28 July 2014

Germany stands up for democracy

Finally, someone has said enough to the erosion of democracy brought about by "trade" agreements. From NAFTA to the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, these agreements have eroded the power of governments in favour of investors.

International agreements are, in themselves, a very good idea, one way of imposing orderly behaviour among nations, and trade has always been a way of bringing people together. If we are to have trade agreements, as with any international agreement, we have to sacrifice a certain degree of sovereignty to the larger good. Unfortunately, these agreements go much further than what is necessary. For instance, by incorporating investor-state dispute settlement provisions, they have been used as instruments to provide foreign corporations the right to sue national governments, not in the nation's courts, but via trade panels established under the agreements. A three-person panel could, behind closed doors, override a nation's laws, in effect dismissing both democracy and due process.

It is precisely for this reason that Germany has declared it will not sign CETA. According to Deputy Economy Minister Stefan Kapferer, "The German government does not view as necessary stipulations on investor protection, including on arbitration cases between investors and the state with states that guarantee a resilient legal system and sufficient legal protection from independent national courts." The Germans have already taken a similar position in the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement with the United States.

Germany is showing a respect for its courts that unfortunately our government infamously does not have. How ironic that we must take lessons on democracy from our old foe, but this isn't particularly surprising—Germany is now, in a number of important ways, a much more democratic nation than any in North America.

26 July 2014

NHL is worried about global warming—listen up, Mr. Harper

Surprising perhaps, but the National Hockey League now produces a sustainability report. And it's worried about global warming. According to League Commissioner Gary Bettman, "Our sport can trace its roots to frozen freshwater ponds, to cold climates. Major environmental challenges, such as climate change and freshwater scarcity, affect opportunities for hockey players of all ages to learn and play the game outdoors." This is the first sustainability report produced by a pro sports league.

It presents the league's carbon inventory, detailing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its operations, including energy and water use, waste and travel, acknowledging that NHL hockey is energy intensive. The league has established an initiative, NHL Green, to raise the level of environmental consciousness among fans and arena operators, and encourage improvements within its buildings and operations.

Mike Richter, three-time NHL All-Star goalie, now environmental champion, concludes the report stating that researchers have "found a 20 to 30 per cent decrease in the length of Canadian skating seasons over the past 50 years, with the biggest drops in Alberta, eastern British Columbia, and the southern Prairie regions."

Perhaps Mr. Richter could convince hockey fan Stephen Harper to add another chapter to his book about hockey discussing the threat global warming poses to the "Great Game." And then add what he learns to a new chapter in his environmental policy.

25 July 2014

Hamas more legitimate than Harper's Conservatives

Discussions on the Palestine issue are usually framed as Hamas vs. Israel. This suggests Hamas is merely an organization when in fact it is the democratically-elected government of Palestine, having won the last all-Palestine election in 2006. Or at least it was. That government collapsed after violent assault from Israel including the arrest of dozens of parliamentarians, sanctions by Israel and the West (supported, to our shame, by Canada) and ultimately fighting between Hamas and its rival, Fatah. Nonetheless, no election has been held since, so Hamas remains the only party in Palestine with democratic legitimacy.

We might compare that legitimacy with our elected government. Hamas won with 44.5 per cent of the vote. This compares to the 39.6 per cent the Conservatives received to win our 2011 election. Furthermore, the Palestine election had an impressive 77 per cent turnout, despite considerable Israeli obstruction. The election was described by the head of the European Parliament's monitoring team as "extremely professional, in line with international standards, free, transparent and without violence."

Canada's election was no doubt extremely professional as well, but the turnout was only 61 per cent. In other words, the Conservatives were elected by 24 per cent of Canadians, Hamas by 34 per cent of Palestinians. One might say that, from a democratic perspective, the Hamas government is 50 per cent more legitimate than our federal Conservative government. How ironic that Canada, ostensibly a strong supporter of democracy, helped to destroy an elected government with more democratic legitimacy than our own.

In any case, Hamas legitimately represented the will of the Gazan people, if not all Palestinians, at least until the formation of a unity government with Fatah in April. Whether that remains the case, we will soon find out. Hamas and Fatah have now agreed to an election later this year. Let us hope Canada will not collaborate in wrecking this government.

I'll answer your question, Mr. Cameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron, like our PM a cheerleader for Israel, posed a rhetorical question this week: how would those criticizing Israel’s actions expect their own government to react if hundreds of rockets were raining down on their country's cities?

Well, Mr. Cameron, if hundreds of rockets were raining down on Canadian cities because our government had in effect imprisoned 1.8 million people, one million of them refugees denied their moral and legal rights to return to their homes solely because of their race and religion, I would make it very clear what I expected my government to do—END THE IMPRISONMENT. I decidedly would not tell it to invade the prison and slaughter hundreds of the inmates including children. Sometimes, sir, the best answer is the most obvious one.

22 July 2014

Who loves the US of A?

The answer to the above question, according to a Pew Research survey of 44 countries, is mostly everybody. Well, outside of the Middle East anyway. Not surprisingly, most Middle Eastern countries hold an unfavourable view of the U.S., led by Egypt where only 10 per cent of the population is favorably disposed.

Most European countries are fans, particularly Italy, France (now there's a surprise) and Poland, where over three-quarters of the public hold positive views of the U.S. Approval has declined to low numbers, however, in Germany, likely because of spying on their PM, and even more so in Russia, no doubt over the Ukraine issue.

The U.S. is overwhelmingly popular throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. Popularity peaks in the Philippines, where over 90 per cent of Filipinos hold a favourable view. Even 60 per cent of Venezuelans, despite the tensions between the two countries, offer a favourable rating, as did half the Chinese. Pakistanis, however, return the low esteem Americans hold their country in with only 14 per cent warmly disposed toward the U.S.

Americans face widespread disapproval of their National Security Agency's spying and strong and increasing disapproval of their nation's drone attacks. Nonetheless, outside of the Middle East, there is little anti-Americanism and a lot of thumbs up. The median rating among the nations surveyed was 65 per cent favourable compared to 49 per cent for China, the Americans' major rival in international affairs. All in all, not bad news for Uncle Sam.

Tobacco companies—the biggest, baddest drug dealers pursue our kids

If we conjure up an image of drug cartel bosses, we might imagine swarthy men with gold chains hanging around their necks and voluptuous babes hanging off each arm. This would be well off the mark for the drug dealers who present the greatest threat to our young people. They are, on the contrary, law-abiding citizens, loving spouses and parents and friendly neighbours. At least in their personal lives. But when they don their dark suits and pick up their briefcases, these respectable family men, or women, metamorphose into commerce people, the CEOs of Imperial Tobacco, JTI-MacDonald and Rothmans, Benson and Hedges, dealers in nicotine, an addictive recreational drug that kills 40,000 Canadians a year.

They may not hang around high schools, but they are nonetheless setting their sights on addicting Canadian youth. Their latest gimmick is flavoured products—fruit, vanilla, mint, chocolate, maple syrup and menthol-flavoured cigarillos, cigars and thin cigarettes that look like a lipstick.

Loaded with kid-friendly appeal, they work. Over half of young smokers use a flavoured product. According to University of Waterloo public health professor David Hammond, "What we have is a very effective recruitment tool for kids to start smoking." Menthol (a favourite of mine those many years ago) is particularly insidious in that it not only imparts an icy flavour but also anesthetizes the throat making it easier to inhale.

The time to hook people on drugs is, of course, when they are young. The tobacco companies are quite aware that 70 per cent of future smokers start before their 18th birthday. The corporate CEOs present themselves as respectable citizens, and we accept them as respectable citizens, even as they, with premeditation, addict young people in a habit that will kill half of them if they don't manage to quit. It's a sordid business, and the tobacco barons should be treated with the contempt they deserve.

21 July 2014

Why Canadians must resort to the courts for democracy

Federal Conservatives have been complaining lately about the courts being used, in the words of MP Dan Albas, "to do an end-run around our democratic process." My immediate reaction to Albas's remarks was, what democratic process? If he is referring to our current governance, describing it as democratic is overly generous.

To begin with, our government is run by a party that won the support of less than 40 per cent of the Canadian people. In other words, we are governed by a party that a solid majority do not want governing us. This isn’t necessarily contrary to democratic process. In the past we have had governments, both Liberal and Conservative, that won only minority support but compensated by drawing ideas from across the political spectrum. This is not the case, however, with this government. It is led by the most dogmatic prime minister in my memory (and I’ll be 80 in November), a man uncomfortable with views not his own, a man who sees issues only in black and white. Never have I felt more alienated from my own government.

The current government’s style is illustrated by its environmental policy. Despite dramatic changes, I don’t remember it being presented to the people during the last election or being opened to the public for thorough discussion, and when finally presented to Parliament it was buried in omnibus bills thus precluding our elected representatives from properly debating it. Indeed, there have been suggestions that it was, in effect, written by the oil industry. In any case, this is not democratic process.

What then are the majority of us to do when our views are ignored? One perfectly legitimate recourse is the courts which, incidentally, often seem more in tune with most Canadians than the executive branch.

I agree that this is not the preferred approach. However if the government is concerned, it can do something about it. First, it could legislate an electoral system that would ensure a majority of Canadians are represented in their government. Second, before it finalized legislation, it could make an effort to hear and consider the views of all Canadians and then present a bill to Parliament such that each and every issue could be individually and thoroughly debated. Both of these measures are straightforward and could be initiated forthwith. 

Until such measures are undertaken to create a truly democratic process, concerned Canadians will have no alternative but to avail themselves of other means of having their voices heard. If Conservative MPs like Mr. Albas do not approve, they know what to do.

Hamas is not a terrorist organization

It seems that the media and politicians can hardly mention Hamas, much in the news these days, without referring to it as a terrorist organization. And indeed a number of governments, including our own, have officially labelled it as such. But we might keep in mind that our government at least is sycophantically pro-Israel and labeling Hamas terrorist is very much in Israel's interest. So is Hamas truly a terrorist organization or is this just a political ploy?

We might start by defining "terrorism," a notably slippery task. I will, for the purposes of this discussion, borrow from Wikipedia: "violent acts that are intended to create fear (terror); are perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal; and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants." So, has Hamas committed such acts? Yes, it has. But then so has Israel, Hamas's nemesis. Indeed, Israel's current actions in Gaza might fit the above definition rather well. And of course the two greatest terrorist acts in all of history—the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—were committed by our great and good friend, the United States.

Yet we have never labelled Israel or American governments terrorist organizations. Why? Well, there is a logical reason. Although their military arms have committed terrorist acts, they are a great deal more than their militaries. The governments responsible were and are complex, comprehensive institutions with social and political arms as well as military arms. It would not make sense to categorize them by only one of the many activities of only one of their parts.

But the same logic applies equally to Hamas. Its military arm has used terrorism, but the organization also has a social welfare arm and a highly successful political arm. Hamas, after all, won the last all-Palestinian election in 2006 and is, in fact, a democratically elected government, not merely an organization. Reuven Paz, Israeli scholar and specialist in Islamic movements, has stated that 90 per cent of Hamas’s activities involve “social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities.”

So to categorize Hamas as a terrorist organization is no more logical than to categorize other governments as such if they commit terrorist acts, and many do. What then is the way out of this definition conundrum? We must not only define terrorist acts, we must also define a terrorist organization—another slippery task. I suggest that it be defined as an organization or government whose behaviour consists primarily of terrorist acts as defined above.

This will allow us to exclude culpable Israeli and U.S. governments, but we must also exclude Hamas. So let's put an end to the political fiction and recognize Hamas for what it is—a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It will be very difficult to achieve peace in the region until we do.

13 July 2014

Settlers killed in Palestine—echoes of another colonialism

The killing of three Jewish teenagers from a West Bank settlement in Palestine brought to mind another colonialism—that of North America. As the Europeans swarmed across the Americas, the Native people found themselves overwhelmed. Sometimes they fought to keep the intruders out, but inevitably they found themselves outmatched by superior numbers and technology. Sometimes out of desperation they would commit violence against the invaders, attacking and killing settlers, the very ones they could see dispossessing them. The attacks could be savage, as acts of desperation often are.

There is a remarkable similarity to what we see happening in Palestine. Although the killers of the Jewish boys have not yet been identified, they may well be militant opponents of Israeli expansion. As with the Native peoples of North America, the Palestinians watch the seemingly inexorable theft of their land, unable to resist forcefully against overwhelming military superiority. Most patiently await the results of negotiated agreement, but a few, frustrated by endless and unproductive chin wagging, act out their frustrations with violence.

Today we would label the Indians who carried out attacks on settlers as terrorists, as indeed we label the Palestinians who echo their desperation. But these are less acts of terrorism than gestures against colonialism, against land theft.

Just as there are strong similarities between the two stories, there is also at least one significant difference. The Indians were doomed to lose their land, to be left with scraps, as their populations were decimated by the diseases the Europeans brought with them while the numbers of Europeans and others ultimately swelled into the hundreds of millions. The Palestinians, however, do not face the same smothering sea of intruders. Even in Israel, they make up 20 per cent of the population and in Palestine as a whole they make up nearly half, and then there is their diaspora in the surrounding countries, to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of Arab allies in the region. Unlike with the Indians, time and numbers are on their side.

12 July 2014

Bucking horses and other immoral entertainments

It's Stampede time in Calgary and that means it's time for another debate about exploiting other animals to amuse ourselves. The focus, of course, is rodeo—bucking broncs, calf roping, steer wrestling, chuckwagon racing and other entertainments featuring man and beast. Every year, animal welfare advocates criticize some or all of the events as cruel and Stampede officials staunchly defend those same events. So, is rodeo cruel or not?

In answer to that concern, consider the most iconic of rodeo events—cowboy versus bucking bronco. The first question is, why do the horses buck? There are various possible reasons but one fundamental one. A horse is a prey animal and when a large creature suddenly leaps on its back, it means but one thing: a predator is attempting to kill it. This terrifies the animal and it desperately tries to rid itself of the thing.

This then is how rodeo amuses and entertains the crowd. It subjects a dumb beast—a horse, a calf, a steer—to stress and fear. Over and over and over again. Cruel? Without a doubt.

Rodeo people insist they treat their animals to the best of care, and as far as food, shelter and medical attention is concerned, I don't doubt that they do. The animals are, after all, prize assets, the source of rodeo revenues. Only fools fail to take good care of their assets. I take good care of my car, but my car is not a sentient being. Animals are. Good care of an animal requires attention to its mental well-being as well as its physical, and the repeated infliction of terror does not contribute to mental well-being.

The Stampede has a great deal to offer in the way of fun, entertainment and education. It really has no need to play to the crowd by tormenting animals. It is time to end the barbarism.

04 July 2014

Blair makes nice with Sisi—following in Margaret's steps?

Former British PM Margaret Thatcher's fondness for Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet was infamous. Pinochet was a mass torturer and murderer, but the iron lady was quite fond of him despite his peccadilloes. He was a favourite partner for tea.

Now it seems former PM Tony Blair also has a fondness for military dictators. He has agreed to become an adviser to Egyptian president, and former general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi is truly a rival for Pinochet when it comes to bloodletting, only in power for a year and already he has killed more than 2,500 protesters and imprisoned over 20,000. More recently his regime sentenced three journalists, including one Canadian, to long prison terms for ... well, for committing journalism.

Tony claims he will not make money out of the arrangement, yet he is acting on behalf of a program funded by the United Arab Emirates that has promised to deliver huge business opportunities to those involved. This nest of dictators—the Emirates and Saudi Arabia—are jolly good friends of the UK and faithful customers of British arms dealers.

But is it only commerce that attracts politicians like Thatcher and Blair to these political thugs? Does that macho military swagger turn them on? Or did Pinochet's butchery of leftists excite Thatcher's political passions and Sisi's butchery of the Muslim Brotherhood excite Blair's? In any case, it's an unhealthy attraction that has led both to the most unseemly relationships and makes mock of their democratic pretensions.

Omar Khadr's trial lacked legal basis

After the way Omar Khadr has been persecuted by both the American government and ours, I wouldn't have thought any more outrageous news of this sordid affair could emerge. But it has. After a hard-fought freedom of information case by the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, a court has ordered the release of a U.S. Department of Justice memo that rejects any legal foundation for Khadr's trial for war crimes.

In order to prosecute Khadr, the U.S. military invented the category of "unprivileged belligerent," i.e. because he wasn't wearing the uniform of a regular army, his actions constituted war crimes. It appears that the CIA became concerned that this legal sleight of hand might turn around and bite them in the ass. They use civilians to pilot drones and they do a lot of killing, so could these civilians be tried for war crimes? The CIA asked the Justice Department and got a decisive answer—no. In a detailed opinion, the Department concluded war criminality depends on a person's actions, not on whether the person is officially part of an army or wears a uniform. This, according to Khadr's Pentagon-based lawyer, "completely blows away one of the major prongs of the government's theory in all these Guantanamo cases."

Of further interest, the Justice Department memo came out several months before Omar accepted a plea. It isn't clear whether the prosecutors knew about the opinion, but if they did, and they didn't reveal it to the court, they were guilty of a serious breach of ethics.

Of particular interest to Canadians is whether or not our government knew. Was it aware that Khadr's conviction had no legal basis when it agreed to take him back? If not, then the Americans misled us about wrongfully incarcerating one of our citizens. If it did know, then its continued imprisonment of this young man is even more egregious than we had thought.

Khadr's story represents one of the sorrier episodes in the war on terror. This horrific abuse of a child soldier by the Americans aided and abetted by our own government has brought shame on both our countries. The least our government can do now is to recognize this legal charade and give Khadr his freedom. Unfortunately, this government is not one to admit error. The outrage will continue.

02 July 2014

Corporations suing countries—how crazy is that?

Lone Pine Resources sues Canada because Quebec has imposed a moratorium on fracking. Philip Morris sues the Australian government over its tobacco plain packaging legislation. Swedish energy company Vattenfall sues Germany because of that country’s decision to phase out nuclear energy.

Fracking is a method of exploiting oil and gas reserves that has been accused of, among other things, poisoning water reservoirs, and Quebec wants a time-out to properly evaluate the technology. Tobacco is the greatest killer drug on the planet, and Australia is simply trying to implement packaging recommendations of the World Health Organization. Germany is attempting to shift to safer sources of energy. All sensible measures. Yet companies are allowed to sue countries because their governments are trying to exercise the foremost responsibility of the state—protect its citizens?

What is more, these corporations are in effect above the law of the land. Rather than pursue their suits in the usual manner, by going to court, they can resort to panels empowered by the "trade" agreement under which they are suing. The treaties, such as NAFTA (Lone Pine vs. Canada), the Hong Kong-Australia investment treaty (Philip Morris vs. Australia), and the Energy Charter Treaty (Vattenfall vs. Germany), grant foreign investors the right to bypass the domestic courts of the host country and to directly file complaints to ad hoc tribunals which may operate in secret. How did this madness come to be?

At one time, in a more sensible past, governments granted charters to corporations to serve some public good—building a canal or a railroad, for instance—and could revoke that mandate when the job was done. But over the years, corporations have extended their influence until today, generously aided by "trade" agreements such as NAFTA, the World Trade Agreement, and other instruments of corporate empowerment, they can hold governments hostage, undermining both democracy and the rule of law.

We have allowed institutions that should be our servants to become our masters. It is time to end the madness and return them to their proper role—exploiting resources, providing jobs, products and services and absolutely nothing more. Their charters should confine them to strict mandates and be revoked if they engage in political activity of any kind. Fail to do this and we will continue to be bystanders as democracy is replaced with plutocracy.

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.

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.

28 April 2014

April 28—National Day of Mourning

In 1984, the Canadian Labour Congress declared April 28th a National Day of Mourning for workers who have been killed, or suffer disease or injury as a result of work. It is now recognized in over a 100 countries around the world.

Every year, unions, labour councils, families and community partners gather to "mourn for the dead." It is intended to not only remember those who have given their lives in the workplace, but to remember also the suffering caused by hazardous working conditions, and to commit to action that restores and promotes dignity and health in our workplaces and communities.

In 2012, 979 Canadians died from job-related injuries or disease. This is the official figure—many more die from under-reported illnesses and occupational diseases that go unrecognized in the compensation systems. All served their country and all deserve a moment of remembrance.