Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Return Of Stagflation?

Those of us around in the 1970s will remember the term stagflation - a combination of economic stagnation and inflation that created a conundrum for bourgeois economists: do you move to rein in inflation by tightening credit and imposing wage and price controls - or do you seek to boost economic growth by loosening credit and "priming the pump" by injecting billions into state directed projects. As it happens the first thing they did was attack workers by imposing wage controls (price controls were bullshit), either through direct legislation (Canada and the UK) and/or by encouraging open war on the collective bargaining right of unionized workers (Reagan's firing of 10,000+ striking air traffic controllers). That was combined with interest rates that went through the roof - up to 20% at their peak. Then, once the working class was defeated, there was a return to loose money - Reagan increased military spending (and thus the deficit) massively, there were big tax cuts for the rich and policies that encouraged the growth in speculative investment (and, thus, stock and property bubbles).

Well, if you liked that economic bloodbath the first time around, get ready for the next round.

First off, the damage - both social and economic - from that first battle against stagflation is still with us. The North American economy is much more "financialized" than it was before. Speculative bubbles - that roam from sector to sector; now in stocks, then in tech, later in housing followed by commodities - continue as a matter of policy in an attempt to keep the economic inflated. In fact, price and credit inflation - combined with social and wage austerity - is the economic policy of western governments to this day.

But they face a problem that is the result of the success of these policies in many ways. The Chinese miracle is, in part, a product of the fact that increasingly squeezed western workers, particularly in the USA but also in Europe, need the cheap goods produced in the sweatshops of China to sustain their standard of living along with access to easy credit. China's export led boom can't be separated from the boom in debt in the west - total US debt, private and public, is now close to 400% of US GDP. Nor can it be separated from the decline in unionization and real wages (which includes the "hidden" social wage of services previously provided by governments and now privatized - from public pools and community centres to welfare and unemployment insurance rates, pensions and healthcare).

The debt/sweatshop model could work for a while but it reaches its inevitable limits when debt simply can't grow any further; consumers and businesses can't afford to add any further to their debt servicing costs. Oh, this can be creatively skirted and hidden for a while - the exotic debt products of the first decade of this century proved that. The crisis of 2008, however, was a sign that the debt shell game was coming to an end. Massive state intervention was able to prevent total economic collapse but it can't wish away the debt loads held by everyone and that means that growth will, at best, remain sluggish after the brief episodes of state intervention end. In weaker countries, like Greece, it means the threat of default as international bankers, the lowest form of human, try to push a program of massive debt privatization - so that they can recoup state loans as though depressing consumer demand will somehow save an already depressed economy.

These recessionary pressures are bad enough but the boom in China - itself fuelled by debt, perhaps half of it bad - has had the effect of jacking up global commodity prices. This creates a conundrum for China - on the one hand capital investment (infrastructure, new manufacturing plants, etc) has led the growth in China, as opposed to a growth in consumer demand. That means that China needs a higher valued currency to lower the costs of imported raw materials. But it needs a cheaper currency in order to keep their goods - for which there isn't a sufficient internal market - cheap for export. The Chinese leadership is trying to change the balance between capital and consumer investment but faces lots of hurdles.

While there is much talk about the "efficiency" of the one-party state in terms of being able to rapidly implement policy shifts, things aren't that simple in a country - and an economy - this size. The rapid growth of China over the last thirty years has created a large, wealthy and very powerful capitalist class, primarily concentrated in the coastal cities. They have regional fiefdoms that are dependent upon cheap and plentiful credit and infrastructural and capital investments (and corrupt kickbacks therefrom). And they have a number of tools at their disposal to resist the central government's attempt to change the priorities of investment. One of them is simply to create an underground credit economy to loan money for projects as they see fit - it's estimated that close to one third of all new loans in China are through this sector. The other mechanism is to simply send money offshore to tax havens before cycling is back into China to invest as they see fit - over half of the $1.1 trillion in foreign direct investment into China is, in fact, money of this sort and not really "foreign" money at all. Foreign investment has, in fact, stagnated for over a decade.

The Chinese government also faces pressure from the ordinary people of China - workers and peasants - who see and feel the results of the "Chinese model" of development first hand. Peasants are expropriated by regional governments for their pet projects - from dams and wind farms to chemical plants and other manufacturing facilities. Workers see the investment boom year after year after year and haven't seen a commensurate amount of wealth "trickle" down to them. This has led to mass - though still fragmented - resistance. In March of last year, in the town of Huaxi, 20,000 people took over the town and threw out the 3,000 local cops, then burned police property and, get this, sold tickets to the rebellion. The revolts are having an effect - many companies are giving pay hikes of 20-40% in order to end strikes and rebellions by workers.

The failure of the Chinese government to effect the sort of change that the entire leadership in China - in words - recognizes is necessary, means that pressure is building that is effecting the global economy. Commodity inflation is killing the fragile economy in Europe and America (oil economies like Alberta aside) as more income and profit goes to just covering the basics. Back in China this translates into a slowing of the export-oriented manufacturing sector - still accounting for about half of GDP (I believe). So, China and the world face the combined impact of an over-heated Chinese capital investment sector, leading to global price inflation (and to wage inflation inside China) and the potential return to recession. With even less room this time around to use the instrument of state investment to prevent the return of economic crisis - because of high debt and high inflation - it's unclear what governments will do this time around. Pray, I suppose. Or fiddle - while Athens, Rome, Madrid, et al burn.

Some links:
FT.com / Comment / Analysis - Global economy: A high price to pay

Brake in manufacturing momentum in Europe, US, Asia - The Economic Times

Dissecting the Chinese Miracle | STRATFOR

10 Global Signs That the Market Is at a 'Tipping Point' - Seeking Alpha

Monday, May 30, 2011

Protestors Make Tory Take Cock Shot, Post It On Twitter

It's Monday morning and everybody needs a little bit of awesome to start their week. I want to send a big shout out to Buckdog for this chuckler. I particularly like the attempt to blame protestors for the pic. Even in humiliation the Tories know how to stay on message.

Buckdog: Ontario Conservative Candidate Posts Pic Of His Genitals On Twitter

Climate Change Kicks It Up A Notch

You'd think that all the hurricanes, tornadoes and shit, not to mention a couple of decades of warnings from climate scientists would spur politicians to get their asses in gear to, you know, stop the planet from melting down. Well, you'd be wrong. I can only guess that pretty much every politician is as self-serving and corrupt as Stephen Harper, with his endless, subsidy-cheque-writing support for the massively polluting tar sands. Because it would only take a smidgeon of sanity and independence from corporate profit-taking mania to implement some measures to save our asses from the extreme weather events that are headed our way this century - and at the record breaking climb in CO2 releases last year, a lot sooner than that. Perhaps we just need to put it a little clearer.

Dear world ruling class

As you may have noticed, carbon emissions climbed to their highest levels in human history last year. We are now on target to reach the levels we thought we might reach in 2020 - if we are to save the planet - in 2013. We could easily see global temperatures rise 4 degrees celsius, which will melt the ice caps, submerge island nations and set hundreds of millions of people on an inward trek away from rising seawaters and in many directions away from growing desertification.
To summarize: the good news it that access to all the oil under the Arctic ice will soon be available for development and burning. The arms industry will also be booming as a result of the numerous climate change caused conflicts, civil wars, resource wars, etc that we can expect in the coming years. That means lots of jobs for your constituents - or they'll be too busy fighting, fleeing or dying to vote anyway. Keep on your present path and you're in like Flynn till the end of time.
The bad news is that we're totally fucked.

the whole damn planet

Worst ever carbon emissions leave climate on the brink | Environment | The Guardian

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Evolution Of Evolution Or How Politics Shapes Science

This interview with Dr. Frank Vertosick, neuroscientist and author of The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing in H+ Magazine is well worth a read for an interesting discussion of evolution. For a very long time I've believed that evolution in humans was no longer primarily that of physical structures; we now evolve socially and technologically. But I hadn't really thought more deeply than that about the process of evolution itself. And this is the first thing that is fascinating about the Vertosick interview. As he argues:
The process of evolution itself is becoming an intelligent process. That’s one of the things that kind of bridges the gap between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. The current view in biology seems to be that everything is evolving except the process of evolution itself, that the evolutionary process is static. The view is that all cells sit there, some mutate and they select, but the cells don’t know what’s going on.

The process of evolution is not static. There is evidence from bacteria, which is still a bit controversial, that they may change their mutation rate depending upon the stress they’re under. Bacteria, in their early development, did not have the ability to control their mutation rate. They would stop mutating. They had a fixed mutation rate. And that rate, that’s as fast as they could think, as fast as they could generate. Then the next order of technology evolved and bacteria evolved the ability to control their own mutation rate.
On one level this makes perfect sense to me - the universe doesn't have rules that exist, godlike and unchanging, outside of the rules of the universe. There is no "outside" and therefore the rules themselves are subject to transformation. It's profoundly dialectical. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, in a sense, makes the same point when he discusses his six epochs of the universe and the law of accelerating returns viz. exponential advances in information technology. For him the universe begins as utterly disorganized matter, particles and atoms but not yet molecules, with the rise of DNA and biology as the next epoch, then that of brains, then technology and finally the merger of technology with intelligence and, the last, the awakening of the universe. Personally I find the idea appealing that we are - as I once told a friend over a joint - 'striding towards godhead'; striving to achieve greater and greater connection with and dominance of our universe, though dominance is perhaps the wrong word here. Nonetheless, I think there are two problematic assumptions embedded in Kurzweil: that the universe began with a big bang and that time moves forward towards greater complexity. The first is, to my mind, a scientification of a neo-religious creation myth and the second is the universalization of American positivism that sees "progress" as an inevitable and automatic process. But I digress...

Vertosick's insight that the "law of evolution" is itself subject to evolution, is not one that I've seen before - though admittedly I'm not a scientist and haven't read scientific publications or histories of science to see if the idea has been developed elsewhere. It certainly makes an elegant sense that once bacteria and, later, more complex organisms evolved that there would - under certain conditions - be an advantage garnered to those that had more rapid and/or more controlled mutations than those that were "better" at correcting mutations (and thus not evolving) or which relied solely on the process of random, externally generated mutations. 

Nonetheless, I think that Vertosick over-eggs his argument by imputing "intelligence" or "intelligent control" by bacteria over their mutation process - as though a bacteria, at the most simple level, knows how to calculate a response to a particular environmental stressor, say, with the production of a particular protein. The need to resort to this as a means to explain the diversity that has evolved in nature, seems to me, to be the product of a lack of imagination in grasping the scope of "nature", the numberless cells, molecules, interactions, stressors, etc. that make up even a tiny niche of a corner of the planet's most inhospitable ecosystems. The multitudinous variety of potential combinations and permutations within even one shovelful of dirt is beyond even our most powerful supercomputers today.

No, we don't need to resort to "intelligent design" to deal with complexity, diversity or impressively efficient and precise adaptations. We need rather to understand that adaptations are not simply the result of random genetic accidents - a cosmic ray hits a gene, leading to the production of a protein that confers an advantage to a cell, allowing it to proliferate, etc. It is likely that there is also a significant role for Lamarckian-style evolutionary processes, as well as the more random ones of Darwin. That is, changes in environmental demands can alter the physical structure and metabolism of creatures subject to those changes and those changes can be passed along through epigenetic forms of expression, which are more plastic than genetic ones. The idea of inherited characteristics has fallen in and out of fashion over the past couple of hundred years but our growing understanding of the significance of gene expression - via epigenetic processes - and the potential to transmit such non-genetic information has revived the idea.

So, for instance, take Darwin's finches, which evolved as a result of migrating to different islands where different food sources were available - some with long beaks for catching bugs and worms, some with stubby beaks for breaking open seeds, etc. We don't need to resort to absolute randomness (as Vertosick puts it, the idea that "1,000 monkeys in a billion years could produce Hamlet") if we reject "intelligent design". Instead, a bird, faced with the need to root for grubs reshapes its metabolism and even body structures such as its beak in way that some of that is passed along without it needing to be encoded in the finch genome, at least not initially. Some of those changes in gene expression are then passed along to the offspring of the finch. There is neither intelligence, in the human sense of the word, nor absolute randomness involved here.

The idea of "intelligence" as Vertosick is important because it leads via a slightly different route to the same sort of political conservatism as those who believe the universe was created and micromanaged by God. In Vertosick's view, all of nature is intelligent and humans are no better than any other part of nature and therefore we are wrong to attempt to prevent our ecosystem from being destroyed by our actions, just as we're wrong to attempt to pursue any kind of society that isn't capitalist.

If we’re like every other animal, we have a right to do to our environment whatever we need to do to ensure the expansion of our numbers. We not only have the right to do it, we have an obligation to the ecosystem to pursue our own selfish goals because that’s what’s made the planet work for five billion years. It wasn’t because any one species decided to think for the whole planet. Each species says, “Look, screw you. I am going after what I want, try to stop me.”

If I end up being too stupid to realize that I’m wrecking the environment for myself and I go extinct, that’s what should happen to me. I’m out of here because I don’t belong here. The reason we have a planet five billion years later is because all the ones that did that have been weeded out. The second choice says we are supreme on the planet. We rule and we should manage the planet. In my opinion, we’re not stewards of the planet. We’re just another species. To spend time thinking about how to manage the earth, well, if every species did that it’d be a mess.
This ignores the fact that humans are demonstrably of a higher order of intelligence than other animals - none of whom write books about the actions of other species, for instance. And certainly human are the only animals that make abstract, conscious plans in advance of engaging in actions. We are not only intelligent, insofar as our biology follows the laws of physics and chemistry - though it isn't really intelligence if it follows external rules in a non-creative way - we are also conscious and seek to manipulate the laws of the universe to fit our needs. We have agriculture and architecture and politics and philosophy, etc etc. But more than this, it is a rather large blind spot for Vertosick to posit that evolution evolves but to suggest that this doesn't imply difference and inequality (which is the same thing) between species in given environments. Perhaps, as I suggested at the beginning, the nature of evolution can itself change, not simply in its scale and frequency but in the very character of its effects - human are not evolving physically any longer in any significant way, certainly not in comparison to our light speed social and technological evolution. We have transcended the former mode of evolution.

Of greater significance, Vertosick uses this stasis within change, the idea that there was once evolution of evolution but now that process has stopped to justify economic and political conservatism. As he goes on to argue:

Capitalism allows millions of decision-makers to mold the economy and that proved to be much more powerful intellectually than any group of the brightest minds on Earth trying to do it. It’s the same thing with the environment. If we let all the species on Earth compete for their own best interests, you’re going to end up with a better environment for everybody than if any one species decides to start manipulating it for everybody else.
But for a scientist, trained in a university - planned by a state and funded by tax dollars - who lives in a country whose largest industry - the military - is funded by taxes and owned and operated by the government according to very detailed plans to argue this sort of naive laissez faire market capitalism is pretty shocking. A large share of cutting edge scientific research in the USA is itself funded - not by capitalist corporations or entrepreneurs seeking to make a buck, but rather by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other defence research bodies and hospitals. The idea that capitalism - particularly in the age of massively global corporations who plan everything that they can from top to bottom - is about "millions of decision makers" and not about simply whoever wields the greatest collective power is as silly now as it's ever been. GM, Ford, Hyundai, Sony and Apple, make detailed plans for production, distribution, marketing and when the next version of their widget will be released. The internet and the telephone system and cable and the trains are planned.

In some countries the government plays a larger role in planning - like China, which has the most dynamic economy on the planet at the moment - in others the market is more preferred as a mechanism for distribution and class power. But at either end of this rather flexible spectrum there is a lot of planning going on. One of the problems is that all the detailed planning is constantly undermined by the fact that there is anarchy between the large agglomerations of capital. We end up with massive overproduction in one area and massive underproduction in another. And because the priorities that determine the planning are based upon maximizing profit - and not efficiency or useful production - we get the banking sector creating a whole shadow banking system of incomprehensible derivatives that would have brought the whole system down if the state - "the brightest minds on earth" ahem - stepping in to manipulate the meltdown by throwing money at it and rejigging the regulatory framework.

Vertosick, while having some interesting insights into evolution as a malleable system has forgotten the fact that evolution isn't about individuals but about populations and species. And he has missed the point that evolution doesn't just end because the people who support the present economic system find it inconvenient. Evolution, as it always has been, is driven by a contradiction between the needs of a population and the failure of the environment to fulfill those needs. In Darwin's finches it led to different shaped beaks and different diets. In humans it leads to revolutions and the transformation of the social order.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Harper: More Hardline Than Most Israelis

Well, there ya go: Harper is to the right of everybody else in the G8 on the question of the character of a two state solution. Harper blah blahs about "balance" and then lays out what that means - everything for Israel and nothing for the Palestinians. Israel must be recognized as a Jewish state and the Palestinian "state" must be "de-militarized".

Let's unpack these two things for a moment, shall we.
To say that Israel is a Jewish state either means that it is a theocratic state - something that we oppose when that theocracy is Muslim, suggesting a double-standard that is frankly Islamophobic. Or Israel is an ethnic state that thus treats its significant non-Jewish population (20% are Palestinian/Arab-Israeli) as second tier.

The fundamentally racist character of Harper's attitude is made more obvious by the fact that Israel isn't expected to withdraw from land that it illegally occupied post-1967, after a war that it started, but the Palestinians aren't permitted the basic right to self-defense via a Palestinian military. They are to be treated as children, undeserving of the full right accorded to adult nations.

This is all the more shocking because Israel has started more wars, led more invasions and killed more civilians than any other country in the region and perhaps (USA aside) any other nation on the planet. If any country has shown that it is lacking in the ability to use its military in a "mature" way it is Israel. But, then, that is exactly the point. Israel is the west's watchdog in the Middle East, keeping the local indigenous population in line. The role of the Palestinians is to leave, die or become a compliant native population satisfied to live in ever smaller bantustans and, perhaps, provide Israel with a source of cheap labour.
It's worth noting that the position that Harper "pressed hard" for at the G8 summit was not only more harshly pro-zionist than every other leader in attendance, it is also less accommodating even than the long-standing majority viewpoint in Israel.

The irony of all this, of course, is that the absolute inability of the Israeli political class to accomodate a real Palestinian state or to stop colonial expansion into the West Bank as a core state agenda has all but killed the two state solution. Barring the mass expulsion of the Palestinian population in toto - a policy made less likely as a result of the Egyptian revolution having overthrown Mubarak - it becomes more and more likely that Israel will ultimately face a one state solution. The struggle will shift. Instead of being a national struggle - which allows Israeli politicians and their western supporters to portray this as a war - it will become a civil rights struggle that will be much more difficult to dismiss. And Israel will be faced with having to give citizenship rights to the millions of Palestinians who now live under its rule.

Harper blocks mention of 1967 border in G8 Mideast statement - The Globe and Mail

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dear NDP: The Globe & Mail Doesn't Like You

The federal Liberals can re-discover their True Grit - The Globe and Mail

I've thought that the Globe & Mail were a laugh since, years ago, I read an editorial condemning affirmative action as discriminatory - written by an editorial board, which, at that time, was entirely made up of white men. I mean, these guys have the kind of chutzpah that only rich, white bastards can have. God love 'em for it.

And now yesterday's editorial begging the beaten and pathetic* Liberal Party of Canada to get their act together. Why? Because only the Liberals and the Conservatives are worthy of governing. The NDP has not yet passed the Globe editorial board's test of governing competence. I have to say that I'm glad the Globe has relieved us voters of the too-heavy responsibility of deciding who is and isn't to our liking.
Keep on rocking in the free world, guys. By the way, if you want to look a little less like a white boys club, may I suggest that you put Margaret Wente on your editorial board? Not only is she a woman, she's also a snob and an asshole. She'd be just like one of the boys.

*I must admit that I feel sorry for the Liberals who are reduced to making Bob Rae their interim leader. If that isn't the kiss of death...

Ontario Tories Want To Replace Public Sector Jobs With Slave Labour

We always knew that the Tories were charming in the same way that the Marquis de Sade was a humanitarian and now this announcement removes any doubt. Ontario premier-in-waiting Tim Hudak is trying to resurrect the ghoul of the Mike Harris years and their obsession with punishing welfare recipients. They're hoping that Ontario voters will be in an equally mean-spirited mood as those recession-riddled days long ago after four years of NDP betrayals, incompetence and media attacks on the NDP for not betraying enough of their supporters.

Will it work? Maybe. We know people have short memories from the fact that in 1995 people voted for a Tory government that stopped construction of the Eglinton subway and buried it in the ground at a cost of $135 million (iirc) and in 2010 Torontonians voted for a Tory mayor who campaigned to build an Eglinton subway thus (presumably) digging up what his Tory brethren buried 15 years earlier. By the way, wasn't that always the joke about Keynesian welfare-staters that they would pay one group of workers to dig a hole and then pay another group to fill it in?

In any case, Hudak makes it clear what his priority is: layoff workers with good paying jobs and replace them with slave labour. Doesn't anybody else find it disturbing that the entire social policy platform of the federal and provincial Tories is to take away civil liberties and increase the harshness of our legal system? What's next: public flogging? Amputating the hands of thieves?

Let me ask this: when will we start punishing the people who run the oil corporations that pollute our environment and make our kids sick? When will we punish the cops who beat the crap out of peaceful protestors during the G20? When will the Tories be punished for telling lie after lie after lie as evidence by the Wikileaks memos? Now that's some law and order that I could get behind.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Canada Wikileaks Releases: Tories & Liberals Lie All The Time

Lies on wheels: Harper on "Arctic sovereignty"... and everything else
Our government lies to us, they do it constantly and they do it without blinking. That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from the revelations contained in the U.S. diplomatic memos leaked by Wikileaks in April and May.

During the election campaign it was easy to overlook these nuggets of insight into how our government works - and how it is thought of by U.S. diplomats and state department officials. But it's a good lesson is in what we ought to expect from both the Liberals and the Tories.

Revealed in these memos is the honest truth about the fact that back in 2003, on the same day that Chretien was accepting kudos for supposedly refusing to join the US invasion of Iraq, the highest level Canadian officials were meeting with their U.S. counterparts. They were offering Canadian military assistance in whatever "discreet" way was possible.

As the briefing note describes the message coming from the Liberals:

"Following the meeting, political director Jim Wright emphasized that, despite public statements that the Canadian assets in the Straits of Hormuz will remain in the region exclusively to support Enduring Freedom, they will also be available to provide escort services in the Straits and will otherwise be discreetly useful to the military effort.

"The two ships in the Straits now are being augmented by two more en route, and there are patrol and supply aircraft in the U.A.E. [United Arab Emirates] which are also prepared to 'be useful.'"

And the double-dealing methods of the Liberals were inherited gleefully by the Stephen Harper Conservatives. Harper made a name for himself as the defender of the Canadian Arctic, promising increased defence spending to maintain Canadian interests. This chest-thumping is part of a wider "cold war" in the Arctic in response to the fact that climate change is creating the potential to not only access massive suspected reserves of oil but also the possible Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia, dreamed of at least since John Cabot made an effort to find it in 1497. Control of the passage would be of massive strategic and commercial value.

But while Harper talked big, he has done little, a fact that didn't go unnoticed to U.S. Ambassador at the time, David Jacobson. He joked that while Harper said "the issue has never been more important to our country... one could paraphrase to state 'the North has never been more important to our party" since it helped the Tories win the 2006 election. However, while Harper talked big in public, he did nothing in private leading a diplomatic memo to state:

"That the PM's public stance on the Arctic may not reflect his private, perhaps more pragmatic, priorities, however, was evident in the fact that during several hours together with Ambassador Jacobson on January 7 and 8, which featured wide-ranging conversations, the PM did not once mention the Arctic."

And in a move strongly reminiscent of Jean Chretien's on Iraq, Harper has worked behind the scenes to try and find a way to extend the mission in Afghanistan beyond the promised end date of 2011. The documents state that as far back as March, 2009 the Tories were "putting all options back on the table" with regards to extending the mission. A senior advisor to Harper, in a meeting with U.S. officials asked for patience while "public rhetoric" caught up with reality.

And, during a meeting with NATO chief, General Rasmussen, in January 2010, Harper promised to consider the option of keeping troops on, only noting that America's withdrawal was "unhelpful" to him making the case for extension. He also noted that they needed to "manage" the public message and, from Harper's perspective deal with the political difficulties generated by the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. By the end of 2010 Harper had agreed to extend the "non-combat" mission, though there will still be Canadian soldiers on the ground.

Lastly, the Wikileaks memos note that Harper did an "about face" on the question of an elected senate. The Tories and before them the Reform Party have had a strong position of support for senate reform, to make the body elected. Yet, even though the Tories have been in power for five years they have made no moves to implement this platform. In fact, the first thing that Harper did upon receiving a majority in the recent election was to appoint three Conservatives who lost to the Senate. Back in 2008, a U.S. diplomat noted wryly:

"[The appointment of 18 senators is] a major about-face for a PM and a party that long campaigned for an elected upper chamber. The cost of the eighteen new senators also conflicts with political messaging about the need for official belt tightening."

What all this reveals is that from the point of view of the Wikileaks memos, the Tories and the Liberals are harder and harder to tell apart. In fact, with the revelation that CSIS continues to secretly and illegally deliver the names of "terror suspects" to U.S. authorities - a process exposed by the plight of Maher Arar - it is clear that our elected politicians are in good company in engaging in dirty politics, unaccountability and a lack of transparency.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

From Greece to Toronto: Public Sector Debt Panic Is A Scam

The business panel of the German Tories couldn't have put it any more clearly: Greece needs to impoverish its citizens if it wants to win aid. And that, my friends, is what debt crises are all about - attacking workers and the poor. The whole carnival of media frenzy and rating agency warnings has nothing to do with the fundamental economic problems faced by Greece, still less with debt, it is about generating an argument to justify a particular set of policies.

Let's take a look for a moment at the Greek "debt crisis". First of all, the whole discourse is embedded in a bias about public vs private debt. While it's true that the accumulation of debt is an indicator of something being out of balance in a national - or international - economic system, it is simply not the case that public debt is worse for an economy than private sector debt. Both, at a certain point, act as drags on further investment and consumption in an economy. But they are only symptoms of a deeper problem having to do with the aging of the system and the long crisis that began with the end of the post-war boom.

To really get a picture of the health of an economy (from the perspective of debt) you have to look at total debt as a percentage of GDP, which is not significantly different between, say, Greece and the USA or Italy and the UK. And when you do this what becomes clear is that there is an inverse relationship between public sector debt and private sector debt. What I mean is that - all things being equal - the elimination of debt in one sector simply moves it to the other sector. These fascinating stats (PDF) from the European Union demonstrate higher rates of savings and household investment in Europe where public sector spending is higher, than in the US. Savings rates and investment rates drop once the austerity budgets post-2008 kick in - simply put, government transferred its debt obligations onto the backs of its private citizens. That's what is at stake in Greece and Spain and Italy and... Toronto. Your tax bill may go down but your service charges go up and there is a net downward pressure on wages, benefits and conditions across the economy as a whole when government lays the boot in to public sector workers.

But this strategy for economic management doesn't work on two fronts. First of all, we - the majority - end up poorer and more indebted. And secondly, in a situation of depressed consumption and weak investment, the government ends up attacking consumption and investment. Even if this ultimately solves underlying "structural problems" - usually code for good wages and benefits - and makes the economy more competitive, this will only happen after a lag period between the end of one form of spending and the entry of private sector spending (assuming, in a situation of high private debt that companies and individuals don't simply pay down debt as opposed to investing). In that gap productive capital - not to mention skilled and experienced workers - are left to rot, unproductive. It can make a downturn even worse than it needs to be - it's like helping a drowning man by pushing his head underwater.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Robot Apocalypse, Robot Utopia

There's no doubt in my mind that we're heading into what's called "the knee" of an exponential curve in terms of robotics  - that moment when the accumulation of molecular advances in the technology and everyday penetration of a piece of technology takes off. As I discussed in a previous post the evidence for this exists in a number of places, with the most recent affirmations (to my mind) being the announcement of a general purpose personal robot - the Luna - to be launched at the end of this year and the near-term intention to launch an industrial, multipurpose robot at a price point around $5,000, making it affordable for small companies. But there are many other signs that this is the case - advances in autonomous swarm robotics to allow teams of small robots to explore disaster sites; robots trained to develop their own language to describe their experience to other robots; advancing robot vision systems using biological modeling of a visual cortex in a monkey. And that is just a small sample of the many convergent technologies that are acting as enablers for the coming robot revolution.

What will the robot revolution mean for human society? How will we be changed by the arrival of ubiquitous robotics? What will it mean in terms of everyday life, in the home, in the workplace, in healthcare? Generally, of course, we are given two models of possible futures in a robotic world - the apocalypse a la Terminator and the Matrix and the "utopia" with helper robots a la Astroboy or Data on Star Trek TNG. In one instance robots, as proxies for all technological advancement, finish us off as a species, in the other technology is seen to solve all of our problems - world hunger, poverty, climate change, etc. However, I want to suggest that the question is rather more complicated than that.
First, a little mea culpa: I love technology. My wife and I each have a smartphone and Macbook Pros and an Apple TV. My wife - a photographer - shoots with DSLRs, one of which also shoots HD video. I regularly read the tech press - from the techno-cyber-philia of the transhumanist websites to the more "sober" pages of MIT Technology Review, New Scientist and IEEE Spectrum. We desperately need to renovate our crumbling kitchen and part of me hopes we don't get the money until its possible to get an internet connected smart home that I can access from my phone anywhere in the world and that has augmented reality projectors in the kitchen. You get the point - I love tech.

But loving the stuff doesn't mean accepting the promises and threats that are thrown about uncritically. It is simply not true, for instance, that the problems of poverty and world hunger remain unsolved because we have to achieve the level of technological advancement required to feed and house people. There is more than enough food produced (I won't get into the quality of the food produced - high carb cereal grains providing the bulk of global crops, for instance) but that food for which there isn't a market - i.e. people with money to purchase it - is allowed to rot or is dumped at sea. Many countries in which there are the worst problems with food shortages are actually net exporters of cash crops - whether bananas, coffee beans or cacao.

Even if there weren't a surplus of food crops it is also not the case that there is a lack of resources to convert non-arable land, provide seed stocks, fertilizer, farm machinery, etc. At present the USA alone spends close to $1 trillion on various aspects of the military and intelligence apparatus. The next ten military purchasers combined spend another $1 trillion. That is more than enough to feed every hungry human, house every shelterless family, provide clean water and teach every illiterate to read. Lastly, the technological priorities that do exist - which make the private automobile the pre-eminent mode of transportation, encourage short distance flights for business, expand carbon-heavy low density development (i.e. suburbs), make use of fossil fuels for our power plants - contribute to climate change, which exacerbates food shortage in many place. The so-called solutions of converting grain stocks and arable land to the production of biofuel only contributes to the problem.

The problems of scarcity are thus social problems and not technical ones. And having a robot in the home or in the field or the factory will not solve those problems. The irony could be that agricultural workers could be displaced by robots and then not have the income to buy the food that the robots are able to produce in greater quantities. And here again, the problem isn't that robots are taking jobs - it is that the priorities of our society are such that rather than being used to make our lives better - as tools (whether hammers or robots or computers) are meant to do, they instead threaten to make our lives worse at least in the short term. But don't blame the robots - blame the Man.

Next part in this series: Will Robots Lead To Revolution?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cops, Garbage Privatization, Crooks & Limp Noodles

In typical Toronto council fashion, a compromise bill was passed that both the left and the right on council are claiming as a victory but which will, in fact, hand a victory to the right. The privatization of garbage collection, a trojan horse that has used public anger against a 39-day garbage strike back in 2009, is just a prelude to further attacks on services.

But, let's be clear, privatization is a crock of shit.

First of all, if privatization is going to save money - a big "if" - it is going to do it in one of three ways - by cutting wages and benefits for the workforce, by cutting corners on service provision, by making workers work harder. There is no magic technology that is held in the private sector that allows them to do a better job than the public sector. This has to be seen for what it is - a gift to Ford's rich buddies and an attack on workers conditions. All those working class people who voted for Ford and think that he's going to make their lives better have another think coming. Very publicly attacking the wages and conditions of sanitation workers will be a checkered flag to other employers to use the same logic on their own workforce. It will also weaken public sector unions in the city - and the public sector is a union stronghold with unions have a much lower density in the private sector.

Furthermore, it is absurd to think that a company that wants to make as much profit as possible can provide better service than a public department whose mandate is to just provide a quality service (well, truth as a profit measure has also crept into the public sector in recent decades, undermining this straight-forward mandate). That's why wherever the private sector has made big inroads into a sector of the economy previously dominated by public sector provision, the costs have gone up and the service has gone down. A study a number of years ago of the effects of privatization on the British National Health Service demonstrated this clearly. The experience of water privatization in Latin America and elsewhere has also proven this - in Bolivia it led to a near revolution as private companies jacked up prices and restricted access to the poor.

The health care sector in the USA is another example of this dynamic - the richest country in human history has a terrible health care system dominated by high prices, parasitic middlemen and poor service for the vast majority. And last I checked the mighty private sector - banks, auto manufacturers and others - brought the economic system to the brink of collapse back in 2008. Hardly a solid record of delivering efficiency, savings or services - instead, after years of attacking public spending, they happily bellied up at the public trough while protesting any "intrusions" of public oversight into how they were spending our money.

And even on their own terms of "saving money" the Ford Bro Circus of Stupid is a dishonest, craven outfit. They happily gave the cops a big raise and Doug Ford made a big stink when it was suggested that some police services be contracted out to save money. Garbage on the streets for us, a well-paid police boot in our ass if we complain about it. Charming.

But if the Ford family freakshow are unmitigated assholes then the left on city council - and the union leadership - are sad and pathetic creatures. One shouldn't be surprised, I suppose that the "left" are as useless as tits on a bull. These characters did unanimously vote for a Ford inspired motion before he was mayor that lauded the police for the highest priced, most bungled, most repressive police operation in Canadian history during the G20 summit. On the grounds of political principle it demonstrated that the left has absolutely none. On the ground of political opportunism to vote with their executioner proves that they are just fucking stupid.

Sadly, the union leadership hasn't done much either. Last month there was an excellent demonstration of some 10,000 people organized by the unions but, like the Days of Action movement fifteen years earlier, the leadership appears to have had no strategy to maintain momentum beyond a one-off demonstration. One can't help but be impressed by the inability of the union leadership to learn a lesson from the squandering of the biggest opportunity to stop the attacks on unions the last time around. So, now the left and the union leadership declares that this is a limited victory - to have voted for a motion to support privatization as long as they get to oversee it. That's like celebrating the fact that you get to choose the knife that is used to cut your throat. Surely there must be some people with brains and principles to lead an opposition to Ford and his ilk.

Ford’s plan to privatize garbage collection passes - with concessions - The Globe and Mail

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Robot Invasion Has Begun

Lock up your family, protect your job! You don't have to be Ray Kurzweil to see that there has been an acceleration of certain kinds of technological progress in the last generation - the rise of the PC, followed by cellphones, the internet, laptops, smart phones (only since 2007!) and now tablet computers. There have also been advances in machine vision and materials technologies - witness the big leap of the Xbox Kinect, which, along with touchscreens in smartphones and tablets, is radically reshaping our concept of human/machine user interfaces. All of this seems to have laid the groundwork for a near-term revolution in robotics. And such a revolution is in many ways overdue. Robotics pretty much stalled after the introduction of industrial robots into the large manufacturers, such as the auto industry, in the 60s and 70s. However, in the last number of years it has slowly been making advances that have created the conditions for a new leap forward.

Already, there are a number of popular open-source research platforms, like the PR2 from Willow Garage (something of a spin-off from Google) that is in the video above demonstrating a new software module that enables the PR2 to pick up and scan the bar codes of groceries (bye-bye check-out clerks?). The makers of the very popular Nao robot from France are about to go open-source to speed up the process of developing software "apps" to supply behaviour modules for the cute, versatile little robot. Google has also announced that it will extend its Android open-source software's capabilities into the field of robotics with Android@home, which will provide a common operating system for the growing interest in home management or smarthome systems - things like dimming lights, controlling the thermostat, home security, cleaning robots, etc. And there are popular events like the Robocup, that brings together programmers and robot aficionados to engage in a robot football tournament with the goal of creating better-than-human robot football/soccer players by 2050. To be honest, I think it will be sooner than that.

All of this stuff is interesting and even exciting, however it has mostly been about laying the groundwork and robotics is waiting for the killer device to make the breakthrough into ubiquitous robots in the same way that Apple made the breakthrough for smartphones and tablets. There are two immediate potential contenders in this field - Willow Garage is perhaps a contender but at present their interest is still in the field of research and development platforms with a $400,000 robot that's out of reach to consumers and most businesses. One is Heartland Robotics, headed up by Rodney Brooks a pre-eminent robotics professor, formerly of MIT, and founder of iRobot, which brought the Roomba vacuum cleaner to market. Of the 8.6 million robots in the world, something like 7 million of them are Roombas, so he has a track record of knowing how to convert existing tech into a consumer device. Brooks now intends to take that success into the field of light manufacturing by advancing on the platform developed with the Obrero (worker) robot - basically an intelligent, dextrous arm and hand - from a few years ago. While Heartland is in what's called stealth mode - primary research to complete development of the product out of sight of competitors - the general goal of Heartland is public knowledge.

Brooks wants to create a robot for light manufacturing that will be priced in the $5,000 range, allowing the USA to compete with low wage economies to which a lot of manufacturing has been outsourced - places like China and Asia. I haven't done the math on the relative advantage of a $5,000 manufacturing robot vs a product produced by sweated labour plus the costs of shipping and handling but my guess is that it would make a lot of domestic manufacturing more competitive. Brooks believes that this will generate a new industrial revolution and will eliminate drudge work in the service sector, particularly in health care. The first impact, however, is likely to be unemployment in those industries that can make use of a cheap robot. There will be other impacts, such as the long term decline in the rate of profit once affected industries take up the new technology across the board and the effect of relative advantages is mitigated (I'll take up some of this in a future post). Whatever the ultimate character of the impact, it would no doubt be huge. Check out 32 minute Brooks talk, below, from the Maker Faire in 2009:

The second potential "killer device" is the forthcoming general purpose home robot, Luna. While we have the Roomba in the home, there has yet to be any general purpose robots to perform a variety of tasks. I'm not sure that the Luna is it - it seems to have too little functionality. But the intended future price tag of $1,000 (for this year and next it will be $3,000) might be low enough to encourage enough early adopters with disposable income and a desire to be the first ones on the block to own a home robot to make it a viable business model. The Luna platform is intended to be expandable both in terms of hardware and software, with the idea that developers - in the model of the iphone and Android app stores - can create specific modules to expand the capabilities of the Luna - say voice recognition software or a more advanced arm, etc.

But even if the Luna itself isn't ready for prime time and doesn't take off as the company hopes, it is a sign that the genie is out of the bottle - the age of personal robotics has begun. To be honest I haven't grokked what the cultural implications of a robotics explosion will entail - it certainly won't mean the end of inequality, world hunger or imperialism - most of the "service" robots other than the Roomba are for military use to defuse IEDs, as spotters, UAVs and, already in testing, the next generation of fully robotic fighter planes known as the Phantom Ray. But it would be foolish to think "nothing will change" and the coming robot revolution deserves some serious social analysis. Thoughts?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Irony Was Bin Laden's Greatest Skill

The ten year history of bin Laden as the manifestation of EEEVIL came to an end in the early hours of May 2 but the fallout of that raid and a proper assessment of the impact of the man has yet to be done. When sufficient time has elapsed to discard the absurd demonization of bin Laden and to instead look critically at this moment in history, what will become clear is that what bin Laden most represented was neither incomprehensible evil or jihad against infidels but, rather, the irony of imperialism. We shouldn't forget that first and foremost bin Laden was America's man. He began his career as a "terrorist" with American money and weapons when the biggest EEEVIL of the day as the former Soviet Union and the USA saw an opportunity to deal that empire a body blow in Afghanistan. At the time President Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, wondered rhetorically what was or more significance - the defeat of the USSR or winding up some Islamic radicals. I wonder what he thinks now. In any case, Bin Laden's career in bloody irony took its first steps when he turned US gold and guns on the USA itself in the wake of the first Iraq war and the USA's use of Saudi Arabia - the Muslim holy land - as its staging ground.
The second moment of irony was the act that catapulted bin Laden's name and face onto the lips of everyone on the planet - September 11, 2001. The irony was not that an act of terror made bin Laden famous, it was, rather, that instead of weakening imperialism and the US role in the Middle East, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the killing of several thousand people - almost exclusively innocent civilians and rescuers - did the opposite. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks the political strength of US imperialism was immensely strengthened. Patriotism in the United States, and with it the idea of "my country right or wrong", as well as support for an unpopular president, all went through the roof. The populations in a number of countries - I won't say the world because lots of places no first hand the vicious wrath of the USA - certainly Canada, Europe, and Australia amongst others, bought into the idea that "we're all Americans now." (Of course, when America killed half a million children in Iraq with sanctions - a fact that President Clinton's Secretary of State blithely described as "a price worth paying", nobody was saying "we're all Iraqi children now.") So the immediate result of bin Laden's attack on the Great Satan was to provide an excuse for the US military machine, led by the frothing chickenhawks from the Project for a New American Century, to launch at least two wars and provide cover for Israel to tighten the screws on the Palestinians.
The third and final irony that has to be seen as bin Laden's real contribution to global political discourse came with his death. The Americans, ever-filled with hubris and disdain for their junior partners, failed to consider the lesson that bin Laden had demonstrated that an act ill-considered can easily become its opposite. After discovering bin Laden after ten years they were so used to ignoring Pakistani sovereignty with impunity, firing drone-carried Hellfire missiles that kill civilians and militants by the bushel, that they didn't even bother to work out the political logistics before going in unannounced with Special Forces soldiers in the middle of the night. This was coming on a big scandal about a CIA operative who was busted carrying out an assassination in Pakistan only recently. And so bin Laden, having spent most of the last ten years utterly isolated and marginal to world events - including the one set of events that might just free the Middle East from American influence: the Arab revolutions - overnight has become, in death, central to Pakistani politics. The uproar of this latest slap in the face to Pakistan's sovereignty might just lead to the cutting off of crucial NATO supply lines to Afghanistan and an end to the right to fly drone missions. No drone missions in Pakistan means that Afghan guerillas can once again move back and forth across the porous border with ease and find shelter amongst the Pashtuns of Pakistan (the Durand Line that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan was an utterly arbitrary British and Russian division that went right down the middle of the Pashtun population, separating clans and families who still have strong ties). It might be the biggest blow to US imperialism in Afghanistan and Central Asia since this whole thing started. If America and NATO suffer humiliation and defeat in Afghanistan - as they should - we won't have bin Laden to thank, we'll have the Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America. And that might be the sweetest irony of all.

Pakistan may cut Nato's Afghan supply line after Osama bin Laden killing | World news | guardian.co.uk

Friday, May 13, 2011

Vote Tory To Keep Gas Prices Low! (And Other Lies)

Well, that was the biggest fattest lie of the election campaign - the claim that an NDP government would cause gas prices to rise by ten cents a litre because they would, gasp, try to limit the destruction of the planet with a cap and trade system for carbon emissions. Cap and trade is more market driven bunk - oil and car companies ought to be forced to pay the real cost of their products, which includes the medical bills that result from increased asthma and the disaster relief required because of climate change generated extreme weather events. But it was still just scare mongering to say that this pathetic measure would be an attack on the ability of ordinary people to cover their bills. So, it's more than a little ironic to see gas prices approaching $1.50 a litre in the wake of the Tory majority. And what will the Tories - defenders of all things suburban and SUV-like - do to stop this atrocity from which they promised to protect us? Zilch. Well, not quite zilch - they'll have a meeting and ask "tough" questions of the oil execs. Then they'll go for martinis afterwards and have a laugh about the show they put on. Gas prices will stay high. Oil company profits will go up. And morons will vote for the Tories again next time.

Ottawa to grill gas-industry executives over soaring pump prices - The Globe and Mail

Is Rob Ford An Election Swindler?

Audit ordered into Mayor Ford’s campaign financing - thestar.com

Say it isn't so? Our glorious mayor used his personal riches in dubious ways in order to bankroll his election campaign? Well, that's the decision of the citizen's panel that oversees this stuff. Is it possible that Ford, who makes a big deal about being a man of the people and about stopping the feeding trough at city hall is really only interested in stopping anyone who doesn't have a lot of money from misusing funds? Why, that would be hypocrisy. Say it ain't so. Of course, he and his odious troll of a brother have also been pretty hypocritical about budget cuts - services get the chop, cops get a big fat raise - and then Dougie Ford raises a big stink when some fellow bean counter points out the hypocrisy of cutting everything else but leaving the cops as a sacred cow, er, pig.
The fact that 70% apparently support this transparently filthy asshole is a testament to how much suburbia rots your mind.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Foofaraw About Quebec NDP Candidate Is Sour Grapes & Bigotry

First of all, I looked up the word foofaraw and can confirm that's the spelling for the word to describe when a big deal is made out of something insignificant. And that precisely applies to all the ridiculous media coverage about Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the NDP's newly elected MP in Berthier-Maskinongé. Brosseau, a single mother who works as a manager in a campus pub in Ottawa was a pylon candidate for the NDP in the riding - where other than a brief stint with a Conservative MP in the 1930s it has held by the Liberals until the Mulroney wave in the 1980s and then by the Bloc since 2004. In case you don't know, every party runs "pylon" candidates in ridings where they haven't a hope in hell but want a name on the ballot. In my downtown Toronto riding there is a Conservative candidate who runs every election but who often doesn't respond to questionnaires - except sometimes with obviously boilerplate stuff Рand doesn't show up to all-candidates meetings such as this one and this one. It's not too surprising, she barely breaks ten percent in support.
Prior to this election the NDP had one MP in Quebec and had only recently broken into double digit support in the polls. There is barely any party machine throughout the province. Layton has to be given credit for putting a lot of effort into building up support for the NDP in Quebec, connecting with a real thirst for change. But there's no doubt that the NDP was as surprised as anyone that their numbers shot up so high, so fast. That's all fair play - the only previous example of this kind of explosive growth in support was the ADQ in Quebec's provincial election and the Reform Party in the rest of Canada after the collapse of the Mulroney "new deal for Canada" in the early 90s. But in both of those cases, they were splits from already existing parties - the ADQ was a split from the Quebec Liberal Party and the Reform Party was a split from the Progressive Conservatives. They had a party machine to a significant extent and Preston Manning had spent a couple of years prior to the election that saw them launched as a parliamentary party touring the country to build up the strength of constituency associations.
I can't speak to the reception of the ADQ in Quebec but certainly in English Canada the Reform Party was given a free ride. If it weren't for some pickets and protests organized by grassroots activists Manning would have been able to cover-up the obvious warts of his right wing populist party - like the involvement of members of the far-right Heritage Front who organized security at a number of early events, and the underlying social conservatism of the Reform "movement."
So, why all this focus on one new MP who was caught completely unaware by her victory? Certainly if Theresa Rodrigues won in Davenport the media wouldn't have been all over the fact that she doesn't live in the riding and didn't appear during all-candidates debates. There's something else more insidious going on here. First of all there is just the sour grapes of the other parties, stirring this up. The Bloc has an interest in pushing the line that the NDP is a foreign presence in Quebec politics. The will play up the fact that Brosseau has never lived in the riding and doesn't speak French as part of a nationalist narrative. The Liberals and Conservatives would like to undermine the credibility of the NDP as a party that could be the federal government by focusing on competency rather than politics, which is a safer target.
Frankly the other issue for the hacks in the media and the political machine is that she's not a professional politician and is, in fact a young, single mother. I was impressed with Layton and Mulcair's first response - that the NDP wants people exactly like Brosseau because she is one of the faces of Canada that isn't represented in Parliament. Single mothers and young workers have every right to be elected political representatives. It may be the case that they are being a bit too paranoid about hiding Brosseau from the media - or maybe she's totally freaked out by the attacks on her and her integrity. Who can say for sure? But this BS that she should been in her riding meeting the constituents is just that: the election was less than a week ago. How many newly elected MPs have gone to "meet their constituents" and what does that even mean? Walking door to door to thank people for voting for them? Holding a big party? Having a press conference? It's just nonsense. Probably the NDP shouldn't wait till Brosseau is perfectly fluent in French to bring her out in public - and they've promised to do so shortly in any case - people in the riding aren't morons, they'll understand the strange situation and a real effort to serve their interests will go a lot further than perfect grammar - as Duceppe has discovered; his grammar and vocabulary in French being rather more sophisticated than Layton's.
All of which is to say that the attacks on Brosseau are motivated at best by a mean-spirited pettiness and, at worst, by straight-up bigotry against a working class, single mother. But, as the excellent article in today's Globe notes (see link below) this could blow up in the faces of the media and even more so the other politica parties. If Brosseau can get through this difficult moment, connect with her constituents and build a solid constituency machine she could become an underdog hero. I don't know her personally and have no idea about her politics but I, for one, hope that she is up to it and gives the other parties with their sense of entitlement and the bottom-feeding attack dogs of the media a poke in the eye.

Three thoughts about Ruth Ellen Brosseau - The Globe and Mail

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Is The Bloom Coming Off The Wild Rose Of Alberta?

Most people in Canada probably believe that Alberta is a place of strident, eternally right wing politics. It is the one province in Canada that has had a right wing political dynasty going back for almost a century - from the populism of the Social Credit Party through to the one-party Tory state of the last three generations. In this week's federal election, voter support as high as 80% for the Tories was not that uncommon in ridings throughout the province. It's no wonder that people feel that this is an impenetrable bastion of oil fuelled reaction. As one commenter on an earlier blog post put it:
"Alberta functions precisely as any other petro-state does and the same is true of the Petro-Pols of Parliament Hill on both sides of the aisle and in every party. Get used to it because it has free rein now."
But things aren't really that rosy in the Wild Rose province. According to the Canadian Bankers Association, the delinquency rates for Alberta mortgage holders are the highest in the country, at close to one in a hundred mortgage holders. That's five times higher than in Ontario and almost eight times higher than it was in 2007. The reason is pretty straightforward: the oil boom at the beginning of the last decade created a rush of workers to work in the Alberta oil fields. That created massive inflation in the real estate sector with house prices jumping a full 50% between 2006-2007. When the crash hit in 2008 and oil consumption dropped, the real estate market took a hit along with the upward trend in wages. Suddenly people were struggling to cover the mortgages on houses whose value was dropping month after month. It wasn't as severe as the housing bubble in the US, where delinquency rates are still at around the eight percent mark but it was significant.
What's interesting is that the Globe article, attached below, suggests that the dark days are over for Alberta homeowners as oil prices recover along with the global economy. Except that reports out of the US suggest anything but golden days ahead, with jobless numbers climbing along with inventories and a decline in service activity. This has led to oil price deflation, as oil futures have declined from a peak of $114/barrel to around $103 in less than a week. That's a ten percent drop - and there's more to come:
"The ongoing civil war in Libya and unrest elsewhere in the Middle East has added a risk premium of around $30 to a barrel of crude,'' Capital Economics said in a report. "
We expect the risk premium to fade as and when the Libyan crisis eases, helping to drag prices back within OPEC's $70 to $90 range by year-end.''
If a fifty percent decline in oil prices come to pass, that's going to deliver a big hit to the Alberta oil patch and I'll give you one guess as to who is going to be expected to bear the brunt of that decline. If that happens, you can expect the fragile, over-leveraged real estate market to tank in a very big way. The only answer that the Tories will have is to provide more subsidies to oil corporations, which will do nothing to alleviate the effects of the economic crisis on the lives of workers. That doesn't mean that the frustrations and bitterness will go to the left - it could just as easily go to the right, especially in a province where there is little presence for the left. But if the unions can increase their public presence, demonstrate their muscle in resisting corporate attacks. And if the left, in particular the NDP, which is the largest and most visible sign of the left, can put itself forward as an alternative for working people, the Tory dynasty could face a rocky road in the near future.

Alberta's delinquent homeowners lead the pack - The Globe and Mail

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Torture Used To Catch Bin Laden, Proving Hypocrisy Is King

Luckily I'm not an NDP MP, so I have no fear saying that it is absolutely the height of stomach-churning hypocrisy that the head of the CIA, soon to be US Defense Secretary, can happily declare the use of waterboarding to catch and kill bin Laden.
Now, before every right-wing moron who can read starts putting up stupid shit about how I support terrorism, here's my categorical denial: I oppose terrorism - not only because it is an ineffective way to bring about progressive social change, since it excludes the consent or participation of the vast majority of the population to be "liberated" but also because it inevitably leads to the unnecessary deaths of innocents. I will say that I don't believe that guerilla struggle - or asymmetrical warfare in Pentagon jargon - is the same as terrorism and I have supported and will support in the future the military struggles of oppressed people against more heavily armed state actors (to use another bit of jargon). For these reasons, I'm not a supporter of bin Laden and the attacks on the World Trade Center were abhorrent for precisely the reason I state above - who died: secretaries, restaurant workers, maintenance workers, firefighters, office workers, etc. etc. And all it did was give the USA the excuse to blow the hell out of Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.
Back to the point at hand, not one single newspaper or politician sees the obvious contradiction that the USA has arrogated to itself the right to kill whomever it wants, in whatever quantities it deems necessary or desirable; to violate the sovereignty of nations outside of international laws that they helped write; and to violate human rights through torture and extra-legal detention - in order to defend all those things. How can killing bin Laden, responsible at most for the deaths of several thousands of people, justify the horror show that has been visited upon the world? It doesn't. And a closer examination of US actions from Riyadh to Gaza to Tripoli and beyond, reveals that bin Laden's real crime was not that he was sexist, a fundamentalist or a murderer. His real crime was that he wasn't using those qualities in the service of the US of A.
Glad I got that off of my chest; guess it means the end of my political career.

Waterboarding detainees yielded clues that helped find bin Laden: CIA - The Globe and Mail

Are There Pics Of Bin Laden? Who Cares

I'm more and more of the mind that the primary job of the news media is to find stupid, insignificant shit and make it into a big deal. Because it's totally irrelevant and worthy of being ignored, it puts them in good stead to be the first to "break" an important story. They can thus market themselves as "cutting edge" or some other bullshit as a way to sell advertising space and subscriptions.
Take this story in all the major Canadian dailies that NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair mused that, since Obama hasn't produced any photos of bin Laden's body, they probably don't exist. Now, tell me, in the scheme of conspiracy theories - that 9/11 was an inside job, that the US military has UFOs at area 51, that Obama wasn't born in the US and is a secret African socialist Islamic agent bent on destroying the Christian and free enterprise character of the United States of America - does this rate even a mention? Seriously, this is the kind of thing you say when you're out with your buddies having a beer or sitting with your family at a holiday dinner:
Uncle Barry: "If he had the photos, they'd be all over CNN. Come on, they blasted pics of Saddam Hussein's bullet-ridden bodies all over the place."
Aunt Sue: "He doesn't want to get people even more riled up by suggesting disrespect for the dead. You don't want to give terrorists another excuse to blow things up."
Uncle Barry: "Hmmm. Maybe. Pass the gravy?"
And that would be the end of that.
The real issue, I'm convinced is the deeper point that he makes: did the US break international law by going into a private home in a non-belligerent country with the intention to shoot-to-kill bin Laden regardless of whether he was armed or not. Did they kill an unarmed man? Frankly, the NDP's official response that "we are happy the U.S. tracked down Osama bin Laden” is worse than pathetic. How about - hey, the USA and its allies, including Stephen Warpig Harper have used bin Laden for the last ten years as an excuse to justify killing hundreds of thousands of people in several countries stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Chinese border. How about, Harper - and before him the Liberals - have used the war on terror to justify taking away our civil rights and spending tens of billions of dollars on a war in Afghanistan that has done nothing but kill innocents and prop up warlords and heroin kingpin and now they're about to spend tens of billions of dollars on stupid, over-priced fighter jets. After all that blood and treasure wasted to stop the evil Osama bin Laden why isn't it unreasonable to ask when the wars and defense spending justified by the hunt against bin Laden and the - mostly disrupted and demoralized - al Qaeda will be ended. Why isn't it reasonable to expect the country supposedly fighting to defend international law and respect for human rights, the USA, actually follow international law and not abrogate the most basic law that permits one the right to the presumption of innocence and a fair trial? Or is that right only reserved for westerners who agree with the likes of Bush, Obama and Harper? It is deeply disappointing that the NDP lacks the spine to take on something so basic, obvious and cost-free - Canadians are morons, we can figure out hypocrisy and double-standards.

Conspiracy theory: NDP deputy leader Mulcair doubts U.S. has bin Laden photos - thestar.com

NDP/Liberal Merger Is A Terrible Idea

I normally like what T.O. Star columnist Thomas Walkom has to say. He's a thoughtful analyst who comes from the left. But this idea of the NDP and the Liberals merging - an idea floated for a while but gathering steam now with the Tories winning a majority - is a terrible idea.
First off, as Walkom himself notes, the Liberals are not a left wing party. Walkom goes on to say that the NDP are also a centrist party. This is true to an extent - certainly the party leadership, obsessed with the calculus of elections and not offending anybody, downplays any notion of leftist politics. But that fails to capture the character of the NDPs base - something made clear by the character of its newly expanded caucus - single mothers, students, aboriginals, trade unionists, artists, etc. These people will tend to be much more radical than the party leadership. The Liberals certainly have a "left wing" but the character of most of their candidates is different - professionals, lawyers, etc. Most importantly, the whole social character of the party apparatus is different. The NDP is funded, staffed and led by people organically connected to the trade union movement and, to a lesser degree, the social movements. That doesn't make them perfect and many of them will be union functionaries whose main concern is getting elected and maintaining party cohesion at the cost of boldness and principle. But that is fundamentally different from the Liberals, which are a business party with organic links to the corporate world.
Any merger between the NDP and the Liberals will be at the expense of the NDP subordinating its trade union and social movement links to the interests of the Liberals business sector. It will land us with the David Miller coalition, where his campaign team was an alliance of corporate lawyers and businessmen with some union leaders. And, frankly, the Liberals already have that with many unions - construction unions in particular - operating within the Liberal party as junior partners. In this sense it's similar to the US Democrats. Having two parties in Canada dominated by business doesn't sound to me like a step forward.
However, the situation changes when we talk about Liberal voters. The vast majority of Liberal voters are workers and they have no ties or allegiance to the Liberal party machine. What is needed is not to try and incorporate them through some kind of unprincipled and deleterious institutional merger. No, what is needed is an aggressive campaign to win over working class Liberal voters to the NDP - to win them to the left - by posing a clear alternative. That this is possible is obvious from the present election - the NDP was clearly the left choice compared to the Liberals "centre" as Ignatieff and Harper never tired of saying. Millions of working people shifted left and voted NDP for the first time. It would be a disaster to surrender the ground that has been won to join the sinking Liberal ship and take on board its unpopular methods, leaders and policies. Hell, for one thing, the NDP would end up with Bob Rae back. That guy is poison to political parties (see my previous post). by presenting a real alternative to the Tories - not "constructive proposals" - both inside and outside of parliament, the NDP can truly unite the left by expanding the left - not by trying to shift the left to the centre and reduce the options for workers.

Walkom: NDP, Liberals must eventually work it out - thestar.com

New Yorkers Shun Patriotic Idiot On Subway

So, some moron decides that the thing to do the morning after the US special forces killed bin Laden in his pyjamas was to get a chant of "USA" going on the New York subway system. Hey, it's America's finest hour right? They've defeated Satan himself. What better way to celebrate than to chant the initials of their country? Wrong.
The subway riders, whose lives haven't gotten any better as a result of bin Laden's death - and with Clinton asserting that it will be business as usual for the war on terror aren't going to notice any change in foreign policy either - are not impressed. Nobody joins the chant. My favourite part of this embarrassing demonstration of stupidity is the guy at 00:36 who subtly pops up his middle finger and gives the intrepid fool the bird. One more reason why I love New York.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Spare A Thought For Bob Rae...

Lord knows it can't be easy to be an arrogant prick and be to political parties like syphilis to sexual attractiveness. Everywhere that dude goes destruction inevitably follows. I swear he's one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and either doesn't know it or is doing deep cover.
In fact, I will buy a dairy and grain-free Paleo nanaimo bar made by Primal Indulgence (my wife's baking biz), to whoever comes up with the best ending to the sentence: "Bob Rae is to political parties..."

Alberta Is A Cargo Cult

There's no other way to explain the political phenomenon in Alberta, the will to one-party statehood of the majority of population in this semi-developed, resource-laden hinterland. There has certainly been political heterogeneity on the edges of Alberta politics in the past - even radical leftist politics - but firmly rooted in the centre is a cultish adoration of all that is small and rural and backwards.
In the present case the "cargo" that provides Albertans with their fetish du jour is, of course, oil. And they think that their god can only be accessed through the anointed priesthood of oil executives and right wing populists. They will destroy the land, pollute their air, deplete their water, all in the service of their god, beside which Jesus (another popular fellow - or at least a cartoon of him) appears as a mere hand-servant to aid the power of the great fetish. Besides the damage cults do to one's mind it's rather embarrassing, to say the least. This is a province in need of a serious intervention.
To be fair, Albertans aren't stupid as the cows they ranch. Nor are they as slimey as the oil they dig. What they are sorely lacking is any demonstrated alternative to the great oily priesthood. This is the province with the lowest unionization rates in the country and, by my guess, the lowest levels of strikes. No, what Alberta needs is some strikes. They need some struggle. They need to discover the horrible truth that the oil barons don't give a flying f**k about whether they live, die or suffer terrible malignancies to them and their children as a result of the polluting practices involved in the oil sands. I don't know how such a watershed will happen but I feel confident that it will - not because workers are inherently geniuses but because the ups and downs of capitalism cause corporations to make choices and low on their list of priorities are workers rights, wages and living conditions. At a certain point the development of Alberta into a modern economy will undermine the consensus as it grows beyond the paternalist boomtown feel and the growing working class in the oil fields, schools, public sector and beyond struggle against the priorities of Alberta capitalism. Sure hope it's soon.

The Real Victory Is The NDP's

I know lots of people are depressed this morning thinking about four years of majority rule under the heel of the Nasty Party. It's true that they are a ghoulish and evil lot and they will try to shaft workers, the poor, women, Quebecoises, Aboriginal peoples, the disabled, peace-lovers, the environment and all things good and right in the world that I may have missed. They are, in short, scum.
Just so that you know where I stand.
But while the wingnuts who make up the Tory base may be gloating a bit this morning, my guess is that Harper - a sharper sort of scumbag - is rather more circumspect. Sure, he got his majority but only by poaching a section of right wing Liberals who were peeing their pants at the thought of an NDP federal government and only by promising them stable, moderate rule. Now, of course, Harper is an inveterate liar and charlatan and not prone to keeping his word or respecting democracy or its institutions. But he also doesn't want the Tories to be the next Liberal wipe-out in waiting. If he pushes too hard he has to know that he may win some short term gains but the result will be that the already fragile Liberal Party will complete its collapse as the remaining bulk of its members head to the NDP and a smaller number head to the Tories. If he unites the left under the umbrella of the NDP he will have polarized the country, shifted close to a majority of the electorate to the left and made it much less likely that the Tories will be able to ever win a majority again. All it would take is a breakthrough in the Prairies to put the nail in the coffin of future Tory majorities. So, he will have to govern carefully - I don't expect to see any great lurch to the right in the coming months, just more of his attempt to slowly transform Canada into a right wing dystopia of Seuss-like proportions.
Now, a lot depends on the ability of the NDP to really capitalize on their massive electoral breakthrough. And, in an ironic way, a Harper majority will potentially make that easier and allow the NDP time to consolidate its gains in Quebec, build a party machine to deepen its Quebec roots and pave the way for further gains. If that building process is accompanied by strong opposition in parliament and - even more importantly in my mind - with campaigning on the ground to involve the hundreds of thousands of people who have turned to the NDP, it could really transform Canadian politics. I'd be interested to know, for instance, what sort of relationship exists between the activists and leadership of Quebec Solidaire and the federal NDP. QS is a left-sovereigntist party in Quebec with one seat in Quebec's National Assembly and a presence to some degree across the province, plus several years' experience in holding together riding associations, etc. They are certainly to the left of the NDP and have an official position of being a party of both the ballot box and of the streets. One hopes that sensibility is widely held in the Quebec wing of the NDP because if two-thirds of the NDP caucus seek to build the party through a strategy of mobilizing and that infects the party in English Canada, things could get very exciting. In fact, in the short term my guess is that the NDP is about to become the country's fastest growing political party and it will be infused with idealistic youth and formerly cynical trade unionists. If the flux and the growth combine in the right recipe - something nobody can know at this point but about which we ought to be optimistic - we could be looking at a mass, renewed left wing movement and party.
There are dangers, of course - the union leadership are slow-moving, conservative bureaucrats with little interest in mass mobilizing or anything that disturbs "business as usual." The NDP leadership - many of them union bureaucrats themselves - is likewise conservative in this sense. Layton is a wildcard. He's no radical but he supports extra-parliamentary movements - he has spoken at innumerable anti-war events and Olivia Chow has gone the distance with the War Resisters Support Campaign both inside and outside of parliament. He might encourage this process, which would help it immensely, or he might try to follow a more Harper-esque model of containing the party's rookies by tightly controlling the flow of information and the model of party building. Hopefully the political situation in Quebec is dynamic and massive enough that it will push things forward regardless of what the party leadership thinks.
Harper will have nowhere near that dynamism from his victory and he no longer has the cover of a minority government to blame for his failings. The continuing experience of austerity and recession for the majority of Canadians will undermine Harper's credibility. Having a big, left wing alternative will facilitate that decline. That's why I'm not depressed.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Canada Just Took A Big Step Left

The real news tonight is not that the Tories won a majority. They HAD a majority previously, it was just that some of their members were in another faction known as the Liberal Party, which voted with the Tories on 9 out of 10 confidence votes. For some time there has been no real Official Opposition in Parliament, not on substantive issues anyway. Ignatieff's politics are fundamentally no different to Harper's, except that Ignatieff lacks both a populist and a killer instinct to be successful as a politician.
No, the real news is that the left wing of Liberal support - and of Bloc support in Quebec - jumped ship, tired of the rightward drift of the Natural Governing Party and went over to the NDP. Some of the Liberal vote went to the Tories, too, of course. Scared out of their minds that the NDP might actually end up leading a coalition government, the right wing Liberal voters out there rushed headlong into the cold embrace of Stephen Harper. They haven't gone far really, but they have gone home. However, that only meant a less than 3% increase in the vote for the Tories - assuming they finish at the 40% number where they are now. The NDP's popular vote more than doubled. All those people - millions of them - have no moved left and that is a much bigger challenge to Harper than any pseudo minority where the Tories face the Liberals.
The other big news, of course, is the absolute domination of Quebec by the colour orange. This is a massively significant event of historic proportions and will mean big changes to the character of the NDP. Over half of the NDPs caucus will now come from Quebec, many, if not most of those new MPs will be (at least) soft sovereigntists. The NDP will either learn to deal with the national question or it will be a short-lived love affair. I'm hoping that they learn to deal with the national question and so transform the left and the trade union movement in Canada in the process, bringing the vitality and militancy of the Quebec union and social movements to English Canada, as well its traditions. For too long the pan-Canadian working class and left has had little or no dialogue - this is the biggest opportunity for English-French working class solidarity in generations, perhaps in the history of Canada.
Whenever Parliament is called back we will see a House in which on one side will be the uptight, small-minded bigots and carpet-baggers who make up the Tory government. Across from them will be an uprising of unruly youth, Quebecois, women, minorities and workers. If Layton welcomes that uprising with open arms and allows it to breathe, permits it to infuse the party down to its very roots, the Tories are going to be in a for a much rougher majority than the past five years of minority government.

How Bin Laden's Death Proves America's Masculinity Is Safe

What are we supposed to do with a White House press briefing that tells us Osama bin Laden tried to hide behind women before the death squad that came for him finished him off? I guess this has meant to tell us that he wasn't a "real man", like a "red-blooded American", because American men, faced with heavily armed assassins would stand out in the open, chest out, like Rambo or Chuck Norris or Arnie and shout "Come and get me, you bastards!" Personally, hat kind of behaviour just seems stupid to me but then, I'm a cowardly pinko who wants to live.
But in the end, that's what this ten year war on terror is all about: America's manhood was hurt by the destruction of the WTC. It wasn't ultimately about foreign policy or past wrongs or anything that we could critically examine. Nope, it was just about some dude giving us a sucker punch in front of our woman and our friends. We couldn't be men again till we got him back in a, uh, fair fight where he was out-manned and out-gunned. I imagine that in bars across America tonight, there will be men belly-bumping and raising beers to the death of EEEVIL and the victory of righteous America. There'll probably be a fair amount of the same in Canada, no doubt and in a few other countries.
Hopefully, there will be a few people who will see the bravado for what it is: a cover for the utter failure of the war on terror to deliver a renewed Pax Americana. The US ruling class can encourage all the chest-thumping that it wants. But that won't win the war in Afghanistan and it won't stop the wave of revolutions in the Middle East. It won't reverse the decline of the USA relative to China and the rest of the world, or the loss of hegemony in Latin America. It won't bring back the dead - not the dead from the World Trade Center nor those hundreds of thousands killed by US guns and bombs as the empire sought to rejuvenate its manhood. And it won't stop the resentment and anger that generated support for al-Qaeda in the first place.
In my own opinion, revolution in the Middle East has meant that al-Qaeda's model has been superceded and marginalized. Killing bin Laden is like putting out a fire in a garbage can when the whole neighbourhood is going up in flames. It might make America feel good but it's still pointless. And tomorrow the hangovers will hurt just as much as they always do.

White House: Bin Laden tried to hide behind women during battle - The Globe and Mail
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