscaping in front of the highrises to nicely include a green aspect in the overall urban ensemble.

Calgary's other river, the Bow, is receiving a new urban treatment as well, through the East Village, a downtown area east of City Hall which is being completely revitalized. A kilometre of river bank through the Village has been designated the RiverWalk and splendidly laid out with broad walkways, rest areas, basalt steps down to the river, a plaza and viewpoints. According to Michael Brown, president of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, the City-created company in charge of revitalization, “RiverWalk was designed to be both a journey and a destination; creating a gathering place for Calgarians unlike anywhere else in the city.”

The RiverWalk has now been nominated for an Urban Open Space Award by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The ULI is a nonprofit research and education organization with members in 95 countries worldwide, "representing the entire spectrum of land use and real estate development disciplines working in private enterprise and public service." Calgary's RiverWalk is one of five finalists for the prize along with Highline Park and Pier 25 in New York City, Railroad Park in Birmingham, Alabama and Tanner Springs Park in Portland, Oregon. Calgary has been honoured indeed.

The RiverWalk is a work in progress. Eventually it will extend four kilometres along the Bow and Elbow Rivers, linking up with other pathways and special areas. As an inveterate walker and a lover of my city's rivers, I hope to enjoy the RiverWalk for many strolls to come—as I do the Mission Promenade.

25 May 2012

Anti-austerity mood grows for better or worse

It seems only weeks ago that austerity opponents were crying in the wind. Their words were blowing away unheard. No more. The Greeks flatly rejected austerity in a recent election and attention had to be paid. France elected a new anti-austerity president, Fran├žois Hollande, and now he has been welcomed by the leader of the world's most important economy as an ally in promoting expansionary policies. "There's now an emerging consensus that more must be done to promote growth and job creation right now in the context of these fiscal and structural reforms," said U.S. President Barack Obama at the recent G-8 summit. Even German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, the champion of austerity, relented a little from focusing solely on budget cuts.

It seems clear that at this time growth must be emphasized over austerity. This is hardly surprising. We have based our economies on growth—essentially on debt—so growth we must have. Countries such as Greece and Spain need investment in productivity and innovation, not depriving the poor and cutting workers wages, and they can't make that investment with austerity-driven policies.

At the summit, President Obama also talked about "significant reforms that will increase the prospects of long-term growth." And here lies the ultimate problem. In a world devouring its resources and polluting its environment, growth cannot continue into the long term. Growth, in the GDP sense at least, must ultimately stop. So we need expansionary policies now, but eventually we must replace our growth-based economy with a sustainable economy. Unfortunately, there seemed to be little if any recognition of this at the summit.

As our species devours the Earth, not with malice aforethought but because it is in our nature, we are like the scorpion that kills the frog on whose back it is crossing the river—it doesn't know what else to do.

19 May 2012

Are young revolutionaries bound to fail?

Demographer Richard Cincotta of the Stimson Center in Washington DC has compiled some intriguing facts about revolution and the age of populations. His analysis not only enables him to predict if a revolution will occur in a particular country but whether or not a revolution will transition into a democracy.

Studying oppressive autocracies around the world in the period 1972 to 1989, he found that if their median population age was over 35, they were unlikely to be subject to revolution at all. Of those that experienced revolutions when their median age was between 30 and 35, all are still democracies today. Ninety per cent of those with a median age less than 25 ultimately reverted back to oppressive regimes. With median ages between 25 and 30, they could go either way.

So what does this mean for the Arab Spring countries? Well, Tunisia, with a median age of 30, is the most likely to transition to a permanent democracy. With median ages of 25 and 26 respectively, Egypt and Libya have a chance, but for Syria and Yemen, at 21 and 17, the odds are very poor indeed.

As for the country we are most invested in—Afghanistan—with a median age of 18, a permanent transition to democracy may be a long time coming.

Although age appears to be a useful indicator for stable transitions, it is not likely a cause. That is more likely reflected by the maturity of a country. More mature, complex societies—urbanized, high income, greater gender equality, better educated, etc.—are more equipped for democracy and also have lower birth rates and therefore older populations.

Older generations often say that youth is wasted on the young. In the case of revolution, it would seem to bear a kernel of truth.

16 May 2012

Egyptians still want democracy ... and sharia

Since the Arab Spring of a year ago, support for democracy in Egypt has remained strong according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Most Egyptians remain optimistic about the future and two-thirds prefer democracy over any other form of government.

As support for democracy remains strong, so does support for Islam. The most popular political organization is the Muslim Brotherhood with 70 per cent of Egyptians expressing a favourable view. (The April 6th Movement, composed largely of the young, secular activists involved in the demonstrations, is considered favourably by 68 per cent.) Along with strong support for the Brotherhood, most Egyptians believe the Koran should shape the country's laws.

Perhaps surprisingly, the military is also still well-regarded. Three-quarters of Egyptians believe it is a good influence and almost two-thirds think positively of the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces.

The continued support for democracy is encouraging. However, it does not include separation of mosque and state, and that is not so encouraging. Nor is support for the military in a country that has been ill-used by military men in the past. The progress of Egypt, the most important state in the Arab world, remains an engaging drama.

12 May 2012

Can Canada not protect its workers from foreign predators?

That the new global economy is a corporate construction is not in doubt. It is arranged to benefit investors and employers, not employees. Canadian and American companies can freely enter Mexico to exploit cheap labour but Mexican workers cannot freely enter Canada or the U.S. to exploit higher wages. It's a one-way street.

And of course not only Mexicans are open to predation. U.S.-based Caterpillar Inc. waltzed into Canada, bought a factory, stripped it of its assets, humiliated the workforce, and waltzed back home to the U.S. A raid carried out with almost military precision and the Canadian government never raised a hand to defend its citizens.

Now the U.S. giant Target has bought out Zellers and up to 13,500 employees will lose their jobs. Many will be re-hired to work for Target but with no guarantee they will be offered more than starting conditions.

We do have the Investment Canada Act to protect us from foreign investments not in our interest. The Act states that "A non-Canadian shall not implement an investment ... unless ... the Minister is satisfied ... that the investment is likely to be of net benefit to Canada." However "net benefit" is narrowly applied and buyouts only occasionally rejected.

As for Target's purchase of Zellers, it is difficult to see how this is of advantage to Canadians in any way. Messing about with thousands of workers as if they were chattel would seem to work very strongly indeed against "net benefit."

How the lords of the universe treat their employees should be of critical interest in assessing their net benefit to this country, including whether they respect basic human rights such as freedom of association. In 2010, the government rejected a proposed buyout of PotashCorp on the basis that it is a key strategic asset for Canada. It seems to me that workers are rather more of a strategic asset than potash. But then our government does seem to favour commodities over people.

11 May 2012

Obama jumps in front of the parade

Political leadership has been defined as figuring out where the people are going and then getting in front of them. If that's the case, American President Barack Obama is clearly showing leadership with his support for gay marriage.

A recent Pew survey showed that support for gay marriage in the U.S. has jumped from 31 per cent to 47 per cent since 2004 whereas opposition has dropped from 60 per cent to 43 per cent. Perhaps most telling is the change in "strong" support. The number of Americans strongly supporting gay marriage has double from 11 per cent to 22 per cent while the number strongly opposing has fallen from 36 per cent to 22 per cent.

Even the older generation is changing its mind. Opposition to gay marriage among the over-65 group has dropped from 74 per cent to 56 per cent in the last eight years.

The parade toward acceptance of gay marriage in the U.S. is well under way. President Obama has wisely jumped in front.

09 May 2012

Why poor Americans vote Republican

One of the mysteries of American politics is why so many of the poorer, government-dependent jurisdictions vote for the party that pushes for smaller government and reduced social programs. An article in the May issue of the New Internationalist offers an explanation. The article points out that, for example, the county where per capital food stamp payments are the highest in the U.S.—Owsley County, Kentucky—votes overwhelmingly Republican. States such as Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, where residents on average get the highest portion of their income from government supports, are also solidly Republican, the party of the rich.

One reason may be that they are Bible Belt states whose people are more swayed by moral issues than economic ones. They vote, therefore, for whoever is most opposed to gay marriage and abortion rather than for whoever most supports assistance for the poor.

Another reason is political illiteracy. A study by Cornell University professor Suzanne Metler showed that 40-44 per cent of people receiving Social Security, unemployment benefits or Medicare insist they have not used a government program. This resounding ignorance was epitomized by an elderly gentleman who, at a town hall meeting about Obama's health care legislation, shouted, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." Medicare, a federal program of health care for the aged, is one of the nation's most successful and popular institutions.

This disconnect between reality and ideology works powerfully against achieving a more equitable society, the best guarantee of a healthy society. It does, however, work wonders for the Republican Party, a testament to their highly effective campaign of government-bashing.

08 May 2012

Coming home: Khadr vs. Black

One Canadian and one former Canadian have wanted very much to come home to this country. Both are convicted felons—one, Omar Khadr, remains incarcerated at Gauntanamo, Cuba, the other, Conrad Black, has been released and is now back in his house in Toronto. Both cases have been hotly debated, but while the federal government has done everything in its power to delay Khadr's homecoming, Conrad Black slipped into Canada with ease.

A superficial look at the charges they have been convicted of would seem to justify the federal government's position on the two cases. Convicted of fraud and obstructing justice, Black's crimes pale in comparison to Khadr's convictions of murder and aiding terrorism.

It is not, however, quite that simple. Khadr, a classic child soldier, should never have been charged with anything. Furthermore, while Black received a fair trial, Khadr was subjected to the drumhead justice of a military tribunal and took a plea bargain to escape almost certain life in prison if not a death sentence. Comparison of the crimes is not, therefore, so much between fraud and murder as between guilt and innocence.

In addition, while Khadr is a Canadian citizen, and therefore deserving of our protection, Black contemptuously dismissed his Canadian citizenship in favour of the British version complete with lordship. He is both a convicted felon and a foreigner.

On balance, the stronger case for accepting these two back in our bosom rests with Khadr. The Canadian government would seem to disagree.

05 May 2012

Would 42 months in prison make Harper a better Prime Minister?

I assure you that the title of this post is purely tongue-in-cheek. Heaven forbid I would want to see Stephen Harper behind bars. Nonetheless, another prominent conservative just spent 42 months in the slammer and he emerged a better man with a better sense of what prison can and cannot do for society.

Conrad Black, formerly inmate no. 18330-424 in the U.S. federal prison system, has returned to Canada by his own account “a humbler, more sensitive person.” No small admission from a man of Black's arrogance, he credits his new-found humility and sensitivity to his incarceration, particularly his association with members of society less fortunate than he.

Furthermore, he has become a critic of the American prison system and, more importantly, of the Harper government's borrowing of some its worse aspects for Canada's new criminal justice law. For example, on mandatory minimum sentences, a favourite of the Harper regime, he has this to say, “Unfortunately, like archaic cultures that clung to the belief that the Earth was flat, those who support mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes are willfully ignorant of the near universal consensus that mandatory minimum sentences are both extremely costly and ineffective ... it will be a sad legacy for Canadian conservatives if we sit quietly and ignore how U.S. society has been remarkably weakened by the same laws our government is now hell-bent on enacting.”

His overview of the American legal system is devastating: “The American justice system has become a gigantic legal cartel where there are too many laws and the legal profession is a terrible taxation on the country ... The country has become a carceral state detaining an obscene number of its own citizens, and a vastly disproportionate number of the world’s prisoners, often in conditions that are shocking especially in such a rich and generous-minded country, so proud of its humanitarian traditions.”

At times, Black's critique cuts a wider swath through American society, the society Mr. Harper seems to want to emulate. Listen to Black on the circumstances of his fellow inmates: "Many are victims of legal and social injustice, inadequately provided for by the public assistance system, and over-prosecuted and vengefully sentenced. The greater competitiveness of the world makes the failures of American education, social services and justice unaffordable, as well as repulsive. In tens of millions of undervalued human lives, as in the consumption of energy and the addiction to consumer debt, the United States pays a heavy price for an ethos afflicted by wantonness, waste and official human indifference." Strong stuff—Mr. Black has not lost his rhetorical flair.

I have never paid much attention to Conrad Black's opinions, but in this case I must concede he has inside knowledge. Literally. Now if he could only transmit some of his insight into what would make for a more humane, financially-sound penal system, to say nothing of his new-found humility and  sensitivity, to our Prime Minister, we would all benefit.

03 May 2012

I paid how much?

02 May 2012

Rupert Murdoch unfit for journalism

A British parliamentary panel has concluded that press lord Rupert Murdoch "is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company." They might equally have said he is not a fit person to exercise stewardship over journalism. The sleaze that has been revealed in Murdoch's media empire is a direct result of the amoral nature of the man's character. Labour MP Tom Watson, himself a target of phone hacking by Murdoch's goons, stated, "It is his company, his culture, his people, his business, his failure, his lies, his crimes, the price of profits and his power."

To Murdoch, profits and power are everything. Journalistic standards—honest reporting and fair analysis—are irrelevant. The man hasn't even had the integrity and courage to accept the blame for his corporation's misbehavior. He has, in typical weaselly fashion, blamed subordinates, who in turn blame their subordinates—very much the Murdoch culture.

He has not only corrupted British journalism but, much more importantly, he has corrupted British democracy—sadly, with assistance from allies at the very top of the British political establishment, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. With his power to make or break governments, prime ministers genuflected before this wizened oligarch like worshipers before their God.

Murdoch follows in the tradition of too many press lords going back to William Randolph Hearst whose ability to make lots of money is incompatible with higher moral purpose. And higher moral purpose is what journalism ought to be all about.

The panel's report will now be considered by the House of Commons. The British government has a heavy duty, first to establish respect for British journalism, and second to protect British democracy from oligarchic media. Strong measures will be required. Will a Conservative Prime Minister have the stomach to take strong measures against the interests of an oligarchy? Will minority government force his hand? This is an issue to be followed closely.