23 December 2013

Christmas? I do Xmas

One of the traditions of the holiday season is lamenting about the corruption of Christmas by commercialization or by foreign cultures that have invaded our pristine Christian shores. I have always been amused by these complaints, first because in my family's tradition, Christianity has never intruded on our celebration and second, Christmas has scrounged most of its traditions from a variety of quite unChristian cultures.

Before Christianity existed, festivals celebrating the winter solstice were common among European pagans. Merry-making helped pass the long, cold nights and the solstice, the resurrection of the sun, promised brighter days and warmer weather to come. Many of our customs came from festivals such as the Roman's Saturnalia—lights, greenery, feasting and drinking, singing, gift-giving, yule logs, and others. Christmas, you might say, is much older than Christianity.

More customs will no doubt be added from diverse sources as Christmas is increasingly celebrated globally, including in countries not of the Christian faith. The holiday has a strong secular past and a strong secular future—a festival for everyone. Thus has my family always enjoyed it and its traditions, whether derived from pagans or Christians, a secular holiday better identified as Xmas than Christmas.

Regardless of how or what you celebrate, I wish you a Merry Whatever and the best of prospects in the New Year.

22 December 2013

Rebuilding the American middle class

When you consider that the United States is the richest country in the world, the state of its working class is shocking.

The country now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world. Fifty-two percent of fast-food workers’ families receive public assistance in an industry that last year earned $7.44 billion in profits. McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in welfare every year. One Wisconsin Wal-Mart costs American taxpayers at least $1-million a year in public assistance to workers’ families even though six members of the Walton clan, owners of Wal-Mart, are as wealthy as 48 million Americans combined. Another Wal-Mart organized a charitable food drive for its low-paid employees, and McDonald's suggested employees sell possessions on eBay to raise money for Xmas.

One in three bank tellers receives public assistance, despite working in one of the country's most profitable and privileged industries. Sixty percent of able-bodied, adult, food-stamp recipients are employed. Since 2000, the American middle class has shrunk in size, suffering reduced income and wealth. Income inequality is the largest since before the Great Depression.

This wasn't always the case, of course. At one time, most American workers were consumers who could afford everything they needed and a lot of stuff they didn't. They were the envy of the Western World. This elevated status didn't come about by accident. At the turn of the twentieth century, they were working for little more than subsistence wages, rather like so many are today. What happened was organized labour. Collective bargaining and union wages transformed low-wage workers into a middle class.

Corporate power and globalization are now transforming that middle class back into a subsistence workforce. Organized labour, like the welfare state, is confined to national borders, but corporations now operate globally. And American corporations are doing just that, shipping millions of high-paying, blue-collar, union jobs off to China, safe from the democratizing influence of organized labour. Those jobs have been largely replaced by retail jobs—including the infamous "McJobs" of the fast food industry.

At one time, these jobs were held largely by students earning pocket money or a little something extra to help with their education. But now, many people are faced with relying on these jobs full-time for life (the average age of low-income workers is 35). Part-time jobs have become careers. Unorganized, they are isolated and entirely at the mercy of their employers, and that means what it always has—they will struggle to get by while their employers enjoy incomes that can only be described as opulent.

American workers, however, are no longer accepting this one-sided arrangement quietly. They are fighting back. This year, fast-food workers in dozens of cities across the U.S. engaged in demonstrations, work-stoppages and strikes demanding a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour, paid sick leave and the right to unionize.

A dramatic increase in the minimum wage would be a huge help for low-income workers, but the only long-term guarantee of fair treatment in their workplaces is a union. Rebuilding the American middle class means rebuilding the American labour movement. Just as organizing blue collar workers a century ago made the American middle class, organizing service workers today is the means of rebuilding the American middle class.

And this is something Canadians need to watch closely. Our unions, too, have been under assault and low-wage work is becoming more of a standard here as well. If we want to maintain our middle class, we had best defend our unions.

Producing the wrong oil?

The Joint Review Panel has ruled on the viability of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and the result is as expected. The panel, established by the National Energy Board and the federal environment minister, has determined that the pipeline, which would carry bitumen from Alberta's tar sands to the B.C. coast for tanker export, would be in Canada's best interests and has recommended it subject to conditions. The federal government will now almost certainly approve the project. It cannot change the 209 conditions required by the panel arbitrarily; however, it can ask the National Energy Board to change them.

What the panel did not do is deal with the real issue, and that of course is the folly of producing from the tar sands in the first place. It excluded from its deliberations the environmental affects of tar sands development on the surprising basis that there wasn't a "sufficiently direct connection" between the project and tar sands expansion. The Pembina Institute demurred, pointing out that the greenhouse gas pollution generated by filling the pipeline would be equivalent to adding over three million cars a year to Canada’s roads.

Furthermore, the International Energy Agency has warned that no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to keep the global increase in temperature below 2 °C, the amount above which apocalyptic climate outcomes will occur. If two-thirds of our fossil fuel reserves are to be left in the ground, then sensibly we should produce the cleanest oil first and the dirtiest, specifically tar sands oil, last, if we ever produce it at all. With all due respect to the review panel, producing bitumen oil first is not in the best interests of Canadians or anybody else.

Nonetheless, the Alberta and Canadian governments clearly want to produce it as quickly as possible while it's still worth something. We must hope that purchasers, particularly the U.S., will take the big picture view of our interests and reject any more bitumen pipeline capacity headed in their direction. In the meantime, environmentalists and Native groups still have a lot more to say about the Northern Gateway.

20 December 2013

Canadians becoming downright peaceable

Stats Can has released Canada's crime statistics for 2012 and the country continues to look increasingly like the peaceable kingdom. Crime overall continued the decline it began in 1992, with the overall rate dropping three per cent from 2011. The murder rate dropped nine per cent, reaching its lowest level since 1962.

The crime rate began a long climb in the 1960s as the baby boomers started reaching maturity and a flood of young people appeared in the population, crime being largely a young man's game. The rate peaked in 1991 and has declined ever since as the population ages.

My city, Calgary, I was pleased to see, had both a Crime Severity Index and a Violent Crime Severity Index well below the national averages.

Canada as a whole doesn't do as well as some of the remarkably law-abiding Asian nations. Our murder rate of 1.6 per 100,000 population per year is four times that of Japan's, five times Singapore's and eight times Hong Kong's. It is also higher but in the same ballpark as Western European nations. We fare much better than our gun-happy North American neighbour which has a murder rate three times ours, and we are certainly not in the terrifying world of the most murderous country in the world, Honduras, which has a murder rate almost 60 times higher than ours.

We are a relatively safe country and we are becoming safer every day. The stats clearly tell us that crime is, or ought to be, of diminishing concern.

16 December 2013

Germany's Grand Coalition—a lesson for Canada?

Germany now has a government that represents a solid majority of the German people. With three-quarters of Social Democrat party members voting to join a coalition with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, the chancellor and her cabinet will now be sworn in.

In September's national election, the Christian Democrats got 41.5 per cent of the vote and the Social Democrats 25.7 per cent. The Grosse Koalition will therefore represent over two-thirds of the electorate. Polls have indicated that the German people expected and wanted the coalition. And why wouldn't any democracy-loving people want, indeed demand, a government that represents most of them?

The answer, it appears, is Canadians. Perversely, we blithely accept governments that most of us don't vote for. Our current federal government, for example, didn't even get the support of 40 per cent of us.

In 2008, when a coalition government was in the works, we almost seemed to panic. The proposed
coalition between the Liberals and the NDP was supported by both the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party. In other words, it was supported by all our elected representatives except the Conservatives. Nonetheless, the very idea of a coalition sent many Canadians into a tizzy and Parliament was subsequently prorogued by the Governor-General.

Coalitions not only ensure that most citizens are represented in their government, they bring a much broader range of ideas to bear on issues, something we clearly need in this country. If we have a 2008 situation after our next election, and it's looking entirely possible at the moment, we might take a more rational approach to a coalition. The Germans can show us how it's done.

In the meantime, they will enjoy something we don't—a government for all, or at least most, of their people. It must be nice.

15 December 2013

Alberta creates a Minister of Renewable Energy

Occasionally a spark of hope interrupts the dreary flow of environmental news. Such a spark occurred in Alberta last week with the announcement by Premier Redford that Donna Kennedy-Glans would be the new Associate Minister of Electricity and Renewable Energy. The ministry will be the first of its kind in Canada.

Considering that Alberta's heavy reliance on coal results in it being responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gas emissions from all of Canada’s electricity systems, the portfolio assumes a special importance. It suggests a recognition by the government of the abundant renewable energy opportunities in our province.

And the Premier has made a good choice for the new ministry. Ms. Kennedy-Glans chairs the all-party Standing Committee on Resource Stewardship and sits on the government´s Ministerial Working Group on Natural Resources and Environment. She is relatively progressive and has shown a strong interest in environmental responsibility. I wish her well in her new and profoundly important job.

12 December 2013

The man from Goldman Sachs comes to Canada

U.S. President Obama has nominated another one of his major fundraisers as ambassador to Canada. Like David Jacobson, the current ambassador, nominee Bruce Heyman was a “mega-bundler” for Obama’s presidential campaigns, helping to raise millions of dollars. Unlike Jacobson, a lawyer, Heyman is Wall Street all the way, having toiled at Goldman Sachs for the last 33 years, ultimately becoming a partner.

Goldman Sachs has had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Obama. In 2008, they were his major corporate donor, but in 2012 they switched to Romney. Not only was Romney a fellow Wall Streeter, Obama it seemed had not been sufficiently deferential. Nonetheless, Heyman remained loyal, serving with his wife, also a major fundraiser, on Obama’s National Finance Committee in 2012.

That these guys raised mega bucks for the president is a good thing for Canada. Little gets you closer to a politician than big money, and an ambassador close to the president is a valuable asset for us. Heyman has yet to be confirmed by the Senate (the elected American version), but so far that looks like a walk in the park.

So welcome to Canada, Ambassador Heyman. We'll try not to hold your association with Goldman Sachs against you.

11 December 2013

Dagenais illustrates why women avoid politics

"If you can't stand the heat, etc." ... the usual justification when one politician objects to the boorish behaviour of another. And no doubt MP Charmaine Borg heard a lot of that when she objected to the recent attack on her by Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais.

The heat you are expected to stand ought to refer to passionate debate based on knowledge and reason. The letter Dagenais wrote to Ms. Borg and circulated widely ignored both. He claimed to be defending the Senate, but his letter contains not a single sentence justifying the institution. Instead he resorts to a personal attack on Ms. Borg, littered with remarks as juvenile as they are gratuitous.

In what other job are people expected to put up with this kind of trash? Any sensible person would be deterred from entering a profession that accepted it, yet in the macho world of politics it seems more than accepted, it seems almost required. Women, lacking in macho belligerence, are less inclined to subject themselves to it, and as a result are seriously underrepresented in legislatures and cabinets, to the loss of all of us.

We may pity Senator Dagenais in this instance. After all, Ms. Borg was elected with almost half the vote in her constituency while he, running in another Quebec riding, received a paltry 16 per cent, losing badly to one of Ms. Borg's fellow NDPers. Seeing a mere 23-year old elected to Parliament while he could succeed only by appointment—the free ride—must have been hard to take.

But sour grapes doesn't excuse his egregious behaviour. If his fellow Parliamentarians don't censure him, as would happen in any honourable profession, they will continue to suffer the disdain they have deserved. It's hard to respect a profession that doesn't respect itself.

10 December 2013

Americans opt to mind their own business

For the first time since it began measuring the statistic 50 years ago, the Pew Research Centre reports that a majority of Americans believe the U.S. should mind its own business internationally. The primary reason suggested for this new-found humility is "war fatigue." They would also like more focus on their struggling economy.

This is not to say Americans want their country to disengage from the world. Quite the contrary. A solid majority would like to see the U.S. play a shared leadership role, and almost 80 per cent support increasing trade and business ties with other countries.

Americans' top foreign policy concern is terrorist attacks, the only one of 10 leading foreign policy issues on which President Obama gets a favourable rating. Not surprisingly, half believe drone attacks make their country safer with only a quarter saying they have made no difference. By contrast, less than a third believe the Afghan war has made them safer.

Despite their concern about terrorism, a small plurality believe the government has gone too far with its anti-terrorism policies. On the other hand, and rather disturbingly, almost as many believe it hasn't gone far enough.

While most recognize that the U.S. remains the world's major military power, almost a majority believe—mistakenly—that China has become the world’s leading economic power. Forty-three per cent see China as a serious problem, but fortunately only 23 per cent see it as an adversary.

Overall, the survey results are encouraging. Americans are not becoming isolationist, but they do seem to be taking a more modest view of their nation's role in the world. We may even see the U.S. holster its guns and take a respite from war—except of course for the drones.

05 December 2013

Should women run the world?

Scientists at at the University of Pennsylvania have once again confirmed what we have always known intuitively. Men's and women's brains are wired differently.

Maps of neural circuitry from one of the largest studies of brain wiring showed that connections in women's brains tended to be stronger across the left and right hemispheres, whereas in men's brains they were stronger across the front and back. Researchers said this indicated that, on average, men's brains were wired more for perception and co-ordinated actions, and women's for social skills and memory.

If women do indeed have superior social skills, shouldn't they be in charge? After all, in a world threatened by nuclear weapons, growing disparity between rich and poor, and environmental collapse, threats all created by male leadership, we have more need of social skills than ever before.

We all know why men run everything, and it has nothing to do with brains. It's because men are more competitive, more aggressive, more violent—the very characteristics that created the problems threatening to bring global civilization to its knees.

But before we hand over all power over our institutions to women, we might remind ourselves that the results of the study showed averages, not absolutes—the characteristics are not exclusive. They range across gender, some men being quite feminine, some women quite masculine. Margaret Thatcher, for example, was once described as the only man in her cabinet, an apt description for a leader so lacking in social skills. Many men, on the other hand, have excellent social skills and we need what they have to offer. We need the best of both genders. Ruben Gur, a co-author on the study, remarked, "It's quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are."

The lesson here is not that we should give up on men, although it's tempting, but rather that we have underused both women and feminine skills. If we don't start giving both more of a lead role, global society may face a dismal future.

04 December 2013

Pembina praises Ontario's new energy plan

The Pembina Institute, one of the country's leading environmental advocacy organizations, has good things to say about Ontario's new long-term energy plan.

In a press release this week, the Institute praised the province for wisely investing in conservation. According to Tim Weis, Pembina's director of renewable energy and efficiency policy, “Energy efficiency is the centrepiece of Ontario’s new long-term energy plan, which is good news for ratepayers and the environment. Efficiency is the cleanest and most cost-effective way to meet future demand."

Weis also complemented Ontario for taking a cautious approach to nuclear power, saying, “The government has also prudently decided not to build expensive new nuclear reactors in Ontario, and has placed cautious guiding principles around rebuilding existing reactors."

On the subject of renewables, Weiss referred to a recent report issued by the Pembina Institute and Greenpeace, Renewable is Doable, which showed that "a portfolio of low-emission options can affordably meet Ontario’s energy needs.”

Living in a province and a country which are failing badly their responsibility on climate change, I find it encouraging to read about Ontario's enlightened approach.

03 December 2013

Omar sues

Justice has to date miserably failed Omar Khadr. It simply has not been a match for the vindictiveness of Washington and the callousness of Ottawa. Consequently his life continues to waste away in a federal maximum security prison.

But justice may yet have its day. Tagging along behind the relentless persecution of Omar is his $20-million civil lawsuit against Canada. The suit claims this country has deprived him of his rights by failing to recognize he was a child soldier at the time of his capture. It alleges further that far from being a passive bystander, Canada collaborated with the Americans in his incarceration in violation of Canadian constitutional and international law protecting the rights of juveniles.

Omar stands a good chance of winning his case. Canada is, after all (like the U.S.), a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects the civil and human rights of those under 18. And the Supreme Court has twice chastised Ottawa for its treatment of Omar, ruling that in their interrogations, Canadian agents violated "the principles of fundamental justice” and offended “the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.”

Our government has already spent millions challenging every attempt to free Omar from his nightmare, and now we could suffer an additional bill of $20-million. If Omar wins, and I sincerely hope he does, I will pay my share happily even as I curse Ottawa for sticking us with the bill for their vendetta against this boy. Omar will at least have finally received a portion of the justice he has always deserved.

02 December 2013

Canada-Australia climate axis—greatest threat to global security?

Prime Minister Harper once announced that the greatest threat to global security was terrorism. That was nonsense of course—every year, malaria kills approximately 660,000 people, mostly children, and AIDS 1,700,000 people. Terrorism is a trivial threat compared to the big killers.

And the biggest of all, if we don't act preemptively with sufficient vigour, will almost certainly be climate change. And here PM Harper, if he wants to see threats to global security, might look in the mirror. It appears that his government has formed a new axis—an axis of evil to borrow a phrase—aimed at undermining efforts to deal with climate change.

His partner is Tony Abbott's new government of Australia. Abbott has abolished a leading environmental agency, slashed funding for renewable energy, and introduced legislation to scrap the country's carbon tax. All this will sound familiar to Canadians, and all this has been applauded by our government which is encouraging other nations to follow Australia's example.

The axis countries have quite appropriately been referred to as climate pariahs and Abbott as a climate criminal by Australia's Green Party. The Climate Action Network, an umbrella group of environmental NGOs, deemed Australia this year's Colossal Fossil while offering Canada a Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award for its long-standing efforts to obstruct the achievement of an effective global climate treaty. Canada had previously been awarded the “Fossil of the Year” award five straight times.

How big a threat to global security the axis will be depends on how seriously it is taken. Perhaps it will simply be ignored, in which case it will be no threat at all. It's the job of responsible Canadians and Australians to see that it is.

01 December 2013

U.S. feeds Japanese militarism

China, with its paltry aid to the Philippines and its announcement of a new air-defense zone over the East China sea, has not been making friends in its region these days. But the country to worry about in the Far East is not China. It is Japan.

Countries such as China and South Korea that have suffered the horrors of Japanese imperialism must feel chills up their spines as they take note of Japan's newfound militarism. Since its defeat in WWII and its experience of being the only victim of nuclear war, Japan has adopted a pacifist posture. But perhaps not any longer. Under hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's policy of "new nationalism," Japan is ramping up its defence budget and expanding its navy (already the second largest in Asia).

This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but this is only part of it. Abe, something of an historical revisionist, wants more patriotic propaganda taught in Japan's schools and is proposing a tough state secrets law that threatens lengthy jail sentences for whistleblowers and journalists who break its catch-all provisions. In other words, it isn't just bulking up Japan's military he is seeking but rather outright militarism.

To many Asians, Abe's recent pronouncement "I will make Japan a force for peace and stability" may sound disturbingly like Japan's "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" of the 1930s and 40s.

While Asians shudder, the U.S., to quote The Guardian, is "positively purring with pleasure." Abe's government has agreed to work with the Americans to enhance co-operation in ballistic missile defence, arms development and sales, intelligence sharing, space and cyber warfare, joint military training and exercises, and advanced radar and drones.

The U.S., it seems, is playing off Japan against China, anything to limit the influence of its latest rival in the great power race. It might just be backing the wrong dragon.

If you're a democrat, instruct your MP to support Chong's Bill

An opportunity to strike a blow for parliamentary democracy has suddenly arisen and all democrats should take advantage of it. On Thursday, Michael Chong, MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, will introduce a Bill in the House that would dramatically devolve power from party leaders to MPs and constituency associations.

The Bill, entitled An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms) or simply the Reform Act, 2013, would
  • give party riding associations the ultimate say in electoral nominations, removing the need for the leader's signature. There would be no leader’s veto.
  • entrench the right of the Commons' caucuses to demand a leadership vote, with the support of 15 per cent of the caucus. A simple majority would be sufficient to remove the leader.
  • give Commons' caucuses the right to elect their own chairs and to call for a review of an MP, as well as eject or readmit one.
This isn't about Stephen Harper or any other party leader—the Bill would not take effect until after the next election. Currently, all MPs must defer to their party leader as he can arbitrarily eject them from the party if they displease him or refuse to sign their nomination papers and thus end their political careers. The leader is not similarly obligated to caucus. This offends the proper democratic relationship of leaders deferring to those they lead. Michael Chong's Bill would right this upended relationship.

In our democracy, we elect Members of Parliament to represent us. We don't elect Prime Ministers (at least I've never seen one on my ballot). Parliament is intended to function through the MPs, not through the PM, not even through the ruling caucus, but through all the MPs of all the parties/caucuses.

We have lost sight of this, increasingly allowing ourselves to be ruled by a presidential system where the prime minister is supreme. Presidential systems legitimize such power by having the president elected by all the people. Our prime ministers have no such legitimacy, yet under the present government we have become dangerously close to rule by PMO rather than rule by Parliament. Michael Chong's Bill would be a significant step in curbing the growing excess of prime ministerial power.

So, arise democrats, instruct your MPs to do the right thing and help restore the integrity of our parliamentary democracy.