30 May 2014

Why only politics when we think of democracy?

Conversations about democracy tend to revolve overwhelmingly about politics and government. These topics are rightly at the centre of democratic dialogue as they are the overarching institutions of our society. But if we are to have a thoroughly democratic society, we cannot limit ourselves to democratic government. We need to consider all our institutions.

The workplace, for example, is to many Canadians the most important place of all, more important than politics, yet it seems to hardly enter the conversation. If government is democratic but the workplace remains autocratic, our liberty is incomplete. We are free men and women evenings and weekends, servants during the week.

The only democracy present in the workplace in this country, other than worker-owned businesses, is the labour union, and even unions are now under attack. In some countries, workplace democracy is taken seriously. Germany, for example, enshrines "codetermination" in law.

Codetermination in Germany operates at three levels. At the job level, employees, in addition to the right to be informed about their responsibilities and job procedures, have a right to make suggestions and to inspect certain company documents. At the operational level, employees elect works councils which are involved in the organization of the business, job arrangements, personnel planning, guidelines for hiring, social services, time registration and performance assessments. At the corporate level, employees elect representatives to boards of directors, one-third to one-half of the board depending on the size of the company. Considering that Germany has become the economic powerhouse of Europe, and perhaps the most successful manufacturing economy in the world, this extensive workplace democracy does not seem to have hampered its competitiveness.

As with the workplace, all of our institutions could be democratized. The mass media, for example, a critical component of social and political life, is owned and controlled by oligarchs and corporations. The only democratic medium—indeed the only independent medium—is the CBC. A national daily newspaper along the lines of the CBC would be a good start toward a democratic press.

Education, too, could not only become more democratic but could be much more effective as a springboard for democratic citizens. Our youth could be so immersed in not only the theory but the practice of democracy that upon graduation they could expect to find democracy wherever they find themselves and be capable of creating it where it is absent.

Perhaps only through such an education could we create a vigorous conversation on self-governance in this country. But then I assume Canadians might want such a conversation, that they are in fact interested in a thoroughly democratic society. Perhaps I am wrong.

29 May 2014

Could Alberta go green?

With 50 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than Ontario, Alberta is Canada's pollution province. And that makes us think of the tar sands. But it's more than bitumen. Alberta's electrical power generation, heavily dependent on coal, produces almost as much greenhouse gas as the tar sands. The province gets 63 per cent of its electrical power from coal, burning more than the rest of the country combined. Its coal-fired power plants release about the same amount of greenhouse gases as half of all the passenger vehicles in the country.

But according to a new report entitled Power to Change by the Pembina Institute and Clean Energy Canada, we could ditch the habit. The report claims that a major shift from coal to other sources, including solar, wind, hydropower, biomass and geothermal, could be accomplished in 20 years using current technologies. Albertans would experience only a slight price increase for electricity in the short term and lower prices thereafter. Alberta is uniquely suited for renewables, with more hours of sunshine and more reliable winds than any other province.

So, could Alberta go green? The answer, apparently, is yes, with one small bother—the tar sands, always the tar sands. With bitumen production reaching for the moon we are, I'm afraid, doomed to be Canada's pollution province for a while yet.

Today is the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers

Fifty-eight years ago, one of Canada's most honourable contributions to the international community was born. The first armed UN peacekeeping mission, an emergency force formed to deal with the Suez crisis, was created, largely due to the efforts of then Canadian Minister of External Affairs Lester B. Pearson. Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

In 2002, the United Nations General Assembly designated today, May 29th, as the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers. The day serves to pay tribute to "all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in United Nations peacekeeping operations for their high level of professionalism, dedication, and courage and to honor the memory of those who have lost their lives in the cause of peace."

Unfortunately, the number of Canadians serving to keep the peace has steadily dwindled. From the Suez crisis until the mid-1990s, Canada was the largest contributor of peacekeepers and the only country to have contributed to every UN mission. Our contribution once reached 3,000 military personnel. Canada's contribution today, including police, military experts and troops, is a meager 120. Our commitment to peacekeeping has declined, it seems, along with our international reputation generally.

Nonetheless, today deserves our recognition for all the Canadians and those from other nations who have served one of humanity's great causes.

25 May 2014

Calgary, I'm forced to admit, is a world class city

I have always been inclined to ignore talk about making my city—Calgary—world class. It sounds rather desperate, a sad sort of social-climbing by civic boosters. But now it appears that Calgary really is a world class city. How can it not be when two of the world's top newspapers declare it to be so.

The New York Times, no less, has ranked our prairie metropolis as one of the globe's top travel destinations, number 17 out of its 52 places to go in 2014. "Flush with oil money, Calgary has morphed from ho-hum city on the prairie into a cultural hub, with offerings far beyond the Stampede, the annual rodeo and festival," says the Times. And who am I to disagree with the prestigious Times?

Or with The Guardian, Britain's premier daily. Actually The Guardian chose Alberta, not Calgary, ninth on their list of their top 40 destinations for 2014, however they highlighted Calgary's increasingly diverse and exciting city life as a major attraction. The city "has gone from cowboy town to cosmopolitan cool," raved the paper.

My own favourite Calgary story of recent days is probably not what The Guardian would call "cosmopolitan cool" but I find to be cool, nonetheless.

A pair of Canada geese has settled in to raise a family in a concrete planter near the door of the municipal building in downtown Calgary. The city has set up yellow barricades to give mom and pop some privacy while the eggs are hatching. Once they've hatched, officials will move the goslings and their parents to a slightly wetter area than the concrete steps of city hall. Now that's world class!

Dying with dignity in Quebec

Quebec's new Liberal government has decided to reintroduce Bill 52, the end-of-life care bill first tabled by the PQ in June 2013. The legislation will allow terminally ill patients to request medical assistance in dying if they suffer from an incurable illness that is in an advanced state and which inflicts intolerable physical and psychological pain. The bill has been welcomed by the province's medical, legal and political communities.

There will be a free vote and members of all parties are expected to support the bill. The PQ had never presented the issue in a partisan manner, and it is encouraging to see the Liberals adopt the same bipartisan approach. The new premier, Philippe Couillard, seems to  be keeping his word to be more inclusive.

The other provinces should take note. An Environics Institute survey late last year revealed that 68 per cent of Canadians believe those who help seriously ill people commit suicide should not be charged with a crime. Only 16 per cent felt charges should be laid.

It has always seemed presumptuous to me for others to dictate what you can do with your life. If you are unable to make rational decisions because of depression or other mental condition, that is a different matter. But for someone of sane mind who has no future to look forward to but one of profound suffering, your right over your own life deserves respect. Bill 52 shows that respect.

23 May 2014

Hookers to be part of Italy's GDP

Italy's National Institute of Statistics recently announced that next year it will start including activities such as prostitution and illegal drug sales in the country's Gross Domestic Product.

And why not. After all, these activities create jobs and incomes and are therefore an integral part of a national economy. Estimating them will present a challenge, of course, as they are not usually reported, however that is no excuse for pretending they don't exist. Italy already includes an estimate for "grey market" activity—legitimate businesses that evade taxes.

It also illustrates once again how the GDP distorts the economic picture. The GDP includes much that is bad in society: higher crime rates lead to more expenditures on police, international tensions lead to more expenditures on arms, more disease leads to more medical spending, etc. In a recent submission to the National Energy Board, pipeline company Kinder Morgan claimed that marine oil spills, “can have both positive and negative effects on local and regional economies ... Spill response and clean-up creates business and employment opportunities for affected communities, regions, and clean-up service providers.” Kinder Morgan nicely illustrated the perversity of the GDP. From its perspective, oil spills are good for us.

The problem is that the GDP is being used for purposes well beyond what its inventors intended. Simon Kuznets, the economist largely responsible for developing the GDP in the 1930s, stated "The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income." Unfortunately, that's what the GDP has become—the primary measure of nations' welfare. It's long past time it was replaced by an economic yardstick that measures the quality of a nation's economy rather than its quantity.

In the meantime, I'd rather see hookers show up on our GDP than oil spills.

21 May 2014

Why is the environment considered primarily a left-wing concern?

Conservative and conservation are almost the same word, both deriving from the Latin conservare, "to preserve," and differing only by two letters. We might expect, therefore, that conservatives would be great conservationists, deeply concerned about preserving the natural world, foremost stewards of the environment.

Yet that doesn't seem to be the case. Not that conservatives aren't concerned about the environment, they just don't seem to be as concerned as progressives, and are strongly inclined to put the economy first. Furthermore, they are disposed to think of the environmentally-minded as left-wing. We are all too familiar with former Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's characterization of environmentalists as radical ideologues funded by foreign interests. Environmentalism almost seems to be a dirty word to conservatives, or at least to the Conservatives in Ottawa.

It is true that environmentalists tend to support progressive causes generally, social justice for instance, but that shouldn't preclude conservatives from strongly promoting the preservation of nature. After all, a healthy environment is, in the long term, critical to a healthy economy.

So what's with the conservative antipathy to vigorous defence of the environment? The answer, I suspect, lies with the newness of environmental concern. Up until recently, the planet was considered to be an infinite source of resources. Even economists, who ought to have known better, tended to ignore it in their theorizing. Only in the past few decades have we, or at least some of us, including the scientific community, come to the full realization of the damage we are doing to the Earth and the limits to its resources. Conservatives, always lagging, and often opposing, in the unending struggle for progress, simply haven't caught up.

Let's hope it doesn't take them too long. Time is short. Humanity could wait centuries, indeed millennia, to recognize the moral need to end slavery, emancipate women, abolish child labour, and liberate ethnic minorities and gays, but we only have decades to turn global warming around and start living within the planet's means. And this isn't just a moral imperative, it's even more an economic imperative. Without the support of a solid majority of people everywhere, we may just not make it.

20 May 2014

Voting—the opiate of the people?

A letter to the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City, Utah, daily paper, suggested rather unkindly that the rite of voting in the U.S. is nothing more than “the opiate of the masses.” I was rather surprised to find a quote from Marx in a newspaper owned by the Mormon Church.

The author of the letter was commenting on a recent in-depth study by two political scientists from Princeton and Northwestern universities, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, who concluded in their report that, "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. ... Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all."

The study is a damning indictment of the American political system, declaring that the U.S. is in effect a plutocracy, not a democracy. Nonetheless, I'm not sure I would go so far as to refer to voting as the opiate of the masses. Although the two major American political parties have been described as about as different as Burger King and McDonalds, I believe electing Democrats or Republicans can make a significant difference. Obama's health care plan may have been tailored to corporate interests, but at least he brought in a plan, something I doubt the increasingly reactionary Republicans would have done.

The question for us is how much of an opiate voting is in our country. I would suggest much less. Our Supreme Court has been sensible enough to recognize that banning corporations from funding elections is a reasonable democratic measure. As a result, they are prohibited from contributing to federal campaigns. The Court has also recognized that third parties can be restricted in their political funding. Furthermore, I believe our political parties offer us considerably more philosophical range than the Democrats and Republicans offer Americans.

Nonetheless, economic elites and business groups still have excessive influence in our democratic processes. They are major funders in municipal elections and most provincial elections. Their domination of the economy allows them substantial leverage over governments. And of course they own most of the mass media. Voting in Canada may not be an opiate, but it isn't entirely the clear voice of democracy either.

19 May 2014

Going ... going ... gone ... Western Antarctic ice sheet slips into the sea

It seems the planet is running out of ice. The latest news on that front came with two reports last week that said the Western Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing. The loss of the entire ice sheet could eventually cause a sea level rise of up to 4 metres.

Studies by NASA and the University of Washington both concluded that the melting of the ice sheet, driven by climate change, has begun and cannot be halted, even with drastic action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The collapse is already causing much faster sea level rise than scientists had anticipated and will be far greater than predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year. Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA and the University of California, Irvine, observed, “This system, whether Greenland or Antarctica, is changing on a faster time scale than we anticipated. We are discovering that every day.”

But not to worry. The complete collapse of the sheet will take centuries, lots of time to rebuild our coastal cities and take in millions of refugees from Bangladesh and other low-lying countries. Not a bad idea to get started now though.

Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and déjà vu

That Egyptian general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi intends to return the country to military rule becomes increasingly clear. Leader of the July 2013 coup against then President Mohamed Morsi, Sisi is running in the May 26-27 presidential election which he is expected to win in a landslide. He is highly popular and is systematically eliminating the military's major opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. Security forces have killed hundreds of Brotherhood members in the streets, arrested thousands and recently a court sentenced 529 to execution. The Brotherhood has been banned and declared a terrorist organization even though it has repeatedly denounced terrorism.

Brutally oppressing the Brotherhood is only the beginning. Recently he lectured the press on how he expects them to behave, warning them not to push for freedom of speech and other rights, saying demands for greater freedom jeopardized national security. He further instructed them not to advocate for major reforms to state institutions or to expose corruption.

He believes elected civilian officials should not have political and economic power over the military and has helped expand the economic dominance of the military, which already exerts control over a wide array of industries. Ownership of the economy has long been the most treasured prize for the generals.

The efforts of progressives, the inspiring rallies for democracy and human rights in Tahrir Square, the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's version of the Arab Spring, are all to be lost, all fading away as Egypt returns to the dark days of military dictatorship. A very sad day for democracy.

Sisi once said he wouldn't run for the nation's highest office, but then he had a dream that he would one day become president and naturally he had to follow his dream. That dream, it seems, will now return Egypt to an old nightmare.

17 May 2014

Conference Board illustrates folly of conventional economic metrics

Once again conventional measurement has painted a warped view of our economic well-being. Relying principally on growth in the GDP sense, The Conference Board of Canada applauds the oil and gas rich provinces—Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador—for being the country's top economic performers.

In the short term they are: highest GDP growth, highest employment growth, etc. But the Conference Board never discusses the danger of basing our prosperity on the production of fossil fuels, the major cause of global warming. Indeed, incredibly the Board's report (yes, I've read it) never talks about environmental limits on the economy at all, except to comment on environmental concerns delaying pipeline construction. There is a kind of madness in celebrating the very thing that could quite possibly cause the collapse of the economy along with the rest of civilization.

The underlying cause of the Board's madness is basing economic prosperity on GDP growth. It is folly to think of growth as a good thing when we are already well beyond the planet's carrying capacity. The idea, possessed of the Board and unfortunately most of our leaders, and apparently most of us, that we can grow seemingly forever is living in a fantasy world. It is time to accept reality—the Earth is finite, there are limits. The only sensible conversation we can have about growth is how to end it. The Conference Board economists clearly need a better yardstick to measure economic and social well-being. They should, in short, enter the real world.

15 May 2014

Is Putin playing to the gallery?

That Vladimir Putin laments the loss of the Soviet empire is well known, so adding a few bits back in no doubt appeals to him. He also has a perfectly legitimate reason for playing tough on Russia's western front—security. Russia has suffered a number of devastating invasions from the west and indeed maintaining a buffer along the western border was the major foreign policy goal of the Soviet Union.

But one wonders if Putin isn't also playing to the home front. His reattaching of Crimea to Russia 60 years after Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine was, after all, hugely popular among the Russian people. (And among the Crimean people too, for that matter.) He is overwhelmingly popular and has boosted Russian national pride. According to Pew Research, "Over 80 per cent say they have confidence in President Putin to do the right thing in world affairs, up from 69 per cent in 2012." Half now have a very favorable opinion of their homeland, compared with under a third in 2013. Furthermore, a solid majority agree with Putin that the loss of the Soviet Union was a great misfortune. On the other hand, their opinion of the European Union and the United States has decidedly soured, with only 15 per cent trusting in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs.

There's nothing like a good row abroad to boost the fortunes of a leader messing up at home. And Russia is a mess—a corrupt, gangster-run government with an economy overwhelmingly dependent on oil and gas, and even there the spoils seem to bypass the nation's most important needs.

The Sochi Olympics was supposed to raise the nation's image but it did rather more to illustrate the corruption endemic to Putin's regime. So picking a fight with the West may be the president's little demagogic distraction to take his peoples' attention off his misrule. And it seems to be working.

14 May 2014

Students instruct teachers to bring economics into the real world

Following the Second World War, Western nations embarked on securing the welfare state as a balance to the capitalist market economy, the result of which was the most prosperous and equitable societies ever known. The most influential economist through this period was Britain's John Maynard Keynes with his prescription of a sensible balance between government and industry involvement in economic life. But with the emergence of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, other economists came to the fore—market fundamentalists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

The idea of ever less government, leaving the economy and indeed society, to the vagaries of capitalist markets increasingly gained precedence. The idea of fully-informed individuals maximizing their enlightened self-interest in rational markets captivated many in the academic and political class, combined as it was with generous support from the rich for politicians who cleaved to market dogma. The teaching of economics, which became increasingly enamoured of mathematical models over the reality of human behaviour, tended to reinforce the philosophy.

All this turned out to be utopian thinking. Like communists, the market fundamentalists believed all the answers lay in one economic and social model. Neither model, unfortunately, accounted for the messy reality of economic life as it is lived by real people. People don't always choose on the basis of mere utility and they aren't always rational in their decision-making. And the philosophy neglected the critical importance of the environment, the basis of all economies.

One result of the commitment to ever less government was the financial and economic collapse of 2008. Herd instinct, greed and sheer recklessness, among other very human behaviours, proved that the financial market was anything but the rational institution free-marketers insisted it was.

Reacting to the 2008 failure of the "liberated" financial markets, a growing number of students is rejecting an economic curriculum that doesn't apply to the real world. According to the Guardian, "Economics students from 19 countries have joined forces to call for an overhaul of the way their subject is taught, saying the dominance of narrow free-market theories at top universities harms the world's ability to confront challenges such as financial stability and climate change."

The International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics insists that research and teaching is too narrowly focused, and declares, "The real world should be brought back into the classroom, as well as debate and a pluralism of theories and methods. This will help renew the discipline and ultimately create a space in which solutions to society's problems can be generated." They go on to suggest that universities should "establish special departments that could oversee interdisciplinary programs blending economics and other fields."

The students are supported by economist Thomas Piketty, author of the best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century, who criticizes mainstream economic teaching for ignoring evidence of growing inequality and its influence on GDP growth.

Youth are often accused of being too idealistic. In this case, it seems, they are the realists. And if they are heeded, economics in itself as well as public policies drawn from it, will be much improved.

13 May 2014

Are the little swimmers in trouble?

The world is full of endocrine disruptors. Chemicals that mimic natural hormones in the body are found in a host of products from food packaging to toothpaste to toys. Now researchers in Denmark and Germany have found that many of them—one-third of the 96 they tested—disrupt the way sperm function, affecting their swimming and navigational skills, and thus their ability to fertilize an egg.

Apparently the chemicals lead to abnormally high calcium levels in the sperm, adversely affecting their swimming and causing them to prematurely release enzymes needed to break through the egg's outer coating.

Furthermore, endocrine disrupters in the female reproductive tract may swamp the hormonal signal that sperm use to find the egg. Hormones produced by the egg tell sperm where to find it, but if other chemicals mimic those hormones, the sperm may be led astray.

This sounds like bad news, but is it? One wonders. The seven billion people on Earth are relentlessly polluting the planet while simultaneously exhausting its resources, and by mid-century we are predicted to grow to 10 billion. Curbing our fecundity may not be a bad thing. How ironic if we are being emasculated by our own excesses.

12 May 2014

From Ukraine—"Basically we're screwed"

A young eastern Ukrainian philosophy student, commenting on the weekend referendum in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, summed up his country's condition rather neatly: "I haven't voted," he said, "and nor have any of my friends. It's a referendum for idiots, organized by idiots. Of course I don't want to be part of their absurd republic or join Russia. But having said that, I don't like the new Kiev government either. Basically, we're screwed."

According to the pro-Russia separatists, they won big, claiming 89 per cent yes in Donetsk for the question, "Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People's Republic?" Referendum officials in Luhansk reported 96 per cent yes for a similar question. Considering there were no international observers, no up-to-date electoral lists, heavily armed men keeping watch, and most of those who disagreed with the separatists choosing to boycott the referendum, the results are, to put it mildly, questionable.

A more reliable poll, conducted by Pew Research, suggests that Russian-speaking Ukrainians have little appetite for separation. Fifty-eight per cent believe Ukraine should remain one country while less than half that number believe regions should be allowed to secede. However, like the young philosophy student, they aren't happy with Kiev either and have significant differences with western Ukraine. For example, two-thirds of those in the east believe Kiev is having a bad influence on events while 60 per cent of those in the west believe it is having a good influence.
And then there's the language issue: almost ninety per cent of Russian speakers believe both Russian and Ukrainian should be official languages whereas two-thirds of those in the west believe the only official language should be Ukrainian. Canadians are all too familiar with the intractability of language arguments.

Of particular interest, perhaps, are the divergent attitudes toward the May 25 presidential election. Fifty-nine per cent in the west believe it will be fair while, ominously, 63 per cent in the east think that's unlikely.

So a majority of all groups want the country to remain united, yet it is riddled with division. Screwed? Perhaps not, but seriously challenged certainly.