Saturday, April 29, 2006

Iraq and the price of gas

Next time you fill your gas tank and watch the meter run your tab up beyond the point of despair, think of Iraq and the Bushites. Their plan called for paying to rebuild the country after they trashed it by selling its oil. Well, we all know how the plans of those mice gang aft a-gley.

Iraq, despite having the third highest proven oil reserves in the world, is now actually importing refined products. From a peak production of 3.5 million barrels a day in 1990, Iraq's production fell to 1.4 million in 2005. At a time when they could be relieving world supplies they are struggling to meet their own needs. Insurgent attacks and sabotage, corruption, gross mismanagement, theft of oil, government confusion -- all part of the chaos visited upon the country by the Americans and their allies -- have brought the industry to its knees.

Inasmuch as high gas prices contribute to conservation, they are a good thing. It just seems a little unfair to have one people bear so much of the burden.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Is nothing sacred?

Those damn animals. Every time you turn around they're encroaching on our domain. And scientists will insist on helping them.

Now it's grammar. A psychologist at the University of California has taught starlings to differentiate between a regular bird song "sentence" and one that has warbling or rattling phrases inserted in it. This, apparently, is comparable to recognizing a sentence that contains an explanatory clause, an intellectual feat linguists thought only humans could accomplish. But nine out of the 11 birds involved in the study learned to do it. The other two flunked out.

A professor of cognitive science at the university said the study indicated there is no "single magic bullet" separating us from the rest of the animal kingdom. What's next -- crows writing poetry? One wonders what Noam Chomsky thinks of all this.

Bush, gas prices and, last but not least, the environment

The bad news: More environment-bashing by the Bush Administration. The president's plan to reduce gas prices for American consumers includes easing up on environmental safeguards to spur the building of more refineries, suspending clean-burning gasoline rules, and, yet again, calling for drilling in the Arctic wildlife reserve.

Gas prices have doubled since Bush entered office and, given Americans love of their cars, the Republicans are scared silly this could augur defeat in the November elections.

The good news: Bush's approval rating has dropped to 32 per cent. And even better news, more Americans are doubling up on rides and switching to hybrid cars and motorcycles. And the icing on the cake, public transit systems are reporting increased ridership.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Ahmadinejad and the soccer ladies

The misogynists are going all wild and crazy. Pope Benedict ponders permitting Catholics to use condoms; now President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will allow women to attend soccer matches. In an apparent attempt to maintain popular support for his nuclear fantasies, the president will insist the best stands in stadiums where important matches are being held be allocated to women and families. It will, he insists, "promote chastity." He didn't elaborate.

The ban was initially justified to protect women from seeing men in shorts (God only knows where that would lead), but more recently to shield them from strong language and bad behaviour.

Female fans of foreign teams were allowed to attend games, but not local women, and apparently that annoyed them no end. Occasionally they scuffled with police after having bought tickets they couldn't use. Some were sneaking in dressed as men or accompanying foreign women. Now they may "enter the stadiums like ordinary human beings," as one feminist put it. They will, of course, be seated separately.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A prophylactic miracle

Who says there are no such things as miracles? Beyond any reasonable expectation, Pope Benedict has asked senior theologians and scientists to prepare a report on the use of condoms. The document will focus solely on their value as a prophylactic against AIDS; nonetheless, for a pope whose predecessor declared that "chastity and fidelity" were the only acceptable methods of combating the disease, this is major progress.

When not only priests and Catholic health care workers have been advocating the use of condoms in the struggle against AIDS, but even bishops and cardinals, the pressure apparently tipped Benedict into action.

Are the dominoes falling? If it's condoms for AIDS today, will it be for birth control tomorrow? The heavens tremble.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Exit another pompous ass

Finally, after more than two weeks of strikes and protests, and 14 dead, Nepalese King Gyanendra has agreed to return power to the people. That's the same power he, with the support of the military, has stolen from them since becoming king in 2001.

Not that he has given up all his power. He intends to remain as king and retain control of the army. This will probably be unacceptable to the opposition who want the army where it should be, under parliamentary control, and the king reduced to a figurehead or sent packing. So the struggle will continue.

Let's hope it's peaceful and ultimately rids the country of this jumped up aristocrat.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Happy birthday, Liz ... oh and you, too, Bill

Just wanted to wish a happy birthday to a couple of Brits. To our dear Queen, of course, who turned 80 today, and is still going strong. And to William Shakespeare who turns 442 on Sunday, and is eternal.

To the Queen: best wishes and long may you reign -- and then be replaced by an elected head of state.

To Mr. Shakespeare: there is a tide in the affairs of men, and no one made more of his. Thanks for everything, Bill. Rest in peace.

I'm supporting Elizabeth May

With all the attention being paid the Liberal leadership race, and an exciting race it's shaping up to be, we tend to overlook the fact another political party will be electing a leader even sooner. I refer of course to the Green Party which will be holding its biennial leadership vote in Ottawa in late August. The only declared candidate so far is David Chernushenko, candidate for the Greens in Ottawa Centre in the past two elections. Current leader Jim Harris will announce his intentions next week.

But, adding a note of excitement to the race, indeed making it a race, Elizabeth May, Officer of the Order of Canada and executive director of the Sierra Club, has announced she may run. After 17 years of being one of the best-known voices of environmental activism, she is resigning from the Sierra Club to take up other challenges. She will be looking for tips from the country's political class at the award ceremony for Brian Mulroney whom she nominated as Canada's greenest prime minister.

She is distressed at the "easy ride" the opposition parties are giving the Harper government on environmental issues because of their fear of an election. She feels that as leader of the Green Party she could offer the much-needed political criticism. The leadership of the Greens in the last election was debilitatingly weak, and the dynamic and proven Ms. May may be just the remedy.

Anyone or anything that can bring more pressure to bear on a government whose environmental policy drifts somewhere between confused and cavalier is welcome.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Be careful what you wish for

The Bush Administration has made much of its desire for democracy in the Middle East, yet recent developments in that direction have not been entirely well received by these fans of self-governance.

The Palestinians, in a well run election, free and fair and with a much better turnout than we in North America can muster, elected the Islamic Hamas party. To the great annoyance of the West, Hamas doesn't recognize Israel and reserves the right to resist the occupation and theft of its territory by any means it chooses. As a result, the United States, with Canada and the European Union tagging faithfully along, has decided to punish the Palestinian people for their decision by withholding funding from their government.

Iraq held a successful election in 2005, but it too offered ominous signs. It indicated the bloc loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is becoming the most powerful force in the country. The Sadrist bloc has similarities to Hamas, with its resistance to occupation, its grassroots organizing and its services for the poor. Al-Sadr has also warned that his militia would defend Iran if the U.S. attacks that country, a possibility currently bruited about in Washington. If Sadrist power grows, it will be interesting to see what happens to the American enthusiasm for democracy in Iraq.

If it faltered, it would be no surprise, just as the rejection of the Palestinian election is no surprise. The United States has oft talked about democracy in the Third World, but what it pursues in fact is government amenable to its economic and strategic interests. It has helped overthrow democratic governments and install dictatorships in Latin America, South America, Africa and the Middle East when the dictatorships proved more useful. The overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran fifty years ago haunts American policy in the Middle East to this day.

We might skeptically believe the only reason the Bush Administration seemed so keen on Middle Eastern democracy in the first place was because they believed it would best serve their interests. Now that may be proving to not be the case, they may start to yearn for some friendly dictators. The Saud family comes to mind. We can't help but suspect, as the Palestinians must now surely do, that if the Palestinian Authority was a dictatorship, even a brutal one, as long as it submitted to Israel the United States would embrace it.

Sadly for Canadians, it now appears that our government has fallen in line with the Americans' cynical approach to democracy. We were among the first to punish the Palestinians for choosing a government that will defer to neither Israel nor the West. I wonder -- would we, too, prefer a Palestinian dictatorship if it was more amenable?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The new lords of the realm

The corporate plot thickens. Following up on their meeting in Cancun, to which they each invited five corporate CEOs, Harper, Bush and Fox have established a North American Competitiveness Council which will formally make the corporate sector a partner in dealing with North American security and economic issues.

Having corporate CEOs sitting as partners with our democratically elected leaders is rather like the old House of Lords in Great Britain when the aristocracy mattered: the elected power of the people balanced by the unelected power of their betters. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives has now become a sort of Canadian House of Lords. And this aristocracy matters a great deal.

According to the Council of Canadians, under the aegis of the new council ministers will be mandated to meet with business leaders. Needless to say, ministers will not be mandated to meet with union leaders on labour issues or with environmental leaders on environmental issues. Only the lords of commerce will participate in creating Fortress America.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Warrior worship

Ten thousand years ago, before the Agricultural Revolution set us on the path to modern societies, prehistoric men evaluated their manhood first and foremost by their prowess as warriors, by their facility at killing. Ten thousand years later, Prime Minister Harper announces, "Military service is the highest calling of citizenship."

We do love to express our hatred of war, but as long as we worship warriors, we won't sound very convincing.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Defense Minister O'Connor's backward logic

Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor justifies our military presence in Afghanistan by implying it somehow protects us against terrorism. "Events in Bali, Madrid and London have all showed how vulnerable we are to terrorism," he insists, and goes on to ask, "Must we wait for terrorists to appear in Vancouver, Montreal or here in Ottawa before we recognize the very real threat that they present to our security?"

The Minister does not choose his examples wisely. The authorities in both Spain and the U.K. have conducted thorough investigations and concluded the Madrid and London bombings were home-grown -- unconnected to foreign terrorists. They were carried out by young men alienated from their own societies, alienated largely by their countries' involvement in Iraq. And the Bali bombings were reprisals against the Australians for their participation in Iraq. For their own idiosyncratic reasons, these people take exception to killing Muslims, and they retaliate against those who do.

The message is crystal clear. If we want to protect ourselves against terrorism, we keep our troops out of Muslim countries, not send them in. Mr. O'Connor has it precisely backward. If this is typical of the kind of thinking that has gone into our Afghan adventure, and I fear it is, we are headed for serious trouble.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The most dangerous men in the world

George W. Bush is the most dangerous man in the world. Not because of his foreign policy, although God knows that puts enough people in danger, but because of his cavalier attitude toward climate change. Climate change is the overwhelming issue; if we don't deal with it, no other issues will matter. And that means the country that produces 25 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions must be a leader. In fact, it isn't even a follower. The Bush administration backed out of the Kyoto Protocol, the first small international step to reducing the world's pollution.

And now the Harper administration, even though it insists it will work within the Protocol, is taking an axe to environmental spending. According to planning documents obtained by the Globe and Mail, the Conservatives plan on chopping Environment Canada's programs by 80 per cent and cutting the climate change budgets of other departments by 40 per cent. Apparently, they even want to claw back the $260 million we had pledged to the United Nations' climate change programs. The PM insists they aren't going to slash programs, just "wind up programs that don't get results and move things toward a program that is focused not just on spending money, but also achieving some objectives." Whatever that means. No program is apparent and the environment isn't included in the famous five priorities.

Even though we pollute significantly less than the United States because of our smaller population, we still pollute well beyond our share of the world's population. And, thanks to solid efforts by a number of states, The U.S. has done a better job overall of reducing emissions than we have. So, if our Prime Minister plans on adopting the same cavalier attitude toward climate change as the President, he will be well qualified to join the most dangerous man club, a fraternity we seriously can't afford.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Mr. Berlusconi and unintended consequences

When Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (soon to be former Prime Minister) brought in the Fascist-tainted legislation that allowed foreigners to vote in Italian elections if they descended from a continuous line of male forebears going back to a man born in Italy, he apparently expected this would benefit his conservative coalition. A reasonable expectation, as defining citizenship by race rather than residency has a certain right-wing appeal. The plan, unfortunately for the histrionic Mr. Berlusconi, backfired.

In the recent election, foreign voters, some of whom have never set foot in Italy and can't even speak Italian, voted in favour of Mr. Berlusconi's opponents, the left-wing coalition of Romano Prodi. Their vote tipped the scales just enough to elect Mr. Prodi and his coalition. Perhaps if the billionaire Mr. Berlusconi dominated the ownership of private television in North America as he does in Italy, the result would have been different, but he doesn't and it wasn't, and he's now out a job as he so richly deserves to be. He will now have more time to spend in court, battling the endless corruption charges he faces.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

My kingdom for a kidney

A message to my fellow seniors out there: don't forget to sign that organ donor card. At one time, once you were past a certain age, your spare parts were considered past their due date. Not any more. Not quite vintage, a bit worn perhaps, but still viable. Organs from people over 90 have been successfully transplanted, offering their recipients many more years of the good life. According to a story in the Globe, patients who accepted "an expanded-donor-criteria kidney had a 17-per-cent long-term lower risk of dying, compared with those who remained on dialysis or eventually received an ideal organ." "Expanded-donor" refers to someone who was old or diabetic or suffered from high blood pressure.

So sign the card, seniors. Considering Canadians suffering from kidney disease can wait up to 11 years for a kidney, and over 50 die waiting every year, you could save a life. And, what the hell, they won't be any use to you any more.

An Afghan fantasy?

Now that our elected representatives have at last debated our mission in Afghanistan, albeit toothlessly, it is long past time to ask whether the goals of the mission coincide with reality. Assuming our intentions are honourable (And what else would they be, we are Canadians, right?), we must still ask if they are doable. If they are not, the presence of our troops in that country may ultimately do more harm than good.

The stars are not well-aligned. We are involving ourselves in one of the poorest and least-promising countries in the world. A country racked with war for decades. A profoundly conservative Islamic country, often hostile to Western values. A country plagued by renegade warlords. A country whose economy runs on the drug trade. And our troops face a local resistance inspired by divine imperative. A resistance that can retreat at will into sanctuary across the border. And, ominously, a resistance increasingly allied with drug dealers, the prime movers of the Afghan economy.

And we plan on stabilizing this nightmare? Is this even vaguely realistic? Colour me skeptical. I suggest we start aligning our intentions with the facts. If we don't, the now rarely heard words "quagmire" and "Vietnam" may become a chorus.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Crime and punishment

Who to believe? Our Prime minister says one thing. Statistics Canada says another.

The Prime Minister insists, "The safe streets and safe neighbourhoods that Canadians have come to expect as part of our way of life are threatened by rising levels of crime." Stats Can says, "Except for an increase in 2003, the crime rate has generally been falling since 1991 when it peaked."

"The homicide rate is on the rise as well," says Mr. Harper. Says Stats Can, "Canada's homicide rate rose 12 per cent in 2004 after hitting a 36-year low the year before." And then adds, "The violent crime rate fell 2 per cent [in 2004], continuing a general decline since 1992."

According to the people who actually measure such things, we are not experiencing "rising levels of crime," as PM Harper puts it, but quite the opposite. As our population ages, this is exactly what we should expect, crime being principally a young man's game. We should expect the rates of both violent and property crimes to decline, and they are.

That the federal government's approach to crime and punishment will be based on a false perception of reality is profoundly disturbing. More police and prisons and longer sentences are not the answer to crime. We all know what that answer is: ensuring all women have healthy pregnancies, all infants have healthy nurturing, and all children have healthy and challenging environments. Basing our anti-crime programs on false assumptions will lead us away from this toward a false promise. And probably toward more crime.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

China and the hypocrisy of corporate globalization

China, it seems, has aroused a certain degree of ire in the U.S. because of a trade imbalance that has now reached $202 billion. Even the World Trade Organization has weighed in on China's trade practices, suggesting China should revalue its currency, crack down on product piracy, and liberalize its services industry.

Neither the U.S. nor the WTO mention the most obvious problem, i.e. the massive subsidy China offers its manufacturers via coerced labour. Chinese workers are denied freedom of association, specifically the right to bargain collectively and freely for their working conditions. If they weren't, I suspect the hostility over trade would be greatly mitigated as workers in the two countries competed more equitably. Chinese prices would rise in response to better pay and working conditions for their labour force, and the trade imbalance would decline.

This would also create a freer market and fairer trade, which is what economic globalization is supposed to be about. Yet, it isn't even mentioned. The reason is no great mystery. Cheap labour in China is of very great advantage to international corporations, and this is what globalization is really about. The goal is to make life merrier for corporations, even at the expense of workers and the environment. Even at the expense of free trade in its fullest sense.

I like the idea of being a world citizen; consequently, I strongly support globalization. But only a globalization designed in the interests of people and the environment and in which the interests of corporations are incidental. Sadly, this is not the globalization we are creating.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hybrid democracy and the corporate challenge

A recent international poll indicated that only 36 per cent of Canadians believe their country is "governed by the will of the people." This may seem cynical on the part of our fellow citizens; however, it reflects reality. We often pretend we have a democracy in this country, but of course we don't. Our political system is a hybrid, part democracy, yes, but also part plutocracy. Whether the ratio is 36/64 or something closer to 50/50 is hard to say, but plutocracy certainly has an edge.

First, almost all of our mass media is owned and controlled by the corporate sector. The only independent mass medium, at least of national scope, is the CBC. Second, the corporate sector contributes substantially to the coffers of political parties. And third, the corporate sector dominates the economy, increasingly so in a globalizing world. Control of the mass media alone would provide the plutocracy with disproportionate power and when it is also a major influence in elections and the major influence in governmentss economic decision-making, the democratic component of the system is rather over-shadowed.

Indeed, the great challenge of democracy in the 21st century is dealing with the excessive and increasing power of corporations. Not an easy task when they have the big bucks.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Check your eyeballs at the border

Apparently, the U.S. government is determined to require passport or biometric ID at the border. Paranoia tightens its grip.

All the 9/11 bombers entered the U.S. directly (and legally) and only one terrorist is ever have been known to cross the border from Canada. To my knowledge, none have crossed from Mexico. So where's the threat?

And why would they expect border checks to keep out a terrorist? The number of illegal immigrants in the United States increases by about 500,000 a year. These people aren't dropping out of the sky. Does the Bush Administration really believe terrorists can't do what thousands of wetbacks do every day?

Examine passports and look deeply into peoples' eyes all they want, they won't keep a determined bad guy out. They will, however, inconvenience millions of people, damage our three countries' economies, and add to the expenses of governments and travelers alike. Such is the cost of paranoia.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Here a nuke, there a nuke

Bad enough that Iran is suspected of developing nuclear weapons, now the German magazine Cicero reports Saudi Arabia intends to join the club. The Saudis are the guys who, over the years, have been prime financiers of Islamic fundamentalism, including the zealots in Afghanistan. They are also reputed to have co-financed Pakistan's nuclear program. Now, according to Cicero, Saudi and Pakistani scientists are collaborating on a nuclear program for Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan has categorically denied the assertion. A Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson declared, "It is a fabricated and baseless story, motivated by vicious intentions." So there, Cicero.

If the story turns out to be true, it will be interesting to see if the United States, a close friend of the Saudis, will be as exercised about their chums having the bomb as they are about Iran having it.

If the U.S. and other Western powers want to somehow stuff this genie back into the bottle, they might try meeting the other half of the non-proliferation deal, namely Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty,which reads:

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

They haven't been doing much of that negotiating lately. If they don't start meeting their half of the bargain, they can hardly be surprised at non-nuke nations wanting to play with the big boys.