31 August 2012

Carleton makes amends ... sort of

Carleton University has finally attempted to atone for accepting what was little better than a bribe and then trying to cover it up. In 2010, the university made a secret deal with Calgary businessman Clayton Riddell which, in return for a $15-million donation for a graduate program in political management, would allow the Riddell Foundation to appoint three of five people on a steering committee that would have power over the program's budget, academic hiring, executive director and curriculum. The deal was fronted by former Reform Party head Preston Manning who would also head the steering committee.

Having made the deal, the university fought tenaciously to keep the details hidden, an effort that ultimately failed. Carleton faculty and the Canadian Association of University Teachers understandably called the arrangement a major infringement on academic freedom. Now Carleton president Roseann Runte, responding to the criticism, has revealed a revised deal. It will require the steering committee to operate in accordance with the university's policies and procedures, and it will no longer approve key hiring and curriculum decisions. It will, however, provide "timely and strategic advice."

Obvious questions remain. For example, will the university be able to say no to "timely and strategic advice" from the $15-million man? The only way academic independence will be assured is if this funding is divorced from any "advice" from the donor. Until then, skeptics will quite rightly have their doubts.

Attempts by big business to infiltrate academia have not been limited to Carleton. The University of Toronto established the Munk School of Global Affairs partially funded by Barrick Gold Corp. chairman Peter Munk. This deal gives Munk or his heirs sole discretion to pull $15-million of his donation if the school doesn't meet their expectations. (A petition to have this arrangement annulled and renegotiated can be found at http://www.petitiononline.com/munkoff/petition.html.)

Earlier this year, 200 professors at York University signed a letter requesting the university stop a proposed agreement with former BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie's Centre for International Governance Innovation to fund 10 research chairs until academic safeguards could be negotiated, stating that it allowed "unprecedented influence over the university's academic affairs." The Canadian Association of University Teachers has warned it will launch a boycott this fall if Wilfrid Laurier and the University of Waterloo don't "amend the governance structure for the Balsillie School of International Affairs so that academic integrity is ensured."

Last September, documents obtained after a three-year freedom-of-information fight with the University of Calgary revealed that Talisman energy gave the university $175,000 for a public relations and lobbying campaign against government programs to restrict fossil fuel consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The university subsequently acknowledged "that there was insufficient management and governance oversight" and announced new internal controls.

These insidious attempts by business to influence our political dialogue by infiltrating our universities demand close attention. Quite aside from the very business-like practice of doing deals privately in back rooms, an offense to the open nature of a university, the deals themselves threaten to corrupt our democratic process with plutocratic influence. And Carleton's solution is hardly the answer.

29 August 2012

Morsi's brave initiative

Egypt and Iran have barely been on speaking terms for some time. An Egyptian leader hasn't visited Tehran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. But new president Mohamed Morsi intends to change that. This week he is attending the Non-Aligned Movement summit hosted by Iran.

Apparently, Morsi's visit will be short and largely symbolic but he intends, nonetheless, to lay the foundation for a new regional effort to deal with the increasing violence in Syria. His idea is to create a Syria contact group made up of the four major powers in the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. He also intends to discuss the issue with China and Russia, both having opposed punitive measures against the Assad regime in the UN security council.

The United States has opposed including Tehran in the discussions, and has even opposed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attending the summit, but given Iran's vital interests in Syria and its ability to affect the future of any solution, that is folly.

As for our government, no comment so far on Morsi's initiative, but Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has written to Ban Ki-moon supporting the U.S. position that he not attend the summit. Given our abandonment of balanced policy in the Middle East, I suspect the Secretary General will pay about as much attention to Baird's letter as Mr. Baird would pay to a letter from me.

Nothing else has worked in ending the violence in Syria. Morsi should be wished all the luck in the world.

Muslim clerics rally to protect Christian girl

Pakistan is so saturated with Muslim fanaticism that hearing about a host of clerics joining hands with leaders of other faiths to strike a blow for justice is refreshing indeed.

News from Pakistan is replete with stories of religious barbarism, including the appalling law that provides the death penalty for blasphemy, the assassination of politicians who counsel toleration, the murder of Christians by zealous mobs, and so on—a depressing litany. The latest incident of religious mischief to grab the news is the tragic case of Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl accused of burning pages of the Koran. Apparently she is a minor and of diminished mental capacity. In any case, she is being held in prison, and the Christian community in her village has fled in fear.

But there is light in the darkness. The All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella group of Muslim clerics and scholars, which includes representatives from fundamentalist groups, has joined with the Pakistan Interfaith League, which includes Christians, Sikhs and other religions, to call for justice for Rimsha. The chairman of the council, Tahir Ashrafi, declared, "We see this as a test case for Pakistan's Muslims, Pakistan's minorities and for the government. We don't want to see injustice done with anyone. We will work to end this climate of fear." Strong words, long overdue.

Giving the initiative special significance is the presence among its supporters of fundamentalist and militant groups. Sajid Ishaq, chairman of the Pakistan Interfaith League, pointed out, "This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the Muslim community and scholars have stood up for non-Muslims."

Pakistan has a long way to go to achieve religious tolerance, but it seems the clerics are at least beginning to recognize that religion should have some connection to justice.

28 August 2012

What would Huck Finn have said?

My favourite book in childhood, and I was an avid reader, was Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Rafting down the mighty Mississippi from adventure to adventure was as romantic a vision as a boy could have. Sadly, it appears that old Miss isn't so mighty these days.

Due to the massive drought affecting the U.S., water levels in the river have dropped to one-quarter what they were last year, seriously hampering barge traffic along this major transportation route. Vessels can't be fully loaded and in some cases have gotten stuck, forcing their cargos to be moved by road. At Greenville, Mississippi, 100 barges were hung up, at a cost of $3-million a day.

Although global warming may not have caused the drought, it has surely aggravated it and it contributes to the costs. The price of ignoring climate change escalates.

At the end of Twain's great book, Huck decided to escape the woes of civilization and "light out for the territory." Unfortunately, no such option is available to us.

23 August 2012

Dying for your country in anonymity

According to Wikipedia, 158 Canadian Forces personnel have been killed in the Afghan war since 2002. Their ultimate sacrifice has been widely recognized, honoured and commemorated—individually and collectively—and will continue to be, at least every November 11th, for generations.

I thought about this while reading about how the Alberta government has decided to no longer publish statistics on the deaths of farm workers in the province. These people also make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, yet there is no recognizing, honouring or commemorating. They may perform a service far more valuable than whatever our troops were doing in Afghanistan, yet they are no longer even counted.

We do, however, have a good idea of their number. In 2010, the last year the government published the figure, 22 workers lost their lives on Alberta farms. At that rate, every seven years the death toll matches that of the total sacrifice in Afghanistan.

Put on a uniform, pick up a gun, die for your country, and become a hero. Put on your overalls, rev up your tractor, die for your country, and you don't even become a statistic.

20 August 2012

Is our federal government anti-worker?

Among other unwarranted assaults, the 2012 federal budget took a shot at working people. It introduced rules which will require most EI claimants to accept jobs at much lower wages and will allow employers of temporary foreign workers to pay less than the prevailing Canadian wage.

The budget followed a pattern of behaviour by this government. Last year, following a lockout by Canada Post, it legislated postal workers back to work at a lower wage increase than even the employer had offered.

Also last year, U.S.-based Caterpillar Inc. humiliated its workforce by locking them out and demanding a 50 per cent pay cut or else. When it didn't get what it wanted, it closed its plant and cashiered its workers. The Conservative government was content to stand by and watch this abuse of its citizens without apparent concern.

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. So far, not a word from their government defending their interests.

We might expect a Conservative government to be employer-friendly, particularly a Harper-led government, but the Labour Minister at least ought to be a voice for workers in the Cabinet. After all, it isn't unheard of for a Conservative Labour Minister to be a spokesperson for the interests of workers. Michael Starr, member of John Diefenbaker's Conservative cabinet, is considered to be one of the most worker-friendly labour ministers we ever had. However, Mr. Harper's Minister of Labour, Lisa Raitt, clearly has no interest in emulating the Honourable Michael Starr.

Mr. Harper and his cabinet colleagues talk a great deal about jobs, but one wonders if their concern is about providing rewarding opportunities for working people or just providing warm bodies for employers. Considering Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's infamous comment, "There is no bad job," I get the distinct impression it's the latter.

17 August 2012

Funny picture of the day—Julian Assange's personal patrol

Below is a Sang Tan/Associated Press photo of policemen hanging out at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The occasion is Julian Assange's presence within. As the whole world knows, Ecuador has granted Assange political asylum from the pursuit of British and Swedish authorities.

But look at the cops! I count 13 of them twiddling their thumbs. What could they possibly think is going to happen that will require a baker's dozen of officers?

It seems to illustrate just how desperate the British are to transport this guy to Sweden. First they were determined to extradite him, now they are threatening to invade the Ecuadoran embassy in order to carry out the extradition—in gross violation of international law. Might one be considered a cynic if he should suspect there's something more at issue here than Julian Assange's sexual peccadilloes?

Europe's shrinking economy—bad news or good?

Once again the news of a shrinking economy leaves me with mixed feelings. According to the CBC, the economy of the European Union shrank by 0.2 per cent in the second quarter of 2012 after a flat first quarter.

Surely this is bad news. The EU is heavily in debt and suffers from record unemployment—grim statistics indeed. And all of this leads to increasing social dysfunction.

Yet we know that economic growth cannot continue forever—we live on a finite planet and are using up its resources at an unsustainable pace. Sooner or later the growth must stop and we can either manage its end or have it imposed on us haphazardly by increasingly exhausted resources. The latter, combined with climate change, promises a dystopian future that would challenge the imagination of a pessimistic science fiction writer.

So, if financial mismanagement forces us into a no-growth mode before the realities of resource depletion and environmental abuse overwhelm us, is that a bad thing? The answer of course is no, but only if we adapt to the situation and restore economic health in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, there is little indication our political and business leaders are taking up that challenge. Their only answer seems to be ever more growth and damn the consequences.

As long as we refuse to confront the need to end growth, I will be unable to resist some small measure of satisfaction when I hear that circumstances are imposing on us willy-nilly what we ought to be doing by design.

16 August 2012

Good news on climate change ... I think

A new survey indicates that Canadians are increasingly acknowledging the reality of climate change while recognizing that we are the culprit. An Insightrix Research, Inc. poll reported that 98 per cent of us believe climate change is occurring with 86 per cent believing that human activity is at least partly responsible. Only nine per cent believe it isn't happening at all.

This is good news. The first step in dealing with a problem is recognizing you've got it, and with climate change that recognition hasn't been easy to achieve what with major vested interests attempting to deny the reality or at least confuse the issue. Canadians seem to be increasingly realizing that scientists are the wise men on this issue—the people who know what they are talking about—not the political or business leaders. This is critical if we are to muscle our political and business leaders into doing what is necessary to meet the challenge, the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.

I do have some reservations about the poll. Of the 98 per cent who believe climate change is occurring, only 32 per cent believe it is entirely due to human agency, with 54 per cent believing it's due to a combination of human and natural causes. The latter is not unreasonable, yet suggests a certain softness in the recognition of human responsibility.

Furthermore, the poll was conducted online and wasn't random, although an effort was made to account for age, gender, region and education in order to match the general population, and a CBC online poll yielded roughly similar results (77 per cent believing human activity is at least partly responsible).

Despite some misgivings, the poll does indicate an awareness of the problem if not yet an awareness of its seriousness. It allows for hope at least.

15 August 2012

Are the feds backing off Northern Gateway?

The federal government has, up until very recently, been a major cheerleader for the Northern Gateway pipeline project. After all, the pipeline is intended to carry Mr. Harper's favourite energy source—Alberta bitumen—to offshore markets.

The government has proclaimed the economic benefits of the pipeline, castigated its critics as foreign-funded radicals undermining the Canadian economy and eased environmental regulations to expedite pipeline approvals.

Then B.C. Premier Christie Clark, philosophical bedmate and friend of Stephen Harper (now former friend?), got testy about the project, insisting that B.C. get a share of the profits as well as guaranteed compensation against environmental damage. Clark was generally considered to be responding to the anti-pipeline sentiment rampant in her province across which the pipeline must venture.

Mr. Harper's main man in B.C., Heritage Minister James Moore, started picking up on the provincial vibes as well and came very close to echoing Premier Clark's sentiments. "Just because British Columbia is physically the Asia-Pacific gateway, it doesn’t mean that we’re the doormat for companies like Enbridge to think that they can go ahead and do business without having due diligence and taking care of the public’s interest," Moore said.

Even Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who has been doing a Joe McCarthy on environmentalists, is hedging a bit, stating in a CBC interview, "I personally have not said that this pipeline should go through."

For his part, Prime Minister Harper has been taking pains to insist the evaluation of the pipeline will be based on independent, scientific assessment, something of a change in emphasis from his usual obsession with economics. But more importantly, why has the man who exercises iron control over his party allowed Minister Moore to make statements that border on heresy?

If the pipeline fails to gain all necessary approvals, it will be a massive political blow to the Conservatives. Are they now starting to reposition themselves to minimize the damage? Harper is a politician who thinks strategically every waking moment—as opposition to the Northern Gateway mounts, thoughts along those lines must be crossing his mind.

11 August 2012

Mexicans solving U.S. immigraton dilemma

Mexican immigration has been a hot political issue in the U.S. for some time resulting in, among other unpleasant phenomena, Arizona's controversial Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act which was fought all the way up to the Supreme Court with mixed success. Now it seems the immigrants are solving the problem themselves.

Although the number of Mexicans entering the U.S. has continued to grow, it is now being matched by the number leaving. The reasons for the departures are many, including the weakened U.S. job market, stronger border enforcement, more deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, improvements in the Mexican economy and the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rate. The rate has fallen from an average 7.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.4 in 2009.

The magnitude of the migration is impressive. Today the U.S. has more immigrants from Mexico alone—12.0 million—than any other country has from all source countries combined. Most arrived illegally. The new balance of immigration and emigration should help stabilize the population and, most importantly, bring more light and less heat to the issue.

10 August 2012

France embraces Robin Hood tax

On August 1st, France introduced its long-promised Financial Transactions Tax (FTT). Popularly referred to as a Robin Hood Tax, or Tobin Tax, the 0.2 per cent levy will apply to sales of publicly traded shares, including credit default swaps, of businesses with a market value of over €1-billion. Ten other European countries, include Germany, Italy and Spain, are expected to follow the French lead.

Such a tax was first proposed in 1972 by Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin. His intention was to reduce speculation in the international currency markets which he saw as dangerous and unproductive. He suggested using the proceeds of the tax to fund projects for the benefit of Third World countries, or to support the United Nations. The tax in effect provides a way of allowing governments, i.e. citizens, to reclaim part of the democratic space that global trade agreements have conceded to markets. Primarily designed to curb excessive market speculation, some of the revenue from the French tax will be used to support the global fight against AIDS.

The tax has strong support in Europe with 88 per cent of the French and 82 per cent of Germans favouring the tax. Even a contingent of bankers supports the idea. In June, 52 former and current financiers wrote to David Cameron and other European and world leaders calling on them to back FTTs to raise revenue for “people in urgent need at home and in the world’s poorest countries.”

The group, which included senior figures from the Rothschild Group, GLS Bank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and the Chicago Stock Exchange, pointed out that the value of financial transactions is now seventy times the size of the real global economy and that much of this increase is due to computer-driven trading designed to turn very short-term profits that do not contribute to markets’ primary functions of raising investment, allocating resources efficiently and mitigating risk.

They emphasize that numerous countries already have FTTs on some asset classes and these work well. Comprehensive FTTs would, in their view, actually improve the functioning of markets, restoring "the financial sector to its proper role." There are, it seems, still bankers with a conscience.

Other luminaries who support a Robin Hood Tax include Bill Gates, the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the world's major labour leaders, Nobel Prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz and other leading economists. Meanwhile, some powerful players resist the tax, including Great Britain, China, India, the U.S., Canada and Sweden, although some might modify their position if the tax was universal.

Fortunately, supporters currently seem to have the edge.

03 August 2012

Drought, ethanol and the looming food crisis

That the drought in the U.S. will cause a rise in food prices is hardly news. However, scientists at the New England Complex Systems Institute are warning that the potential for a price spike has already been created by "misguided food-to-ethanol conversion programs and rampant commodity speculation." The drought will act as a "crop shock" causing the spike, originally predicted for 2013, to occur sooner "unless measures to curb ethanol production and rein in speculators are adopted immediately."

The Institute doesn't pull its punches. It claims that, "We are on the verge of another crisis, the third in five years, and likely to be the worst yet, capable of causing new food riots and turmoil on a par with the Arab Spring." Particularly worrying is that prices may rise well above the increase justified by the drought.

Commenting on the U.S. government's corn conversion to ethanol program, Institute President Yaneer Bar-Yam observed, "Given the possibility of price-driven famines, burning corn for cars is unconscionable."

American meat, dairy and poultry producers echo the Institute's concern, calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend this year's quotas for corn ethanol production. (The EPA's renewable fuel program requires oil companies to dilute their gasoline with increasing amounts of biofuel every year.) Randy Spronk, president of the National Pork Producers Association, told reporters, "We are worried about having enough corn, soybean and other crops at any price to feed our animals," while the president of the Minnesota Turkey Growers' Association, John Burkel, warned, "Even the most prudent and cautious producer could be put out of business."

Using a food crop to feed cars is questionable at the best of times—during a drought it is simply immoral.

02 August 2012

Unintended consequences—Bangladesh suffers from Iran sanctions

The Bangladeshis are entirely innocent of any real or imagined transgressions on the part of Iran, yet they are being punished nonetheless. Their sin is a heavy reliance on the jute crop.

Jute is a major industry in Bangladesh, worth a billion dollars in exports, mainly to Iran. Forty million people, mostly farmers, depend on it. But exports to Iran are faltering and the industry, including many of those 40 million people, are suffering. As part of the sanctions against Iran, the West has imposed severe restrictions on its banks, and as a result exporters are finding it difficult to realize payments.

Not only Bangladeshis are affected. Jute farmers in Egypt, Syria and Libya are also being hurt. The sanctions are a collective punishment not only of Iranians, but of people around the globe—collateral damage of Western policy.

We are constantly reminded we now live in a world of global trade. Perhaps we should keep this in mind when we level sanctions.

01 August 2012

Is Omar Khadr an untermensch?

I have thought long and hard on why so many Canadians hold such a callous attitude toward Omar Khadr. Here is a young man who has spent his whole life as a pawn of others. Indoctrinated in an extremist philosophy throughout his childhood; sent to serve jihadists in Afghanistan when he entered his teens; severely wounded, brutally treated and imprisoned by the Americans; and finally betrayed by his own country, Khadr has lived a life of victimhood. Yet many Canadians, including our government, show a complete lack of compassion toward his suffering, even justifying it.

What explains this hostility? Canadians are, after all, a generous people, normally compassionate toward the less fortunate. We have shown compassion toward the child soldiers of Africa who, through no fault of their own, became killers. Yet toward Khadr, very much the child soldier, many utterly lack compassion, to say nothing of understanding.

It almost seems as if his detractors consider him unworthy of normal human feeling. Their attitude is a testament to the flexibility of human morality. Toward those we consider one of us, or at least worthy of being treated as one of us, we exercise sympathy, even empathy, but to those we consider alien, fellow feeling is easily suspended, and respect replaced with contempt. In 1930s Germany, for example, many people, even seemingly decent men and women, referred to those fellow citizens they considered insufficiently German as untermenschen—essentially subhuman.

Today this attitude is commonly applied to radical Islamists. They can be abused, even tortured, denied all the rights of international convention, because they are unfit to be treated as fully human.

It seems Omar Khadr's detractors place him in this category and form their attitudes toward him accordingly. But this is grievously unfair—Khadr never had a choice. He has never in his short life had control over his own destiny. Holding him responsible for his associations and his resulting actions makes no more sense than holding a Ugandan child soldier responsible for his behaviour in the service of Joseph Kony.

We can understand the American's lust for revenge for 9/11, although taking it out on a mere boy does no credit to their nation. Canadians don't even have vengeance as an excuse. It is time for our government at least to rise above its baser instincts, recognize the humanity of Omar Khadr, and bring him home.