26 February 2016

Saudis to Alberta—Tough Shit!

Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi didn't say quite what I've suggested in my headline, but only the words differed, not the sentiment. The Saudis, as we all know, have been opening up the oil taps lately, driving their production up and driving the price down. The low price is hurting a lot of people, including us. The minister has no sympathy. What he actually told a crowd of U.S. oil executives in Texas on Tuesday was, "Inefficient, uneconomic producers will have to get out, that is tough to say, but that's fact." That means us and our bitumen.

He did say OPEC had met with non-OPEC producers, but it was a short meeting. According to the minister, "We asked 'what are you going to do?' They said nothing. We said the meeting is over."

What al-Naimi was illustrating was the myth about oil and the free market. Alberta is a relatively conservative place, despite its NDP government, so belief in the free market is strong. And nowhere is it stronger than in the oil industry.

But the fact is that the free market has more often than not been no more than a minor, even trivial, influence on the price of oil. When OPEC first began to flex its muscles in the 1970s, it became the main determinant of oil price, merely by turning the taps. Its power has declined but it obviously still has considerable clout. It was OPEC, not a free market, that first drove oil from three dollars a barrel to thirty practically overnight. It was that bane of neoliberals—government interference in the marketplace.

The Saudis made us rich and now they are making us poor. Such are the whims of sheikhs, not of a free market.

23 February 2016

Welcome to the Chief Science Officer

Leading up to the 2015 federal election I volunteered my efforts to the group Evidence for Democracy (E4D), a group formed in reaction to the Harper government's "war on science." I am now delighted to see that, in keeping with its election promise, the new Liberal government has appointed a Chief Science Officer, thereby fulfilling one of the goals of E4D. As Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of the group, said about the good news, "This position has the potential to make a huge difference for science in Canada."

Indeed it has. In his Mandate Letter to Dr. Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, the Prime Minister instructed the Minister to "Create a Chief Science Officer mandated to ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions."

Should the minister fulfill her mandate, we will have a much better-informed Cabinet and Parliament when it comes to how science affects issues and how it should direct policies. And we will have a more scientifically literate public to assess those policies. And, last but not least, it will be nice to hear directly from our scientists again. Sunny days.

As for E4D, it intends to apply itself to ensuring "that the Chief Science Officer position is properly designed—this new office must be effective, robust and broadly respected." It could use all our help.

21 February 2016

Is our policy on ISIS predestined?

No one wants to say unpleasant things about their friends. But what do you do if your friends are engaged in serial misbehaviour and you are getting dragged into it? Do you end your friendships, do you tell your friends to behave themselves, or do you just allow yourself to be dragged in?

This is the dilemma our government faces in the Middle East. The major troubles of that region have been caused in large part by the imperialist practices of three of our best friends: France, Britain and the United States.

The imperial powers have been making mischief in the region before and since the end of WWI when the British and the French carved up the old Ottoman Empire under the Sykes–Picot Agreement. (One of the stated goals of ISIS is to reverse the effects of that agreement). The last great binge of Western imperialism in the Middle East was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, one of the products of which was ISIS, and we, despite wisely opting out of the invasion, have now been dragged into dealing with it.

We cannot end our friendships with these powers. We are tied to them by generations of history and, of no small importance, we depend on the U.S. for 75 per cent of our exports. We need them a lot more than they need us. We have on occasion refused to be dragged into their messes while tactfully suggesting they are misbehaving, but it's too late in the game for that in dealing with ISIS. We are already in and to walk away now would require the government to explain itself publicly, and therein lies the problem.

That would require pointing a finger at the culprits, something political incorrectness simply does not allow us to do. It does not allow the very honest and open discussion and debate this issue demands.

Our previous government faced no such problem. It simply wouldn't accept that our friends were capable of sin. Israel could do whatever it wanted to the Palestinians and the US. could do whatever it wanted to just about anybody, and our job was to support our friends unreservedly. This is not a healthy friendship—one of the best things a good friend can do is tell you when your doing wrong—but it was part of Stephen Harper's black and white view of the world.

Trudeau is much more likely to understand issues in depth and recognize causes as well as effects. When he suggested it was important to understand the root causes of terrorism he was mocked by the Conservatives with comments about "committing sociology," but it indicated that he was at least thinking about Muslim extremism in more depth than the government of the day.

So this is his challenge. How can he withdraw from imperialist entanglements when he is unable to explain to Canadians, or anyone else, why we are withdrawing? Perhaps I misjudge Trudeau and he is as eager to be onside as Harper was, but it doesn't really matter. He is boxed in. And so are we. The terrorists have scripted war with the infidel and are masterfully sucking us all in.

20 February 2016

The Conservatives' shameful motion

Late last week, the Conservatives made a motion in the House of Commons that was unworthy of the place. The motion was to "reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and call upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement." Naturally, I immediately emailed my MP instructing him to vote against it.

The motion is objectionable on at least three counts:

First, the claim that the BDS movement "promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel" is a slander. What the movement promotes is a boycott against Israel until it ends its occupation of Arab lands, treats Palestinians equally and respects the rights of refugees to return to their homes. It encourages neither demonization nor delegitimization.

Second, calling upon government to condemn its citizens because it disagrees with their ideas is not something that governments do in a free society.

Third, the leaders of the international community have for almost 70 years—three generations—utterly failed to bring justice to the Palestinian people. Indeed, they have worse than failed—the Palestinians' circumstances have deteriorated and their loss of land continues to the point where a two-state solution may no longer be viable. Given this failure, how can world leaders, in good conscience, reject a non-violent initiative by ordinary citizens to encourage a fair settlement for these beleaguered people.

The initiative is in itself thoroughly justified. Israel has ethnically cleansed the Palestinians, collectively punished them, racially discriminated against them, subjected them to military occupation and colonized ever more of their land. Israel has thus made itself deserving of boycott, divestment and sanctions. The entirely peaceful strategy of the movement is similarly justified.

The Conservatives claim to be friends of Israel yet here they are once again dividing Canadians by shamefully exploiting the country as a political wedge issue. With friends like this ...

18 February 2016

Another record temperature ... but look on the bright side

Here in Calgary we have been enjoying weather that, for the season, can only be described as balmy. Like last year, February has been more spring than winter.

One of the reasons, of course, is our warming planet. The figures are in for January and the Earth just extended its hottest-months-on-record to nine in a row. And that's not all. January's temperature was highest above normal for any month ever recorded. And it doesn't end there. Arctic sea ice reached its lowest point ever for January. Siberia, northwest Canada, and much of Alaska were at least five degrees Celsius above normal. A record-breaker three times over—what a month!

So, what to do, what to do. Given my advanced age I will be long gone by the time global warming brings civilization crashing down around our ears, so should I worry about it or should I just ignore humanity's foolishness and enjoy the warm days warming my old bones? Hmmmm.

Stalin returns (and he is Putin)

Sometimes the perversity of people seems to know no bounds. A fine example of this is illustrated in a recent article in Foreign Policy which discusses the rehabilitation of Stalin in Russia. Yes, it boggles the mind, but one of the greatest monsters of the twentieth century, a mass-murdering megalomaniacal dictator, is being resurrected as a hero.

This historical revisionism is much encouraged by President Vladimir Putin. As the economy decays, as corruption worsens, as the free press dies, as dissent is suppressed with increasing brutality, as the country is dragged into foreign adventures it can't afford, he finds the old ogre useful.

He has publicly defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, standardized history books to gloss over Stalin’s crimes, supported the reappearance of statues of Stalin, and closed a centre that exposed the horrors of Stalin’s GULAG.

The appeal of Stalin to Russians lies mainly in the fact he led them to victory in WWII, the Great Patriotic War. And indeed he was their leader during the war, but how much credit he should get must take into account that from 1937 to 1941 he decapitated the Soviet military, murdering tens of thousands of officers including most of its theoreticians and senior commanders. Without this slaughter, he Russian military would have been much more able to defend the homeland, much more effective in defeating Hitler, and millions of Russians, civilians and soldiers, need not have died. But then to Stalin, millions of dead were a mere statistic.

In any case, the propaganda is working. A 2014 poll found that over half of Russians believe Stalin played a positive role in the history of the nation and almost half now believe that the sacrifices made during the Stalin years were justified.

Putin has set the stage. Remember Stalin! Sacrifices must be made for the good of Mother Russia. We are besieged by enemies within—homosexuals, foreigners, NGOs, activists—and without—America, the European Union, Ukrainian fascists. Russia and the Russian way of life are under attack, and Russia must unite around its leader to defend herself.

And, indeed, the Russian people are uniting around him. Despite the deteriorating state of the nation, Putin remains remarkably popular with an 80 per cent rating in the polls, a rating any leader of a Western democracy would give his right arm for.

What is even more disturbing than the gullibility (ignorance? perversity?) of the Russian people, the willingness to victimize themselves, is that more than a few in the Western democracies have become forgiving of Putin, perhaps because of his "success" in Syria, perhaps because of his strongman leadership, or perhaps simply because he annoys the United States. I am reminded of Stalin's famous quote about useful idiots.

17 February 2016

A green NAFTA? Is it possible?

It isn't much but it's promising. Last Friday, Canada, the United States and Mexico signed a memorandum of understanding that could lead to a North American accord on climate change and clean energy. According to the CBC story, "This essentially kickstarts the detailed, behind the scenes work needed for a continent-wide agreement that will enable all three countries to work together on clean energy and options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." The memo indicates that clean energy has become a top priority both for our new government and across North America.

According to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, "This memorandum takes the important strides we've made in recent years towards a continental approach to energy and expands our relationship in support of an even more ambitious clean-energy environmental agreement."

Environmentalists were also upbeat. Keith Stewart, head of Greenpeace Canada's climate and energy campaign, said "This is the kind of thing that has been done on trade, it hasn't been done on climate change. If this is a first step in that direction, it's a good thing." Clare Demerse, senior policy adviser with Clean Energy Canada, stated "It shows how seriously our countries will be starting to take clean energy," and added, "For years the American government has been trying to talk to Canada about clean energy and unfortunately they kept hearing back about pipelines. It was a bit of a dialogue of the deaf. Now, we are finally catching up to where our allies are, and that will make the conversation and relationship a more effective one."

Next month the Prime Minister will meet with the premiers in Vancouver to talk about a national climate strategy. The outcome of that meeting should give us a good idea of just how "effective" our end of the conversation with our two amigos will be, a conversation based on transmission lines rather than pipelines.

15 February 2016

Returning to Libya

My position on ISIS is that it was a product of the American-led coalition's invasion of Iraq, therefore it is up to the coalition members to deal with it. As my dear mother taught me, if you make a mess, you clean it up. Fortunately, we wisely chose not to participate in the coalition, consequently we have no obligation to get involved in the cleanup.

Unfortunately, we were part of another American-led coalition, the one that assisted Libyan rebels in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and that too created a mess. As a result of the overthrow, Libya has descended into chaos. Taking advantage of the chaos is ISIS which currently has an estimated 6,000 fighters in the country. Naturally, the presence of the Islamic extremists on a new front immediately across the Mediterranean from Europe has Western nations nervous. The Pentagon wants to expand the campaign against ISIS into Libya and has already been sniffing around the country to make contact with local forces and get a clearer picture of what’s happening on the ground.

And where are we on all this? According to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Canada could soon be joining yet another coalition, this time to take on ISIS in Libya. What this will entail, he has not said. Considering the Libyans don't want foreign forces in their country, I presume it will be about bombing.

Having said what I did about messes, and Canada being partly responsible for this one, I suppose I am obliged to support our participation. But my heart isn't in it. After all, I never supported the government that got us into Libya in the first place, and getting militarily involved in the Middle East with the imperialists that have caused most of that region's troubles is not something I like to see our country doing.

If we are to be involved, we must have the permission of the Libyan government. The problem is that there are at least three: one based in Tripoli, another in Tobruk, both backed by alliances of armed brigades and former rebels, to say nothing of foreign sponsors with conflicting interests, and yet a third—a unity government cobbled together under UN auspices that awaits approval of the other two.

However we decide to participate, it should only be with the approval of the UN, the unity government should it actually come to be, and other countries in the regon. This is an oil-rich nation and there are a lot of other nations with agendas that don't put Libya's interests first. We can't beg off this one, as we ought to do with the Iraq/Syria ISIS debacle, but we shouldn't accept anything that doesn't have an excellent chance of improving Libya for the Libyans. It will be interesting to see what Minister Sajjan and his colleagues have in mind for us.

14 February 2016

"Liberal" is back in the U.S.

Liberal is one of the most honourable words in politics or, indeed, in life generally. According to my ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary, it means "open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behaviour of others," and what better basis for a good society than that. Indeed, we proudly call our political system a "liberal democracy."

Unfortunately, U.S. conservatives managed to turn "liberal" into a dirty word thereby handicapping the nation's ability to absorb "new ideas for progress." But this is changing. According to a Pew Research Centre survey, in the last few years Democratic voters have become increasingly comfortable with the label "liberal." In 2015, for the first time in a long time, more were identifying themselves as liberals than as moderates.

This is due in part to Democrats coming together on issues. For example, twenty years ago homosexuality and immigration seriously divided the Democratic Party, but today Democrats, like the nation generally, are much more accepting of both gays and immigrants. The proportion of Democrats who are liberal on all or most issues has nearly doubled over the past twenty years.

With Bernie Sanders making a serious run at the Democratic nomination for president, the next Pew survey may be about how many Democrats identify themselves as socialists.

Knock it off, Tom, it wasn't the niqab

I am a long-time member of the NDP but not, I'm afraid, a member of the Tom Mulcair fan club. I didn't support his election to leader primarily because I've never believed he is a committed social democrat. He seems more of an opportunistic liberal, about as left-wing as Tony Blair. (Oddly, the leading socialist in North America these days is an American.)

Nonetheless, Mulcair wants very much to remain head of the NDP, and insists he should lead the party into the next election, while blaming the loss of the last one on decisions he made around TV debates and the niqab. The niqab "hurt us terribly," he recently said, "I can share with you that the polling we did showed we dropped over 20 points in 48 hours here in Quebec because of the strong stand I took on the niqab."

Well, maybe. He's got the figures in front of him and I don't, so I'll have to take his word for it. But Trudeau made a vigorous defence of the niqab and it didn't seem to hurt him in Quebec or anywhere else. The trends of the cross-country polling showed the NDP peaking in late August and declining fairly steadily after that. But the niqab debate didn't heat up until late September and, interestingly, that's when the Liberals took off.

In light of the above, Tom's niqab-blaming looks a bit dodgy and, quite frankly, leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Sounding rueful about taking a stand on civil rights is not something a social democrat should ever do.

The NDP election effort lacked inspired leadership and the platform was too cautious. The party needs to get back to its social democratic roots and it needs a leader to take it there. Enough of this middle-of-the-road pretense.

07 February 2016

Christy Clark's disingenuous comments on the TPP

B.C. Premier Christy Clark is a very big fan of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement—in her words, a "100 per cent" supporter. In a comment on CBC Radio's The House, the premier stated, "We do 60 per cent of our trade with TPP countries in British Columbia, if we are not signed on to that deal we are going to be shut out," sounding as if without the agreement her province would face economic Armageddon.

A quick check of the facts, however, suggests another story. B.C. did indeed do 63 per cent of its export trade with TPP nations in 2015, but the great part of it was with the United States (52 per cent) and we already have a comprehensive trade agreement—the NAFTA—with the U.S. Only 12 per cent of B.C.'s exports go to other TPP nations, almost entirely to Japan. Potentially losing a portion of 12 per cent could hardly be described as "shut out."

The province's second biggest trading partner is China (17 per cent) which, of course, is not party to the agreement.

Ms. Clark's hyperbole is not, I hope, typical of arguments in favour of the TPP although, as I discussed in my previous post, the agreement appears to be a great deal less than what its proponents would have us believe.

06 February 2016

TPP—trading down?

According to its proponents, the "trade" agreement the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will generate economic benefits to all parties by eliminating obstacles to trade and investment.

A study out of Tufts University—Trading Down: Unemployment, Inequality and Other Risks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement—offers another opinion. The Tufts' economists made their projections using the United Nations Global Policy Model which they claim "provides more sensible projections because it allows for changes in employment and inequality and incorporates the impact those changes have on aggregate demand and economic growth."

Their results show that some countries, including Japan and the U.S., would suffer net losses of GDP, and all countries would suffer employment losses and higher income inequality. Specifically, by 2025 Canada would trade a .28 per cent increase in GDP for a loss of 58,000 jobs and a .86 drop in labour's share of GDP. In other words, what benefits do occur will go to capital at the expense of labour.

Quite aside from the long list of problems already identified with the proposed agreement, it now appears the promised benefits may be an illusion.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has formally signed the TPP, however she has also pledged to hold broad consultations and a full and open debate in Parliament before it is ratified. It would be utter foolishness to ratify the deal before the U.S. presidential election in November as both Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton oppose it. If the democratic candidate becomes president and backs off the deal, our government will have an easy out. And that, it increasingly seems, would be a very good thing.

01 February 2016

Notley quite correctly accepted the Royalty Review Panel's conclusions

The Alberta Royalty Review Advisory Panel has concluded its study and issued its report. One of its conclusions, and certainly its most controversial, was, "Alberta’s total fiscal take (including royalties) from crude oil and natural gas wells is reasonably positioned against its most direct competitors." In other words, there is no justification for raising royalties.

Was I surprised? Absolutely. Do I believe the Alberta government should have accepted this conclusion? Again, absolutely. Indeed, I believe it had no choice. It appointed the review panel and is therefore honour-bound to accept its conclusions whether it likes them or not.

It has nonetheless raised the ire of many of its supporters including Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan, who claims his organization's suggestions and concerns were "passed over in favour of a plan that could have been introduced by a PC or Wildrose government" and accused the NDP of being "captured by industry."

My own surprise resulted from ignorance. I had for a long time assumed our royalties were too low relative to other jurisdictions, but this was based more on hunch than knowledge. (In my defence, Alberta's royalty scheme is very complex—the panel has recommended greater transparency.) The panel did a thorough comparison of rates and found that Alberta's revenue share is roughly the same, for instance, as that of Texas and North Dakota (and much higher than Saskatchewan’s).

The panel did extensive research and consultation. Over several months, they considered 132 submissions, the views of Albertans at dozens of public meetings, and the advice of three groups of experts. They did their homework and therefore I accept their results.

I respect the process: impanel a group of respected citizens; have them consult widely with the public, interest groups, and experts on the issue; and then make appropriate recommendations to government. The government should in turn act on the recommendations. The Alberta government has done just that, it has engaged in evidence-based decision-making and I applaud it for doing so. I do not want to see the Harper approach (ignore the experts, go with your gut) adopted in Alberta.

Modest proposals for our defence policy

The federal government has promised to develop a new defence strategy for the country and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has confirmed the public will be asked to participate. I thought, therefore, I would get my two cents in early.

The minister's mandate letter states, "As Minister of National Defence, your overarching goal will be to ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces are equipped and prepared, if called upon, to protect Canadian sovereignty, defend North America, provide disaster relief, conduct search and rescue, support United Nations peace operations, and contribute to the security of our allies and to allied and coalition operations abroad."

Some of this I can agree with, some not so much. For example, the first bit, about protecting Canadian sovereignty and defending North America, these are reasonable responsibilities but considering there are no apparent threats to Canadian sovereignty and no one is about to storm the borders of North America, they are not items we should spend a lot of dollars on. "Provide disaster relief, conduct search and rescue and support United Nations peace operations" I wholeheartedly concur with. Facing the increasing severity of weather events caused by climate change, we might train forces specifically for this challenge, in effect disaster forces rather than armed forces. Redirecting the use of the military to respond to environmental disasters was in fact part of the Liberals’ platform.

The last part of the mandate letter, particularly "contribute to ... coalition operations abroad," is suspect. This seems to lead to us collaborating with the increasingly redundant NATO and acting as a foreign legion for American imperialist adventures. We are, for example, currently being called upon to fight ISIS in the Middle East. ISIS is a product of the last great binge of Western imperialism in that region—the invasion of Iraq—and that is precisely the kind of war-making we should avoid.

In summary, we need to spend much less on conventional warfare and more on peacekeeping and dealing with national and international disasters. Considering we are not at war and have no enemies posing a threat of war, there should be ample room to reduce the defence budget overall and use the money to improve the lives of Canadians. You can sign a petition to that effect here.