15 May 2016

It just got harder to kill people legally

Pity the poor American executioner. Not bad enough that there's all these anti-capital punishment liberals trying to put him out of a job, but now the pharmaceutical companies are conspiring against him.

Most U.S. states still exercise the death penalty and most use lethal injection to dispatch their victims. Unfortunately for the killer states, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced this week that it has imposed extensive controls on the distribution of its products to ensure that none are used in lethal injections, thus shutting down the last open-market source of drugs used for executions. Distributors must certify they will not resell the drugs to corrections departments and will be closely monitored. Pfizer joined over two dozen American and European drug companies who have, for moral or business reasons, already adopted similar restrictions.

According to Maya Foa of Reprieve, a London-based human rights advocacy group, "All FDA-approved manufacturers of any potential execution drug have now blocked their sale for this purpose. Executing states must now go underground if they want to get hold of medicines for use in lethal injection."

Some states have used straw buyers or imported drugs not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (only to have them seized by federal agents) or bought supplies covertly from loosely regulated pharmacies that will tailor-make products. Other states are simply delaying executions. Some are considering other methods of execution: electrocution, gas chambers, hanging or even firing squads. Professional killers can never be faulted for a lack of ingenuity.

What, one wonders, is the world coming to when an honest executioner has to metaphorically hang out on street corners trying to score drugs. It almost sounds criminal.

14 May 2016

Post Media comes begging

It had to be mortifying for Postmedia president and CEO Paul Godfrey to come before a House of Commons committee this week and plead for financial assistance. The media mogul wants Ottawa to spend more on Canadian newspaper ads and to give greater tax breaks to companies that do the same. He would also like Heritage Canada's Aid to Publishers program expanded to include daily publications. "We're asking the government to be an ally, not for a bailout of the Canadian newspaper industry," he whined. Right, Paul.

For a right-winger like Godfrey to not only ask government for help, but a Liberal government at that, it must have been excruciating. This is the same fierce critic of media subsidies, the same owner who sold a chunk of his empire to an American hedge fund outfit, the same publisher who ran a full front-page Conservative campaign ad in Elections Canada colours two days before last year's federal election. The Liberals on the committee were quick to point this out.

Godfrey is one of a long line of conservative businessmen who rail against government handouts, but when their business or their industry falls on hard times, they don't hesitate to justify a little welfare for themselves, always for the good of the country of course.

I doubt Mr. Godfrey will have much luck begging largesse from this government. Nor should he. Postmedia is a staunch promoter of neoliberal philosophy and should be expected to live by its principles. Live by the free market, die by the free market.

12 May 2016

Paul Martin—Canada's greatest finance minister?

Paul Martin's official prime ministerial portrait was unveiled on Parliament Hill on Wednesday. During the ceremony, he was referred to as the greatest finance minister in our history—lavish praise indeed. But deserving? I believe so. He did at least three things that, in my mind, place him in that rarefied position.

First, he balanced the budget after a string of Conservative and Liberal government deficits let the national debt get out of hand. He was ruthless, cutting nearly every department, and many on the left were furious at his assaults on social programs and the CBC. Being on the left myself I cringed at these cuts, but I am also a child of the 1930s, born during the Great Depression, and many of my generation have frugality, a "make do" attitude, etched into our bones. I therefore supported, albeit reluctantly, balancing the federal budget as a necessary and courageous act. He didn't make the cuts the way I would have, but then politicians often follow policies contrary to my infinite wisdom and yet, to my surprise, they work.

Secondly, he put the Canada Pension Plan on a sound footing. Previously it had been used recklessly as a source of cheap loans for the provinces. He created an independent board with investment in the hands of professional management, greatly enhancing financial security for millions of older Canadians, of which I am one.

And thirdly, he resisted enormous pressure from the Americans (and the Brits) to deregulate our banking industry, thus saving our financial bacon during the crash of 2008. Ironically, Stephen Harper usually gets credit for managing us through the crisis when, if he had been prime minister during the 1990s, he would almost certainly have collaborated enthusiastically in deregulation, an approach right up his neoliberal alley.

These three achievements alone, all of singular importance to the health, economic and otherwise, of our country, elevate the Right Honourable gentleman to the top rank of finance ministers. The greatest? He has my vote.

28 April 2016

The inevitability of the BDS movement

The Palestinians need a Canadian champion, specifically a political champion. None of our three main political parties will stand up for them. It would normally be the responsibility of the NDP to demand justice for these beleaguered people—after all that is what social democratic parties are for—but it is apparently not about to wade into the politically incorrect waters of criticizing Israel.

The pat answer of our government, parroting the United States, is that a Palestinian state can only be achieved by direct negotiations with Israel, independent of third parties. This puts the Palestinians in an impossible position. All the negotiating leverage lies with Israel. Israel has the most effective military in the region, replete with nuclear weapons and supported unreservedly by the most powerful nation in the world, and it controls virtually all the land. The Palestinians have no military and control little. Asking them to negotiate with the party that holds all the cards is asking them to submit, to sit at the table and accept any crumbs they are offered.

This was amply demonstrated by the late, unlamented Oslo Accords. In 2001, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned an official history of the Norwegian-mediated negotiations. The report concluded, "... the Oslo process was conducted on Israel’s premises, with Norway acting as Israel’s helpful errand boy. ... Israel’s red lines were the ones that counted, and if the Palestinians wanted a deal, they would have to accept them, too." 

The only way negotiations can possibly be fair would be for the United States (no one else could do it) to pressure Israel into making a just settlement. But the Americans insist there must be no third party interference. One can only conclude they want the Palestinians negotiating on their knees.

With the utter failure of the American-sponsored "peace process," the Palestinians are attempting to make progress independently of Israel. These efforts have been consistently opposed by Israel's allies. In 2012, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to upgrade Palestine to non-member, observer-state status. It has also been accepted as a member of UNESCO and the International Criminal Court. This step by step approach to nationhood would seem ideal: completely non-violent and each step approved by the international community. Yet incredibly Canada, alongside the U.S., voted against the UN motion. Clearly they are determined to keep Palestine's future firmly in the hands of Israel.

The State of Palestine is recognized by 134 countries; however, with Israel and most Western countries denying recognition, to say nothing of Israel's continued occupation, the Palestinians cannot function as an independent entity.

When governments refuse to act on justice issues, inevitably civil society steps in. Enter the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Launched in 2005 by dozens of Palestinian civil society groups, BDS advocates for economic and cultural action against Israel "until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights." The movement has gone world-wide with supporters in Canada including the United Church, Independent Jewish Voices, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and other unions, and various student organizations.

The Palestinians continue to suffer from ethnic cleansing, colonization, racial discrimination and military occupation. Canada is a country that generally acts with a sense of fair play, but there are exceptions and our political parties' attitude toward the Palestinians is one of them. BDS gives Canadians an opportunity to support what our political leaders won't—justice for the people of Palestine.

25 April 2016

Canada earns a D for environment

Last week the Conference Board of Canada released its environment report card and Canada did not do well. We earned a D, ranking third from last against 15 of our international peers. The only countries that performed worse were Australia and the U.S. The best performer of the provinces was Ontario with a B. Five provinces flunked.

To evaluate performance, the Conference Board applied 10 indicators that covered four broad categories: air pollution, waste, freshwater management, and climate change.

Regarding climate change, Prime Minister Trudeau signed off on the Paris agreement during a ceremony at the United Nations in New York on Friday with some stirring words: "Today, with my signature, I give you our word that Canada's efforts will not cease. Climate change will test our intelligence, our compassion and our will. But we are equal to that challenge." I hope he's right, but given that Canada scored particularly low on greenhouse gas emissions on the report card, we have a long way to go.

The Pembina Institute found one source of optimism in its evaluation of the report. Alberta's past performance earned it a D-, but the Institute predicts the province's new Climate Leadership Plan will turn things around. According to its analysis, greenhouse gas emissions "will clearly see improvement with the implementation of the plan. Improvements will also be seen in energy efficiency and production of low emitting electricity, with the combined efforts of the new energy efficiency program, the coal phase-out and a renewable energy production target of 30 per cent by 2030."

We can but hope that the Mr. Trudeau's plan for the country will generate similar optimism.

24 April 2016

Escaping the growth trap

The recent meeting of the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Washington resulted in the usual conversation about economic growth—the need for more of it. That we are exhausting our planet's resources faster than it can replenish them, that we are sucking it dry, did not apparently make the agenda. There seemed little recognition that endless growth will eventually bring global civilization crashing down around our ears.

The problem our leaders face arises from the growth trap. The Industrial Revolution brought accelerating technological advance which in turn brought ever-increasing efficiency. With greater efficiency, we can produce more stuff with fewer workers, resulting in surplus workers, i.e. unemployment. But the unemployed can't buy much stuff, and that is bad for the economy. If something isn't done, it may enter a downward spiral. The solution has always been to produce more stuff and therefore create more jobs. In other words—growth.

It's a trap. As long as technology continues to increase efficiency, and no end is in sight, we must have growth in order to keep people employed. So the question becomes, is it possible to end economic growth? Fortunately, the answer is yes. We have a number of tools at our disposal. They include the following:
  • Shorten the work week. Produce the same amount of stuff (or less) but share the work more broadly, thus creating jobs.
  • Create more jobs that demand little or no growth, e.g. teaching, health care, the arts, etc. For example, if optimum class size in schools is 20, but the average is currently 30, reducing the size to 20 would create 50 per cent more jobs with little growth and, in this case, improve the product in the bargain.
  • Reduce efficiency for the sake of job quality. When Henry Ford began producing his cars on an assembly line, he greatly improved efficiency, thus reducing the price of cars. But there was a sacrifice. His skilled mechanics were turned into human robots, repeating the same simple task over and over, all day every day. The sacrifice was accepted at the time as cheaper cars, and a lot of other cheaper stuff, helped pull society up from what was a very low standard of living. Our standard of living today needs no such boost, thus we are able to focus on quality of work rather than quantity.
  • Pay people not to work. The guaranteed annual income is being bruited about a lot these days, often as a more efficient way to provide welfare, but with the speed at which artificial intelligence and robotics are advancing, jobs may become increasingly scarce. Technological efficiency may help solve the problem it created. 
How practical or effective any one of these measures may be is debatable, but they clearly illustrate that we are not helpless in the face of maintaining a decent standard of living while ending growth. We can exit the trap.

It took a long time for our leaders to recognize the threat of climate change. They finally have and actually seem to be getting serious about it, but when it comes to the folly of endless growth, they remain oblivious.

The rest of us can help alert them to the challenge. For example, our new government has established an Advisory Council on Economic Growth. Attempting to do my bit, I wrote to Minister of Finance William Morneau and to the Chair of the committee, Dominic Barton, pointing out that long-term growth is not viable and urging the Minister to "put our economy on a path that will offer future generations a prosperity that respects our planet’s limits." Perhaps if these two gentlemen get enough letters, they will put the end of growth on the committee's agenda. We can but try.

21 April 2016

Prairie blues

On Monday, a political colour map of the Prairie provinces would have shown a blue stripe hemmed in by orange on both sides. Today, the palette shows a decidedly blue shift.

The Conservatives' impressive win over the incumbent New Democrats in Manitoba on Tuesday follows the Saskatchewan Party's victory in Saskatchewan earlier this month.

But even these two elections don't fully illustrate the conservative grip on the Prairies. Under our corrupt first-past-the-post voting system, parties commonly win elections with less than half of the popular vote. Not in these two cases. The Manitoba Conservatives won with a solid 54 per cent and the Saskatchewan Party with an almost unheard of 62 per cent. And it's worth remembering that in last year's Alberta election, conservative parties won a combined 52 per cent of the popular vote. Not much potential here for Leaping into Manifestos.

The Manitoba election leaves the Alberta NDP as the lonely progressive government on the Prairies. Indeed if we include the B.C. Liberals, who often take on a conservative hue, we might say the only progressive government in the West. Fortunately, it is a highly effective government that has pushed the progressive agenda along admirably—an optimistic orange swatch in the blue background.

20 April 2016

Congrats, Omar!

Omar Khadr is a living example of that old blues refrain, "If I didn't have bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

Omar was born into a family of extremists who sent him off to fight with jihadists in Afghanistan at the tender age of 14 where he was seriously wounded and captured by the Americans. Despite being a child soldier, he was imprisoned, tortured and convicted of crimes in a kangaroo court. And during all this, his own country—and you know which one I'm talking about—abandoned him ... and worse.

But his luck seems to be turning. Serving his American sentence in Canada, he was released on bail about a year ago and has since been living with his lawyer in Edmonton while he awaits the outcome of his appeal of his U.S. conviction. Now it appears he's getting married. The lucky lady is Muna Abougoush, a human rights activist who has worked to help him gain his freedom.

I offer my most sincere congratulations to Muna and Omar, and I especially wish Omar the normal life he so richly deserves.

18 April 2016

Alberta's carbon tax—benefits plus

The Alberta government released its 2016 budget last week, revealing the details of the new carbon tax and the details look good. The tax will kick in on January 1, 2017, at $20 per ton of carbon burned and increase to $30 per ton in 2018. The bulk of the revenue will be used for renewable energy technology, green infrastructure and increasing energy efficiency for homes and businesses. About a third will go to rebates, reduction of the small business tax and helping coal and other communities adjust.

Critics have been quick to attack the tax, some claiming it will cost Alberta households $500 or more per year. In fact, most Albertans will ultimately pay no more for energy than they do now. Sixty per cent of families will receive a full rebate and six per cent at least a partial rebate. The rebates are designed to cover the average cost of the carbon levy to an individual, couple or family with children, with the amount tailored to net taxable income. As lower-income people tend to use less energy than the average, they could even come out ahead.

According to the Pembina Institute, assuming emissions don't change, lower-income families will have a net gain in income on average of $95 per year, middle-income families will see no net effect, while higher-income families will experience a net loss of $400 per year. The levy is, in effect, a tax on the rich. Of course, if lower and middle-income families reduce their energy use, they could wind up with even more change in their pockets.

Rebates of $400 or more will be paid every three months; those between $200 and $399, twice a year; and those under $200, once a year. The rebates may very well have added benefits. Once most Albertans start receiving their cheques, they may begin to feel that a carbon tax is a pretty good idea after all. And by reminding them that the current government keeps its promises, it shouldn't hurt the NDP's chances in the next election. The rebates also, in a small way at least, redistribute income from the rich to the poor, and that's not such a bad thing either.

14 April 2016

Supporting two NDPs

Like many members of the federal NDP, I support a shift back to socialism from wherever it is we have drifted. The now famous (or infamous) Leap Manifesto may help in that regard. Re-establishing the NDP as a social democratic party would give its members a sense of direction and purpose and would be good for the country. Canada needs a left-wing option to provide the political spectrum with a proper balance, particularly when the Conservatives have shifted so far to the hard (or is it Harper) right.

I also support the Alberta NDP, a party that can't afford to be fully social democratic. If it is to re-elected in 2019, a goal of the greatest importance, it must adhere to a moderate centre-left approach.

It has achieved some quite remarkable things in one short year. It unseated a conservative government in the most conservative province in the country. Since then, among other things, it has established a gender-balanced cabinet, banned corporate and union donations to political parties, moved toward a minimum wage of $15 an hour, raised taxes for corporations and high income earners, and introduced occupational health and safety and Workers’ Compensation Board coverage for farm workers.

And it has introduced probably the best climate change plan in the country. The plan includes a carbon tax, a cap on tar sands emissions and a phasing out of coal-fired electrical plants. Will it be enough to deal with global warming? Almost certainly not, but it's an impressive first step.

When Premier Notley publicly presented her government's Climate Leadership Plan, environmentalists stood side by side with oil executives, representatives of First Nations, academics and politicians. This is a scene I never thought I'd see anywhere, least of all in Alberta, and I doubt any politician other than Rachel Notley could have pulled it off.

To understand why the party can't go further at this time requires an understanding of the oil industry. The industry isn't, as many on the left seem to think, just a bunch of fat cat capitalists. It is that in part, but more importantly it is tens of thousands of ordinary working people—men and women, engineers, roughnecks, secretaries, janitors, etc.—who not only depend on the industry for a living (and it is one of the most rewarding industries to work for) but are proud of what they do, proud of helping us heat our homes and drive our cars. They are not about to be told they have to leap into unknown territory. They might accept a brisk walk toward a green future, step by step, but today they have to put bread on the table and that means a job, and that means a healthy oil industry. That's the reality of Alberta politics.

By the end of this month, Alberta will have the only NDP government in the country. That makes it the most important NDP in Canada and Rachel Notley the most important member of the party. The federal party should continue with its search for its social democratic soul, but it must also show the greatest respect to its Alberta brothers and sisters. At the moment, when it comes to the power to actually make change, they are the only thing the NDP has going for it.

13 April 2016

Corporations bully the bigots

A number of southern U.S. states have adopted or are considering laws allowing faith-based organizations to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender people. They are now being faced with consequences delivered by some of the biggest names in corporate America.

For example, Pay Pal recently announced that an expansion it was planning for Charlotte, North Carolina, would be moved elsewhere because of that state's LGBT discrimination law. Four hundred jobs will be lost. Braeburn Pharmaceuticals is reconsidering a $50-million facility in Durham County for the same reason. Other companies are taking similar measures. Apple, Amazon, Google, Monsanto, Intel and dozens more corporations have established the Business Coalition for Equality in support of the Equality Act, federal legislation that would provide basic protections to LGBT people similar to laws that protect other groups.

This is a lot of muscle. As Beth Brooke Marciniac of Ernst and Young told a Davos forum discussing LGBT rights earlier this year, "Our corporate economies are bigger than the economies of some countries, and I think we understand both the obligation and the importance of speaking out."

This sounds very much like a good news story. What can you do but applaud when entities with bigger economies than some countries act to defend LGBT rights?

Yet there is something very disturbing here. Should corporations really have the right to dictate to governments what kind of legislation they can pass? Isn't that right supposed to lie with the people? What we are witnessing is the replacement of democracy with plutocracy.

In this case, it's in a good cause, which makes it easier to overlook the corruption of democratic process, but we know all too well that corporate power is also used to promote companies' own interests, often at our expense. So before we applaud corporations behaving as good citizens, we might consider whether or not they should be acting as citizens at all.

10 April 2016

Will Notley get a pipeline built?

In a recent Rabble article, David Climenhaga quotes a unite-the-right Albertan as predicting that if the NDP "actually get a pipeline built. … they're going to govern for the next 20 years!" That may be the overstatement of a panicked conservative, but certainly if the NDP want to win the next election, they will have to make nice with the oil industry.

Premier Notley made that clear in her address to the NDP convention in Edmonton when she emphasized that the party was governing “on the basis of a concrete plan that is actually being implemented,” and adding, in effect dismissing the Leap Manifesto, "That is what you get to do when you move up from manifestos, to the detailed, principled, practical plans you can really implement by winning an election."

The Premier was elucidating the ancient clash of the practical with the ideal. Ideology may be a necessary guide for your party, but if you actually want to do something you have to gain power. You have to gather the support of people who may not like your ideology, but will support you if you consider their interests. If you only appeal to your true believers, you may while away your days in opposition, nobly achieving nothing. For the NDP, or at least for its Alberta brothers and sisters, adopting the Leap Manifesto could be a leap into the political abyss.

According to Premier Notley, Alberta's Climate Leadership Plan is "the single most important step any Canadian government at any level has taken so far to actually act on climate change." And it may well be, but if it involves another pipeline the question is whether it's enough or if it is simply slowing down the race to environmental Armageddon. Is the cost of electoral success for the Alberta NDP more rapid warming for the planet?

Time, I suppose, will tell. Unfortunately, time may tell us too late.

08 April 2016

Excluded by God and Queen

It seems some new Canadians are having crises of conscience with the Canadian Citizenship Oath. The oath reads, "I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen." 

The problem lies with the Queen bit. None of the dissenters has objected to swearing to faithfully obey our laws and duties—quite the contrary, they look forward to enjoying their rights and responsibilities as Canadians—but swearing fealty to a monarch, particularly a foreign one, they find offensive. So do I for that matter, but fortunately I don't have to take the oath.

A website has been set up that lists a number of dissenters along with some quite intriguing quotes explaining their views.

In addition to the Queen's intrusion on Canadian citizenship, God's presence can be equally tiresome. Our national anthem, quite aside from misogynistically demanding patriotic love only from men, begs God to "keep our land glorious and free." That, it seems to me, is our responsibility, not some mythical being's.

And then there's God poking Its nose into our constitution. The introductory phrase to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms reads Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:. I fail to see how the rights guaranteed in the Charter have anything to do with the supremacy of a religious fiction.

Not that any of this stuff need mean anything. It's essentially just symbolic. New Canadians can take the oath and then disavow the Queen bit. I personally, like many other Canadians, simply never sing the anthem. The Charter intro is a bit more problematic; nonetheless, the instrument guarantees freedom of speech, so you are free to express the view that its introduction is half nonsense.

Nevertheless this kind of language is exclusive. It suggests that if you believe a head of state should be elected, or at least chosen on merit, and if you don't believe in a god, both widely held and perfectly respectable beliefs, then you aren't one of the club, you're not quite Canadian.

It is possible of course to write what are intended to be inclusive instruments in inclusive language. Someday, perhaps, someone will do that and we will no longer have to pretend we are all monarchists and believers.

07 April 2016

Brit says Canada a vision for progressives

Yes, an article by Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian describes our native land as a progressive vision. The lady flatters us handsomely. I enjoyed her piece because it says nice things about us and because like many (most?) bloggers I tend to be highly critical of our country and its foibles, and it's nice to be reminded occasionally how lucky we are to live in this place, even if it takes a foreigner to remind us.

There are two ways to judge a society. One, by the ideal, by what it would be like if it were perfect. The other, by reality, by the kind of community fallible human beings are actually capable of creating. The latter means judging your society relative to others.

We bloggers often employ the former, the ideal, to judge Canada and therefore find it wanting. This is not a bad thing; holding your community to a high standard is healthy. And by the highest standard, Canadians certainly have a lot of work to do to improve every aspect of our culture. But judging realistically, we have one of the finest societies on the planet, by any measure—socially, politically and economically.

In her article, Ms. Hinsliff asks, "Who else is still surfing a wave of sunny progressive feeling when the U.S. and much of Europe are increasingly convulsed with rage against either poor migrants or privileged elites, or both?" Who indeed. She goes on to add, "Canada seems to be pulling off the elusive trick of remaining tolerant, relaxed and at ease with itself in challenging circumstances with more aplomb than most."

From my completely unbiased perspective, I can't help but agree with her. So today I will bask in the sunny feeling of being Canadian. Tomorrow I'll get back to being my usual critical self.

02 April 2016

Why are we still discussing the TPP?

Has anybody actually read the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement? I presume the negotiators have. And no doubt a host of corporate lawyers. But have any of our politicians read it? Has International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland? All 6,000 densely-packed pages?

I remember John Crosbie, when he was Minister of International Trade in the Mulroney government, being asked that question about NAFTA in the House of Commons. Mr. Crosbie, a man who tended to speak frankly, honestly admitted he hadn't. I suspect Ms. Freeland has the same answer for the TPP.

I will give economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz the benefit of the doubt and assume he has. Mr. Stiglitz is an economist worth listening to. Among many other accomplishments, he has won the Nobel Prize in Economics, is a former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank, and is a former chairman of the U.S. president's Council of Economic Advisers. And what he has to say about the TPP ain't good.

Speaking recently at the University of Ottawa about the deal, he stated it may well be the worst trade agreement ever negotiated and offered a long list of reasons, including the following:
• It was negotiated in secret with corporate interests at the table.
• Investment-protection provisions could interfere with the ability of governments to regulate business.
• Governments could be sued for regulations designed to reduce pollution or global warming.
• It contains provisions that could prevent raising the minimum wage.
• The rules of origin provisions could hurt North American employment because they allow "very clever ways" to hide where products are actually made.
• It will have little effect on trade volumes, yet will change the basic legal framework that governs society, shifting power to corporations.
The list goes on, and on. All the American presidential candidates have got the message and are speaking out against the agreement. Which raises the question, why is our government even considering the thing?

24 March 2016

A long overdue budget break for the CBC

 Of all the items in the new federal budget, the one that jumped out at me, and caused a whoop of delight, was the $675-million over five years of new investment in the CBC. For years, Mother Corp has been increasingly starved of funds—finally some much-needed relief.

The October election illustrated yet again the need for an independent voice in the mass media. The daily press, despite being treated with contempt for years by Stephen Harper, overwhelmingly supported re-electing his government. Their duty to their corporate masters reduced them to an unseemly masochism. The CBC is the only truly independent mass medium in the country—the others answer to and are the property of media barons.

But the struggle is far from over. The current CBC Board of Directors is stacked with Stephen Harper's partisan appointees. Nine of the eleven directors, including President and CEO Hubert Lacroix, have contributed to the Conservative Party. The Board must be reformed into a merit-based, non-partisan body.

The watchdog Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has vowed to "make sure that the government fulfills all three of its CBC promises—new funding, meaningful consultation and governance reform." I wish them luck and will continue to support them, and in the meantime rejoice for a revitalized public broadcaster.

23 March 2016

Barack Obama and the ghost of Che



An historical photograph.

Barack Obama, on his recent visit to Cuba, stands at attention for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. The president and his companions are standing at the José Marti Memorial in Havana where, across the street, on the wall of the Ministry of the Interior building, looms a mural of the legendary leftist revolutionary Che Guevara.

Who would ever have thought.

21 March 2016

A Dipper writes his party president re leadership

As one of those federal New Democratic Party members who feels we should stop floating across the political spectrum looking for a place to park that offers an election victory and get back to being social democrats, I believe we need a real social democrat to lead that effort. Consequently, I wrote the following open letter to the party president. Perhaps it will have some small influence at the April conference in Edmonton. Perhaps not.

Rebecca Blaikie, President
New Democratic Party

Dear Ms. Blaikie:

I am writing in regard to the current leadership of our party. I will be blunt. If Tom Mulcair remains as leader, I will find it difficult to retain my membership. This is not to criticize Mr. Mulcair. He has worked hard for the party and deserves respect for his efforts, but I simply do not believe he is a social democrat. His autocratic style of leadership (he has been compared to Stephen Harper on that score) is not appropriate for a democratic party, and he seems uncomfortable with the principles of social democracy.

Both these weaknesses were illustrated by his heavy-handed purging from the party of supporters of the Palestinians. These people have suffered generations of abuse. Ethnically cleansed, militarily occupied, more of their land colonized every year, they are a people social democrats instinctively spring to the defence of. Mr. Mulcair, it seems, lacks that instinct. The day I heard that Morgan Wheeldon, candidate for Kings-Hants, was forced to step down was the day I no longer felt guilty about strategically voting Liberal. (My candidate won.)

On the first page of the party's website, the logo reads "Tom Mulcair" followed, in smaller letters, by "NDP." I find this offensive. No man comes before the party and no man is bigger than the party, symbolically or literally. Social democratic principles must come before image and political correctness. The party has an opportunity to employ these principles in offering alternatives to a capitalism that, at least in it neoliberal form, is increasingly failing the 90 per cent. We need a true social democrat to lead that effort. With all due respect, Tom Mulcair is not that leader.

Sincerely,
Bill Longstaff

20 March 2016

Mme. Arbour once again bemedalled

Last Thursday, Governor General David Johnston presented Louise Arbour with yet another award, the UNA-Canada Pearson Peace Medal, which honours outstanding Canadian achievements in the field of international service and understanding.

Mme. Arbour has led one of our country's most illustrious careers. In 1996, she was appointed Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. She became the first UN prosecutor to indict a serving head of state for war crimes.

She then served on the Supreme Court of Canada from 1999 to 2004, and as the UNʼs High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2004 to 2008.

She holds a long list of awards, including the Order of Canada, France's Legion of Honour and honorary doctorates from twenty-seven universities. She has served as President and CEO of the International Crisis Group and has been involved in the International Commission Against the Death Penalty and the Global Commission on Drug Policy. She is currently a jurist in residence, providing strategic advice to lawyers of the International Trade and Arbitration Group and mentoring younger lawyers.

According to UNA-Canada, "Her leadership is a model—professional and personal—for young men and women aspiring to making peaceful change in the world through the enforcement of law and justice for all." Indeed.

Be happy! ...today is International Happiness Day

Blogging about happiness may seem eccentric, but today is the United Nations International Day of Happiness, and happiness is good, so I thought it deserved a mention.

The day was inspired by a speech Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave at a UN General Assembly meeting on Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm. The meeting was an initiative of Bhutan, a country that rates national happiness above national income and has adopted a goal of Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product.

The Secretary General stated that the world “needs a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness."

The General Assembly subsequently proclaimed March 20th the International Day of Happiness recognizing "the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives."

This year, the International Day of Happiness is focused on Climate Action for a Happy Planet. I don't imagine the planet is too happy with us, but if we could all just start ranking its welfare over Gross National Product, we might cheer it up.

16 March 2016

Mister Trudeau and the impossible dream

Oh, if only the economy could grow forever. We could buy more stuff tomorrow and more the day after tomorrow, and in their time our children could buy even more, and our grandchildren yet more again. There would be no limits.

This is the future our leaders envision, the future they dream of. When they meet, the conversation about growth has one focus and one focus only—how we can have more.

This was apparent at the recent meetings between our Prime Minister and U.S. President Obama. Commenting on the seething anger among Americans at their political masters, Trudeau commented, "There's a danger that people will begin pulling back their support for policies that stimulate and support growth if we don't figure out a way of including them in the prosperity that's created by that growth." That he recognized the roots of Americans' frustration was good, but that he assumed growth must march ever onward was not good at all.

Endless growth is a lovely dream, but if we believe in it and act as if it's a possible dream, the result will be a nightmare.

There are limits. The planet is finite, and we are already using up its resources faster than it can replenish them. We are sucking it dry. If we continue to follow the impossible dream we will create a dystopian future, one where we will end up fighting, people against people, nation against nation, perhaps with nuclear weapons, over the remaining scraps.

The President was lavish in his praise of our Prime Minister, as were others. A spokesman from the Center for American Progress referred to him as a future "paragon of the progressive movement" and predicted he would become "a linchpin, if not the future leader, of that movement."

He has certainly, in a very short time, turned our country in sunnier directions on many fronts, but if he is to become a paragon of progress, he must lead on the most important front of all, the fight to end growth and live within our planet's means. This issue, like no other, awaits a leader. It is Mr. Trudeau's opportunity to seize, but first he must recognize the reality that growth presents.

15 March 2016

Hillary and the sale of foreign policy

Hillary Clinton remains the odds-on favourite to become the 45th president of the United States. While she has solid credentials as a supporter of working class Americans, she has also been referred to as "the political face of corporate America" and "The Wall Street candidate," and indeed she and her husband have been very lucratively associated with bankers.

Another association has also been very lucrative. Billionaire entertainment mogul Haim Saban and his wife have donated $5-million to Ms. Clinton's super PAC, Priorities USA, plus another $1.4-million to the Hillary Victory Fund. This doesn't include the $1.9-million the couple raised at a $2,700-per-plate fundraiser they held at their Beverly Hills mansion last year. If Hillary is, as expected, the Democratic nominee, many more millions will no doubt flow from the Saban trough. He has vowed to provide “as much as needed” to get her elected. He has also donated at least $10-million to the Clinton Foundation.

And what does Mr. Saban expect to get for his millions? Well, he's a good friend of Hillary's so perhaps he's just making a friendly gesture. On the other hand, he might be pursuing his favourite political project. Saban is an Israeli-American who describes himself as a staunch Zionist and proclaims, "I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel." Clinton has apparently assured him she is an unreserved supporter of his country and has pledged, in writing no less, to oppose the boycott Israel movement.

To be fair, perhaps Clinton has always been a supporter of Israel and her friend's generosity would make no difference to her Middle Eastern foreign policy. Maybe, but $26-million and counting suggests a large part of that policy has been bought and paid for.

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.

28 January 2016

Technology bargain betrayed—where have all the rewards gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 January 2016

Oceans of plastic

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

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

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

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

On Putin the poisoner

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

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

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

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

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

15 January 2016

Bishop Henry pontificates on LGBTQ rights

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

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

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

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

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