28 April 2014

April 28—National Day of Mourning

In 1984, the Canadian Labour Congress declared April 28th a National Day of Mourning for workers who have been killed, or suffer disease or injury as a result of work. It is now recognized in over a 100 countries around the world.

Every year, unions, labour councils, families and community partners gather to "mourn for the dead." It is intended to not only remember those who have given their lives in the workplace, but to remember also the suffering caused by hazardous working conditions, and to commit to action that restores and promotes dignity and health in our workplaces and communities.

In 2012, 979 Canadians died from job-related injuries or disease. This is the official figure—many more die from under-reported illnesses and occupational diseases that go unrecognized in the compensation systems. All served their country and all deserve a moment of remembrance.

27 April 2014

Are we gambling our economy on the tar sands?

Depending heavily for jobs, profits and taxes on our most rapidly increasing source of greenhouse gas emissions is environmental folly. It may mean more economic prosperity in the short term, but by contributing to global warming, it will undermine economic prosperity, and a lot else, in the long term. It is a dangerous dependence. And pollution may not be the only danger this dependence presents.

At least two other threats to our economy emanate from our tar sands dependence, one ethical, one financial. The ethical threat is the growing hostility to our insistence on producing the world's dirtiest oil. We are all aware of the U.S. environmental movement's opposition to the Keystone pipeline. We are aware also of the international community's increasing impatience with our reckless attitude toward climate change. And more voices join the condemnation all the time, some with considerable moral clout. For example, in recent months both former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and anti-apartheid icon Desmond Tutu have spoken out strongly against the tar sands. This growing chorus will increasingly dissuade governments from buying tar sands products and investors from buying shares in tar sands producers.

Even more challenging is the "carbon bubble" threat. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if we are to avoid dangerous levels of warming, investment in fossil fuels must start falling by tens of billions a year. Only a third of the reserves on the books of fossil fuel companies can be burned if the world is to restrict climate change to 2C; the other two-thirds will be lost as assets. Yet companies continue to invest heavily in finding more reserves.

These twin threats are making their presence felt. According to Oxford University research, a divestment campaign against fossil fuel investments is growing faster than campaigns that targeted apartheid, tobacco and arms manufacturers. As to the carbon bubble, a number of major financial players, including Citi bank, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Standard and Poor's, and Moody's, are warning investors of the risk.

Increasingly it looks like we have too many eggs in one basket, and unfortunately our government is myopically focused on that basket.

25 April 2014

Don't give up on the Senate, Mr. Harper

It wouldn't be surprising if Prime Minister Harper was in a bit of a funk over the Supreme Court's decision on the Senate this week. The Court unanimously rejected his government’s attempt to transform the Senate into an elected body and to set term limits, saying that such basic changes require the consent of at least seven provinces and half of Canadians. For Mr. Harper, this was fifth straight defeat at the hands of the Court in the past month, all on substantial issues.

“We’re essentially stuck with the status quo for the time being," said the PM, "It’s a decision that I’m disappointed with [and] that a vast majority of Canadians will be very disappointed with.” I don't really know if a vast majority of Canadians are very disappointed, but we are not stuck with the status quo.

Meaningful changes can be made without resorting to constitutional amendments. For example, I recently blogged about setting the Senate up as a citizens' assembly. Political scientist Peter Russell, an authority on the Senate and the Supreme Court, suggests that the government and the opposition parties collaborate on a non-partisan method of selecting senators. These approaches would remove the Senate's most offensive attribute—its use as a repository for faithful servants of the party in power. This alone would greatly enhance its legitimacy and usefulness.

Even the constitutional route should not be abandoned. Democracy is simply too important to leave this expensive and corrupted institution in its present state. If the government established a committee of provincial representatives mandated for one task and one task only—a referendum question on Senate reform—with a strong chairman to keep it strictly on track, it just might be able to come up with an appropriate question to present to the people. It is worth at least a try.

So cheer up, Mr. Harper, and look on the bright side: you have another reason to blame the judiciary for the country's problems. Enjoy that at least while getting on with the job of dealing with one of the major weaknesses in our political system.

The Great Game—did Putin outplay the West in Crimea?

In the 19th century, the British and Russian empires' strategic rivalry for supremacy in Central Asia was referred to as the Great Game. The game has never really ended as Russia has continued to vie with Western powers for influence and control in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. And in recent days, the Russians may have just outplayed the West in Ukraine.

Influence in Ukraine has see-sawed since the Cold War ended with its leaders varying between those leaning toward the West and those leaning toward Russia. Both sides have invested heavily in swinging the country one way or the other. In 2010 the Russian favourite, Viktor Yanukovych, won the presidential election. Score one for Russia. But when he chose to establish closer ties with Russia rather than proceed with an agreement with the European Union, protesters flooded into the streets and ultimately drove him from office. Score one for the West. Then apparently Mr. Putin decided the game was over, flexed his muscles, and grabbed the prize.

Assuming, that is, that Crimea is the prize. The peninsula, like the rest of the country, is poor but it has the saving grace of promising gas reserves, onshore and under the Black Sea. Before now-former president Yanukovych skedaddled for Russia, Ukraine was about to sign a deal with a group of oil companies including Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell to drill off Crimea’s southwest coast.

Thus was an opportunity lost for Ukraine to achieve greater independence from Russian gas, something it dearly wants, and for the EU which shares that sentiment. For the United States, it meant a loss of various kinds, quite aside from being outplayed by Putin. The Americans would naturally like to see Europe less dependent on Russia, and no doubt it would not appreciate its oil companies being cut out of the Crimean spoils. And, not to be overlooked, Crimea is a door to the vast gas resources of Central Asia (shades of the Great Game), and the Americans must be furious to see that door close. So while Russia locks up Crimean gas, the West gets to bail out the rest of Ukraine, a corruption-riddled, bankrupt nation that will cost them billions.

Russia is highly unlikely to give up their prize and the Western powers might just as well get used to it. The only sensible approach now is to do their best to create a stable, respectful relationship between the two sides in Ukraine and between Ukraine and Russia.

And what can Canada do to help? Not much. The players that count—Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU, particularly Germany—will ignore us. At one time we had a reputation as a skilled negotiator and an honest broker, traits that would have made us useful, but that's all in the past. Now our Prime Minister chooses instead to rattle his little sabre.

We could, of course, offer Ukraine advice from our own experience and point out that when you nestle beside a major power, sometimes to get by you just have to kiss up. Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, should prepare to pucker.

24 April 2014

UK PM claims Britain is a Christian country—it ain't

British Prime Minister David Cameron has put the cat among the pigeons claiming, perhaps unduly influenced by the Easter season, that Britain is a Christian country. In fact, he suggested Brits should be downright evangelical about it.

He is, however, dead wrong. A 2012 British Society Attitudes Survey indicated that the country is barely religious, never mind Christian. According to the survey, only 37 per cent of Britons consider themselves Christian while 48 per cent have no religion at all.

What Cameron is trying to achieve with his proselytizing is hard to fathom, but playing the religious card is an American gimmick that probably won't play well in the secular world of British political life. In any case, it seems Richard Dawkins is now more representative of British religious views than the Archbishop of Canterbury.

14 April 2014

Common sense in Kitimat

Good news over the weekend. The citizens of Kitimat B.C. had their say on the Northern Gateway pipeline, and they said NO.

In a referendum on Saturday, they voted 1,793 to 1,278 to oppose running the pipeline to their town, the proposed terminus. Mayor Joanne Monaghan promised to discuss the result at tonight's Council meeting and deciding where to go from there. "The people have spoken," she said, "it’s a democratic process.” Kitimat is key to the pipeline as it would house the marine terminal where supertankers would load before sailing down the narrow Douglas Channel to take the dilbit (diluted bitumen) to markets in Asia.

Opponents had to overcome a major effort by Enbridge, the company sponsoring the pipeline, to promote the project with a barrage of advertising and open houses. Its promises of jobs and money flowing into the town were no doubt hard to resist for many. Residents of the local Haisla First Nation have also shown a lot of resistance to the pipeline, however they were ineligible to vote in the referendum.

I suspect the primary concern of Kitimat's people was the chilling thought of supertankers full of dilbit floating off their pristine shores. But the vote also serves as another strike against tar sands production. Anything that helps to put the brakes on Canada's great folly is welcome.

The referendum result is not binding, but it is mighty encouraging.

10 April 2014

The United States—democracy or oligarchy?

Last year, Iran held an election to choose its president. Many in the West mocked the election because the candidates were vetted by the Guardian Council (a group appointed largely by the Supreme Leader). This, however, is not so different from American presidential elections. In the U.S., candidates have to get approval from the corporate sector simply because if they don't get those big corporate bucks they'll never be able to afford a successful campaign. This is an informal vetting compared to the Iranian formal one, but a vetting nonetheless.

We have long referred to the United States as the world's leading democracy. It is certainly still a leader, but given the increasing influence of money in American society generally and in politics specifically, the "democracy" part now has to be reconsidered.

Democracy is political equality, and the U.S. is a very long way from political equality. It starts with the vast inequality of wealth in the country and ends with the ability of the disproportionate rich to corrupt politics with abundant largesse.

The magnitude of the inequality is vast and growing. The richest one per cent of Americans own 38 per cent of the country's financial wealth, the bottom 60 per cent own 2.3 percent. One family—the Waltons, owners of Walmart—are worth $148-billion, more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined. From 2009 through 2012, 95 per cent of all new income earned went to the top one per cent. One family, the very politically-active Koch brothers, saw a $12-billion increase in their wealth.

This might not be so bad for democracy if the wealth was kept out of politics, but it isn't. Any hope of that has been systematically extinguished by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2010, in the Citizens United case, the Court ruled that the constitution forbade governments from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations and other associations. Acting independently of candidates and parties, big donors can spend unlimited amounts on attack ads and other campaign efforts.

Recently the Court loosened the reins even further. In another ruling, it decreed that big campaign donors can dole out money to as many candidates and political committees as they want as long as they abide by limits on contributions to each individual campaign. In striking down reasonable campaign limits, the Court seems incapable of distinguishing money from speech, or corporations from citizens.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sums up the Court's behaviour with the observation, "The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process,” a sentiment hard to argue with.

Corporate control is not, of course, limited to funding politicians. The defense industry, for example, has cleverly established manufacturing plants around the country such that hardly a single congressman can propose reducing the military budget without proposing the loss of jobs in his own constituency or state. Furthermore, gun manufacturers have a proxy in the National Rifle Association. By heavily funding what has been referred to as a "virtual subsidiary of the gun industry," they allow it to savagely attack any politician who dares to propose gun control laws or indeed any measure that might interfere with the profits of gun dealers and weapons makers.

Republicans are, not surprisingly, delighted with the Supreme Court and find no problem with corporations using their economic muscle to set the political agenda. I remember my first conversation with an American conservative about democracy and she pointedly informed me that the United States was not a democracy, it was a republic. If she wasn't right about the former when she told me this those many years ago, she is certainly right now.

08 April 2014

$36-million for a cup? Some people are just too rich

It's called the chicken cup because it's got chickens painted on it. The world's highest priced birds, in fact. The cup fetched $36.1-million, including commission, at Sotheby's spring auction in Hong Kong. Described as the "the holy grail when it comes to Chinese art," the cup set a record for Chinese porcelain.

It was bought by self-made multimillionaire Liu Yiqian for his museum in Shanghai. Liu isn't all that rich, worth a mere $900-million, not even a billionaire, and only the 200th richest man in China, yet apparently rich enough to pay $36-million for a cup. He was bemused by the fuss over the purchase. "Why do you all care so much about the price?" he asked, "I bought it only because I like it."

While not wanting to begrudge Liu his riches (he made his money in the stock market), there is something vaguely obscene about paying millions for a cup, even a Ming Dynasty cup, when many on the planet would be grateful for the rice to fill it.

Quebec—another majority that isn't

A lot of euphoria last night from Liberal supporters and those many Canadians (including not a few Quebecers) who don't want to hear about separation for another generation at least. Not only did the Liberals win, they won big, majority big.

Or at least the majority that counts which, unfortunately, is not a majority of Quebecers. A solid majority (58 per cent) did not vote Liberal. Premier-elect Couillard and his party won 56 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly with only 42 per cent of the popular vote, an electoral victory but not a democratic one.

I have long complained about being ruled federally by a party that most of us didn't want. Now Quebecers will be ruled by a party that didn't do much better than Mr. Harper's Conservatives.

Perhaps it won't be as bad in Quebec. After all, the Liberals have won, and if they are truly liberals, they will listen to a broad range of views. Our federal government, on the other hand, is not only the most ideological we've ever had, it's led by a man who is the least open to other views of any Prime Minister I can remember. Fortunately for Quebecers, Mr. Couillard appears to be a great deal more inclusive.

Nonetheless, it would be nice to see governments in this country required to represent at least a majority of their citizens. But that, it seems, just isn't the Canadian way.

06 April 2014

Canada strikes out as a progressive nation

There was a time—long, long ago—when Canada had a reputation in the world as a progressive nation. Well ... not so long ago actually. Only eight years in fact. It just seems like a long time. Now, in at least three areas we have joined the ranks of the reactionaries, we have three strikes against us, and we must therefore, as in baseball, be counted out.

Strike one, the environment: The Guardian newspaper has referred to Canada as "the dirty old man of the climate world" and a "corrupt petro-state." And sadly, it is appropriate. We seem to increasingly exist for the primary purpose of exporting bitumen. Anyone or anything that gets in the way is trashed, particularly scientists and environmentalists. We opted out of Kyoto and are failing to meet the modest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions we agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord. We richly deserved the Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award we were dishonoured with at the UN climate talks in Warsaw last year. After all, we had won the Colossal Fossil Award—awarded to the country doing the most damage to climate talks in a given year—five years in a row.

Strike two, drug policy: At the UN Commission for Narcotic Drugs' international drug control negotiations last March in Vienna, we helped block the inclusion of harm reduction in future international drug policies despite the desperate need for it in countries with high levels of injection drug use and HIV. "Historically, Canada had been leader in this area," said Don MacPherson, adjunct professor in Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, "A substantial amount of the scientific research validating harm reduction measures was done right here in Vancouver, and we've implemented quite robust harm reduction policies at the provincial level across Canada." (The federal government attempted to halt those provincial efforts but was denied by the courts.)

Strike three, illegal arms sales: Canada has refused to sign the UN Arms Trade Treaty, an agreement aimed at curbing the illegal global trade in conventional weapons. Five of the world's top ten arms exporters—Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain—have all ratified the treaty. Our government seems to be balking because of lobbying from gun groups even though the treaty doesn't interfere with domestic arms sales or laws. Canada has also been criticized internationally for proposing a loophole in the Convention on Cluster Munitions that would allow our soldiers to use cluster munitions when in joint operations with U.S. forces. "Canada has always been such an upstanding global citizen," said Angela Kane, UN High Representative for Disarmament, "And I would like to see this kind of greater spirit ... prevailing also in this case." Good luck, Ms. Kane.

So there you have it. In these three areas at least we are now perceived internationally as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Canada a progressive nation? No more. I can't help but wonder how many Canadian youths backpacking around the world now put the Stars and Stripes on their knapsacks.

04 April 2014

Support the tax gap motion

That governments are robbed of billions of dollars by the rich and by corporations exploiting tax havens is a well-known national and international scandal. It is now standard practice for corporations to exploit a variety of often opaque schemes to shift profits into low or no-tax jurisdictions.

The corporate tax rate in Canada, including federal and provincial taxes, averages 25 per cent. This is generous compared to the average American rate of 35 per cent, but in any case most corporations don't pay it. Of the TXS 60 (top 60 corporations on the Toronto stock exchange), through the period 2007-11 over half paid less than 10 per cent, thirteen paid less than five per cent and only four paid the full 25 per cent.

The Canadian Revenue Agency is currently in a legal battle with the uranium mining firm Cameco. Cameco set up a subsidiary in Switzerland, sold its uranium to the subsidiary for $10 a pound, and the subsidiary then sold it on the world market for prices as high as $100 a pound. (The price is currently $30.) All the uranium is mined in Canada, but by basing its revenues on the $10 figure the company avoided at least $850-million in Canadian taxes.

A quarter of Canadian direct foreign investment now goes to tax haven countries. This gambit is, of course, highly unfair to small and medium-sized Canadian firms who are unable to exploit tax havens but have to compete with international corporations that can and do.

The Canada Revenue Agency's pursuit of this issue has been hindered by the government's enthusiasm for staff cuts. The agency has suffered a loss of over 3,000 staff, the most of any department.

Our government, as a result, has no idea how many tax dollars it is missing. The Parliamentary Budget Officer would like to know (as would I), however the Canada Revenue Agency hasn't been much help, refusing to provide key information even though it isn't confidential.

In response to this, NDP MP Pierre Dionne Labelle has introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling on the government to:
a) study and measure Canadian tax losses to international tax havens and tax evasion, in order to determine the Canadian federal “tax gap”;

b) order the Canada Revenue Agency to provide the Parliamentary Budget Officer with the information necessary to provide an independent estimate of the Canadian federal tax gap arising from tax evasion and tax avoidance through the use of tax havens;
This motion will be debated in the House on April 9th. If you, too, would like to know how much tax money we have to ante up because of corporate tax avoidance, you might ask your MP to support the motion. Or you can simply go here and have Canadians for Tax Fairness send a message for you.

03 April 2014

The "mother of all accountants" flays election bill

Sheila Fraser was once one of Stephen Harper's favourite people. When she, in her capacity of auditor-general, exposed the Chretien government's sponsorship scandal, sewing the seeds that would bring down the Liberals, Mr. Harper praised her handsomely as the "mother of all accountants" and in a neat turn of phrase remarked she "did not say that she thought that something smelled fishy. She identified the fish."

Well Ms. Fraser has now identified a new fish and it's Bill C-23, the inappropriately-named Fair Elections Act. According to The Canadian Press, she claims that the proposed legislation would, among other things, "disenfranchise thousands of voters, undercut the independence of the chief electoral watchdog, impede investigations into wrongdoing, give a financial advantage to rich, established parties and undermine Canadians' faith in the electoral system."

I have heard many criticisms of the Bill, but I take none more seriously than Ms. Fraser's. She is perhaps the best auditor-general we ever had and currently co-chairs an advisory board to Elections Canada. The latter adds considerably to my trust in our electoral system.

I don't agree with Stephen Harper on many things, but I agree with him unreservedly that Sheila Fraser is a lady of competence and courage. He has shown no inclination to bow to the widespread criticism of his government's Bill, but perhaps he will heed the esteemed public servant he once acclaimed as the mother of all accountants.

More to Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations than meets the neoliberal eye

When we think of Adam Smith, the great Scottish philosopher and economist, and his seminal book The Wealth of Nations, we are inclined to think of free markets, individual self-interest, and the invisible hand. However, reading another good book recently, How Markets Fail by John Cassidy, I was reminded there was a lot more to Smith and The Wealth of Nations than the elements of laissez faire capitalism.

Consider, for instance, Smith's example of the pin factory which he uses to illustrate the power of the division of labour. He compares the productivity of workers creating a pin on an assembly line to workers making pins individually: "One man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for fitting the head ...." etc. "Whereas one workman ... could scarce ... make one pin a day," ten workers skilled in their individual tasks, "could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins a day."

And what are these workers doing to complete this remarkable feat? They are co-operating. Smith has illustrated, perhaps unwittingly, the power of co-operation over individualism.

He goes on to discuss the making of the humble wool coats worn by pin makers. These too are efficiently created through the division of labour, by many hands creating a coat rather than one. Thus are the coat makers connected to the pin makers, one collective to another. And such it is for myriad products, and the resources for those products, and the transporting of resources and products, and so on ad infinitum. Smith is talking about interconnectedness. Each of us may pursue his or her individual self-interest, but we can only succeed with the help of many others.

Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister and enthusiast of unfettered markets, once famously proclaimed, "There is no such thing as society." She was wrong. Society is real, and it is a collection of collectives.

Smith also saw multiple roles for government. In addition to defending the nation and administering justice, government had a duty "erecting and maintaining certain public works and public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain ... though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society."

Of particular interest to us in this the twenty-first century, Smith saw the need to regulate the financial industry. He had little trust in merchants of any kind, once observing, "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public." But, no matter, free market competition would keep them in line.

Bankers, however, needed the tighter leash of government regulation. "The obligation to build party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty," he wrote, "exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed." How ironic that two centuries years after The Wealth of Nations was published, the U.S. government ignored Smith's advice and acting instead on the urging of his would-be ideological descendants, deregulated the financial industry allowing the bankers to wreck their companies, the industry and much of the economy.

Free market fundamentalists of the political kind often rely on Adam Smith to justify their policies and those of the economist kind to justify their advice on policy to politicians. But there are more things to Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations than they dream of in their philosophy.