Friday, October 30, 2009

Hillary Clinton Demonstrates Gall

Dear Secretary of State Clinton:

I have to say I was impressed with your performance in Pakistan in recent days. It isn't every day that an American politician says what's on their mind to their foreign hosts (well, I suppose they're not foreign to themselves but to us they are). I mean, where do these guys get off? Sure the USA helped create the refugee problem during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. And, sure, the USA funded and armed the militants that Pakistan is now fighting in South Waziristan. But it took courage for you to say: "I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are, and couldn’t get to them if they really wanted to” in relation to al Qaeda. In fact it took a double-helping of Yankee courage, especially since the USA has just run back to Kabul from Nuristan, leaving a nice big path open for militants from Afghanistan to go in and help whoop Pakistani butt. But, hell, what do these foreigners want? You propped up their stupid dictator for them didn't you, even when the guy was a big embarrassment. And you help them out by sending pilotless drones (after all they can't expect you to put quality American lives at risk) over their territory and blow the hell out of some of those crazy Pakistani villages. Crap, the USA does it without even asking - just to lend a helping hand.
What is wrong with these people?!


PS Good luck with Bill. He's a total dickhead.

PPS That's not my real name.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Economic Recovery, Part 2: The State of America

DATA RELEASED TODAY SHOWED THAT THE US ECONOMY IS GROWING AGAIN. However, the tenor of coverage was more subdued than you would think appropriate, given that the economy was growing at an annualized rate of 3.5 percent. The reason for the cloud hanging over the good news is rooted in the uncertainty as to how sustainable it is. For one thing, it's clear that a big part of the growth is the direct effect of massive government stimulus that's going to come to an end - and which effects have already mostly passed, for instance the "cash for clunkers" scheme. As an economist in the New York Times noted:
"'That alters the dynamic of a recession and a recovery, and what you’re left with, to some degree, is an artificial recovery,' said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak, an investment research firm."
In the wake of soaring government deficits - expected to be over ten percent of GDP this year and for several years to come - weak demand and endless balance of payments deficits (even now with the dollar falling imports are rising faster than exports-, there has been much uncertainty and a lot of talk about the weakening of the US economy.
China, for its part, has tried to escape the addictive but dangerous dance it is in with the USA by floating the idea of replacing the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The trouble is – with what? As several articles outline, there is no clear contender for the role. No other country or currency has the economic size, capital markets and financial solvency to play the role that America does. And the IMF, even if it could do the job as the Chinese have suggested (it lacks the capital markets and stable guarantee of value), won’t because it is a tool of the USA. The USA may want to devalue its currency to restore international competitiveness but it doesn’t want to lose the power of being the currency of international trade, of oil, etc. It wants currency traders and governments to continue to stock it so that the USA can continue to run deficits when it wants and needs and can borrow the money cheap.
Certainly America is still the world’s biggest economic powerhouse.
“The U.S. share of the value of global-equity trading is more than 40 percent. The total value of trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 2006 was greater than all of Europe's combined...
“The U.S. is still the place that foreign capital wants to be and is the largest receiver of foreign direct investment. Nine of the top 50 transnational financial corporations are American, including the top two (Citigroup Inc. and General Electric Capital Corp.). Thirteen of the top 50 non-financial transnational corporations are American, including four of the top eight: General Electric, General Motors Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Ford Motor Co.”
In addition, the US spends more on its military than every other nation on earth combined, counting for over 45 percent of total military spending. These are some of the base facts of a very real US global hegemony. And it is articulated through a system of institutions that are ultimately under the control of the Americans, including the UN, NATO, IMF, World Bank, WTO, et al. The US is not going away any time soon.
Nonetheless there is a shift going on that is seeing the absolute global dominance of the US face challenges that it has not faced since before the Second World War. From a peak of around 50 percent of global GDP immediately following WWII, the US economy now accounts for somewhere in the range of 20-24 percent, depending on the measure – one, which accounts for exchange rate fluctuations puts the US share below 20 percent. Some economists have suggested that China will surpass the US in share of global GDP by 2015.
Internally it also faces challenges with debt reaching unsustainable levels in relation to the GDP. As the first chart shows, personal income in the US has not risen as quickly as GDP, with the shortfall increasingly made up by an expansion of household debt (this figure doesn’t include mortgages). If we compare household debt to the federal debt we see the same curve as the federal debt surpasses GDP. The picture is the same with non-financial business debt. The figures according to the most recent flow of funds report from the Federal Reserve as staggering:
“At the end of the second quarter of 2009, the level of domestic nonfinancial debt outstanding was $34.4 trillion; household debt was $13.7 trillion, nonfinancial business debt was $11.2 trillion, and total government debt was $9.5 trillion. “
This debt has grown as the US has lost unionized manufacturing jobs and switched to a more service oriented economy. There are now almost the same number of people working in the “professional and business sector” as work in “goods producing." According to the US-China Business Council, the percentage of US jobs in manufacturing, for instance, has declined from 16.5 percent in 1987 to around 11 percent in 2005, before the present crisis.
The service sector now provides 80 percent of US economic activity. With lower pay and fewer benefits than unionized jobs, personal income has stagnated in the USA at just above the level reached in 1970. With consumer spending accounting for 70 percent of US GDP and incomes stagnant, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that debt levels would have to rise to sustain any kind of economic expansion.
This income stagnation itself must be understood as a by-product of a generalized decline in the rate of profit. A declining rate of profit is an inherent feature of capitalist development, as theorized by Marx. The basic argument flows from Marx’ extrapolation from the Labour Theory of Value that he inherited from classical economists like Ricardo, in particular, and Smith. The idea is that an economy based upon exchange requires a universal equivalent – how else to compare software and sneakers? That universal equivalent is labour and that, in the final analysis, is the basis of all exchange value, including the exchange value of labour power itself. Labour, the universal commodity, has a unique quality in that it can produce more value than is required to reproduce it. That surplus is the source of profit. But in the competition between firms across the whole of the economy, each tries to achieve greater labour efficiencies than the other. In the immediate term, company A may benefit from investment in a labour-saving device or production method. But once labour saving investment is generalized over the entire economy, the result is that the products of the economy contain less labour and therefore less exchange value. It is an irony of capitalism that in its ceaseless drive to become more efficient to increase profits, it undermines the basis for profits itself.
One of the ways the system seeks to extricate itself from crises of profitability is to make workers work harder, either by lowering their wages or by extending the workday or making their labour more intensive. This can at least partly explain the stagnation of wages in the US and the rises in productivity since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. The same process is visible in the present recession with the Bureau of Labor Statistic reporting that unit labour costs have fallen by 5.9 percent in the second quarter of 2009. Business sector productivity increased 6.5 percent and manufacturing productivity by 4.9 percent in the same period. The US is also near the top of the heap in terms of number of hours worked per year. As a result, the US is number two in the measure of worker productivity. And according to the the Bureau of Labour Statistics, wages have been been declining since 2004, the height of the boom. It is likely that “productivity” will rise further as the recession plays itself out and employers roll back wages, force more overtime and more intense work from their workforce.
“Compensation so far in 2009 has been cut by the largest amount in nearly two decades, with a government index of real average weekly earnings down 1.9 percent since its high point last December. And the average workweek - now down to 33 hours - is the shortest on modern record.”
However, these mechanisms have to date been unable to fully counteract the decline in the rate of profit and the evidence is in the growth of debt, on the one hand, and in the growth of financial services, on the other. The move into financial services should be seen for what it is – the rise of a casino economy in the face of a stagnating real economy where profitable investment opportunities have become scarce. The graph below from Monthly Review shows the rise of financial profits as a percentage of total profits. This casino can provide a stimulus – just as the government printing money can provide a stimulus. But ultimately there is a piper to be paid because no new value is being created in these sectors. Since the Black Monday crash of 1987 paying the piper has been put off by simply piling debt upon debt to stave off the full effects of each bubble economy. As John Bellamy Foster notes:

“From this perspective, capitalism in its monopoly-finance capital phase has become increasingly reliant on the ballooning of the credit-debt system in order to escape the worst aspects of stagnation. Moreover, nothing in the financialization process itself offers a way out of this vicious spiral. Today the bursting of two bubbles within seven years in the center of the capitalist system points to a crisis of financialization, behind which lurks deep stagnation, with no visible way out of the trap at present other than the blowing of further bubbles.”
Nor is this view of the instability engendered by the financialization of the economy limited to Marxists writing in radical journals. Wolfgang Munchau, writing in the Financial Times also points to the growth of the financial sector as a key structural reason for the growth of recurrent speculative bubbles followed by crashes. He is pessimistic that the world economy will even yet escape from this present round of crisis without further serious damage.
“Our present situation can give rise to two scenarios – or some combination of the two. The first is that central banks start exiting at some point in 2010, triggering another fall in the prices of risky assets…
“Alternatively, central banks might prioritise financial stability over price stability and keep the monetary floodgates open for as long as possible. This, I believe, would cause the mother of all financial market crises – a bond market crash – to be followed by depression and deflation.”
However Munchau, unlike Foster, believes that the growth of the financial sector is the root of the problem. For Foster, this growth is symptomatic of the aging of the system and the decline in profit rates. That is why the reaction of the Fed to the bursting of the dot com bubble was to drop interest rates to historic lows and print money. And it is why Ben Bernanke is doing the same thing this time around. Because the only mandated response that they have is to create new bubbles to solve the crash caused by the last one. The present return to growth should be seen as part of this same dynamic of reflating. The housing market, for instance, has returned to growth after catastrophic declines. But this has more to do with an interest rate close to zero and the offering of an $8,000 tax credit for all new home buyers. That credit is government debt that the population will have to pay off eventually and it is encouraging people to borrow more money to reinflate the sector. How many times can they pull this trick?
To deal with the underlying causes would require a qualitative break from neo-liberalism either by extracting significant concessions from capital or a deep attack on the living standards of the working class. Neither of these is on the cards in the short term – to raise taxes on the corporate sector or the rich would undermine the competitiveness of whatever country did it viz. those countries that didn’t at the hands of those same financial forces that caused the crisis in the first place. And while working class living standards can always be driven down further, assuming workers accept such attacks, such a decline will nonetheless hurt the ability of “consumers” – who are mostly workers – to play their traditional role of driving economic growth.
Finally: the present period of instability began with the decline and then relative stagnation of profit rates in the 1970s. The first flush of that crisis ended with the coming to power of Reagan/Thatcher/et al representing a neo-liberal/financialization solution. The appearance of speculative busts, starting (in particular) with Black Monday in 1987, followed by the debt crisis in Latin America and the "Lost Decade" in Japan after its property and asset bubble burst in the early 90s, were the opening shots of a new type of crisis, each one nearer and more severe than the last. As Munchau and Foster both note, the resolution of this present crisis by inflating another asset bubble only makes the eventual hangover that much worse. If, at some point, investors stop buying US dollars and it falls to its real value, based upon the relationship of the quantity of money in circulation against the amount of actual production – there will be hell to pay for the ghosts of bubbles past. Nobody can know when or how that endpoint will come – or if the ruling class can find a way out of the present crisis – but what is certain is that this recovery will be the precursor to the next crisis in the not very distant future. The era of the post-war boom ended in the 70s, and now the neo-liberal debt supported booms are coming to an end and it won’t be pretty. As Munchau concludes his article: "For all we know, there may not be a safe way down."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

US Loses Control Of Key Afghan Province

THE FIRST FRUITS OF THE US WITHDRAWAL from the Afghan countryside and into the cities has come to pass as insurgents have taken control of the province of Nuristan on the Pakistani border. This effectively surrenders access to key supply lines through the Hindu Kush. It's also something of a stab in the back to Pakistan, which is waging an offensive right across the border. Asia Times Online spoke to a militant close to the insurgent leader in the region, Qari Ziaur Rahman:
"As the militant who spoke to Asia Times Online said, there is now the opportunity to open a new front, with Rahman's forces on the Afghan side and those of Moulvi Faqir Mohammad on the Bajaur and Mohmand side."
This is a major setback for the Americans and could be a serious blow to Pakistani efforts against the Taliban in Waziristan.
In an additional symbolic blow to US control in Afghanistan, militants seized a UN guesthouse in the heart of Kabul, which was seen as a safe haven from the insurgency. After eight years of war and occupation, it may be that a tipping point has been reached.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Afghanistan: US Can't Win For Losing

WELL, THE USA GOT THEIR CONCESSION from Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's wheeling-dealing, ballot-stuffing president. He has accepted a run-off election to happen on November 7, which means, at least implicitly, he has accepted the accusations that he and his kith and kin ran a less than clean election. But what's good for the goose is good for the gander and since the USA was happy enough to have GW Bush steal his first election, what's wrong with some guy in Afghanistan - a place that most Americans couldn't find on a map? So, everybody's happy right? As Stephen Harper put it:

"While the first round of elections was not without controversy, it is important to remember how far Afghanistan has come since the fall of the Taliban regime. Our goal in Afghanistan is to help Afghans rebuild their country as a stable, democratic and self-sufficient society. Canada continues to lend our support."
Absolutely right, Stephen. Since the fall of the Taliban more civilians have died than during their reign. That surely is an accomplishment. And we've replaced sexist tyrants with... sexist tyrants and drug lords (it's called diversifying your base of support). And we've helped solve the Afghan refugee problem in neighbouring countries: Iran and Pakistan have been expelling them in large numbers.
But still, somehow, the US can't seem to get it right. Already, Karzai's opponent in any runoff, the suspected war criminal, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, has said that he may boycott the second round. So much for granting legitimacy to the election. And, anyway, if Karzai wins, there's a good chance that forcing him to accept the American diktat for a second round may have fatally weakened him politically.

"The Americans didn't seem to care it was unprecedented for a Popolzai chief to be made to admit defeat in front of his people."
So much for maintaining a strong leader to keep the weak Afghan state together. In fact, John Kerry - the formerly anti-war vet who is now stumping to send a new generation of working class kids to die in foreign lands - was in Afghanistan to both pressure Karzai to back down and to push for the Afghanization of the conflict. He didn't seem to realize that these two things are fundamentally in conflict. As noted in an editorial by M.K. Bhadrakumar in the Asia Times Online:

"Whether Karzai was efficient or corrupt is no more the issue. The issue is the perception that Westerners use their friends like condoms - to be discarded after use...This will have implications for the much-touted "Afghanization" strategy."
There are meanwhile reports of demonstrations in Kabul and beyond over allegations that American troops burned copies of the Koran during operations in Wardak province. This comes after 14 US troops died in one day, the largest single daily casualty count since the US occupied the country. Even more worrying, Asia Times Online reported that the Afghan province of Nuristan has fallen to insurgents after the withdrawal of American troops, as part of their strategy to only hold major urban centres.
It seems that things are going from bad to worse for the US and their NATO allies - including Canada. They could have asked the Soviets the price of trying to occupy a country that has defeated more empires than any other.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Ruling Class Are Scum: Discuss

Here's my favourite quote for today from the Guardian in Britain - in case you thought that maybe the rich give a flying f**k in a rolling donut what happens to you and yours. Just whatever you do, don't disturb them sticking their snouts in the trough.

In remarks that will fuel the row around excessive pay, [Conservative Peer] Lord Griffiths, vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International and a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said banks should not be ashamed of rewarding their staff.
Speaking to an audience at St Paul's Cathedral in London about morality in the marketplace last night, Griffiths said the British public should "tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity for all".

The Economic Recovery, Part 1: The Myths Of China

ARE WE IN A RECOVERY? Well, there’s certainly lots of talk of “green shoots” and the head of the IMF said on Saturday that “just now we see the beginning of the end of the crisis, predicting that the world will return to growth this year and by next year global growth will be around 3 percent. Is it true?
Any talk of global recovery needs to start by looking at two key places – China and the USA. The two countries are locked together in an unwilling but interdependent dance from which neither can escape. The USA is China’s largest trading partner with 21 percent of China’s exports going to the US and almost eight percent of its imports coming from there. In the US, China is now the USA’s number 1 trading partner, representing up to 19 percent of total trade vs Canada’s 14.5 percent. Until last year Canada was the biggest trading partner.
This is significant for a few reasons. First, because exports are still key to China’s growth, with its balance of payments surplus accounting for 10 percent of China’s GDP. In real terms that means that China sells $300 billion per year more than it buys on the world market. It is a key component of China’s growth rates, which have hovered around the 10 percent mark.
Having such a high balance of payments surplus has meant that China can invest heavily in growing its economy. It’s rate of investment is a whopping 43 percent of GDP, compared to about 16.5 percent in the United States and 23.1 percent in the EU.
But it’s also meant that China can buy up American debt – it holds close to $800 billion in US debt – in a process of debt cycling that helped fund the 2003-2007 boom. It was as though the US borrowed money from China to pay for stuff that it was buying from China. And China lent money to the US that it had made by selling the US goods from its factories. Right wing historian Niall Ferguson labeled this cycle “Chimerica”. What was really happening, of course, was that by continuing to buy up US government securities they simultaneously kept US interest rates low – thus helping to fund the consumer debt boom – and also kept the US dollar high, making Chinese exports cheap.
It was a virtuous cycle until the bubble got too big. It is now in the process of becoming a negatively reinforcing cycle: the collapse in US imports is driving down China’s trade surplus, and the massive quantity of US debt is driving down the US dollar, which is making it less attractive as a reserve currency and threatens to push up US interest rates. The Chinese have stated on a number of occasions that they are concerned by US debt levels, levels that they were happy with in the past when it meant the sales of Chinese goods. In March, Premier Wen Jiabao made some very bald statements at the end of the closing of China’s legislative session:
“We have made a huge amount of loans to the United States. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I'm a little bit worried... I would like to call on the United States to honor its words, stay a credible nation and ensure the safety of Chinese assets.”
But the Chinese can do little more than express concern. They know that ending the present round of massive stimulus spending in either country would be a disaster, since it is all that is propping up the anemic growth in the US and accounts for perhaps half of the growth in China. At a joint two-day conference between China and the US in July, China made the ritual noises about getting the deficit under control but then re-emphasized that now is not the time to stop deficit spending to stimulate the economy. As Peterson Institute economist, Ted Truman, put it:
“They don't want the U.S. economy to collapse because they are highly dependent on the U.S. economy in terms of economic activity and ... because they have a lot of their financial eggs in this basket.”
The result of the present crisis and the interdependent negative effect it has had on China and the US is leading to a number of processes. China is desperately trying to avoid a slowdown in growth. Anything below about 8 percent will cause a rise in unemployment and, it is feared, a growth in unrest – already in good supply. But with China pumping cash both directly through state investment and indirectly through a rapid expansion of lending – at 34 percent, or four times the rate of GDP growth – there is a serious danger of both an asset bubble and massive over capacity as plant comes online with insufficient global markets to absorb the increase in supply. With US retail sales stagnant and GDP in the European Union expected to shrink this year by four percent, the only hope for China beyond government stimulus that is expected to end after 2010 is to develop domestic consumption. Recent statistics, for instance showing a 16.5 percent growth in retail sales and a whopping 34 percent growth in auto sales, seem to suggest that this is happening. However, these stats are largely for foreign consumption and for the central state paymasters of regional bureaucrats. In other words they are, at best, manipulated and are often outright fabrications. But even where there has been a growth in domestic demand, much of it either includes increased government expenditure or one-off incentives as part of the government stimulus package. The real problem is that rather than rising, household consumption in China is falling – from 47 percent in 2000 to around 30 percent today, a massive decline.
What this suggests is that in the medium term shifting China’s economic priorities to develop domestic demand looks like an unlikely proposition for a number of reasons laid out in an article by Michael Pettis in Nouriel Roubini’s Global Economic Monitor. As he notes there are a number of structural and policy limitations to the growth of Chinese consumption:
“• An undervalued currency, which reduces real household wages by raising the cost of imports while subsidizing producers in the tradable goods sector.
“• Excessively low interest rates, which force households, who are mostly depositors, to subsidize the borrowing costs of borrowers, who are mostly manufacturers and include very few households, service industry companies or other net consumers.
“• A large spread between the deposit rate and the lending rate, which forces households to pay for the recapitalization of banks suffering from non-performing loans made to large manufacturers and state-owned enterprises.
“• Sluggish wage growth, perhaps caused in part by restrictions on the ability of workers to organize, which directly subsidizes employers at the cost of households.
“• Unraveling social safety nets and weak environmental restrictions, which effectively allow corporations to pass on the social cost to workers and households.
“• Other direct manufacturing subsidies, including controlled land and energy prices, which are also indirectly paid for by households
“By transferring wealth from households to boost the profitability of producers, China’s ability to grow consumption in line with growth in the nation’s GDP was severely hampered.”
While Pettis hits the producerist nail on the head, he fails to mention the contradictions that prevent the Chinese state from truly shifting towards a consumerist model. As I discussed above, the Chinese state is deadly terrified of a rise in unemployment and believe that an eight percent growth rate is necessary to absorb migration from the countryside to the cities. Shifting economic priorities towards developing domestic consumption necessarily means reducing the very high rate of investment and providing an increase in wages, social services, etc. For instance it was reported at the end of October that investment accounted for nearly 88 percent of GDP growth. Cutting back investment and redirecting that money to consumption would, at least in the short term, lead to a substantial increase in unemployment.
However, the export-led model has its own drawbacks, not least of which is that the Chinese economy is vulnerable to drops in external demand. And the Chinese state can’t provide any direct stimulus to counteract such a pullback. The result of that vulnerability has been made clear in the present recession.
“Between January and September, China's exports fell by 21.3 percent compared with the same period in 2008. The country's total trade with the European Union dropped 19.4 percent while trade with the US and Japan declined 15.8 percent and 20 percent respectively, according to the General Administration of Customs.”
There is also great pressure from the Americans – and others - for China to increase domestic consumption because the USA can’t continue forever to be the repository for Chinese exports. The American ruling class is increasingly nervous about Chinese control of the US debt, which implies a vulnerability to Chinese pressure of US policy. That means that there must be reversal in US indebtedness – and thus an increase in exports and saving. Barbara Hackman Franklin, Bush Sr.’s former Director of Commerce, summarized the viewpoint recently, stating that:
"The US must increase savings and be less consumption-led and that China must become more consumption oriented and less dependent on exports”
But, if anything, China is doing the opposite. Its policy of pegging the Yuan to the US dollar means that as the dollar has declined to more normal pre-crisis levels, China’s currency has also declined. This is, in effect, a devaluation that hinders the US, desperate to overcome its trade deficits, from doing so. As Paul Krugman noted in the New York Times on October 23:
“By pursuing a weak-currency policy, China is siphoning some of… [the already deeply depressed] demand away from other nations, which is hurting growth almost everywhere.”
Yet, in the face of this policy the US administration is, if anything, becoming more conservative in confronting China on its currency. Back in January during hearings on his nomination as Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner accused China of currency manipulation – a very big accusation that would have meant (if it was sustained after his confirmation) that the US would have to take action against China including, possibly, sanctions. But by October 15 the Treasury Dept under Geithner was singing a different tune in its report to Congress, saying that, while China’s currency was undervalued, it was not being manipulated. Krugman’s response was, “they’re kidding, right?”
But the Obama Administration is not kidding and for very good reasons. If China were to start selling it’s US dollar reserves in a big way it would lead to a much more dramatic decline in the dollar. That would put serious upward pressure on interest rates as the US government found it more difficult to raise funds in bond markets. While a lower dollar would make US exports more attractive, the combination of higher interests rates and higher import costs – particularly energy – would choke off the feeble recovery and likely lead to stagflation. It would also prick the asset-bubble that is the New York stock market, awash in bailout cash, further depressing the economy. So, expect explicit discussion of currency manipulation to remain taboo. And while the Chinese aren’t happy about all their dollar holdings being worth less every day as the US dollar slides, they aren’t unhappy about their currency devaluing along with it, making their exports cheaper.
However, doing nothing – which seems to be the better part of both countries’ present strategy – has a price. For China, it means a continuing decline in the buying power of the Chinese consumer as the cost of imports rise from everywhere but the US. This will make China further dependent upon exports to keep the economy growing, which will also make it vulnerable to factors beyond its borders and thus beyond its control. And as it buys less and sells more it not only has the effect of slowing growth elsewhere, thus undermining its market, it raises the possibility of protectionism. In its trade with the European Union, China had a trade surplus of €170 billion in 2008. The US, by contrast, had a trade deficit of €80 billion. It will be more politically palatable for recession-bound Europe to accept a decline in trade surplus than to see its deficit with China increase. One wonders if America’s weak dollar strategy isn’t, in part, to get Europe to put pressure on China to revalue its currency.
By looking at come of the contradictions faced by the Chinese economy, it begins to look less unassailable than the media is prone to represent it. And it is less the case that China is obstinately refusing to revalue the renminbi than that China has grown itself into a corner, so to speak. With asset-prices rising and the risk of a housing bubble on one side, along with a major crisis of overproduction looming on the other, China must navigate between the rocks of multiple economic dangers and the charybdis of urban and rural revolt that could destabilize the carefully built edifice of Chinese capitalism. It's not hyperbolic to say that the future of the world will be dramatically affected by whatever happens there.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tax Dollars At Work: US Military Creates Cyborg Insects

I SHAMELESSLY STOLE THIS off of The Galloping Beaver blog but it's so bizarre that it has to be shared. The US Military has been working on implanting the larvae of these giant bugs with electronic devices that allow their flight to be controlled.
It's not stated what these giant, remote-controlled bugs will be used for but one can only imagine the diabolical plans of the US military. I for one have suspected for a long time that there were sinister forces controlling the ants that invade my house every summer. And I believe that the naked photos of me that have been appearing on the internet are entirely the work of the US Military via cyborg silverfish. However, for the rest of the population, perhaps wondering why there's no money for healthcare, housing, social services, food, and education - blame it on a government that thinks there's more value in creating utterly useless remote-controlled bugs than in making the world a better place to live. But then again, perhaps giant flying bugs will provide a more efficient means to transport all that government money from the printing houses to the banks...

Bank's Loonie Strategy: "We Suck, Get Lost!"

FACED WITH A DOLLAR THAT IS CLIMBING relentlessly higher and threatening to kill our export-driven economy, the Bank of Canada has devised a new strategy. You might remember the Bank of Canada's earlier successes like the "high interest-low inflation" strategy from the early 90s that kept unemployment in double-digits for about half a decade.
High on such past innovative policies but paralyzed by the very idea of doing anything, Bank of Canada governor has decided that the best thing to do is simply bad mouth the country.
"Heightened volatility and persistent strength in the Canadian dollar are working to slow growth and subdue inflation pressures,” Mr. Carney said. He was later heard in the hallway, whispering to some very important international investors: "Canadians put lead and asbestos in all of their products. As soon as the story breaks the economy is going to tank. Whatever you do, don't buy Canadian dollars." At the time he was wearing a wig and a fake mustache, so we can't confirm that it was, in fact, him.
There were suggestions from fringe groups without any mainstream credibility that perhaps a policy of doing something constructive would be a good approach. They suggested a tax on free flowing speculative money pouring into (and then out of) the commodity sector as a way to raise money for the hefty deficit and cool off the oil industry and put downward pressure on the dollar. Stephen Harper a fiscal conservative whose government has raised the deficit at the fastest rate since Rome was in collapse suggested that such a strategy would be tantamount to Communism. "Communism is a terrible terrible thing. Evil. Bad."
Mr. Carney agreed and it was decided that the strategy of sending money to Conservative held ridings and scaremongering foreign investors was definitely the way to go.

After Goldstone: Israel's Gaza Siege Continues To Kill

AT THE MOMENT ISRAEL ISN'T SHELLING GAZA OR DROPPING CHEMICAL WEAPONS but its illegal and cruel policies continue to kill civilians. Since Israel's preferred candidates - Fatah - badly lost the 2007 democratic election, they have imposed a brutal blockade against the entire population. This has led to the collapse of the local economy and turned the entire Gaza Strip into a giant, open-air prison.
Of course, the American government, including under Obama, has happily gone along with this. There was, in fact, never any chance that Obama would substantially change the attitude of the US towards Israel, which remains the watchdog of the Middle East on behalf of America. It continues to receive billions of dollars in direct aid and loans (that are always forgiven), as well as in donations of military equipment.
Of course, from the media, you would never think that anything untoward was going on until there are reports of retaliatory fire by those much maligned Qassam rockets that are like slingshots - homemade, with little or no explosive warhead - compared to the 21st century military machine of the Israeli Occupation Forces. You would never hear about the Israeli jets that buzz Gaza City late at night so that children lay awake in fear that a missile will fly into their home. Nor do you hear about the regular harassment and dispossession of Palestinian farmers and residents in the West Bank whenever the utterly bonkers religious settlers make a move to reclaim that land given them by God, as though they're fighting the freaking Canaanites.
Well, a report by the International Middle East Center noted that the 361st medical patient died today as a result of Israel's blockade. It was a 41-year old man who needed cancer treatment. Israel literally waited till he was dead to grant permission, though he had all his forms and papers in order. On Tuesday a 13-year old boy died after also being denied access to cancer treatment by Israel.
Today, Israeli tanks also rolled into Gaza near the Egyptian border and opened fire on houses, forcing people to flee. And in the West Bank, Israel kidnapped - again, illegally - 7 men and have taken them to detention camps "for questioning".
All this is pertinent to the fact that Israel continues to resist any domestic inquiry into its invasion of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Of course the US is standing full square behind Israel's absurd outrage and supporting them "in their fight against the Goldstone report." As Israeli president Shimon Peres stated today:
"It is outrageous that a respected institution like the United Nations provides a platform to spread lies and stories about Israel."
Of course Israel has defied the International Criminal Court before over the building of the "Apartheid Wall", which cut deep into the Occupied Territories. And Israel regularly attacks the UN as biased because it passes meaningless resolutions in the General Assembly calling on Israel to follow the Geneva Conventions against annexing occupied territory, killing civilians, etc. etc.
But there are certain truths that cannot be denied - Israel launched a military offensive against major population centers in the Gaza Strip. There had been a full blockade of Gaza for over a year and a weapons embargo against the Palestinians for much longer than that. The only thing the Palestinians have are light weapons. The numbers speak for themselves: 1400 Palestinians died vs 13 Israelis. In other words 100:1. If that isn't evidence of the use "disproportionate and indiscriminate" violence, I don't know what is.
Likely, the most hawkish elements in the cabinet, like Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, will step back from refusing an inquiry - especially since Hamas has immediately agreed to one. The political costs are much lower to hold an inquiry that, at most, gives a slap on the wrist to politicians or suggests that Israeli generals allowed some soldiers to act too zealously. As an article in the Christian Science Monitor quoted Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor as saying:
"'Today, with the development of international law, one of the best means of defense is for a state to investigate itself.'"
And an investigation by Israel of itself will ensure that the Goldstone Report isn't referred to the International Criminal Court. The whole thing will be the usual, ritualized whitewash of Israeli war crimes.
In the meantime, nothing will change. Israel will continue to kill, maim and starve Palestinians. Settlers will continue to dispossess them. Jerusalem authorities will continue to deny them building permits and to drive them from their homes or deny them the right to return. After all, it's just another day in the Holy Land.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Death Of The American Dream

THAT IS THE TITLE OF THIS MULTIMEDIA PROJECT BY LAUREN GREENFIELD, with beautiful & haunting photos of the wreckage of the US housing sector and the lives ruined by its collapse. These are the voices you don't hear on the news when they're talking about bank bailouts (followed by record bank profits). When you see and hear these stories, you won't be able to think about the massive bonuses at the big banks and not feel angry.

Lauren Greenfield's "Foreclosure: Death of the American Dream" from Frank Evers on Vimeo.

Glenn Greenwald Exposes US Hypocrisy On Iran

Glenn Greenwald is VERY sharp in this MSNBC panel discussion on Iran's nuclear program. Arianna Huffington comes across as a dope. The last guy...Jonathon?... is very apparently a knob and Glenn demolishes his stupid comment. It's a refreshing video.

Harper Channels Three Wise Monkeys

FOLLOWING THE HARPER TORIES THESE DAYS IS LIKE A LESSON IN LYING TO YOUR MOM. There's a lot of smart kids out there watching the Great Tory Helmsman and learning a thing or two, not least a great riposte when the parents hand down a grounding: "But the Prime Minister did it..."
And who could blame them? I mean, we all know that governments lie most of the time, that they cover their screw-ups and try to lay the blame on others. But Harper and his band of merry yahoos have set a new gold standard in open clandestinity and subterfuge. As James Travers notes in an editorial in yesterday's Star:
"Bogus economic action plan cheques, skewing stimulus spending to Conservative ridings and stonewalling the inquiry into the treatment of Afghan prisoners are only the most recent additions to a long list. Among its starred items are a manual instructing Tories how to thwart Commons committees, the systemic sabotage of access to information laws that are accountability's cornerstone and the financial gutting of the public budget office Harper is now determined to make irrelevant."
The past week alone we've been exposed to the Tories use of public money to hold pep rallies for the Leader, aka town halls on the economic recovery plan. We have Peter MacKay, either utterly incompetent as a minister of the government or utterly incompetent as a convincing liar telling us that he can't figure out how he missed a full year's worth of reports on Afghan torture. In fact it's like the whole Conservative cabinet are standing around scratching their heads: "did you see those reports?" "Shit, no, I was in my riding greasing the palms of developers and other community leaders with public money." "Don't look at me, I was campaigning against gay marriage and abortion. I had no time to look for any so-called reports."
At first I thought that they took us for idiots. But now I think that they really just don't get how this game is played. You see, Chretien was something of a mobster don. He was corrupt but he understood "the little guy". He was, after all, The Little Guy From Shawinigan. He was a paternal populist. And he listened to the people until they didn't want to listen to him no more. Then he went off to be a lawyer and consultant for some gas companies running pipelines through the south of Afghanistan - a war that he brought us into. This guy knew how to feather his bed. Harper should give Chretien a call, get some tips on taking with one hand and giving with the other.
Meantime, they've got a hole to dig themselves out of. On top of everything else that "detestable murderer and scumbag" former Armed Forces chief, Rick Hillier has come out with a book about war and politics. He details at some length how the Tories specifically and directly tried to hide the coffin of the first female Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan, Capt. Nichola Goddard.
The Tories are wont to go on about supporting the troops. In fact, I recall the Tories chastising the opposition, in particular Jack Layton, about raising the torture scandal in parliament because it gave aid to the Taliban figthing against Canadian troops. And yet, the truth is the troops have only ever been fodder for the Tories. They serve as a means to try and undermine anti-war sentiment. They serve as a means to defend gas pipeline development and prove to the US that we're on board with whatever crazy military adventure they can dream up. But when they die doing what the government has told them to do, well, then they're no use to Harper any more and they should be hidden from public view.
These guys sure do make it tough to like them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Catholic Church Tries To Scoop Up Anglican Bigots

AFTER MORE THAN 2,000 YEARS THERE'S NOBODY LIKE THE CATHOLIC CHURCH that can sniff out a Christian faction fight and use it topick up some souls for the Lord. Seems that there's some ferment in the Anglican Church over some distinctly newfangled ideas like women's equality and - gasp - gay marriage.
"In an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse, the Vatican on Tuesday announced it would make it easier for Anglicans uncomfortable with their church’s acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church while retaining many of their traditions."
It seems that the Catholic Church will even allow married priests to keep their jobs, so much do they smell the coins in those collection plates. But perhaps I am being cynical, after all Pope Benedict is known to have the interests of conservative Anglicans "close to his heart." Now, I'll resist the urge to comment on the fact that the Catholic Church tolerated years and years of pederasty and physical abuse of young parishoners. Hey, sodomizing the choir boys is one thing - but if they're consenting adults, well, that's just not right.
And while abuse was tolerated, so have the most right wing organizations and views been tolerated and found succour within the Catholic Church, while liberals have been shunned, even at the expense of the Church itself:
"For a church whose leadership has earned a reputation for reprimanding liberal Catholics who color outside the lines, these developments could be more than a bit frustrating. If conservatives can get special consideration, how about Catholics who have divorced and remarried but can’t take communion? Or those who back ordaining women? Or perhaps an exemption for the 25,000 or so priests who left the ministry in recent decades when they married?
Now, if that's OK with Catholics, that's their choice but let's call what's going what it is: the Catholic Church is looking to scoop up thousands of open bigots. So much for casting first stones, loving thy neighbour as thyself and the parable of the Good Samaritan. None of these sermons about equality and universal love apply to the treatment of a majority of humanity, it seems. But then why should we expect this Pope and this Church to take a stand against bigotry. Benedict did, after all, accede to joining the Hitler Youth when he was 14. He did work the anti-aircraft guns at a BMW factory that employed slave labour. He did serve in Hungary until he deserted in 1945 as the war was winding down. This is not a man I would describe as having a hearty moral fiber.
And the crimes of the Catholic Church are too numerous to bother to list here. Suffice to say that refusing to ordain women priests is one of their lesser evils, their crimes are so numerous and ghastly, from the Crusades, through the Inquisition and on into their support for fascism in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

I will add as an important addendum that there have also been many fighters for justice in the Catholic Church. People like Leonardo Boff, one of the founders of what became known as Liberation Theology. And there were many, many priests and nuns and Catholic lay people who resisted and suffered under regimes in Latin America. These people were and are heroes, both of their faith and of humanity more generally. As far as I'm concerned they stand in the true tradition of Jesus the anti-colonial, proletarian rebel. Guys like Benedict, fighting over congregations of hate-mongers and people who can't bear to be touched by a woman, well they're just filling up their boat for the trip down to hell.

Obesity, Hunger & Capitalism

ALMOST TWO YEARS AGO I POSTED STATS ON OBESITY IN NORTH AMERICA. I argued that it had to be understood not as a problem of "overconsumption", which was really an ideological construct based upon the idea that people are greedy and that workers are especially so. In fact, I pointed out, the reality is that people aren't so much eating too much as they are eating garbage that makes them overweight and they are forced to live lives that make physical activity impossible to integrate into their daily activities.
I still hold to that basic view buts it's been strengthened and given a scientific grounding by an incredible book that I just finished reading called "Good Calories Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes. Taubes is a long time, award-winning science journalist with a special interest in health related science. In an interview in 2008, he describes how he ended up writing the book that ended up taking him five years of research:

"I was doing this story for Science on salt and blood pressure, looking into the controversy about whether salt consumption plays any role at all in raising blood pressure and causing hypertension. One of the prime players in this salt/blood pressure controversy was obviously one of the worst scientists I’d ever met... While I’m on the phone with this guy, interviewing him, he takes credit for getting Americans to eat less fat and fewer eggs. I literally finished the interview, called my editor at Science, and I said 'You know, one of the worst scientists I’ve ever interviewed just took credit for getting Americans to eat less fat and fewer eggs, and I don’t know what the story is, but when I’m done with this salt story, I’m going to look into fat, cholesterol, and saturated fat.'"
And five years and 450 pages later, he has written an unbelievably comprehensive look at the science of diet and nutrition as it has been promoted for the past generation. In particular, he explodes the common-sense idea that eating fat causes health problems and, in particular, obesity.
His general argument is that diseases like obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer, are the result of the rapid and astounding rise in the quantity of refined carbohydrates that we consume. He argument covers a lot of bases - looking at metabolic science over the past 150 years, diet science over the same period, ethnographic studies of diet, etc. He examines studies of numerous pre-modern civilizations that didn't rely heavily on carbohydrates for their energy. The people of Tokelau (an island administered by New Zealand), for instance, had a diet that was composed of 75 percent fat, 50 percent of it saturated fat from coconuts, and yet obesity, diabetes and heart disease were unheard of until the arrival of sugar and flour.
His argument for obesity is basically that we have been looking the wrong way at the usual argument that calories in equals calories out. Dieticians and nutritionists have held that if you eat more calories than you burn, you will put on weight because of the first law of thermodynamics, which is unbreakable. Taubes disagrees with that argument for a very simple reason:

"...if you have an obese mother and a malnourished child living in the same family, and this is a common phenomenon, that should be perceived as a refutation of the calories in/calories out hypothesis."
The body, evolved over millions of years, is inclined towards homeostasis. It wants to stay the same. It keeps our temperature the same. It resists losing or putting on weight by adjusting metabolism and hunger - for instance when starved, people become lethargic as the body seeks to conserve energy, when we exercise we hunger for larger, more frequent meals.  That's why dieting and exercise rarely work for people who are trying to lose weight - the body adjusts automatically. That's also why, even though there has been an "exercise explosion" levels of obesity continue to rise. Obesity isn't a psychological problem or the problem of a weak will - it is the wisdom of the body trying to ensure it gets enough to provide energy to the cells, organs and tissues. As Taubes notes in the same interview:
"I don’t believe that you can understand obesity and its associated chronic diseases, without thinking of obesity fundamentally as a disorder of excess fat accumulation and asking this question: what regulates fat accumulation? That’s going to be the thing that tells you what the cause of obesity is."
And this is where carbohydrates come in. The body can use three sources of energy - carbohydrates, fat and protein. When we eat carbohyrdates, the body breaks them down into simple sugars and then they are transported, via insulin, to our cells. But insulin has another effect, it suppresses the use of fat stores for energy. We eat carbs, our insulin levels spike and all that blood sugar ends up in our adipose tissue as fat. But because our body is storing most of the energy, rather than burning it, our cells remain underfed. So we hunger for more carbs, creating a cycle that over time leads to the accumulation of fat, and ultimately to metabolic disorder in the form of diabetes, etc.
This is a big shift in thinking on obesity, from seeing eating as the cause of obesity to instead seeing it as a symptom of obesity. The body is smart: you're hungry, you eat. Instead of blaming "fat Americans" for being gluttons, which is fundamentally about blaming the victims, we should be looking at why people are eating diets that cause them to get fat. As Taubes notes in an interview with PBS Frontline:

"Basically, up until about 1980, the obesity rates in this country are 12 to 14 percent. And then somewhere in that period between the late '70s and late '80s, they shoot up to 22-25 percent. That's known as the obesity epidemic, and the idea is: What explains it?"
Prior to then it was obvious by simply looking at who were the most obese people - it was the poorest, the people most likely to be working hard, manual labour jobs. And the ones likely to be eating the least amount of calories. But they were also the cheapest calories, which are carbs: flour, sugar and starchy grains or potatoes. Accepting this basic premise leads to the next question: why did the consumption of carbohydrates suddenly rise in the late 70s?
When we look at it from this perspective we begin to get a glimmer as to why obesity rates began climbing at this time: the rise in the standard of living that occurred after the Second World War had stopped. Living standards began to reverse, women were forced to work outside the home (not that I'm opposed to women working - just that healthy home-cooked meals were replaced by carb heavy fast foods.), unions were smashed leading to longer hours and harder work and thus more fast food dinners. And this was exacerbated by an ideology that blamed workers themselves for their growing paunches. People sought to reduce their fat intake, companies reduced fat in yoghurt, milk, etc etc.  Fat as a proportion of our diets was falling - from 40 to 35 percent - even as carb consumption, especially that of sugar, was rising. We now eat something like 160 lbs of sugar every year, compared to perhaps 40 lbs at the turn of the twentieth century. The gluttony theory of obesity also serves to hide the fact that our lives are getting worse. "Look at you," we're told. "You've never had it so good. You're so well off that you're fat." But it is a lie, our sweet tooth is masking with obesity the fact that we're hungrier than ever.
Taubes himself doesn't explore the social and political drives behind the obesity epidemic. For that you'll have to look elsewhere. But his examination of the "diseases of civilization" and explosion of the myth of fat as the cause of it is well worth the read. It is a long book and can get quite detailed, particularly some of his discussion of fat metabolism, but you won't regret it. And, good news, it's available in the Toronto Public Library.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Gamer: Couldn't Be Lamer

ABOUT THE ONLY THING THAT'S GOOD about the new movie from the guys who brought you the Crank series is that it allowed me to rhyme "lamer" in the title of this review. No, seriously. Gamer is just plain incoherent.
Ostensibly, the movie is about some point in the future when convicts are being used as game avatars for remote players in a combat game where people really die. Basically, Death Race without the cars. There's also a corporate conspiracy here connected to the prison industrial complex - just like Death Race. So, what new insight or cinematic innovation did Gamer bring to the story? None, unless you count unwatchability and boredom.
It looks so terrible that I couldn't decide if the directors intentionally made it that way for some deep, misunderstood stylistic and political reason. Or perhaps they got into the cutting room and they had so little decent footage that they decided to try and cover it up with every type of seizure inducing cut and flash in the arsenal of a modern edit suite. Either way what they've created is a visual disaster with a storyline that's thin as gruel and characters that are flat and uninteresting. Besides all that it's thoroughly cliche with Michael C. Hall as a mustache-twirling type of bad guy and an offensive portrayal of an obese gamer with a penchant for using beautiful women as avatars.
In the spirit of trying to find something good in this nearly empty cup, I will confess that there is one enjoyable scene, involving Michael C. Hall performing "I've Got You Under My Skin" with a dance troupe of remote controlled convicts. But I'm afraid that one sequence is not enough to make-up for the other 88 minutes of your life that you'll never get back.

Note To The Left From The Right

THE BLOSSOMING POPULARITY OF THE WILDROSE ALLIANCE PARTY IN ALBERTA proves my personal adage that you’re never so bonkers that there isn’t somebody more bonkers than you. In this case, it’s the Alberta Tories who are being out-bonkered.
On Sunday, at their convention, the WAP elected as their leader media commentator and fiscal conservative, Danielle Smith. She had been running against a former Reform Party organizer and noted social conservative, Mark Dyrholm, who dropped out when it was clear that she was going to whoop his ass.
The WAP is gaining fast on the Tories who have maintained a nearly 40-year dynasty in that province – following on from the Social Credit, which ran the province from the Depression. The reason: the Tories are too left-wing.
Sorry, let me say that again: The Alberta Tories are too left wing.

“[Smith] criticizes the royalty rate the province is charging oil companies, and finally abandoned the Tories in April after the government tabled a budget that projected a historic $4.7-billion deficit while still green-lighting double-digit spending”
The Tories, knowing that the Alberta oil boom would come to a halt sooner or later, in the way that all resource-based booms do, imposed a higher royalty rate on the oil companies during the high times, in order to save for the low times. Like now. Even with that surplus cash the Tories are still forced to run a deficit – that’s how hard things have crashed.
But the Wildrose yahoos can’t stand that the Tories didn’t just pull a Herbert Hoover, let the economy tank and then send out the police to beat the hell out of all the people starving in the streets. That makes WAP beyond-the-bonkers-pale.
One of two things is going to happen to WAP. The first and most likely one is that they will whack the Tories in the next provincial election – they’re now running second at 21 percent, behind the Tories at 38.4. They’ve only been in existence since January, 2008. Either WAP’ll win or they’ll force a Tory minority government.
If they win they’ll screw things up right quick. Remember when the Alliance was formed and Stockwell Day was the leader? Think jet ski. Enough said. WAP’ll inherit a deficit and perhaps even a stagnant economy. Their front benches will be filled with a bunch of yahoos and soon they’ll be tripping over their own feet, destroying the economy, saying dumb shit. The usual.
The other possibility is that they’ll do that before the next election.

IN ANY CASE, BY NOW YOU’RE WONDERING THE MEANING OF THE TITLE ABOVE. Well, it’s two things. The first is that the right wing consensus in Alberta has been shattered by the economic crisis. The Tory dynasty is coming apart. The WAP is not a “new” party – it is a split from the Tory party. That means that there is a space in Alberta for the left to take advantage of the growing disarray on the right.
The second note is an important point that Ms. Smith made during her campaign to become WAP leader.

“Ms. Smith herself argues that the party will remain at the province's political fringes if it focuses too much on issues such as abortion. ‘The ‘single issues' aren't top-of-mind for most Albertans,’ she says. ‘If we go into an election talking about things that are going to cause division, we aren't going to be successful in building that big tent.’”
The point here is that key arguments have been won on social questions, such that any right wing party that wants to succeed must not attack those things outright without risking fracturing and losing. And neither the abortion nor gay rights were won as a result of enlightened politicians like Smith (god help us) – they have been won in the streets, workplaces and in the homes of the country.
I’m old enough to remember the end game of the pro-choice struggle to decriminalize abortion. It involved campaigning in the union movement, protests and pickets, the courage of doctors like Henry Morgentaler to provide illegal abortions, etc. The parliamentary success was the result of the latter.
Gay rights is a similar story, starting with the explosion onto the streets that happened around the Stonewall riots 40 years ago. This led into the creation of the Gay Liberation Movement, then, with the AIDS crisis, there were big mobilizations organized by ACT UP. This was followed by the militant in-your-face actions of Queer Nation and big demonstrations and campaigns around same sex spousal benefits in Ontario (which the NDP sold out). All this pressure in and out of the public eye, led to a growing acceptance and creeping legal gains that, most recently, led to full legal equality in marriage.
The lesson from both of these is that it is through ostentatious struggle that the terrain can be shifted. That applies as much to economic questions as it does to social ones. So, to the left in Alberta – and elsewhere – have hope. Victories have already been won and more can be. Especially when the right wing has a nice big split. I look forward to watching them tear each other apart.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tories Make The Best Stalinists

I just read in the Toronto Star that Stephen Harper's Tories spent a hundred grand on a staged event in Cambridge to provide "an update on its economic recovery program." It was supposed to be a town hall event where people could grill the Great Helmsman himself. But anybody who thought that Stephen Harper, the king of the staged "ordinary family" event would be facing anything but sycophants and a paid actor or two was dreaming in technicolour:

"The event turned what the opposition Liberals had hoped would be an uncomfortable exercise in government transparency into a slick campaign-style rally for Conservative party faithful."

In total there's to be three of these things, where Stephen Harper gets to wave and smile as "Joe the Plumber" tells him what a great job he's doing for working Canadians. According to the Star "critics" are saying it's the latest example of a "Tory penchant for leveraging public money for partisan gain." Now, there's a hilarious understatement. Joe Stalin could have taken pointers from these guys though without TV poor Uncle Joe was forced to erect statues to himself everywhere. Though he did have some pretty flashy white suits to demonstrate that he was a cut above everybody else. Perhaps a little fashion change is in order for our Prime Minister?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

200,000 March For Gay Rights In Washington

The article below, from Socialist Worker in the US, was written by one of the central organizers of the massive National Equality March that happened in Washington, DC last weekend. It's such an inspiring story that rather than summarize it, I thought it important to let Sherry Wolf speak for herself.

We've just begun to fight
Sherry Wolf, the author of Sexuality and Socialism and a leading organizer of the National Equality March last weekend, looks at what made the demonstration a success. (Photo by Hillary Hartley)

THE FIRST mass protest of the Obama era--the tea-bagging gatherings of bigots aside--was a colossal success.
In defiance of the corporate-run LGBT establishment, Gay Inc., and with no major organizations, media or financing behind it, the National Equality March nevertheless drew more than 200,000 people to Washington, D.C., to demand full equality in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states.
The march was a vindication of the idea that mass protest is possible, necessary and desirable if the left is to challenge both the right and the politics of don't-rock-the-boat gradualism gripping the Democratic Party and its liberal defenders.
As a member of the march's leadership and an author and public speaker who has been on tour for several months, I had a bird's-eye view of how this march was organized, warts and all. We were a rag-tag bunch--of veteran activists, but mostly developing young militants, who are more multiracial, anti-corporate and suspicious of the Democratic Party than previous generations of organizers.
Tanner Efinger, a Los Angeles bartender who labored for months without pay to build the march, introduced one of the march's initiators Cleve Jones at the rally, saying: "I am no one of note, I am not a seasoned speaker, I have no published pieces of work or even a college degree. I have no health insurance, I am in debt...We are, all of us, an unrepresented motley crew of underdogs." It was an eloquent description of the carpet of humanity laid out before the Capitol on that gorgeous fall day.
The mobilizing efforts for the march--which were derided by an anonymous Obama adviser as the work of fringe "bloggers" who need to take off their "pajamas"--included not only aggressive online promotion, but good old-fashioned street heat on campuses and in communities, where speak-outs, teach-ins, rallies and educational events drew anywhere from dozens to hundreds.
Twenty-seven-year-old Kip Williams from San Francisco's One Struggle, One Fight was the sole paid organizer for the march, earning minimum wage to work tirelessly, dashing across the country and getting groups and individuals onboard.
The march's student coordinator and socialist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor helped centralize a mammoth effort to organize students to hold days of action, phone bank and join the huge lead contingent of youth at the front of the march. Robin McGehee, a Fresno, Calif., mother who was kicked out from leading her local PTA after Prop 8's passage in November, volunteered countless hours to orchestrate march logistics.
And Chloe Noble, who is marching cross-country to raise awareness of homeless LGBT youth, organized workshops with Chelsea Salem the day before the march, as did transgender activists and LGBT families who brought together hundreds of kids and same-sex couples at a milk-and-cookies event to make protest signs and schmooze among other families like their own.
Though UNITE HERE organizer and Harvey Milk protégé Cleve Jones was attacked for his audacity to build a march in less than four months and for countering the incrementalist approach of the dominant LGBT groups--and red-baited for his collaboration with me--none of these attacks stuck.
Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank's oft-expressed contempt for the march--"The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass"--earned him the derision of student protesters, who chanted: "Barney Frank, fuck you!"

Find out more about Equality Across America--including how to get involved and take part in the Week of Initiative scheduled for November 1-8--at the group's Web site. You can also text your e–mail address and zip code to 37686.
Watch videos of the march and rally at the National Equality March Web site.
Sherry Wolf's Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation is a compelling analysis of many of the challenging questions facing those concerned with winning full equality. If you're interested in inviting Sherry to speak to a campus, community or union group, contact her at

Surrogates: Philip K Dick Light

ANYONE WHO HAS READ PHILIP K. DICK can feel his influence in a lot of the better science fiction out there. His grappling with social power, identity, resistance, oppression, commodification make him one of the more visionary writers in a visionary genre. Surrogates is an example of a film that very clearly owes a lot to the creative mentorship of Dick's work.
It is a murder mystery and conspiracy thriller set in the relatively near future where robotics has advanced to the point that lifelike robots can live our lives, controlled remotely by us as we lay in a home-based hook-up. Bruce Willis, as police detective named Tom Greer, does a solid job portraying a man caught between the ambivalence of desiring the promise of safety provided by using a surrogate and the desire to actually live his own life. The family-centred backstory to the conflict in his personal life is a pretty typical cliché but it does a serviceable job making the point.
There's also a good supply of action to the film - including a fun chase scene by Greer's surrogate of the suspect in a territory controlled by anti-surrogate rebels who refuse to live their lives in any way other than in their own skins.
The problem is that it hasn't lived up to its mentor. It lacks the depth and texture of a Dick novel or film. We get the sense that living life through the experiences of our surrogate is a bad thing somehow. But to be honest, it's not clear why that's so: you can be beautiful. It's eliminated racism and sexism because you never know who somebody really is. You're safe and don't have to fear either crime or accidents. You're stronger and faster. And you experience all of the sensations of the surrogate as though it is your body. So, what's the big deal? And why does Bruce have to go an ruin it for the rest of us?
I realized afterwards that the world is just not dark enough. Dick had an uncanny ability to take the nastiness of our world and use technology and speculation as a means to highlight that nastiness, to shift our perspective so that which we normally take for granted can be seen for what it is. He taught fish to see water - if you catch my drift.
This film doesn't do that. It lacks edge. Even the rebel, played by Ving Rhames, feels neither inspiring nor threatening. The same with the authorities. The debate between them is banal - stop using surrogates, defend the right to use surrogates. Ho hum. 
And we have a hero who wants to change the world in order to fix the relationship with his wife. I'm all for counseling and everything but it's not exactly epic stuff and not a very good motivation to be a bummer on everybody else's good time. Basically, the filmmakers have low-balled all the motivations and elements, presumably to keep the movie mainstream. There isn't sufficient advantage taken of surrogacy's twisted potential. People could live as animal robots. You could be married to a black man who is actually a white woman or vice versa. How would we know if the president is really the president? But we never get more than hints of the complications of this world. It's a shame that the opportunity was wasted. Still, it was a fun ride and a decent twist to make us say "aaah" in the end. But it doesn't really require the big screen to enjoy. Save yourself some money and rent it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Wall Street Is Corrupt: Discuss

This is my favourite quote of the day and comes from an article about a very big insider trading case that's given a kick in the ass to Wall St.:

"The case reinforces the perception that Wall Street is a place where well-connected insiders game the system and prosper, leaving small investors stuck with the losses when markets falter."

Uh, no shit...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Liberals and NDP Work Hard To Lose

IT'S A BIT DEPRESSING READING THE POLLING NUMBERS from EKOS today. But what's most depressing about the Tories building their lead is just how unnecessary it all is. With the Tories now in striking distance of a majority government expect Harper to act as though he had a majority already. Anything that makes a slimeball like Harper and his neo-con toads happy is enough to make you pour yourself a stiff drink.
But we shouldn't get too miserable. After all, the Tories have been here before, on multiple occasions. Back in September, 2008, as the election approached in October, the Tories were at 39 percent, only to fall back to 34 percent by the beginning of October. When the election finally happened the Tories won 37 percent of the popular vote, which was up by 1 percent over the previous election but they actually received 165,000 less votes. It just so happened that the Liberals received 835,000 less than the previous election. Because, well, they sucked under Dion (unlike the roaring charisma of Ignatieff the neo-con professor). The bigger news was probably that the most people ever didn't even bother to vote.  Nearly a majority came to the realization that not only did Dion, with his incoherent and deeply uninspired Green Shit platform, suck - so did everyone else.
All this brings me back to where we started. The truly depressing thing about the Tories temporary climb in the polls is that this is the result of a lack of leadership on the part of any opposition party (I can't speak to the Bloc in Quebec because I'm not familiar enough with what's going on there but the Bloc has kept its support pretty stable, it seems).
The Liberals spent the better part of the last several years propping up the Tories by voting for whatever horribleness they were passing in the House. Their recent reversal looked exactly like what it was - a pathetic and opportunist attempt to take advantage of a heartbeat of growth in their support. No surprise that their unprincipled threat to bring down the government lost them support instead of inspiring it. It doesn't help that Ignatieff not only looks indistinguishable from pretty much any well educated Tory across the House. He is indistinguishable. It just so happens that he has the misfortune of sitting beside a turncoat weasel like Bob Rae.
As for the NDP, ah, well, I weep for the NDP. I received a fundraising email from them in the days following their grotesque about-face on supporting the Tories. Suddenly they were no longer the only party that stands up to the Tories. Now the Liberals were "playing politics" and they were the only party trying to make Parliament work. "So, let me get this straight: you want me to send you money so that you can vote for Stephen Harper's EI bill, which will actually screw workers?"(See page 8) I hate to say I told you so but I did, back when Jack was having tea with Stephen. You could smell it - and it wasn't bread or roses.
All this sounds a bit of a downer but have hope - it's Friday! And the Tories will sink again, as they always do. And next time you say something bad about Quebec sovereigntists, remember that if it weren't for the Bloc, the Tories would already have a majority.
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