28 January 2016

Technology bargain betrayed—where have all the rewards gone?

Early in the Industrial Revolution, many workers were concerned about being replaced by machines. The most well known group were the Luddites, British weavers who smashed mechanical looms that threatened to replace them with low-wage labourers, leaving them without work. Today we look with disdain upon the Luddites, applying the term as pointless resistance to change.

The Luddites lost their fight, of course, and ultimately the replacement of worker by machine turned out to be beneficial for workers. Technological progress allowed for increased efficiency and that in turn allowed workers to be more productive. As a result, as a sort of bargain for accepting the change, workers were better paid, gained more benefits and, of no small importance, spent less time working. Early in the Industrial Revolution people commonly worked twelve to sixteen hours a day, six to seven days a week. After WWII, this had dropped to eight hours a day five days a week.

In the last few decades we have experienced one of the most remarkable periods of technological progress in history, including four computer revolutions, from the computers that transformed business in the 1960s, to the personal computer, to the Internet and World Wide Web, to the smartphone. Consequently, workers should expect the rewards of such progress—substantially higher wages, better benefits and perhaps a three or four-day work week. In fact, we have seen none of these things. The incomes of the middle class have stagnated, benefits have been threatened, and we are working nearly as many hours as we did fifty years ago. It appears technological progress has betrayed its bargain.

Why? Did the computer revolutions fail to increase efficiency? Indeed they did not. According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canadian labour productivity in constant dollars increased by about 60 per cent from 1975 to 2012. Joel Rogers, director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, predicts that if wages tracked productivity, “Median family income in the U.S. would be about $20,000 higher today than it is.”

So where has the new wealth gone? According to an OECD study, 37 per cent of income growth in Canada over the period 1975-2007 was scooped up by the infamous top one per cent of income earners. James Henry, a senior advisor for the Tax Justice Network, claims that, “The world’s super-rich have taken advantage of lax tax rules to siphon off at least US$21-trillion, and possibly as much as US$32-trillion, from their home countries and hide it abroad."

The computer revolutions have been very generous to the rich. For the rest of us they have provided us with some nice stuff—we love our laptops and our smartphones—but they have betrayed the promise of financial and time rewards to balance the workplace downside.

And the downside is real, in some cases as a direct result of computerization. For example, Amazon's sweatshops have taken the workplace back to the 19th century. Uber, the ride app, allows its owners to make billions off the exploitation of cheap labour. And as the computer revolutions continue, we increasingly see well-paid workers replaced by robots.

The answer to this betrayal is not Luddism. Technological progress is still to be welcomed for its promise. The challenge is political, to ensure the promise is enjoyed by everyone. Labour had to fight Capital for its share of wealth and spare time throughout the Industrial Age; now the struggle continues into the Information Age. Some things, as they say, never change.

24 January 2016

Oceans of plastic

What comes to mind when you think of oceans? Fish, of course. But what about plastic? Most people know we are dumping a lot of plastic into the world's oceans, but many would be surprised at just how much. According to a report published by the World Economic Forum, by mid-century the oceans will contain more plastic, by weight, than fish. As the oceans are fished out, the amount of plastic dumped into them steadily increases.

We currently dump eight million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year, the equivalent of a dump truck of plastic every minute. By 2030 it will be two trucks a minute; and by 2050, four a minute, at which time there will be as much plastic in the oceans as fish. It turns up everywhere from the deep sea to buried in Arctic ice. We are turning the oceans into plastic soup.

This has severe effects on the environment and on our economy. Fish, seabirds, whales, turtles and other marine life eat plastic and die from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation. Toxic chemicals from the plastic, such as bisphenol A, an endocrine-disruptor, leach out and are absorbed by fish and ultimately, therefore, by us.

Yet another argument for a lot less plastic and a lot more recycling.

On Putin the poisoner

According to a report by former British High Court judge Robert Owen, the 2006 murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London was carried out by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and probably approved by President Vladimir Putin. Putin has, of course, denied the charge but I would put my money on the good judge, partly because he is a more credible figure, partly because his report is exceptionally thorough, and partly because the operation is typical Putin.

Indeed, so much murder is associated with the Russian president that the idea he would have Litvinenko killed comes as no surprise. He certainly had good reason. Litvinenko accused the FSB of carrying out the 1999 apartment-block bombings that killed more than 200 people in Russia, and which Putin blamed on Chechen separatists and used to launch his brutal suppression of Chechen independence.

The animosity between the two men goes back decades to when Putin was the director of the FSB and Litvinenko complained about corruption (to no effect). He accused the FSB of collusion with organized crime and in 2006 wrote an article claiming Putin was a paedophile who had used his power as FSB chief to destroy videotapes of himself having sex with underage boys. Shortly before his death, Litvinenko accused the president of responsibility for the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. And it didn't help that he was working with MI6 and two of Putin's most outspoken critics, oligarch Boris Berezovsky and exiled Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev.

What will come of this? Not much. Britain desperately wants Russian support in dealing with the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the British government didn't want Sir Robert’s inquiry in the first place and certainly would have preferred his report not be published at this sensitive time.

Putin has gained a certain degree of respectability in the West since becoming a more-or-less partner in the fight against the Islamic State, and the report serves as a good reminder of the kind of man we are dealing with. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will continue to have a relationship with him but "with clear eyes and a very cold heart." Wise approach.

15 January 2016

Bishop Henry pontificates on LGBTQ rights

The Alberta government has established LGBTQ guidelines for the province's schools. This story would not be complete without comments from Calgary's Bishop Fred Henry. The good bishop has excoriated the guidelines as "anti-Catholic" and "totalitarian."

He claims that Catholic schools, which will be subject to the guidelines, already require that all students be equally respected. Considering that is the whole point of the new guidelines—to ensure that LGBTQ students are equally respected—it isn't easy to appreciate Henry's complaints.

He states that, "Our teaching is rather simple and direct. God created beings as male and female." God (I prefer "nature" but I'll gracefully use the bishop's term) did indeed create beings as male and female, and She did it for a purpose—procreation. By committing himself to celibacy, it would appear the bishop is thwarting God's purpose, not exactly a lofty position to lecture from.

In any case, when God created male and female, She didn't make it that simple. She created males who prefer sex with other males, and persons that are physically male but psychologically female, and other variations on the theme. Conservative souls, such as Bishop Henry, prefer things "simple and direct," black and white, male and female, while God loves variety.

Considering the bishop personally denies God's sexual purpose, and rejects Her delight in gender diversity, perhaps he should refrain from speaking on Her behalf.

03 January 2016

Time to reverse Canada's peacekeeping decline

At one time, back in the early 90's, Canada contributed more troops to UN peacekeeping missions than anyone else. We were number one. Today, with only 26 military personnel involved, we rank 66th.

Peacekeeping itself has continued to grow. The UN is now deploying more peacekeepers to world hot spots than at any time in its history with 130,000 military, police and civilian personnel serving in 16 missions. The UN now puts more troops in the field than any other actor including the American military, and the missions are more complex than ever. Our financial contribution has paralleled this growth, but when it comes to boots on the ground, we have become something of a slacker.

Now that we have fired the militaristically-inclined Stephen Harper, who saw our forces as a sort of foreign legion for the American empire and despised the UN, and replaced him with a PM who has a more comprehensive view of the world's challenges, perhaps we can return to the role we once filled so well. As a country with advanced military and logistics capabilities, we can make a major contribution to the effectiveness of operations.

At U.S. President Obama's Peacekeeping Summit last October a number of nations, including European governments and China, pledged to commit 40,000 new troops and police, 40 utility and attack helicopters, 15 military engineering companies and 10 field hospitals. We can and should be part of this renewed interest.  Canadians, after all, have consistently said they prefer our military peacekeeping rather than war-fighting.

Quite aside from the altruistic goal of helping to create a more peaceful world, as a trading nation we have much to gain from international stability. With no external threat to our borders, this is an effective way to get value for money out of our military. By helping the world, we can help ourselves.