28 June 2014

Republicans losing the Cuban vote

Lack of support from minority voters has long been an Achilles heel for the Republican Party. This holds true for Hispanics. In the last presidential election, Obama gained a record 75 per cent of the Latino vote. About the only consolation for the Republicans has been the support of Cuban-Americans who have long identified with or leaned toward the GOP. Now even that is changing.

A recent Pew Research survey showed that less than half of registered Cuban voters affiliate with the Republicans, only slightly more than with the Democrats. As recently as 2002, two-thirds affiliated with the Republican Party. Among all Cuban-Americans, including those not registered to vote, only a third say they identify with or lean toward the GOP, compared to half who identify with or lean toward the Democrats.

The loss of Cuban-American support is no small matter. They are committed voters. In 2012, two-thirds cast a ballot compared to less than half of Hispanics overall. 

Furthermore, young Cubans tend more to the Democrats than their elders although even among the older generation support for the Republicans is declining. The changing tide is well-illustrated in Florida, home to 70 per cent of the Cuban-American community. In 2004, George Bush won 78 per cent of the Cuban vote; in 2012, Mitt Romney won only 47 per cent. The Republican Party, it seems, is managing to alienate not only minorities but minorities within minorities.

20 June 2014

Iran has a huge PR problem

To say that that Americans and Israelis don't like Iran would hardly be news. But to say that just about every other country in the world doesn't like Iran either is worthy of attention. A recent survey by Pew Research of 40 countries around the globe found that in only three—Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan—did a majority have a favourable view of Iran.

Notice particularly that none of those countries is in the Middle East. Iran's popularity has been declining steadily throughout the area over the past decade, including surprisingly in the Palestinian Territories. Also surprisingly, in Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt, the new president, Hassan Rouhani, is even less popular than his predecessor, the controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Not so surprisingly, the survey revealed religious divisions. For example, large majorities of Lebanese Shias held a favourable view of Iran and its president while most Sunnis and Christians held an unfavourable view.

Among the nations engaged in nuclear talks with Tehran (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), public attitudes are largely critical of Iran. Even most Russians, although somewhat more divided, are negative toward the country.

If the U.S. and Israel are in a PR contest with Iran, they are winning hands down. Even if the Iranians don't care much for world opinion, they do their negotiating position no favour when almost the entire international community looks unfavourably on them. Their image needs a lot of polishing. On the other hand, it could just be their behaviour.

18 June 2014

Bravo to Elon Musk, patent-buster

Inventor/entrepreneur/engineer/investor Elon Musk recently announced he was giving away all the patents on Tesla Motor's electric car technology, allowing anyone, competitors included, to use them. Musk, CEO and product architect for the company (for which he receives a salary of a dollar a year), made the announcement last week, commenting, "We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform."

Nissan and BMW have already suggested they might take advantage. Other companies, such as Apple, Google and Samsung may also want to take notice. Sharing knowledge could be far more productive than the immensely expensive patent wars they have found themselves in lately.

Patents have always been thought to serve the public by stimulating innovation. But that idea is coming under fire. According to Musk, "There's far too much effort and energy put into creating patents that do not end up fostering innovation."

Open source knowledge, such as Linus Torvald's Linux operating system for example, allows everyone to experiment, to modify, to make cheaper, better and more accessible. Patents, by locking up knowledge, can inhibit innovation, often doing little more than help entrench monopoly in large corporations. Yet even corporations can benefit from open source. Rather than having to pay for all the research on a product themselves and limiting themselves to the ideas of their own people, they can take advantage of the creativity of many minds.

Quite aside from economic advantage, making knowledge available to everyone seems both more altruistic and more democratic, particularly in a shrinking world.

And, oh, incidentally, following the announcement, Tesla shares soared to an all-time high, making Mr. Musk half a billion dollars richer. Sometimes virtue pays.

17 June 2014

Can capitalists save capitalism?

Prominent Harvard economist Lawrence Katz illustrates the American economy with an amusing analogy. He depicts it as an apartment block in which the penthouses have increased in size, the middle apartments are increasingly squeezed and the basement is flooded. But what gets people down the most, he says, is that the elevator is broken.

Katz's analogy applies particularly to the U.S., the most inequitable nation in the developed world, and the one with the least economic mobility, but it applies to the rest of the world as well. Within nations and between nations, inequality is growing, perhaps dangerously. For this and other reasons capitalism, now the entire world's economic system, is becoming increasingly suspect. So suspect, in fact, that capitalists themselves are beginning to worry about its future.

At this year's World Economic Forum, the annual get-together of the world's corporate and government elites, one of the greatest threats to the global economy in the coming years was declared to be the growing gap between rich and poor.

Capitalists have even formed an organization to deal with inequality called the Inclusive Capitalism Initiative (ICI). Its website states that it "is concerned with fixing the elevator of the economist Larry Katz's famous analogy." The ICI recently organized a conference in London to address some of capitalism's sins. It was convened by Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild (now there's a name to be reckoned with), CEO of E.L. Rothschild, a holding company that manages investments in The Economist Group, owner of, among other things, The Economist magazine. The institutional investors and business leaders assembled represented, or so it was claimed, companies that together control about 30 per cent of the world's total stock of financial wealth under professional management.

All of this may represent a serious concern about the future of capitalism, or even about inequality, or it may just provide occasions for rich people to get together and reassure each other they are doing their bit for society. Time will tell. Even if its no more than noblesse oblige, I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt ... with a sensible degree of scepticism of course.

Alberta politicos hedge on flood mitigation

After the great flood in Calgary last year, municipal and provincial governments agreed something had to be done to prevent another such catastrophe. There were, however, no shortage of sceptics. There would be bold promises initially, they said, but the commitments would wane with time, people would start to forget, and much less would be done than promised. The sceptics, it seems, may be right.

Last week, a study of a proposed tunnel that would divert Elbow River flood waters from above the city to downstream on the Bow River concluded the cost would be $457-million. The reaction from both levels of government was less than encouraging. “Five hundred million dollars would build us a fair bit of LRT," said Mayor Naheed Nenshi, "Five hundred million dollars would go a long way towards solving the congestion problems on Crowchild Trail.” Premier Dave Hancock, too, exuded caution. "You know, we have to look at projects in the context of the effect on everybody who will be affected by it," he opined.

The numbers suggest an easy decision. If all the projects proposed to tame the Elbow were built—the tunnel plus a dry dam at McLean Creek and an off-stream reservoir at Springbank Road—the cost would come to $837-million. The flood cost $6-billion, not including the victims' personal expenses and heartache. In other words, the three projects would pay out over seven times if they prevented just one 2013 flood. They would, of course, protect us from many floods.

Nonetheless, here we are only a year later and already our governments are hedging. Major projects to prevent Elbow flooding have been proposed before and none survived the test of time. The cynics have history on their side.

14 June 2014

Kathleen Wynne—lucky with her enemies

Some people are lucky with their friends; some are lucky with their enemies. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is clearly one of the latter. Faced with two opponents that seemed determined to alienate voters, she swept to victory in Thursday's election.

With only a decade-old government replete with scandals to beat, the election should have been a walk in the park for the opposition Conservatives. But they insisted on being led by an extremist mouthing extremist policies, apparently inspired by the American Tea Party, a political force in decline even among their fellow Republicans. It was all too redolent of the Mike Harris years and Ontarians have obviously had enough of that. The Conservatives made a bad choice and paid the price—trounced.

The NDP did no better. Fighting an election they should never have forced in the first place and led by a leader who didn't seem to know what her philosophy was, they too paid the price of ignominious defeat. They had been in a position where they were a major influence on government policy, now they must linger in the legislative shadows, bereft of any influence whatsoever.

The cliché has it that electors don't vote a government in, they vote a government out. That should have happened this time, but with leaders like Hudak and Horwath, the opposition simply wasn't up to the cliché. Congratulations, nonetheless, to a worthy winner—Kathleen Wynne.

13 June 2014

Marshall Islanders take on the nuclear powers

This is a David and Goliath story like no other. The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a country with a population of only 68,000 souls, is taking the nuclear powers to court. Earlier this year, the Islanders filed against the nine nuclear-armed states at the International Court of Justice "for their alleged failure to fulfill their obligations with respect to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."

The Islanders distinguish between those states that recognize the jurisdiction of the Court and those that don't, and between those who have ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and those which haven't, but include all nine—China, North Korea, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.—in the suit. Their case can be read here. The Republic has itself signed the Treaty.

The Islanders have good cause for their suit. From 1946 to 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons in the islands, including the largest nuclear test it ever conducted. In 1956, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as "by far the most contaminated place in the world." In 1952, the U.S. tested its first hydrogen bomb on the island of Elugelab, utterly destroying it. The republic is the only country in the world where the UN has authorized the use of nuclear weapons. No one can question the Islanders credentials.

The suit calls for the court to acknowledge breach of international law, namely the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in both retaining a nuclear arsenal and in acting to improve weapons systems. It also seeks a court order compelling each nation to begin disarmament negotiations within a year.

Such a little country taking on such giants in such a noble endeavour, how can you help but wish them the greatest good will. The Islanders act for all seven billion of us, and you can help by signing the petition at the Nuclear Zero website.

07 June 2014

Mark Carney on capitalism eating its children

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, formerly Governor of the Bank of Canada, isn't exactly your average leftie. Indeed, bank governors tend to turn up on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, Mr. Carney, at a speech last week to the Conference for Inclusive Capitalism, sounded a bit like the Occupy Movement.

Linking the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting recession with absolutist beliefs in low taxes, deregulated markets and limited government intervention in the economy, he condemned what he called "unchecked market fundamentalism." His condemnation was replete with memorable quotes:
• Just like any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself.

• All ideologies are prone to extremes. Capitalism loses its sense of moderation when the belief in the power of the market enters the realm of faith.

• In the decade prior to the [2008] crisis ... we moved from a market economy towards a market society.
Great stuff from the governor. More evidence that those in the higher echelons of finance and industry are beginning to realize that capitalism's excesses are undermining the system itself, and a failure to contain those excesses may yet make a prophet out of Karl Marx.

06 June 2014

Legislating morality—the new prostitution law

Ah, yet another step backward into a failed past. I refer, of course, to our favourite government's new Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, a piece of legislation that criminalizes the purchase of sexual services.

To begin with, the bill isn't even logical. It criminalizes buying sex but not selling it. While claiming that it considers "the vast majority of those involved in selling sexual services as victims," it makes it more likely they will be victimized. If their customers are to be labelled criminals, prostitutes will be driven to ply their trade more furtively and in darker places. Afraid to identify themselves, clients will no longer be prepared to provide names or phone numbers. Valerie Scott, one of the three sex workers who successfully challenged the prostitution laws in the Supreme Court, calls this a gift for sexual predators.

The legislation is supposedly patterned after the "Nordic model" as practiced in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. Well, it hasn't improved things there. Sweden, whose laws most closely resemble the proposed act, has witnessed an increase in violence against prostitutes with no decline in demand. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform (CASWLR) calls this approach, "harmful and inconsistent with sex workers’ constitutional rights to health and safety."

CASWLR prefers the New Zealand model. There, prostitution is considered normal and legal work. Sex workers are protected by labour laws that promote their health and safety, and a tribunal hears disputes with brothel owners. The brothels pay licensing fees like any other businesses and are often run by prostitutes or former prostitutes themselves. In this model, the state does what it is supposed to do, protects the citizens concerned, and otherwise leaves people alone. The moralizing is replaced by common sense.

But our government, it seems, didn't bother to ask the sex workers for their opinions. Valerie Scott isn't aware of any being involved in the decision-making process. “MacKay is only interested in consulting with those who seek to prohibit sex work, under the guise of ‘saving us,’" said Scott, "It makes it crystal clear that this federal government is solely interested in its own political safety and could [not] care less about our lives.”

Ms. Scott may be a tad harsh, but her gist is right. The federal government's concern isn't security, it's sin.

05 June 2014

Fatah and Hamas reconcile ... finally

Family quarrels can be nasty affairs, and the seven-year tiff between Fatah and Hamas has been no exception. In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas won a decisive majority in the parliament, much to the chagrin of the then ruling PLO-affiliated Fatah party. Encouraged by Israel, the U.S., and western nations generally, Fatah refused to co-operate with the democratically elected parliament, and the two sides descended into bitter, often lethal, infighting. The result was a Hamas-run Gaza and a Fatah-run West Bank.

Various attempts to patch up the divisions failed. Until now. After seven years of bitter rivalry, the two factions have formed a unified government. The 17-member cabinet, mostly unaffiliated technocrats, was sworn in on Monday.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has predictably stated he will not negotiate with a government backed by Hamas. However, his closest allies are not meekly falling in line as they are usually wont to do. The United States says it will work with the new government and even Canada, Israel’s poodle, has quietly agreed to deal with the new government if it “renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.” It has done both. Turkey, a supporter of the Hamas government in Gaza, was the first to recognize the unity government. China, India, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations have all followed suit.

The Palestinians, victims of dispossession and oppression for three generations, can only gain from presenting a united front. Israel, naturally preferring to divide and rule, may refuse to negotiate with the new government, but then there are no negotiations taking place at the moment anyway, and those that have taken place over the last many years have been a failure. Indeed, the very idea of negotiations between an overwhelmingly powerful occupier and an essentially powerless occupied can offer little more than terms of surrender.

For the immediate future, the Palestinians will be better served by pursuing greater recognition in the international community, building up their strength and bargaining power. A unified leadership is important to that endeavour.

03 June 2014

On the good news front—Experimental Lakes Area is open for business

Of all the victims of the federal government's suppression of science, the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) was perhaps the most important. The ELA, comprised of 58 freshwater lakes along with accommodation and laboratories, is a unique Canadian scientific research facility, the only site in the world where whole-lake experimentation is carried out.

Its research has been instrumental in phasing out harmful phosphorus additives in cleaning products, tightening air pollution standards in response to acid rain, and installation of scrubbers inside industrial smokestacks to reduce mercury levels found in fish. The ELA has influenced public policy on water management throughout North America and its scientists have won an array of prestigious international awards.

Early in 2012, the federal government decided to close the ELA, a decision widely condemned by the Canadian and international scientific communities. The eminent scientific journal Nature described it as "disturbing." The government was, at least, willing to negotiate with the Ontario and Manitoba governments and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) to maintain the ELA.

And they have. This month, under the management of the IISD, newly-hired scientists will officially resume research at the ELA. However the IISD needs help. Funding by Ontario and Manitoba will allow for management of the facilities and a minimum amount of research, but in order to rebuild the program to its former status it requires additional support. If you would like to contribute to a facility that has influenced water science around the world, you can read all about it here.