29 September 2012

Weaselling out of the Convention on Cluster Munitions

Cluster bombs are one of the nastier instruments of war. Each bomb can contain hundreds of bomblets, many of which fail to explode on impact and lie unexploded for years until disturbed. Because of their wide coverage, they pose risks to civilians both during attacks and afterwards. Sometimes they are brightly coloured in order to warn civilians, but this unfortunately makes them more attractive to children. Human rights activists claim that one in four victims of bomblets are children who play with the explosives well after hostilities have ended.

In 2008, a group of nations adopted the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty that will ban the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of these weapons as well as any assistance with such activities. Canada intends to ratify the treaty, but its proposed legislation contains provisions that will undermine it. Bill S-10, currently before the Senate, will allow Canadian forces, when undertaking joint operations with the armed forces of non-party states, to authorize use of cluster munitions, to transport cluster munitions belonging to non-party states, and to counsel non-party state forces to commit acts prohibited to Canada.

As Senator Romeo Dallaire has stated, "It does not make sense to comprehensively ban an immoral, indiscriminate weapon, and then turn around and say it's still okay to use them in combined operations." The World Federalist Movement is hosting a petition to have the loopholes removed from Bill S-10. You can find it here.

28 September 2012

What would Martin Luther say?

I was surprised to discover recently that governments in Europe collect taxes for churches and other religions. In Germany, for example, taxpayers pay between 8 and 9 per cent of their income tax to the religious community to which they belong. Religions may choose to collect the tax themselves, in which case they may demand that the government reveal the tax data of their members so they can calculate the contributions owed.

A taxpayer may opt out of the tax by signing an official declaration that he or she is leaving the faith. Apparently, with the recent revelations of child abuse by priests, Catholics are increasingly doing just that. This does not please the Church—the tax provides about 70 per cent of its revenues.

In order to teach these slackers a lesson, it has issued a decree denying them the sacraments and religious burials.This would seem reasonable; after all, they are declaring they are leaving the Church (even though apparently some of them are attempting to remain active in their parish). Nonetheless, the Church has been accused of "selling the sacraments" with the decree going "beyond the sale of indulgences that Luther denounced."

My question is why European governments are still holding out the collection plate for religions in the 21st century. Didn't we separate the two generations ago?

27 September 2012

Harper's subversion of co-ops

One of the Harper government's assaults on progress that I missed at the time, perhaps because the mass media made little of it, was its undermining of co-ops, one of my favourite institutions. Last April it terminated the federal Co-operative Development Initiative and cut funding for the Rural and Co-operatives Secretariat.

The Co-operative Development Initiative was designed to help people develop co-ops and to research and test innovative ways of using the co-operative model. The Secretariat advises the government on policies affecting co-operatives, co-ordinates the implementation of such policies and encourages use of the co-operative model. The cuts are a blow to the development of new co-operative businesses in Canada, to say nothing of an insult to the co-operative movement in this the year the UN has declared the International Year of Co-operatives.

Government provides assistance to both co-operative and competitive enterprises in various ways. Some evidence indicates that the investment in co-ops has a better payoff. According to an article in the CCPA Monitor, a Quebec study found that after five years, 62 per cent of new co-ops were still operating compared to 35 per cent for other new businesses. After 10 years, the comparison was 44 per cent and 20 per cent respectively.

But co-ops are much more than business instruments for creating jobs and providing services, although they do that very well indeed. Perhaps even more importantly, they are a major contributor to a more democratic economy. They operate on democratic principles while bringing economic control to the local level. In a world desperate for more co-operation and less competition, the Harper government is once again moving in the wrong direction.

26 September 2012

Romney really does represent Republicans

Mitt Romney's dismissal of almost half of the American people as parasites even offended some members of his own party. Nonetheless, the now famous 47 per cent video not only revealed the real Romney, it revealed the real Republican.

In response to a recent survey, only 40 per cent of Republicans agreed with the statement, "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves." By comparison, 75 per cent of Democrats and 59 per cent of independents agreed. Republican support for taking care of the less fortunate has declined from 62 per cent 25 years ago while support by Democrats has remained relatively constant. This is no surprise considering the shift of the Republican Party to the hard right.

The Republicans have done a great job of convincing Americans that somehow they represent the average Joe and Jane even though they have always been the agent of the rich. The video offered a glimpse into the reality behind the claim. It showed the American people what most Republicans really think about at least 47 per cent of them. They now have a chance in November to return the sentiment.

I'm happy Canadians are happy

According to the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, Canadians are a happy bunch. A report by the Centre claims that over 90 per cent of us say we are satisfied or very satisfied with our lives. It says further that according to a Gallup World Poll, we are the second happiest country in the world, trailing only Denmark. That's up from fifth place five years ago. Apparently we are happy and getting happier.

Speaking for myself, I wasn't asked but if I was I would certainly answer "very satisfied." I am concerned about the very big problems we all face, such as global warming and the encroachment of corporate power on democracy, but at a personal level I am also aware that for ordinary people no time or place in history has offered more opportunity for satisfaction with life.

Interestingly, young Canadians are more satisfied than older Canadians, an increasing gap. The young are becoming happier with their lives while seniors are actually becoming less happy. An interesting area for speculation which I will leave up to my readers.

There may be a message for political parties here. A party that approaches the electorate attempting to feed off dissatisfaction may not do as well as a party that keeps firmly in mind voters are generally happy with their lot. Attack ads notwithstanding, the optimistic approach should outdo the pessimistic approach.

Anyway, to quote Bobby McFerrin, "Don't worry, be happy." You're a Canadian.

21 September 2012

The drug war—cui bono?

The drug war is a most curious war indeed. It is a war which creates its own enemy. If there was no war, i.e. if drugs were legal, the massive profits in drug-dealing would fade away as would the drug dealers and the crime they bring with them. So inasmuch as crime is the problem, it would seem that the real enemy isn't the drugs but the war itself.

The drug dealers depend on the war to keep the money machine running. But they are not the only ones who profit of course. The prison industry is booming—from the U.S., where half the inmates in federal prisons are there for drug offenses, to little Latvia, where half the women in prison are there for non-violent drug offences.

The arms industry has done well, too. American defence contractors have sold billions in weapons for the drug wars in Colombia and elsewhere. The banks have also profited. Wachovia bank recently admitted to transferring $100-million of drug money into the U.S. and failing to monitor $376-billion brought into the bank through small exchange houses in Mexico over a four-year period. And there are other beneficiaries: lawyers and accountants who serve the drug barons, architects who build their mansions, police and military personnel who take their bribes ... the list is long.

Unfortunately, however, wars do more than make some people rich, they also cost lives. In Mexico, 56,000 people have died from drug-related violence since the country launched its latest version of the war in 2006. The Mexican city of Juárez exemplifies who the real enemy is. In the period 2008-10, 54 people died from drug overdoses, over 7,000 died from the drug war. In Juárez, people might be excused for stating the modest exaggeration that drugs don't kill people, drug wars do.

20 September 2012

Why the Wall Street gang aren't in jail

Many Canadians (and many more Americans) ask the eminently reasonable question, Why aren't the bankers who precipitated the financial collapse of 2008 in jail? The damage they inflicted on the U.S. alone was immense: a loss of $11-trillion of personal wealth and 5.5 million jobs, and the foreclosure of over 10 million homes.

And there certainly seemed to be criminal behaviour. Two government bodies investigated the meltdown—the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations—and both made criminal referrals to the Department of Justice. When the FBI issued a warning in 2004 that there was an epidemic of mortgage fraud in the country that could lead to economic calamity, the bankers bundling up high-risk loans and peddling them on Wall Street paid no attention.

Following the Savings and Loan scandal of the late 1980s and 1990s, 800 people went to jail. The collapse of 2008 has been described as "roughly 70 times larger." So why aren't the perpetrators being prosecuted, a failure that Byron Georgiou, who served on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, calls "a lack of accountability that is really quite unique in American history"?

Some possible reasons, loosely extracted from a recent article in Al Jazeera, include the following:

• According to Chris Swecker, a former assistant FBI director, the agencies responsible for investigating the excesses aren't adequately funded.
•  Swecker also believes that the Justice Department is reluctant to pursue a criminal prosecution unless it is a "slam-dunk" after losing a case in which two Bear Stearns hedge fund managers were acquitted of charges that they misled investors.
• The bankers' lawyers are the top graduates of the top law schools in the U.S. and completely outgun the government prosecutors. In short, they intimidate the regulators. Furthermore, the top lawyers with the government may be hoping to get a job with the very banking firms they regulate and start making a multi-million dollar salary, many times what they make with the government.
• U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Criminal Division Chief Lanny Breuer were once white-collar defence attorneys and as a result may have a "defence mindset" that discourages prosecution.
•  William Black, an expert in white collar crime who was involved in prosecuting bank executives during the Savings and Loan crisis, says prosecutors don't understand the connection between the 2008 collapse and a crime called "accounting control fraud" in which executives who control a company loot it and become rich.
• The revolving door of bankers moving into government agencies and regulators moving into banking firms creates close relationships in which nobody wants to call a friend a crook.
• The immense lobbying clout of Wall Street overwhelms politicians and regulators alike.
• The financial industry is a major contributor to election campaigns. Goldman Sachs was a top donor to Barack Obama in 2008.
• The banking industry is so critical to the health of the American economy the government may be afraid that tough regulation could be "bad for business."

Summing it all up, one might say the banks are just too damn rich and powerful. Meanwhile, time is ticking away on the statute of limitations. The bastards may walk.

19 September 2012

What ails Canada?

I pilfered the heading of this post from a recent editorial in the Guardian: "Maple leaf ragged: what ails Canada?" The article suggests that our country's "hardline stances" on a number of issues has triggered "an undercurrent of anxiety" in our public discourse.

A long list of examples is provided: the toughening of immigration rules and the reduction to health care for refugees; the Quebec election of separatists triggering political violence; controversy over tar sands production; marginalization of First Nations people; our increasingly U.S. line on foreign policy; and allegations of complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees. The article tends to overstatement but its claim that many Canadians are asking "whether their country's reputation as a tolerant, environmentally conscious, international peacemaker is suddenly in doubt" is accurate.

The dichotomy between what we had established a reputation for being and what we now appear to be stems in large part from having a government that doesn't represent us. It does formally, of course, but not factually. It was elected by a mere 40 per cent of the voters and its popularity has declined since then. Some governments elected by a minority attempt to represent the views and attitudes of most of their citizens, but this isn't one of them. Indeed, this may be the most ideologically committed federal government we've ever had.

The result is a government whose policies and practices often fail to reflect what most of us believe. Not surprising then that there is an undercurrent of anxiety in our public discourse, not only about how these policies affect us, but how they affect our reputation abroad. Certainly, when our malaise becomes a topic of conversation in other countries, we are something less in their eyes.

18 September 2012

Harper plays Mulcair ... at our expense

If Stephen Harper is anything, he is a shrewd politician—always strategizing. He illustrated this yesterday starting off the new session of Parliament by accusing the NDP of supporting a carbon tax. Thomas Mulcair fell into the trap by immediately denying the NDP was considering any such thing. This accomplishes two goals for the Conservatives. First, it put Mulcair on the defensive, exactly where the Conservatives want him, and second, it is now extremely difficult for the NDP to propose a carbon tax in the future. Nicely done, Stephen.

Not so nice for the rest of us, however. A carbon tax is an eminently fair and morally responsible way to ensure we stand accountable for our actions while contributing to our salvation from global warming.

As we drive our cars we litter the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and we do it with with impunity. This litter is rather more of a problem than candy wrappers or cigarette packages, however; this litter contributes to global warming, the greatest threat to civilization we currently face. We ought to be held responsible for our sins.

But how? We won't quit driving and we have no convenient way of disposing of our carbon waste. The obvious answer is a carbon tax. It is moral—we accept responsibility for our actions; and it is fair—the more you pollute, the more you pay. And although we pay in the short term, in the long term we profit from a healthier environment. We might expect any political party to support a measure that was moral, fair and an excellent investment in the future.

But in fact, we cannot. We can't expect a carbon tax from the Conservatives, a party in coalition with the oil industry and in love with the tar sands. The Liberals may not be willing to make another attempt after Stéphane Dion floundered on it. And now the Conservatives have maneuvered the NDP into a position where they hardly dare.

We won't, it appears, be seeing a carbon tax at the federal level any time soon. We will all be the losers.

15 September 2012

The U.S.—India's favourite major power

With the unwitting collaboration of an idiot "film-maker" in Los Angeles, irresponsible imams in the Middle East and Islamic extremists leading to the besieging of American embassies, the United States does not appear to be winning the hearts and minds of Islam these days. Not that it was doing much of that before.

Americans may be consoled however by their popularity in the Hindu world. The United States is India's favourite major power. According to a Pew Research Center survey, far more Indians hold favourable views of the U.S. than of China or Russia. Needless to say, very few have a favourable opinion of their neighbour Pakistan, although a solid majority do want to improve relations.

Not only do they hold favourable views of the U.S., they support the Americans on key issues. For example, they strongly support a free market economy, place freedom to pursue life’s goals above the state playing an active role in guaranteeing that nobody is in need, oppose Iran developing nuclear weapons, and approve of the U.S. fight against terrorism including drone strikes. Indians much prefer Obama over Putin or Hu Jintao, and a solid majority want to see him re-elected.

When it comes to culture, the results are rather different. A majority of urban Indians dislike American music, movies and television and most think the spread of American customs in India is a bad thing. I would have suspected the opposite, that they would like the culture but not the foreign policies, but it is not so. It isn't surprising though, considering that 80 per cent say they want to shield their traditional culture from globalization. 

In any case, while the Islamic world besieges American embassies, the Hindu world maintains a friendly face.

13 September 2012

Social justice in the OECD

Unfortunately, when nations are compared, the yardstick of comparison is usually GDP, a crude measure of a people's well-being even by economic standards. I am, therefore, always seeking rankings by more meaningful measures. My attention was recently caught by a publication entitled Social Justice in the OECD—How Do the Member States Compare? issued by the Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation. The report applies six criteria—poverty prevention, access to education, labour market inclusion, social cohesion and non-discrimination, health and intergenerational justice—to determine the relative standards of social justice for the 31 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

As might be expected, the Scandinavian countries topped the combined index with Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland ranking one to five. According to the report, "The north European states comprise a league of their own."

The U.S. did poorly as also might be expected, ranking 27th overall with its "alarming poverty levels." Only three countries—Turkey, Mexico and Chile—had greater income disparities.

Canada did rather well, "top performer among the non-European OECD states" with "strong results in the areas of education, labor market justice and social cohesion." We ranked ninth overall. So, a decent performance for us, but we can do better. This is a competition in which we should definitely shoot for number one.

12 September 2012

Water—a matter of security

When we think about security in the global sense we tend to focus on terrorism although, according to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Iran is now the most significant threat to security in the world. Of course it isn't, and terrorism is actually a trivial threat on the world stage. A number of other phenomena are vastly more threatening to people's security, including oppression by dictatorial regimes such as Syria's, diseases such as malaria, and of course the most ominous of all, global warming. And then there's the increasing scarcity of that basic necessity of life—water.

Not that we should need it, but we have received yet another warning about the looming global water crisis, this time in the form of a book entitled The Global Water Crisis: Addressing an Urgent Security Issue, released by The InterAction Council, a group consisting of former heads of state or government. The authors of the book are experts in a broad range of water issues.

They discuss how increasing water scarcity can affect our security in various ways including effects on human health, food and energy reliability, the sustainability of ecosystems, political stability, economic development, and of course the potential for migration and conflict. They also, on the hopeful side, discuss opportunities available in addressing the crisis.

They point out that in 2010, the UN General Assembly formally recognized the “right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” This is of course a statement of the obvious, but is important nonetheless as formally establishing this basic need as a human right.

The book mentions some chilling facts including that lack of clean water and proper sanitation kills about 4,500 children every day. Compared to such facts, and the potential for future conflicts over water, the terrorist threat pales into insignificance. Sensibly, our efforts to achieve security for the world's people should focus on those areas that pose the greatest threat, and water scarcity is very high on the list.

10 September 2012

The folly of shunning Iran

"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer," said the oft-quoted ancient military strategist Sun-tzu. Our government, as militarist as it is, has decided to ignore this advice and cut all ties with its enemy of the day. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced last week that we are suspending diplomatic relations with Iran, expelling its diplomats and closing our embassy in Tehran.

Baird declared that, "Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today." Iran may be a bit of a bad boy on the world stage (at least in the eyes of the West), but accusing it of being "the most significant threat to global peace" is a little over the top for a country that hasn't attacked another nation in centuries and indicates no intention of doing so now. By comparison, I could name a couple of countries that practically make a habit of it, and they're friends of ours.

This action, added to our government's abandonment of any balance on the Palestine issue, underlines our loss of credibility as an honest broker and peacemaker in the Middle East—appropriate, I suppose, to our new militarism. Nonetheless it is sad to see this country, once a real force for peace in the region, decline into impotence.

So why did they do it? Why did they decide to cut off communication with the very country that, according to their own rhetoric, we most need to talk to? To please our favourite nation in the region, Israel? If so, it worked. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu congratulated Mr. Harper, saying "The determination which Canada demonstrates is extremely important so that the Iranians understand that they cannot continue in their race to achieve nuclear weapons. This practical step must serve as an example to the international community [as regards to] moral standards and international responsibility." The bit about nuclear weapons was a bit rich coming from Israel, as was the bit about international responsibility, but the message was pleasing I'm sure to the ears of Messrs. Baird and Harper.

Or did they do it out of pique because a country they like to think of as a pariah state managed to attract 120 nations to a conference last month? Or were they taking advantage of being in Russia at the time of the announcement to give the Russians a slap on the wrist for their attitude toward Iran? Or have they been tipped off about an attack on Iran by Israel and the United States and our getting our people out while the getting is good? Or are we being psyched up to participate in the attack?

Whatever the reason, the move is counterproductive. I will leave the last word to Iranian-Canadian Mohamad Tavakoli, a history professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto: "I view the decision as irrational ... If Canada is interested in resolving key crises in the Middle East, such as in Syria, then the timing is also bad ... [To deal with geopolitical situations] you don't shut down dialogue and communication—you actually intensify dialogue and communication."

07 September 2012

Obama's twin challenges

An interesting article in an Al Jazeera blog poses the question, Who is Obama really running against? The answer isn't Mitt Romney. It's Obama himself, or at least the 2008 version. The author suggests that the 2012 Obama, revealed after four years in office, is so different—as in disappointing—from the earlier version, that he may have trouble getting his supporters out to vote and voter turnout, the author insists, will be critical in this election.

I tend to agree. The turnout in the 2008 presidential election was the highest in 40 years, probably because of the enthusiasm for the young man from Chicago. The polls say the election this November will be close, so if very many of those enthusiasts don't bother to vote this time, Obama will be in trouble.

Obama's second big challenge is dealing with the billionaires. He has been a good boy for the corporations, extraordinarily so for the bankers, but Romney is their main man and they are inundating him with cash. His top super PACs are out-fund raising Obama's by four to one. So far, 32 billionaires have donated to a super PAC backing Romney. Sheldon Adelson, the richest man in Las Vegas, has spent $41-million to date and has pledged up to a hundred million. The infamous Koch brothers plan to raise $400-million. As one wit asked: Is this an election or an auction?

Obama is getting some big money as well. He has a few billionaire sponsors of his own, corporations like to hedge their bets, and organized labour will back him, but he'll never garner the kind of largesse that's flowing to Romney. He will have to squeeze every penny out of his supporters.

He has two mountains to climb—getting out the money, then getting out the vote. I wish him luck.

06 September 2012

News flash—U.S. corn growers oppose subsidy

American farm policy has been described as "a bi-partisan pork-barrel boondoggle." Critics claim that massive subsidies reward mainly corporate farms (through 1995 to 2010, the top 10 per cent of farmers collected 74 per cent of all subsidies) while undermining farmers in the Third World. For example, NAFTA allowed cheap, subsidized corn to pour into Mexico from the U.S., undercutting Mexican farmers and costing millions of farm workers their livelihoods.

Now, surprisingly, the National Corn Growers Association, one of the country's largest agricultural lobby groups, is calling for an end to direct farm subsidies. A spokesman for the group said this is not the time for the government to be spending $5-billion per year directly subsiding corn farmers regardless of prices or yields.

They are not calling for an end to all subsidies, just direct subsidies. They continue to support others, such as price supports and crop insurance. These will cost nearly $10-billion per year, roughly the same as direct subsidies.

Nonetheless, it is refreshing to see at least one group within the industry itself calling for an end to policies that have proven unwise both domestically and internationally. Whether or not politicians will agree and unwind one of their favourite means of funneling federal dollars to their states and districts is quite another matter. Mitt Romney, for instance, a great proponent of the free market, has referred to farm subsidies as a matter of "national security."

We might also ask if Europe, an even greater subsidizer than the U.S., will pay attention. After all, agricultural subsidies consume 40 per cent of the European Union's total annual expenditures (including $683,000 per year for Queen Elizabeth).

Ending agricultural subsidies in the West would probably do more to help the Third World's economies than foreign aid. The Western taxpayer would doubly benefit—by ending subsidies and reducing aid. And we could end the current hypocrisy of benefiting the West with free trade for our manufactured goods while disadvantaging the Third World by protecting our agriculture. The Corn Growers deserve praise for a small step in the right direction.