23 May 2015

Finally, a voice Harper may listen to

A carbon tax is an eminently fair and sensible approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And big oil agrees. At least Steve Williams, CEO of Canada's largest oil and gas producer, Suncor Energy, does. Speaking to a downtown Calgary crowd on Friday, Williams stated, "We think climate change is happening. We think a broad-based carbon price is the right answer."

He emphasized the "broad-based," pointing out that 80% of greenhouse gases originate at the point of consumption, as people drive their cars and heat their homes. (Actually only 50% in Alberta because of the tar sands and the heavy industrial use of coal.) I agree completely. Spewing out carbon dioxide is just another form of littering, although a particularly pernicious kind, and those who litter should pay and the more you litter the more you should pay. This should apply to us end users, not just the producers of the products.

During his interview, Williams took a not too subtle slap at the federal government, commenting, "We're trying to move Canada to a position of leadership, that's not how we are viewed around the world at the moment. We are viewed to be quite the opposite." Again, I agree completely. The Harper government's environmental policies have turned us into a pariah. The Suncor CEO is simply recognizing that this is not good for the oil and gas industry. While the government may believe it is doing the companies a favour, it is simply getting them blacklisted in the world's eyes. Whether or not Mr. Harper will appreciate the irony, we shall have to wait and see. But if he listens to anyone, and that's a big if, it will be someone like citizen Williams.

22 May 2015

The Boston bombers and the cycle of vengeancce

The bombing of the Boston Marathon in April 2013 was a heinous crime. Three people died, hundreds were injured, and a policeman was killed in a shootout with the perpetrators. One of the two brothers responsible for the attack died from the shootout. The other, 21-year old immigrant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has been convicted of all charges against him and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Why did they do it? In Tsarnaez's own words, “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that … we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all. ... Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.” The brothers came from a family riddled with mental illness and dysfunction so the motivation was likely, as it usually is, complex, involving more than what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev says or even understands.

Nonetheless, the victims he refers to are not imaginary. According to the Nobel Prize-winning group Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S-led military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have caused, directly and indirectly, the deaths of at least 1.3 million civilians. The moral grievance over these deaths, and those elsewhere in the Muslim world at the hands of Western powers, are felt by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

So the Tsarnaevs decided on an eye for an eye, a motive not lacking in the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And now the Americans will return the same Old Testament vengeance on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Thus the cycle of vengeance continues.

Pondering this young man's killing for what was in his mind a noble cause, one can't help but think of his fellow young Americans in the U.S. military killing for what they saw as a noble cause in Iraq. Both he and they were victims of corrupt leadership, his religious, theirs political.

Tsarnaev's crime was barbaric. The Americans now intend to inflict their own barbaric revenge. Even if they chose to imprison him for life rather than kill him, it would hardly be less primitive. He would be confined at a super maximum prison where he would spend most of his time in solitary confinement, his communications with the outside world severely restricted, and his only exercise brief periods outside in a small cage. The brutality the U.S. has inflicted on the Middle East redounded upon itself in Boston and now claims Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

21 May 2015

Elizabeth Warren takes on Obama and the TPP

If it were up to me, Elizabeth Warren would be the next president of the United States. She is a remarkable woman—United States senator, former Harvard law professor and an expert in financial regulations. She has served a number of high level financial positions in Washington and was instrumental in establishing the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

She is now challenging President Obama on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement the U.S. is negotiating with 11 other countries, including Canada. She is critical of the deal being negotiated in secret and its potential consequences for American workers, claiming the process is rigged and will lead to a rigged outcome. She has opposed efforts in Congress to give Obama permission to fast-track negotiations and demanded the agreement be revealed to the public.

The TPP may be a good deal for the masses, but that isn't for people like me to know. With the negotiations taking place in secret, we citizens have only a limited idea what our leaders are committing us to. The American negotiators have hundreds of advisers—overwhelmingly business interests—but they are limited in how much of the draft they can see and are forbidden by law from discussing what they know in public.

Obama's argument against Warren appears to be "trust me," a presumptuous attitude for an American president to assume after the Iraq war and the Snowden revelations. "Trade" agreements seem to end up a great deal more favourable to corporate interests than to the interests of the rest of us, and Ms. Warren has been far more willing to stand up to the corporate sector than Obama.

And that, unfortunately, is why she will never be president. The Democratic Party is highly unlikely to nominate anyone who has a reputation for confronting corporate interests, and even if she was nominated she probably couldn't win. I expect the day is long past when someone can become president of the United States without the approval and therefore the largesse of the corporate sector. Nonetheless, she makes a powerful champion for democratic process and for ordinary Americans ...  and for the rest of us subject to the TPP and its ilk.

17 May 2015

The failure of the Information Age

It seems only a short while ago, as the Internet and the World Wide Web made their appearance, that prophets talked of a new enlightened age. All the world's knowledge would henceforth be available to everyone everywhere. With every person and every world leader able to obtain all the facts available on every topic, we would share a new world order of fully-informed policy and decision-making. Well ... so much for predicting the future—always a mug's game.

A recent Pew Research Center survey measured the difference between what American scientists believe and what the American public believes, and the results are dramatic. For example, 87% of scientists (98% of climate scientists) believe the Earth is being warmed by human activity while only half of the public does. One hundred per cent of scientists believe living organisms evolved over time but only two-thirds of their fellow Americans concur. Eighty-eight per cent of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe to eat; only 37% of the public agrees. And so it goes.

The striking gaps between the two groups are discouraging. Science is our only reliable source of factual truth and scientists the best arbiters of those facts. They are, in effect, the wise men and women of our age.

Not that we must always genuflect to their opinions. Not even they would want that. For example, although most scientists agree genetically modified foods are safe to eat, many nonetheless suggest it might be wise to proceed cautiously until much more is known about them, a sensible application of the precautionary principle. And if some people's faith precludes them from accepting evolution, not much harm is done. But failing to respond adequately to global warming will be catastrophic. The danger is so great that even if only a small group of climate scientists believed it to be occurring, we would have no sensible alternative but to act. And we are, but too little and possibly too late.

In this country, we have a national leader to whom inconvenient facts are irrelevant and whose motto, as he once instructed his faithful followers, is "ignore the experts, go with your gut." Well, you don't need any knowledge to "go with your gut." Unfortunately his approach, judging by both the masses benighted view of reality and the actions of our leaders, is all too widely accepted.

To say, therefore, the Information Age has failed is perhaps too strong a statement. Many have benefited by the abundance of knowledge available. But information age or no, one thing has not changed. As always truth, no matter how widely disseminated, has steep hills to climb to overcome ignorance, faith and vested interest.

13 May 2015

The U.S. military's war on the environment

One of the American institutions most alert to the threat of global warming is the military. The Pentagon has issued several reports stating that the greatest threat to U.S. national security is climate change. Ironically, the military itself is the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter.

The Department of Defense devours about 330,000 barrels of oil a day, more than the great majority of the world’s countries, on its more than 1,000 bases in over 130 countries and 6,000 facilities at home. And this doesn't include fuel consumed by contractors or in the production of weapons. Included among the military's fuel guzzlers are tanks, trucks, Humvees, submarines, aircraft carriers, helicopters, fighter jets, etc., etc., none known for their fuel economy.

And the military does much more than create vast quantities of greenhouse gasses. It also loads the environment with a host of toxic chemicals, from Agent Orange in Vietnam to glyphosate in Colombia to depleted uranium in Iraq. The Department of Defense is the world's largest polluter, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. Its bases top the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of most polluted places.

Remarkably, despite the magnitude of the threat it poses, the Pentagon has immunity from environmental agreements. The U.S. has demanded as a provision of signing that its military operations worldwide be exempted from measurement or reductions. Congress has passed an explicit provision guaranteeing such exemptions. The Department of Defense can pollute with impunity.

Thus Americans are faced with the uncomfortable irony that the institution dedicated to protecting them may in fact by the institution putting them most at risk. Its contribution to the threat of climate change alone makes any threat posed by terrorists look trivial indeed.

10 May 2015

Do conservatives believe in democracy?

Watching the Alberta election results on TV, the comments of a pundit representing the Conservative view caught my attention. The lady insisted that if the NDP won, oil companies would be closing their offices in Calgary, investment would move out of province, etc.—Armageddon waiting in the wings. Well, the NDP won, and this doesn't seem to be happening, but in any case it wasn't the prediction that concerned me. If some investors don't appreciate Canadians' election choices they can find many places to put their money where democracy won't be a distraction, and good luck with that.

What did bother me was that the lady didn't seem to see anything wrong with this sort of blackmail. Indeed she appeared to approve. She didn't seem concerned to ask what kind of democracy we have if corporations can punish us for electing a government they don't approve of. It is not, of course, any kind of democracy. It is plutocracy, or if you like, oligarchy.

Given that the encroaching of corporate power into the halls of government, and other institutions, is the major, indeed the only serious, threat to democracy in the twenty-first century, it is not encouraging that a large slice of the philosophical spectrum finds it acceptable. But perhaps this isn't so surprising. Conservatives, after all, are big on privilege and hierarchy. So an elite body—a house of lords, so to speak—guiding the benighted masses may be quite appropriate to the conservative world view. Elections yes, democracy not so much.

If this is so, maintaining democracy in the face of creeping corporate clout is a bigger challenge than we may think. Like General Mola in the Spanish Civil War, the corporate sector may have a fifth column inside the walls.

09 May 2015

Can academics serve two masters?

The steady encroaching of the corporate sector into the decision-making processes of our societies is the greatest threat to twenty-first century democracy. This includes encroachment into academia.

This troubling development was brought to light in the recent Alberta election. The NDP proposed a two per cent increase in the corporate tax rate. Jack Mintz, an esteemed University of Calgary economist, claimed the increase would cost the province billions in investment and 8,900 jobs. Given Mintz's impressive C.V., one might assume this is the gospel on corporate taxes, and one must therefore oppose the NDP 's proposal.

But wait. Dr. Mintz is more than a mere professor at the University of Calgary, he is also the director of its School of Public Policy. And he is something else. He is also a beneficiary of corporate largesse. He sits on the board of directors of Imperial Oil, a service for which he receives annual compensation of almost a quarter of a million dollars in cash and stock options.

Now I don't question the estimable Dr. Mintz's integrity, but a quarter of a million dollars can exert a powerful influence over one's thinking. Not that a responsible academic would allow it to affect his opinions. Or not consciously at least, but unconsciously it's another matter. Studies show that scientists who depend on corporate largesse produce results significantly more biased toward corporate interests than their independent colleagues. The subconscious is a powerful force, and a powerful rationalizer.

But whether Mintz's economics is corrupted by money or not isn't the main point. Academics are like judges: they must not only be impartial, they must be seen to be impartial. Accepting big bucks from an oil company doesn't exactly convey impartiality. Citizens in a democracy need unbiased sources of information and they have the right to expect that from universities. But can a citizen expect objective information and opinion on economics or public policy when the source of that information is receiving six-figure compensation from a narrow vested interest? Is the good professor offering economics or politics? Is the information coming from a school of public policy or a school of corporate policy? Mintz's dual role is a clear conflict of interest.

The University of Calgary is taking an unfortunately cavalier attitude toward the pursuit of knowledge by allowing professors to take money from interests vested in their areas of expertise. No one can be blamed for seeing Mintz's opinion on the NDP tax policy as biased, or for wondering what biases are creeping into the university's School of Public Policy, and that is unfortunate for Mintz, for the University of Calgary, for the public's understanding of economics, and for the democratic process. Academics can indeed serve two masters, and very profitably indeed, but at the cost of public trust.

07 May 2015

The Alberta NDP and proportional representation

I never thought I'd live long enough to see the day, but here it is. The NDP have been elected to the government of Alberta. I am ecstatic. Nonetheless, while my emotions soar, my logical self reminds me that they won a majority only because of our corrupt first-past-the-post electoral system. It’s comforting to know the system rewards the good guys as well as the bad guys, but it’s still an undemocratic system, and the people of Alberta are not fairly represented in their legislature.

A fair result, based on share of the popular vote, would be a minority NDP government with 36 seats rather than the 53 they won. The Conservatives would form the official opposition rather than the Wild Rose with 24 seats, as opposed to the 10 they have, and the Wild Rose, the only party that got the number of seats they deserved, would be in third place with 21. The Liberal Party would have 4 and the Alberta Party 2 rather than the one each they received. Of course all this assumes Albertans would have voted the same under a proportional representation system as they did under first-past-the-post—a big assumption. In any case, the election did not respect the will of the people, and that ain't right.

We cannot expect the NDP to bring in proportional representation—for obvious reasons—but we should at least expect them to legislate big money out of election funding, following the lead of their colleagues in Manitoba.

But, hey, enough already, today it is what it is. I will continue to do my bit for PR while at the same time savouring life under an NDP government here in—I can still hardly believe it—Alberta.

06 May 2015


04 May 2015

Why the U.S. can't solve its race problem

Is the Unites States a racist society? This is a question the nation wrestles with as one young black man after another is killed by the police. But the question may in a sense be irrelevant. The current turmoil may be due less to lingering racism than to the ignoring of history.

To explain, allow me, as this is Stanley Cup season, to use a hockey analogy. Let us assume we want to play a pick-up game. We manage to round up some friends and, taking care to balance abilities, we create two teams, A and B. A has six players and B five. The game is on. At the end of the first period, Team A is up five goals. How can this be we say, we took such care to balance the teams skills. And then we realize Team A has an extra player. We agree that's not fair, so we find another player for Team B. Now are the teams equal? Many would answer yes, but they would, of course, be wrong. They would be ignoring the five goals.

So to make things fair, someone, probably a socialist, suggests taking away Team A's goals. But then others, possibly conservatives, jump up and say you can't just take away their goals. They worked hard for them, they have earned them. So the socialist says, OK, then let's give Team B five goals. The conservatives jump up again and say you can't just give them goals, they have to work for them, just as Team A did. So you are stuck. And so is Team B. They will be losers as long as the game lasts.
And this is exactly the position of blacks in the U.S. The generations of brutal oppression they suffered did not magically disappear when the civil rights movement, with victories in the courts and legislatures, brought them legal equality. Legally, a black American has the same rights as a white American yet, in 2011, the median household income for whites was $67,175, for blacks $39,760. That alone illustrates a huge disadvantage, a disadvantage that will remain until the mistakes of history are corrected.

The only way to make Teams A and B equal is to take away goals from Team A and/or give goals to Team B, i.e. by some form of affirmative action. You have to correct history. And so it is with blacks and whites in the United States. The refusal of Americans to accept full, including material, responsibility for the mistakes of the past is the root cause of the current turmoil. The police may be racist but they are also at the sharp edge of a very unequal society, victims too in a way. Until Americans take up the challenge of that ingrained inequality, the racial problem will persist. Compensating blacks for generations of free labour that went into building the country would be a start.

We, too, have historical errors to correct, specifically with our Native people. High crime rates among young Native men, for example, lead to wasted lives for them and grief and expense for the rest of society. History is long with us. You can ignore it, but it won't ignore you.

03 May 2015

Calgary Chamber of Commerce not afraid of the socialist hordes

Chambers of Commerce are not the greatest fans of social democratic political parties. And the Calgary chamber is not the greatest fan of the Alberta NDP. But neither is it particularly hostile. On the contrary, it had some nice things to say after NDP leader Rachel Notley addressed its members last week in the run-up to the May 5th election.

The chamber did not approve of the NDP's proposal to raise corporate taxes or to review the oil and gas royalty regime. No surprise there. But they did approve of some of its policies, including its recognition of challenges in the agricultural sector, proper funding for the Auditor General's office, and in-province refining and upgrading of oil and gas. The chamber's policy director, Justin Smith, said the meeting was positive and the two sides agreed to disagree on issues such as the corporate tax hike.

Interestingly, some of the things they liked about the Conservative platform would fit comfortably with NDP policies, such as a more progressive income tax, more savings in the Heritage Fund, and continued investment in infrastructure.

All in all, there appears to be a mutual respect which bears well for a more open and mature Alberta politics.

Finally, a political party with the guts to talk tax hikes

The right-wing mantras of no new taxes and tax cuts have become so embedded in political discourse that suggesting a tax increase, regardless of the social good it may do, has become almost taboo. Even liberal and left-wing politicians have become reluctant to insist on levels of taxation necessary for the quantity and quality of services Canadians want. But finally, a political party has broken the taboo and included appropriate tax increases in its election platform.

The Alberta NDP have promised to introduce a number of tax increases if they should win the May 5th election. These include an increase in the corporate tax rate from 10 to 12 per cent; and a progressive income tax of 12% on income between $125,000 and $150,000 rising to 15% on income over $300,000. Only the top 10% of filers will be affected by the progressive rates. In all fairness, Premier Jim Prentice also abandoned the infamous flat tax in his recent budget but on a much more modest scale.

The small business tax will remain the same, and there will be no sales tax (Ah, Alberta!). The NDP would also review the oil and gas royalty regime.

The increases are hardly revolutionary but their proposal is at least a welcome departure from the unfortunate political correctness that has settled in around tax hikes. And, of no small importance, they certainly don't seem to be hurting the NDP in the polls, which suggests that it isn't the voters who want to avoid the discussion.

02 May 2015

Iran is standing down—will the U.S. and Russia?

Iran has recently agreed, after intense negotiations, to take steps to ensure it cannot produce a nuclear weapon. It claimed it had no intention of doing so anyway, but has now bowed to bullying by the nuclear powers for assurances in black and white. Iran is in effect guaranteeing that it will abide by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory, which precludes non-nuclear nations from obtaining the bomb.

Now the question arises—after pressuring Iran into offering guarantees, will the United States and Russia offer some themselves. Both nations are also signatories of the treaty, and as nuclear nations are obligated to disarm themselves of nuclear weapons, something neither of them are doing. Now an organization named Global Zero is calling on them to put their money where their mouths are. Its high-level commission of military experts—led by former U.S. commander of nuclear forces General James Cartwright—is urgently requesting both countries to stand down their nuclear weapons.

As I write this blog, hundreds of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons are poised to launch at a moment’s notice. Only a short series of computer signals stands between us and nuclear Armageddon. Global Zero is calling on the two nations to immediately end their “launch-on-warning” policies, which could unleash hundreds of nuclear missiles in response to a false alarm. Secondly, they want them to agree to taking their massive arsenals off high alert. Thirdly, they recommend locking in international commitments that would prevent all nuclear weapons from being placed on hair-trigger alert anywhere, thus stopping the trend from spreading to other nuclear countries.

Global Zero is a "non-partisan international community of influential political, military, business, civic and faith leaders—matched by a powerful global grass-roots movement" with the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons by 2030. You can support the movement here. (It's an interesting site.)

The response of the U.S. and Russia to their challenge will indicate whether or not the nuclear powers truly want a nuclear-free world or just want to keep nukes to themselves. We shall see.

Chrétien, Putin and Harper—opportunity lost?

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien's recent chat with Vladimir Putin in Moscow presents an opportunity to our government. Since Mr. Harper has, unlike all the other G7 leaders, refused to talk to the Russian leader, a debriefing of Mr. Chrétien would offer him a possibility of learning what motivates Putin's actions in Ukraine—his sentiments, his goals and his perspectives. Understanding the man would increase the chances of negotiating a peaceful solution to the hostilities in the region. Commonly in international affairs, leaders of hostile nations find common ground for compromise through neutral intermediaries. A leader can gain critical knowledge while avoiding loss of face.

The chance that Harper will avail himself of this opportunity is slim. First, Jean Chrétien is a Liberal and the prime minister hates Liberals. He is unlikely to ask one for advice no matter how useful that advice might be. Second, and more to the point, Harper is incapable of recognizing that an opponent may have valid reasons for his actions. To Harper, everything is black and white. If you're one of us, you are 100 per cent right, if you're antagonistic to one of us, you are 100 per cent wrong. Thus, in Ukraine, Putin is 100 per cent wrong. What he, and Russians generally, feel or think about the security of their country's borders, about their legitimate fear of invasion from the west, is irrelevant. There is nothing to talk about.

At one time—back in the good old days—I thought it unfortunate Canada didn't have more clout on the world stage. We were widely seen as honest brokers whose ability to appreciate both sides of a dispute and whose mastery of compromise could bring hostile parties together. Not any more. Now I am grateful we have little influence. A man like Harper, with his simplistic us and them attitude, would be dangerous if he held any real power in the world. Fortunately, for us and others, his preening self-righteousness isn't taken too seriously.

If Harper does arrange for a meeting with Chrétien in order to exploit his superior knowledge of what makes Putin tick, I'll duly apologize. But I have little fear of that happening.