19 July 2012

The Tea Party outperforms the Occupy Movement

The financial and economic collapse of 2008 in the United States precipitated two "revolutionary" movements: one on the right, the Tea Party, and one on the left, the Occupy Movement. If we now ask what each has accomplished, the answers are straightforward: the Tea Party a great deal, the Occupy Movement not much.

Both did their demonstration thing, but the Tea Party didn't stop there. After the street theatre, they doffed their tricorn hats, laid down their muskets, and carried their anger into the political sphere via the Republican Party. They changed that party and they changed the country. They elected Congressmen, Senators, state governors and other officials amenable to their principles and sent the country reeling to the right. Their success is quite extraordinary. The Occupy Movement, by contrast, seems to have hardly changed the country at all.

All the Republican candidates for president found it necessary to sound more like Tea Party members than members of a formerly moderate centre-right Republican Party. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, on the other hand, seem to have been barely touched by the Occupy Movement.

Why the difference? Aside from their contrasting philosophies, the two parties differ in something else—age. Tea Party members tend to be middle-aged to older, Occupy members young. Older people tend to use the system, youth tend to reject the system—that, after all, is what rebellious youth do. So perhaps we could not expect the Occupy Movement to storm the Democratic Party en masse, as the Tea Partiers did with the Republican Party.

Another, and much more significant, difference is big money. Big money now dominates politics in the United States. That doesn't interfere with the goals of the Tea Party or the Republican Party. Both are comfortable with big money influence: the Republicans have always been the party of the rich and the Tea Party was partly created and funded by big money. So the Tea Party/Republican Party/big money relationship makes for a happy ménage à trois.

But the power of big money is precisely what the Occupy Movement is opposed to, and the Democratic Party is hardly less dependent on big money than the Republican Party. So there is a serious conflict. If the Occupiers were to move into the Democratic Party as the Tea Partiers have into the Republican Party, their message would at least be diluted if not drowned entirely by the race for funding. Barack Obama seeks the financial favour of bankers as much as Mitt Romney does. Who would have his ear—the guys with the chequebooks or the guys with the abstract principles?

Yet if the Occupy Movement is to create change as the Tea Party has done, it cannot remain aloof forever from the political mainstream. The anti-war movement did and achieved success, but that was a campaign with an intensely focused goal, not at all like the rather nebulous goals of the Occupy Movement. Even the civil rights movement, initially outside mainstream politics, ultimately had to come in from the cold before the important changes were made.

This will apply to the Occupy Movement as well. Legislation will be necessary to change the economic and political systems in significant ways, and that means either joining and attempting to reform the Democratic Party, or amassing enough supporters outside the two main parties to sway elections. Or, I suppose, forming a new political party. In a system now a captive of big money, any option presents a huge challenge.

18 July 2012

The revolution and the reality—why Egypt elected Islamists

No small amount of surprise was generated by the recent elections in Egypt when Islamist parties swept the parliamentary elections and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate won the presidential election. Coming after a revolution conducted by progressive elements, convincing victories for Islamists was unexpected.

But it shouldn't have been. The revolutionaries were mainly young, urban and secular. But most Egyptians are rural, conservative and devoutly Muslim. We heard a great deal about the former in our newspapers and TV—they were creating the action and thereby the news—but very little about the latter, toiling away on their subsistence farms. But when the elections followed the revolution and the masses turned out, the latter emerged in their numbers and had their way.

The news, with its total emphasis on the revolutionaries, led many to believe the new Egypt would be not only a democratic place but a liberal place. Whether that will happen, even if the country becomes a democracy—and the military will have something to say about that—a lot will depend on the magnanimity of the Islamists, principally the Muslim Brotherhood.

Will, for example, the Brotherhood and their allies promote the equality of women, raising them from the oppressive conditions in which they currently find themselves? Will they guarantee Christians, atheists and others the same rights as Muslims? Will the rule of law trump religious dictate?

Early on, the Brotherhood is indicating they will be accommodating. The attitude of the Egyptian people is, however, not entirely encouraging. Recent surveys indicate that while two-thirds of Egyptians prefer democracy over other systems, two-thirds also believe that Islam should play a major role in politics. Furthermore, 60 per cent believe that laws should strictly follow the Koran. A majority, but not a very convincing one (58 per cent) believe that women should have equal rights to men.

So the Egyptians have a way to go on the road to a free and equitable society. They must overcome first a recalcitrant military to achieve democracy and then an entrenched religious conservatism to achieve full human rights. I wish them success.

14 July 2012

The amusing story of JPMorgan Chase

Reading about the latest foibles of JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States, one cannot help but chuckle. CEO Jamie Dimon initially reported a trading blunder had cost the bank a mere $2-billion and dismissed concerns as a "tempest in a teapot." He now admits the tempest may have cost the bank $5.8-billion and that's not the end of it. He further admits that if financial markets go south, the bank's loss could run up to $7.5 billion. So the loss is some number of billions ... give or take a couple of billion. His lack of precision must be less than reassuring to his shareholders.

But at least Mr. Dimon has now been chastened. No more tempests in a teapot—he now recognizes the tempest is in the real world. After appearing before Congress to apologize and explain himself, he says the affair has "shaken our company to the core" and points out that heads are rolling. Not his, actually, but those managers in the London office responsible for the trade have been dismissed without severance and will forfeit two years' pay.

And some pay it is. The most important head to roll is that of Ina Drew, JPMorgan's chief investment officer, who oversaw the division responsible for the loss and who resigned shortly after the disclosure. Ms Drew received about $29 million in total compensation for 2010 and 2011, and retired with about $57.5 million in stock, pension and other pay, so she should still be left with multimillions after the clawback.

The bank now seems to be suggesting its traders may have acted fraudulently, but not quite so fraudulently as to have broken any laws. Just enough innuendo to provide a scapegoat, but not enough to actually land anyone in jail, perhaps? Ah, the world of bankers—how did a group once so stereotypically dull become so entertaining?

13 July 2012

Call for international solidarity with Canadian scientists

As the federal government's assault on science encounters increased resistance from Canadian scientists, the international community increasingly takes notice. In a recent column in The Guardian, science writer Alice Bell suggests that our scientists deserve international support, saying "We can't pretend Canadian science is simply a Canadian matter any more than we can pretend we can separate the natural world from our political decisions."

Among other items, Ms. Bell mentions the cancelled funding for the Experimental Lakes Area, a  research facility for ecosystem-scale experimental investigations where scientists from all over the world have studied for generations. The facility has conduced internationally recognized research into climate change since 1968 and provided the first evidence for acid rain. Its closing has understandably generated international concern while further damaging our country's rapidly sinking reputation.

But our reputation is hardly the point. As Ms. Bell points out, our scientists' work has global implications. Making us look bad in the eyes of the world is a trivial matter compared to undermining the health of our planet, and losing institutions like the Experimental Lakes Area will contribute to just that. So her message is right on: the international community should defend our scientists for its own sake as well as ours.

09 July 2012

Australia's Girl Guides drop the Queen ... and God

Having posted recently about an attempt to purge swearing allegiance to the Queen from the Canadian Oath of Citizenship, I couldn't help but notice an article in The Guardian about Australia's Girl Guides dropping reference to Her Majesty in their pledge, or "promise" as it is properly called. The Guides have replaced "do my duty to God, to serve the Queen and my country" with "to be true to myself and develop my beliefs to serve my community and Australia." Not only has the Queen between deleted but, even more importantly, God as well.

Belinda Allen, director of Girl Guides Australia, explained: "Many of the members didn't feel that with our multicultural community of people from 200 nations that it was necessarily relevant for the Queen to be mentioned. We're open to girls from all cultures, backgrounds and faiths and we listened to our membership before we made the change." Nicely said, Belinda.

Here is yet another example of women (little ones) liberating themselves from fusty tradition. The Australian Cub Scouts, on the other hand, have only timidly allowed their members to drop the Queen if they so choose, but God stays.

Nonetheless, if the Australian Girl Guides can cut the apron strings of monarchy, surely we grown-up Canadians can manage it.

06 July 2012

Fukushima—Japan's remarkable mea culpa

There are mea culpas and there are mea culpas. The report by an independent commission on the nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant is a dandy. In the preface to the report the commission chairman, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor and professor emeritus at Tokyo University, laid it on without mercy. "Its fundamental causes," he wrote, "are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity."

He went on to summarize: "What must be admitted—very painfully—is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan.'"

The report described how the "conventions of Japanese culture" manifested themselves, sparing none of the agencies involved: "The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties." It accused Tepco, the plant owner, and regulators at the nuclear and industrial safety agency of failing to adequately account for the area's susceptibility to earthquakes and tsunamis.

I stand in awe of the good doctor and his commission. How rare for someone in a position of authority to blame their own culture for a national tragedy. No scapegoats, he is saying, we have seen the enemy and it is us. Extraordinary ... and immensely commendable.

04 July 2012

Roach vs. the Queen

"I affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen."

Just kidding. Of course I don't. This is, of course, the Canadian Oath of Citizenship, which I have never taken and the first part of which, the bit about being faithful to and bearing allegiance to dear Elizabeth, I could not affirm in good conscience.The latter part presents no problem.

I was prompted to ponder this when reading about the case of Charles Roach. Roach has been resident in this country for 57 years and has wanted to become a citizen but has never been able to get past pledging allegiance to the Crown, claiming it offends his freedom of conscience. He calls it an "oath to a symbol of racism,” referring to England’s colonial past. He has never had success getting it struck down in the courts but now, expecting to die from cancer within the next 18 months and wanting to become a Canadian before he goes, is making one last attempt. The Ontario Superior Court has given Mr. Roach and three others permission to argue that the oath to the Queen is unconstitutional. If they win, the federal government will have to rewrite the oath.

There is another way of dodging the pledge. Ashok Charles, who had taken the Oath of Citizenship in 1977, publicly recanted the portion of the oath that makes reference to the monarch and informed Citizenship and Immigration Canada about his recantation in a notarized document. He later claimed that Citizenship and Immigration had informed him in writing that his citizenship had not been affected. Unfortunately, if Mr. Roach's court case fails, he may not have time to take this approach.

While we celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee—or while some of us do, I beg to be excused—we might ask ourselves why we, the citizens of a democratic nation, are still swearing allegiance to a foreign, unelected head of state who got her job not by merit but by birthright. I recognize she has little real power, so perhaps it doesn't matter all that much. And not being an Asian or African, I may lack Mr. Roach's critical perspective, but even I find that accepting the British Queen as our head of state seems a bit immature. It seems rather like clinging to mommy's skirts when you're supposed to be all grown up. Mr. Roach does have a point.

Australia's Dutch disease

Canada is not alone in suffering from the insidious Dutch disease. Australia, too, is feeling the pain. Whereas Canada's version is caused by booming tar sands production, Australia's is caused by booming iron and coal production.

The resources industry is credited in part for keeping Australia out of recession and insulating it from the worst effects of the global financial crisis. On the other hand, because of the boost it has given to the Australian dollar, it has created big losers. According to Saul Eslake, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (Australia), "There's been a 'two-speed' economy. On one side is the booming mining sector and some of the industries that hang off it, like heavy construction. On the other, you've got floundering industries like manufacturing, tourism, retailing and higher education, which employ many more people than mining." Sound familiar?

In order to help even out the benefits, the Australian government has levied a 30 per cent tax on iron ore and coal profits over A$75-million.

The mining industry is fighting back in a big way ... and winning. The Minerals Council of Australia launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign which led to the tax eventually being watered down. The campaign also helped bring down former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The mining companies plan to continue their advertising assault. Furthermore, they are increasing their grip on the press. Rupert Murdoch's right-wing News Corp already owns eight of the country's 12 major daily newspapers and mining magnate Gina Rinehart is making a move for majority control of Fairfax Media which owns three of the remaining four. News Corp also dominates regional and suburban newspaper publishing.

The defeat of the ruling Labor Party, already unpopular, will be almost guaranteed with mining company ad campaigns and big donations to the opposition combined with a hostile press. This will bring to power the conservative, mining industry-friendly Liberal/National Party coalition (it has promised to repeal the mining tax as well as Australia's carbon tax). This, too, will be familiar to Canadians: a government committed to defending an extractive industry above all else, most particularly above the environment. Polluters won't pay and Dutch disease will persist with its viral mischief.