Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Afghanistan: USA Busted Trying To "Cut & Run"

Remember all that macho b.s. that G W Bush (and Stephen Harper) said about not "cutting and running" in Afghanistan? We were gonna fight to the end - for truth, justice and the American Way. And remember how Harper and his cronies took the piss out of Jack Layton when he suggested that peace would require negotiating with the Taliban? Remember how they called him Taliban Jack? Remember that?

Yeah, it was pretty funny stuff - coz it was so stupid. But it was also sad because it meant thousands more would die from NATO bombs in Afghanistan - and they have.

But remembering that made this little moment of thieves falling out a particular treat. It seems that while everyone now agrees the only way for their to be peace in Afghanistan is to negotiate with the Taliban, the only people who are trustworthy are the Taliban. According to a senior official with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's High Peace Council, everyone is holding separate and secret talks with the Taliban.

He said all the key players — the United States, Afghan government, Afghan National Security Council and the High Peace Council — are holding separate and secret talks with their own contacts within the insurgency.
The poor Taliban must be wondering who the hell is in charge of this madhouse. However, what they and anybody else who is paying attention knows is that the USA wants to get the hell out of Afghanistan - and is willing to circumvent the Afghan government to negotiate some kind of truce directly with the Taliban. The reasons why are obvious enough. After ten years the country is more, not less, chaotic than it ever was and the insurgency is stronger now than ten years ago. What's more the "nation building" exercise that put Hamid Karzai into office has turned out to be more of an exercise in building an organized crime racket with the country run like a series of drug lord fiefdoms and protection rackets - including the President's recently departed half-brother.

That must be the reason that Karzai's office leaked details of secret US meetings with a close associate of Taliban head honcho Mullah Omar. Karzai can smell that the USA is going to leave him high and dry, like the last Soviet era president Najibullah, who was dragged behind a truck and strung up from a lamp post when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996. I'm sure he wants to be in the room when any treaty is signed to make sure the don't-kill-the-last-president clause is in any peace agreement concluded with the Taliban. But the result is that the Americans have mud on their face and now trust Karzai even less than previously. The final irony of all this is that Pakistan could end up coming out of this right where it started - as the most powerful broker between a Taliban government in Afghanistan and the rest of the world.

A month ago, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator John Kerry and Pakistan’s Army chief of staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, met for a marathon eight hours in a Gulf country...
A U.S. official familiar with the talks said Gen. Kayani made a pitch during his meeting with Kerry for Pakistan to take on a far larger role in peacemaking in Afghanistan.
After ten years of war in Afghanistan, we're about to end up back in 1992.

Did Layton Shift NDP To The Right?

I have a lot of time for Thomas Walkom - ever since way back in the 90s, when the Days of Action movement was heading into full swing and Walkom took to quoting the German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg. Most of the time and on most issues I find that he has a sharp and discerning eye. But sometimes I think he loses the forest for the trees and today's column, suggesting that Layton and Rae are political twins, misses its mark.

The first thing to say is that while there are a few items in common some of these are held in much wider circles than the NDP. For instance both Rae and Layton were in favour of asymmetrical federalism to bring Quebec into confederation - but, then, so was Brian Mulroney. Or that both men eschewed ideology, defining their approach to politics in personal terms. Well, that pretty much defines every NDP leader since they stopped using the word socialism. I was, in fact, surprised by Stephen Lewis' eulogy that he described Layton's last letter to Canadians as a manifesto for social democracy. I don't think that I've ever heard a major NDP figure talk in such "ideological" terms before - and do is so effectively, I might add.

But this quote by Walkom is what really struck me.

Both men worked to shift the NDP to the right, toward what they saw as a more pragmatic path.
Rae ran into resistance, particularly when he took on Ontario’s public sector unions. His failures there played into his eventual decision to abandon the NDP.
Layton was more successful. Perhaps the party’s traditional left was too tired and dispirited to fight him. Perhaps his deliberate, albeit jovial, vagueness won over the critics. Perhaps the times were simply more propitious.
I can't help but feeling that this view of Layton's contribution to the NDP is a real mis-reading of how Jack got to be leader and its significance. I discussed a few days ago, in a postscript, how I think that Jack came to be leader of the NDP in the wake of the anti-globalization movement, which radicalized many in the NDP, and the NPI, which was the reflection of that movement inside the party.

That the party chose to go left to Jack and not to the centre with Blaikie was a sign of the power of the anti-globalization movement, the success of the NPI and the ability of Jack to personify the ideals of those movements. He wasn't a radical leftist but there can be no denying his role in pushing for the NDP to adopt a policy opposed to the war in Afghanistan and for working hard to demonstrate that the NDP was a viable option for the Quebecois - not least with the resolution to respect Quebec's right to decide its own fate. He also selected Libby Davies, a long time stalwart of the left in the NDP, as his Deputy Leader.
Bob Rae at Temagami
What's more, in the lead up to Layton's election as NDP Leader he went out of his way to promote the February 15 day of action against the war in Iraq - a series of demonstrations across the country that put the nail in the coffin of Canada's participation in that war. It is true that Rae did support some extra-parliamentary struggles - I recall him being arrested at Temagami for protesting clearcutting and the native land claims to the area. But, crucially, that was before the NDP government in Ontario and before the general political capitulation to neo-liberalism. The collapse of the NDP to the right during the Rae years in Ontario wasn't just a Bob Rae or Ontario phenomenon - it was an international phenomenon that led to Tony Blair in Britain and Bill Clinton in the USA, with his plan to "end welfare as we know it."

Following the Ontario debacle - that would lead to nearly a generation in the wilderness - the NDP was wracked by successive attempts to move it to the right towards the Third Way of Tony Blair. Alex McDonough planned a coast-to-coast tour at one point to promote the idea - iirc - before being slapped down and instead promoting the "Canadian Way" - a repackaging of the same type of ideas. In other words, the centre-moving elements within the NDP leadership were ascendant for a decade.

And while Walkom notes that neither Layton nor Rae were "wedded to traditional instruments of the left such as public ownership" he forgets that Rae was actually elected on a platform of nationalizing auto insurance. But this was the last hurrah of post-war reformist social democracy. There is literally not a social democratic party anywhere in the English-speaking world that advocates nationalizations or public ownership. Even on the left of the NDP there are only marginal voices that call for nationalizing anything. In this sense, Layton's leadership was a product of this moment in history as much as it was a product of Layton's own sensibilities. And what differentiated Layton from Rae was exactly that he stopped the rightward gallop of the NDP under McDonough et al. Of course, he was still a compromise - the NDP is a broad coalition, which means that elected leaders are pretty much guaranteed to be a compromise. But the compromise - the waffle, to steal a phrase - was to the left, rather than to the right or the centre.

Why is it important to make this point? Because otherwise we can't understand the reason why Jack's passing had such a profound impact on people. We end up with foolish bromides about how people longed for the "civility" he brought to politics. Jack was a break from the out and out opportunism of the McDonough/Rae years and his stand against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - which earned him sneers of "Taliban Jack" in Parliament - and his willingness to accept the right of Quebec to self-determination, his longstanding support for abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights, native rights and more meant that he was seen as a politician with a vision of a different world. That people identify with that explicitly progressive vision tells us that Canada is ripe for a progressive movement to return to the streets (you hear that, Mayor Ford?) It is not an accident that Stephen Lewis ended his eulogy with the quote from Arundhati Roy, written at the peak of the anti-globalization movement:"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

Is Curing Cancer Bad For Business?

Ten years ago when the first full human genome was sequenced after a mammoth 14-year effort and a $3 billion effort, we were promised a bounty of cures for the diseases that afflict is. But things haven't turned out quite that way and, in many ways, sequencing the first genome was just the first, superficial question in a much more complex set of problems. Nonetheless it was an important milestone and its true applicability - as opposed to fanciful notions - is starting to become apparent. In the field of cancer research, for instance, there is a growing consensus that it makes more sense to classify and treat cancers not by their location in the body but, rather, by their specific genetic mutations. This is allowing for mutation-specific treatments and personalized medicine, such as the breakthrough drugs vemurafenib and Yervoy, hailed as the "biggest breakthrough in 30 years."

But if the approval of drugs like Yervoy, vemurafenib and Provenge (for prostate cancer) are giving new hope, they also reveal some of the political and economic barriers to cancer treatment and broader anti-aging strategies. The first thing that becomes apparent after the glow of hope that these breakthroughs elicit fades is that they are exceedingly expensive - and profitable. And while they extend cancer free survival they rarely lead to complete regression. This suggests the need for continual and evolving treatment, perhaps in the manner of HIV/AIDS, with a drug cocktail. But, as with HIV/AIDS it begs the question of who can afford the treatment?

"If you convert cancer to a chronic disease, and you've got now people living 10, 20, 30 years with cancer but they're on a polypharmacy, there's no way you can have them with three drugs that each cost $80,000 a year," said LaMattina, now senior partner at PureTech Ventures, a healthcare venture capital firm.
The tragedy of people dying because of lack of access to expensive drugs - a commonplace in parts of Africa where rates of HIV/AIDS remain at epidemic levels - becomes comic when we see the industry's attempt to "solve" this problem by creating package deals of multiple drugs with other companies. This may bring down the price somewhat initially but the jockeying for profit in these "strategic partnerships" leads to that other great past-time of capitalism - litigation. The costs of suits and counter-suits end up built into the price of the drug, along with marketing and other costs unrelated to the ability of the drug to cure the disease for which it is prescribed. From the same article quoted above this is put starkly:
"Almost everybody we are working with is either suing us or we are suing them," Glaxo CEO Andrew Witty told the drugmaker's annual meeting in May. "However, if we refused to work with people who sued us, we would not have any friends at all."
Beyond the price of the drug - and the economic incentive to maintain "addiction", as opposed to cure - there are other side effects of a for-profit model for healthcare, which limits not only cures for diseases like cancer but more broadly effects the possibility of longevity treatments. Most obviously, there is no necessary relationship between the profitability of a treatment and its effectiveness. And where a treatment - no matter how powerful - cannot guarantee significant financial returns, it will not receive research support. An example of exactly this dynamic is seen with a new model of immunotherapeutic treatment for cancer called Adoptive Cell Transfer (ACT) wherein a patient's own killer T-cells are extracted, sometimes modified to specifically target tumour cell proteins, multiplied in the lab and then re-introduced to the patient.  The results of a limited study, released in August 2011, on patients suffering from late-stage leukemia suggest that this treatment can have a dramatic effect in eliminating cancer cells.

Two leukemia patients were cancer-free in three weeks after being treated with genetically engineered versions of their own immune cells, an early finding that could lead to a new approach for treating the blood cancer.
The trial of three patients showed that researchers could reprogram enough infection-fighting T-cells to wipe out malignant cells. The procedure also stimulated cells that defend against the cancer’s return, according to papers published today in Science Translational Medicine and the New England Journal of Medicine...
The third patient was in partial remission and has remained there for seven months, the study showed. All of the patients had previously been treated with cancer drugs such as Biogen Idec Inc.’s and Roche Holding AG’s Rituxan, and Sanofi’s Campath.

These preliminary results suggest that this is a promising area of research that deserves the kind of big money reserved for potential blockbuster pharmaceuticals. And, yet, an April 2011 article discussing the exciting possibilities of ACT notes that there has been little interest from pharmaceutical companies in pushing ACT. This is despite the fact that a study on the effectiveness of ACT in late stage melanoma - without the more recent addition of gene therapy as in the leukemia study - led to a total remission of cancer in 21.5% of the patients. The new breakthrough drugs Yervoy and vemurafenib, mentioned above, only had total remission rates of 0.6 and 2.0 percent respectively. With the above quoted leukemia study researchers were only able to study three patients because neither the pharmaceutical industry nor the National Cancer Institute (USA) would fund the research. How could this be?

It might seem perplexing that the private sector has not pushed for an FDA-approved licensing trial. However a clear path to profitability is still missing in the development of ACT-based immunotherapy for use in the medical marketplace. Not a simple injection or a pill, ACT-based treatments are uniquely tailored for each patient. The cost of entry into the field with a licensing trial includes construction of a specialized facility and the acquisition of highly trained medical and laboratory staff. There may also be a perception that ACT-based approaches lack a clearly defined claim to intellectual property (IP), which entices companies and their shareholders to invest in the development of new treatments. After all, it is not easy to own the “drug” used in ACT—the patient’s own T cells.
Thus in two key ways, the cure for cancer remains elusive. Not only are the drugs outrageously expensive - you could literally die from lack of money to pay for them. But the treatments that have the greatest potential to cure could easily not be developed because there is no clear path to make a profit off of them. Surely, we think, the market will snatch these methods up. It may be messy but the best method always succeeds in the end. Sadly, that's not true. Think of the lowly QWERTY keyboard. It's common knowledge that the Dvorak keyboard is much easier and more efficient to use. It was known back in the 19th century that QWERTY wasn't the best keyboard layout - but the inventors of QWERTY had investors with a lot of money. Capitalism isn't about efficiency or quality, it's about profit.

NEXT: Capitalism Is Killing Healthcare

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Newsflash: Math Analysis Proves Global Capitalism Controlled By Tiny Minority

Ladies & gentlemen, meet the "power ball" - a graphical
representation of the concentration & centralization of capital
This research is interesting. Some math theorists at ETH, a science & technology university, in Switzerland took a look at over 600,000 "economic actors" to see what kind of interlocking ownership ties there were and how this related to the ultimate sources of control. Of course, the story that we're all told is that the market responds to innovation and entrepreneurship, which suggests a fairly dispersed distribution of ownership and control as newer, more innovative companies come on-stream and succeed by virtue of the unassailable logic of the market. Uh, not quite.

Diagramming the relationships between more than 43,000 corporations reveals a tightly connected core of top economic actors. In 2007, a mere 147 companies controlled nearly 40 percent of the monetary value of all transnational corporations, researchers report in a paper published online July 28 at
As you can see from the diagram above, the ownership pattern looks something like a bow tie, with a tight concentration in the centre and then a big gap before reaching the outer edges with all the rest of the companies. Most of us have always known this but it's interesting to see this demonstrated in this way. 150 years ago Marx was already talking about the tendency for capitalism to create larger and larger corporations in a process he called the concentration and centralization of capital. That tendency continues apace.

And even though the status of many players in the analysis has changed drastically since 2007 (now-defunct Lehman Brothers is a key element of the core), the analysis shows that ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated and increasingly transnational, says Gerald Davis of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In other words, companies are becoming "too big to fail" but also "too big to bail out" a problem that up till now had really only plagued larger countries. We have already experienced the dangers of this tight knit network of concentrated control in 2008 when the collapse of one investment bank, Lehman Brothers, set off a chain reaction that threatened to bring down the global financial system. And given their inter-connectedness, how long can it be before another domino effect takes place - one which countries are unable to step in to halt?  Brandy Aven of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh has a colourful way of describing the effect:

“Imagine a disease spreading,” says Aven. “If you have a high school where everyone’s sleeping together and one person gets syphilis, then everyone gets syphilis.”
If capitalism is like syphilis, we need some anti-capitalist antibiotics.

After Jack: Three Bad Ideas & One Good One For The NDP

The weeklong outpouring of mourning, love and solidarity after the passing of NDP Leader Jack Layton has now subsided. The sense of optimism that Jack insisted upon and the hunger for change that he not only represented but fanned to flame with the funeral that he planned for himself was an awesome thing to see. As Stephen Lewis spoke and argued forcefully for "a resolve to honour Jack by bringing the politics of respect for all, respect for the Earth, and respect for principle and generosity back to life." That could be a powerful call in the coming months as we face some important battles, not least here in Toronto where Mayor Ford is looking to slash the social fabric of our city and where a fight against him is brewing for the fall against.

That's why what happens now to the NDP matters. Jack was no radical but he was progressive, and principled and he supported movements outside of Parliament - whether it was the anti-war movement, struggles for LGBT rights, or providing Parliamentary opposition to the Tories' discriminatory back-to-work legislation against the Postal Workers. There is a danger that his legacy could be lost and now is the time to raise the call to not go backwards. To that end, I'd like to suggest that there are three immediately bad ideas and one good one for the future of the NDP and of the left in this country.

The first idea is the most terrible. To put it most starkly, it is to follow Bob Rae into the Liberals. In other words to merge the NDP and the Liberals into a "Liberal Democratic Party" as Denis Coderre has suggested. Just to make it clear, Bob Rae joined the Liberals explicitly because he had moved to the right since he took the Ontario NDP down the path of its greatest historic disaster by... moving it to the right. To join with the rump of the Liberals at the moment when the NDP has experience its greatest triumph is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. That's not to say that there aren't Liberal voters who the NDP should - and did - win over at election times. It's not to say that the NDP shouldn't try to win those unions that continue to support the Liberal Party into the real party of labour - instead of just being junior partners in a coalition with big business. But to join with the Liberals would mean that the NDP would no longer be the independent party of the labour movement. It would in reality be just another liberal party. Forget negotiations or musings about mergers and focus on building the strength of the NDP - merge with the Liberals by winning over their base.

Merger with the rump Liberals? Bad idea.

The second and third bad ideas are Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp. There is much musing - and lots of ink in the Globe & Mail for Topp - that these guys will run for the NDP. Just to be clear, these guys are on the right of the party. Topp, a former senior advisor to Roy Romanow - former Saskatchewan Premier - is a Globe & Mail columnist and is an avid supporter of the massive program of austerity in Greece

And the root causes of all of this madness (debt) needs to be addressed in the style Prime Minister Papandreou is using to address the crisis here in Greece, against overwhelming odds – calmly, thoughtfully, and with determination.
I'm sure that the Greek working class and youth, who struck and marched in their hundreds of thousands have a different view of the devastation of their lives that Papandreou hath wrought. His two austerity packages have decimated the economy, driving it into recession and doubling unemployment. If that is social democracy, who needs a Tory party?

As for Thomas Mulcair, he is a former Liberal cabinet minister in the Quebec government of Jean Charest and was a Liberal MNA for thirteen years up till 2007. Afterwards, he flirted briefly with joining the Tories before deciding on the NDP. Good for him that he joined the NDP and helped it win the major breakthrough that it did this year but he has no particular ties to the left and has not indicated a major political break from his past as a Liberal. Certainly his views on Palestinian rights put him to the right of the NDP and when Libby Davies came out in support of a policy of boycott, divestment and sanctions against the State of Israel, Mulcair had a bird.

"We take decisions together, parties formulate policies together, and to say that you're personally in favor of boycott, divestment and sanctions for the only democracy in the Middle East is, as far as I'm concerned, grossly unacceptable.''
Members replied that what is actually unacceptable was for an NDP party leader to form a coalition with Bob Rae and Stephen Harper against own senior party members such as Libby Davies. They added that an Apartheid State can never be a democracy.
Mulcair responded by telling the members and constituents of his riding who were raising these concerns to "shut up".
Thomas Mulcair or Brian Topp as NDP Leader? Bad idea.

The one good idea is for the possibility of Libby Davies as Leader of the NDP. She has been on the left and supported progressive struggles for decades. She is a profoundly principled woman, widely popular and deeply committed. She is in favour of drug decriminalization and for a national plan to combat homelessness. Her political roots lie in anti-poverty organizing with the Downtown Eastside Residents' Association in Vancouver. And she's a strong supporter of LGBT rights. She represents the progressive vision of a different, better society that formed the core of Stephen Lewis' eulogy. There is no one else on the left of the party, as far as I can tell, with the profile, popularity and experience to be a serious contender for the leadership. My personal feeling is that you should drop her a line at and let her know that you want her to run for NDP leader.

PS - I'm not a member of the NDP but they are the only party that I've ever voted for. Sober - the only party I've ever voted for sober.

Talk of NDP-Liberal merger grows after Layton funeral - The Globe and Mail

Monday, August 29, 2011

Steve Jobs' Biggest Success: Sweatshops & Fat Salaries

The other day I mused on the simultaneous outpourings of sadness and loss over Jack Layton & Steve Jobs and what each of them represented. As I noted at the time I am a Mac Head and a bit of a technophile/gadgetphile. Having had a few days to think about what I wrote I've decided that I was too soft on Mr. Jobs. My eyes were filled with iPhones - perhaps it's my anxious wait for the new iPhone 5/4S coming in the next few weeks - and I felt a twinge of betrayal as I typed up my blog post on a Macbook Pro. But I've broken free of Steve's evil spell and I think it's important to set the record straight.

Steve Jobs real advance was not in creating great products. Of course he realized that for Apple to survive meant leveraging cutting edge tech that was nonetheless ready for the consumer market. He hired Jonathon Ive to design stuff that looked sexy and Steve thought outside of the box when it came to things like ways to transmit audio and, ultimately, video. The creation of the smartphone was, perhaps, his biggest masterstroke and a game-changer.

All that is true but the man who to whom Steve Jobs handed the throne at Apple wasn't Jonathon Ive the innovative designer, it was Tim Cook the Chief Operating Officer. Cook's claim to fame is not technological innovation or having a finger on the pulse of the American (world?) consumer. Rather, he is the man credited with cranking up Apple's bottom line by neo-liberalizing the hell out of the company - getting Apple out of manufacturing and outsourcing everything that wasn't nailed down, particularly to Asia and other low wage economies. Of course, that shouldn't surprise us, Cook is also on the board at Nike, another notorious sweatshop company. He is, in other words, a hatchet man. So much for all that hippie love and Levi's jeans wearing regular guy shit that Apple was supposed to represent. In this sense, Apple really led the way in decimating the American tech industry and putting manufacturing into the hands of workers living in repressive low wage regions like China where trying to form an independent union can get you some serious jail time. According to this article in Working In These Times:

According to former Intel CEO Andy Grove, in the 1970s there were about 150,000 Americans working in the computer industry. Between the 1970s and now, the computer industry economic footprint grew from being a $20 billion a year industry to $200 billion a year. At the peak of U.S. employment in the computer industry, there were two million people employed in making computers in the United States.
Now, with most computer manufacturing being done overseas, there are only 150,000 Americans employed in the computer industry, according to Grove, who wants to reverse the trend.
In These Times is, frankly, a bit obsessed with moving tech jobs back to the USA, as though that is a solution. Workers in the USA have also suffered declines in real wages over the past two generations. In fact, if the issue were social justice, Chinese workers could rightly point to the fact that their incomes have doubled or trebled in the same time period and wildcat strikes have not only been more widespread than in the USA, they have won bigger wage gains. "Buy American" is simply not a viable solution for the problem of neo-liberal wage and benefit cuts. However, it is certainly the case that while wage rises have been significant in China in the past 20 years, wages remain low and conditions are still often appalling as an investigation by the UK Daily Mail discovered:

Yet, amid all the fanfare and celebrations this week (for the release of the iPhone 4 when the article was written), there was one sour, niggling note: reports of a spate of suicides at a secretive Chinese complex where Jobs's iPhone, iPod and iPad - Apple's new state-of-the-art slimline computer - are built and assembled.
With 11 workers taking their lives in sinister circumstances, Jobs acted swiftly to quell a potential public relations disaster.
Stressing that he found the deaths 'troubling' and that he was 'all over it', the billionaire brushed aside suggestions that the factory was a sweatshop.
'You go in this place and it's a factory but, my gosh, they've got restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools,' he said. 'For a factory, it's pretty nice.'
His definition of 'nice' is questionable and likely to have his American workers in uproar if such conditions were imposed upon them.
Foxconn employs 420,000 workers at its Shenzhen plant where conditions are very basic with no air-conditioning
For, as Apple's leader was taking a bow on the world stage, the Mail was under cover inside this Chinese complex. And we encountered a strange, disturbing world where new recruits are drilled along military lines, ordered to stand for the company song and kept in barracks like battery hens - all for little more than £20 a week.
But while the workers who make Apple products lack the right to form independent unions and make less than $40 a week, not so Tim Cook who helped create the sweatshop. According to Forbes Magazine, Tim Cook received total compensation of $59 million in 2010. No, you didn't read that wrong - fifty-nine million dollars. As a reward for his new role as the CEO of Apple, Cook was given a little gift: 100,000 shares in Apple. At its present value those shares are worth $383 million. Just to put that in perspective, last year Tim Cook was paid the same amount as 28,365 workers at Foxconn who made the iPhone, iPad, etc etc. And that, really, sums up Steve Jobs' greatest hit.

The Politics Of Immortality

If we grant that aging is, like other pathological conditions, a matter of molecules out of place - though perhaps considerably more complex than "simple" and singular diseases like cancer or diabetes, then we have to grant that it is also potentially subject to intervention and alteration, even reversal. We already accept this to a limited degree - age of mortality in most western societies has nearly doubled in the last century, largely as a result of better nutrition, better hygiene and better understanding and control of infectious diseases. Is it really so outrageous to extend that logic to imagine a more profound intervention against the accumulated damage of existence, which is aging? And is it crazy to imagine that this century might see the development of a suite of treatments and interventions that would achieve this?

There are some who are already entertaining the idea with active research on various avenues of life extension technology. Intervention into metabolic pathways in experimental animals, particularly fruit flies, nematode worms and mice, has been one route. These experiments have often sought to simulate the effects of calorie restriction (CR) – increased metabolic efficiency – as a means to extend life. Resveratrol, which generated a lot of buzz a couple of years ago, is believed to stimulate a class of regulatory proteins, Sirtuins, related to CR mimetics. Alternatively, in the work of Dr. Michael Rose, he and his team more than doubled the lifespan of fruit flies by postponing the age of reproduction in generation after generation. His theory is that evolution is only interested in sustaining animals to just past the age of reproduction, thereby allowing the rate of aging to be "tunable" by altering when reproduction takes place.

Perhaps the most widely known bio-gerontologist is Aubrey de Gray, Chief Science Officer at the SENS Foundation (SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence). De Gray has had wide media exposure, is in constant demand as a speaker, and has appeared in several recent books and films on longevity and the singularity. As the name of his foundation implies, his attitude to aging is not to try and alter metabolism - which he views as too impossibly complex for the foreseeable future - but rather to take an engineering approach. That is, to allow the damage of aging to happen but then to intervene to fix it before it becomes pathological. An example of this method is to introduce a microbial enzyme that breaks down the particular type of cholesterol (7-ketocholesterol or 7KC) that forms plaques on artery walls. (Fascinatingly, the method is to search through the microbes that eat the bodies buried in graveyards to find which ones eat 7KC and then discover by what enzyme it does so.) Or stem cell therapy to replace depleted or aged tissue - for instance the loss of cartilage in joints that leads to arthritis or the manufacture of replacement organs. According to de Gray there are seven major classes of aging related damage and he has proposed seven types of intervention to correct them. When will this happen? According to him it might be sooner than we think.

I think there’s a 50% chance of getting the first-generation SENS therapies working within 25-30 years. But that’s only an estimate, and it’s a highly speculative one: I think there’s at least a 10% chance that we will hit so many unforeseen problems that we won’t get there for 100 years. This is not something special about SENS, though: any technology that’s two or more years away could easily be 100 years away.

Nor is de Gray alone in thinking that true anti-aging treatments are close at hand. Dr. Rose, in the article linked above, argued in 2005 that we might be only ten or twenty years away from extending lifespan by decades. The foundation for this optimism rests upon the rapid and remarkable advancements in the field of medical and biological science in the last generation and, in particular, the last two decades. We are seeing the arrival of robotics in surgery, including testing of the first autonomous robotic surgeons; giant leaps in imaging technology such as MRIs; genomics and the beginnings of gene therapy; stem cell science and regenerative medicine; and, recently, forms of immunotherapy (basically programming the immune system to attack unwanted factors in the body - most notably cancer but also accumulations of extra-cellular junk like beta-amyloid plaques in Alzheimer's patients or arteriosclerotic plaques). And these advances only speak to the repair and/or enhancement of the body through the use of biology or medical intervention. Considerably more could be written were we to include advances in bionics - from limbs that respond to direct brain signals broadcast via implantable chips to implanted medical devices that assist - or take over - particular internal functions of the body, from insulin pumps and pacemakers to recent research on a prosthetic hippocampus to restore lost memory function.

In some of these fields the pace of advance is so dizzying that it boggles the mind to think where we were only ten years ago - and where we will be ten years from now. Consider genomics, it's been just over a decade since the first complete human genome was sequenced after fourteen year's worth of work and at a cost of around $3 billion. It now takes hours and costs $4,000 per genome. The rate of progress has been at a faster rate than Moore's Law - the famous prediction that the number of transistors that can be fit on an integrated chip doubles every two years. That doesn't mean that we've come close to figuring out the complexity of how the genome functions and the breathless predictions of the media when the first sequence was completed have failed to come to pass. But it does suggest that we are learning more, more quickly than at any time in previous human history.

And, yet, while there is some suggestion that a bright future of profoundly extended lifespans awaits those of us who live long enough - there are a lot of reasons to be rather more reserved in our optimism. For one thing it's not at all clear that the current medical model will find profit in generating the kind of tech that will ultimately lead to longer lives. Nor is it necessarily the case that even if a cure were created that it would be accessible to everyone or even a majority. And what if lifespans are radically extended - how will that effect the population, planetary resources and, ultimately, how we live our lives? Do we want to live a thousand years working crappy, meaningless jobs? In this series I want to look at some of these issues.

Next: Is Curing Cancer Bad For Business?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ezra Levant Is The Right's Gift To The Left

Thanks, Ezra, for making right wing politics
even more unappealing!
Saw some coverage from the blogs Buckdog and Let Freedom Rain of the vile spectacle of a certain Ezra Levant on a Fox North show with Michael Coren. As you can see from the screen capture that I took from Buckdog, Levant was mocking people mourning the death of Jack Layton by wearing an orange wig and drinking a can of Orange Crush.

Levant probably believes that he's destroying the morale of the left by mocking a dead man who is held in high esteem but the reality is that, outside of far-right, deeply damaged people like Levant himself, most people across the political spectrum will just find him nauseating. In fact, guys like Levant - and Rob Ford - are actually a gift to the Left for the simple reason that they offend people who are in the middle of the road and make them more sympathetic to the Left.

I'm sure that Levant likes to think of himself as some sort of attack dog for the right. But the truth is, his incompetency and string of failed escapades reveals him for what he actually is, a fairly pathetic, unlikeable clown. When he isn't setting up magazines, like the Western Standard, that go bankrupt because nobody wants to read their tinfoil hat analysis, he's defending himself from multiple lawsuits. Levant can't open his mouth - or put pen to paper - without committing libel or defaming people - even other conservatives. This is the guy who got himself shit-canned from his position as Stockwell Day's communications director for releasing to the media a threatening letter he wrote to Conservative MP Chuck Strahl. You gotta be pretty fucking useless to get yourself fired by Day - after all, this is the guy who thought driving up to a press conference on a jet ski would make great optics.

So, keep on trucking Ezra! You're a great target and with any luck the Conservatives will be stupid enough to hire you again (unlikely). That alone would cause their national support to drop by a few percentage points. And if you ever get into some sort of position of responsibility - unlikely given your lack of business acumen (funny for a right winger) - you'll make it easy to mobilize people in opposition to you. Meantime, feel free to keep right on following the equally odious Glenn Beck - who compared the murdered teenagers in Norway to Hitler Youth and was turfed from Fox after his ratings tanked. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Sea Of Orange Hope

It's not fashionable to be earnest these days when irony and cynicism are the king and queen. But they've been deposed today at Roy Thompson Hall where there is a sea of people - many on orange shirts and hats, the colour of the NDP. My guess is that there are 10,000 or so here for Jack's funeral.

As I'm listening and watching, along with my partner Kathryn and daughter Beatrice, Stephen Lewis is speaking the eulogy. He has just received a sustained, speech stopping applause with whoops and whistles for describing jack's final letter as an ode to the hope promised by social democracy. The applause returns when talks about the issues of importance to Jack - equality, justice, gay and lesbian rights, climate change, gender equality and the fight against sexist violence. The list goes on and so does the applause.

Whatever is going on here it is not just sadness. There's a lot of inspiration that is charging people up to change the world. That, after all is what Jack would have wanted.

Friday, August 26, 2011

David Menzies Shows How Fast Racist Lies Travel The World

Racist code words and lies, Menzies is an excellent
example of "objective journalism."
I was sent an article this morning from August 5, written by a freelance journalist named David Menzies, detailing his "shocking" experience of not only being assaulted by some hijab wearing Muslim women but then, to add insult to injury, the police wouldn't even charge them with assault.

According to Menzies he was paying a little visit to Dundas Square one Saturday and decided to take some pictures of the locale - he lives in Richmond Hill. Suddenly some hijab wearing women - some in "full burqas" rushed up to him insisting that he not take their picture. He told them that he was in a public square in a democracy, he could take pictures of whomever he wanted. That's when she punched him in the face and tried to steal his camera! But then those damn police, made soft from drinking too deeply the ideology of multiculturalism, listened to both sides of the story - and even excoriated him for his picture taking - before refusing to lay charges. Can you believe it?

That's the story, more or less, as it's being carried on news sites around the world - and far-right websites, like "Gates of Vienna" (popular with the guy who killed 70-odd kids in Norway earlier this month). And it's the story that was carried in the Toronto Sun - written by Menzies himself.

Now, call me a conspiracy theorist but I immediately smelled bullshit. There were too many of the typical code words, plus the sneering tone whenever the question of Muslims came into the discussion. So, I decided to look a little deeper into this Menzies dude, about whom I'd never heard previously. And what do you know, sure enough he's a right wing nutter who makes his living writing for every right wing rag in the country - the National Post, the Sun, and a now defunct publication called The Western Standard. The Western Standard - still available online - was started by Ezra Levant, one of the founders of The Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance (I actually debated him on-air once on the Judy Rebick/Clare Hoy show Face-Off). Levant is a vile, far right individual whose most recent claim to fame was to coin the phrase "ethical oil" as the particular spin he would use to promote the deeply unethical Alberta Tar Sands.

The Western Standard was not only a big promoter of "western separation" and "western alienation" - those bugaboos of every right wing blowhard west of the Alberta border. It also made its name as the only English language publication to reproduce the deeply offensive "Muhammad cartoons" originating from Denmark, which insulted the founder of the Muslim religion. Now, you may think that this is an issue of "freedom of speech" - I say that it's incitement and that it would never be tolerated were the shoe on the Christian foot. Imagine, after the scandal about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, if newspapers had printed cartoons of Jesus sodomizing young boys. Do you think that would be a fair response? Do you think that it would ever happen? Unlikely. And the broader point is Menzies association with far-right publications and Islamophobia.

Menzies is also a regular guest on the Michael Coren show on the Crossroads Television System, which is a Christian TV station, based out of Hamilton. Coren, also a columnist in The Western Standard, is renowned for his ultra-conservative views on women, gays & lesbians and, you guessed it, Muslims. Menzies also appears regularly on the John Oakley show - Oakley is another opponent of same sex marriage and uses his radio show as a platform for Rob Ford's lies and rants.

Menzies whose temper has apparently almost gotten him in trouble with the cops more than once is also has a minor obsession with debunking the climate change myth. He made a name for himself by not merely refusing to turn off his lights for Earth Hour but renting Hollywood lights for his front yard. As he describes it, climate change is a communist conspiracy (not that far from the opinion of Stephen Harper, actually):

Menzies, a regular contributor to the John Oakley and Charles Adler shows on AM 640 and on Michael Coren's TV show, relishes sticking it to the global-warming-gurus who he believes have been blowing environmental Armageddon smoke for years.

"All it is, is income and wealth distribution propagated by former Communists and socialists looking for something to do," he said of the movement.

"What's it called this week? Climate change? Next it will be global icing."

All of which is to say that his narrative – and his enthusiasm to spread this story far and wide – is deeply suspect. Just look at the kind of giveaway stuff in the story – complaints about Toronto being too "culturally sensitive", the Muslim women are "hysterical", the men are a "mob", "was I in Toronto or Riyadh", some of them were (shock!) speaking Arabic. And, the kicker: "The fact that we have Islamists living amongst us who despise western values isn't news..." Oh, western values like same sex marriage and the right to abortion, David?

Menzies claims that he just "happened" to snap a photo, he didn't even notice that there were women wearing hijabs nearby. Oh no, those crazy Muslims see a camera – and if you go to Dundas Square on a Saturday there are hundreds of people with cameras – and they go completely bonkers! You see, they don't have cameras in the Middle East. Oh, wait, what about all those pictures and videos coming out of Syria and Egypt, et al to document the human rights abuses of their governments?

Or maybe this renowned Muslim hating dirtbag was snapping photos of these women to demonstrate the decline of our civilization for allowing them to exist and they objected. But Menzies thinks he can do whatever he wants: "This is a democracy and I can take pictures of whomever I please." Actually, no you can't. People have a right to privacy and to not have their picture taken. It seems highly likely that he made some more racist comments, increasing the tension in the situation and the woman made a grab for his camera. Even the cops obviously thought he was a crank with one of them "miffed that I was (legally) taking photos in the first place" and, having spoken to the woman, refused to press charges. The only thing notable about this non-event is that it not only made a major newspaper in Toronto but that it has now gone around the world in seven league boots. So much for the "culturally sensitive" bologna. I would only add that it is particularly odious that Menzies engaged in this kind of Muslim-baiting in the days following the massacre in Norway that was driven by a hatred of Muslims.

Postscript: Unfortunately for the "western values-hating" Muslims our much-vaunted freedom of the press doesn't include providing them with access to a half-page column in the Toronto Sun to give their side of the story.

Jack Layton & Steve Jobs

I'm a tech nerd and a Mac Head, for sure. I have a Macbook Pro and an iPhone and we have an Apple TV. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I'm a little bit excited to see the new iPhone 5/4S and only pushing the limits of my common sense has prevented me from getting an iPad (for my daughter, of course). But I'm also a socialist. As a result I've been reading the coverage of both the passing of NDP Leader Jack Layton and the resignation of Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs. And I've been thinking a lot about what both of these men mean to me.

The tone and focus of the coverage of the two men has a lot on common, in some ways - with lots of discussion of their leadership abilities, their ability to inspire, their ability to have their finger on the pulse of ordinary people, their ability to save a moribund brand from disappearing, etc. The lost of both men has, in different ways led to much hand-wringing about the succession and the hole they leave in their respective organizations. But it's the ways that they are different which is more interesting.

When Jobs left Apple, Tim Cook stepped into the breach immediately. Within 24-hours he had sent out a letter Apple employees to indicate that he was in charge and that everything was great, even though they were sad to have lost Jobs at the helm. The NDP will now go through a lengthy leadership process that will likely last until January, with Nycole Turmel as an interim leader - basically powerless to drive things forward. A neo-liberal would suggest that this shows how efficient is the corporate world. I guess in a certain sense that is true. And Cook has justly earned reputation as a Chief Operation Officer for establishing an enviable supply chain that has assisted making Apple the world's largest tech company. But it is a dictatorship - one that we all accept with few second thoughts - where the thousands of Apple employees have no say, the consumers who buy the products have no say, and the people who work for the companies, like Foxconn, who depend on Apple ordering the components they produce, have no say. If we drill down a little deeper we see in the paeans to Jobs the reminder that he was once ousted from his top job at Apple, only to be asked back in 1995 to save the company - which he is credited with doing. Now, spread this model across the economy as a whole - decisions made in thousands of boardrooms, sometimes by less than half a dozen men, affecting the lives of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions. Part of what we're celebrating when we celebrate Steve Jobs is that process - in his case it "worked out" - we got some great gadgets, he helped to drive forward tech innovation, etc - but as we see with the present disastrous state of the global economy, that method doesn't always work out so well. The tops at the investment banks made decisions to slice up, package and sell bad debt as good investments. A few other guys at the rating agencies were paid by the guys at the banks to say that the bad debt was a good investment.

When we celebrate Jack Layton, we're celebrating a man who was chosen democratically as the leader of a party. That choice receives further affirmation - or doesn't - from the electorate. So, what Jack represents is the messiness of political democracy. But there's more to it than that. Jack's success - his democratic success - was in selling a vision and in building a machine to promote that vision across the country. What Jobs did at Apple was no doubt impressive but, when it comes down to it, what he did was sell us gadgets. I love my gadgets. Lots of people love their gadgets. But those gadgets don't set us free. They don't make it easier for the single-mother to find childcare or the pensioner to cover their bills. Steve Jobs had a strong understanding of what consumers want and of how to make marketing work. You look at the brand that Apple has created - hip, progressive, creative, iconoclastic even. These values or attributes are only mobilized to sell you the gadgets. They are abstractions and empty. Owning an iPad or an iPhone has nothing to do with being progressive or creative. You will challenge no moribund social values and institutions by working on a Macbook Pro.

Iconoclastic - literally smashing icons - is resisting the drive to war in Iraq when the media and most politicians are telling us that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction (a lie), that he is an imminent threat (a lie) and to not support invading Iraq is to support tyranny and dictatorship (also a lie). Layton very publicly did this. And he did it on the even more difficult question of Afghanistan, earning him the monicker "Taliban Jack" from the ever odious Tories. Being "hip" and "progressive" was to support full equality for gays and lesbians when even the NDP couldn't bring themselves to do it, as Layton did. Being creative was to take the NDP brand, project it into the province of Quebec - where the NDP has barely ever had a toehold - and less than a decade later lead a near sweep of the province's ridings.

And, ultimately, what is at stake for the NDP and Apple in losing their leader? For Apple it is clear: profit-making gadgets. As the Globe & Mail asks:

But can the company continue to churn out ground-breaking products without the rigorous, emotional demands of Mr. Jobs?
Losing Layton as leader of the NDP leaves the party with a big hole in its ability to sell it's product: hope. Jack, as he repeated in his farewell letter, thought that the party needed to give people that hope - hope that they could have a better life; hope that they could have a government that responded to the needs of ordinary, working class people and not just to corporations that were only interested in, well, profit-making gadgets. And, in the end, which is more important to your quality of life: your iPod or affordable daycare and a decent public healthcare system? The answer, I think, is apparent in the fact that while Jobs has gotten hundreds of articles, the memorials to Layton have extended beyond the media to thousands showing up to bid him farewell or write on a memorial outside of Toronto City Hall or attend the service on Saturday.

Luckily, unlike with Apple or any corporation, Layton led by inspiring others to use their own creativity  and energy to help make change. Under a dictatorship, the only real active, creative element are the people at the top who have the final say. In a movement, the ultimate say is with the people who put their efforts and hearts into the hard work of promoting an ideal or organizing a campaign or leading a strike.

I should say that I'm not a member of the NDP and have no intention of joining but I'm a socialist, like many in the NDP. I have hope that the mutual inspiration that Layton generated and received from the movement that he led - which extended beyond the boundaries of the party - will carry that movement in good stead. The dignified and courageous way that Jack left us - the letter, the funeral that he organized to inspire us to continue the hopeful struggle for a better world that inspired him - makes me confident that, if anything, his passing will serve as a reminder of what our tasks are. That reminder could well raise our movement to a new level.

Oh, and I'm sure that the iPhone 5 will be awesome even without Steve.

With Jobs out, Apple faces pressure to echo his triumphs - The Globe and Mail

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Education Makes White People Dumb

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
- Joe Hill song
This interesting study of patterns of church-going and attitudes to family values is interesting. It demonstrates that American whites (probably like most people) defy the usual stereotypes. In particular its widely assumed that the poorer you are in America the more conservative, backwards and religious that you are. I have a distinct memory from watching Religulous, the Bill Maher doc that attacks religion, of Maher talking to some truckers who had a little evangelical church behind a truck stop. Maher, first of all, represents everything that is wrong with American (or Canadian) liberals - he is a smug, self-important snob, and a windbag to boot. The guy just never shuts the hell up to let anyone else talk. His only analysis is a smirk and condescension.

Besides the fact that Maher was a prick to the truckers, it is also inaccurate to portray truckers and rural workers as the base of evangelical religion. In fact, the higher up the income ladder you go, the study found, and the higher the education level achieved, the more likely were the people to attend church services.

Relying on nationally representative data from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth, the study finds that moderately educated whites—those who have a high school degree but who did not graduate from a 4-year college—attended religious services in the 1970s at about the same rate as the most educated whites—those who at a minimum graduated from a 4-year college—but they attended at much lower frequencies in the 2000s.
The least educated white Americans—those who did not graduate from high school—attended religious services less frequently than both the moderately educated and most educated in the 1970s and that remained the case in the 2000s. "The least educated have been consistently less religiously engaged than even the moderately educated, meaning the gap between the least educated and most educated is even larger than the one between the moderately educated and most educated," Wilcox said.
In the 1970s, among those aged 25-44, 51 percent of college-educated whites attended religious services monthly or more, compared to 50 percent of moderately educated whites, and 38 percent of the least educated whites. In the 2000s, among those aged 25-44, 46 percent of college-educated whites attended monthly or more, compared to 37 percent of moderately educated whites, and 23 percent of the least educated whites.
Now, just to be clear, I don't think that going to church means you're dumb - well, not always. The Civil Rights Movement was organized through the Black Baptist Church in the Southern USA. The courageous demonstrations against the Assad regime in Syria are organized in significant part through the mosques, ditto in Egypt during the revolution earlier this year. But the church of rich, white Americans is another story.

For one thing, American protestantism is profoundly conservative, emphasizing the most cartoonish aspects of American "can do" ideology and fetishizing the ideal of a family structure that has long ago ceased to exist for most people in America.

Indeed, the study points out that modern religious institutions tend to promote a family-centered morality that valorizes marriage and parenthood, and they embrace traditional middle-class virtues such as self-control, delayed gratification, and a focus on education.
Over the past 40 years, however, the moderately educated have become less likely to hold familistic beliefs and less likely to get and stay married, compared to college-educated adults. During the same period, wages have fallen and rates of unemployment have risen markedly for moderately educated men, while wages have remained stagnant for moderately educated women. For the least educated—those without high school degrees—the economic situation has been even worse, and they have also become less likely to hold familistic beliefs and less likely to get and stay married, compared to college-educated adults.
In other words, the failure of US Protestantism, or rather those streams favoured by whites, to connect with the daily lives of white workers has alienated them from the church. The study found, for instance, that workers who had been unemployed in the last ten years were much less likely to be church goers. When you find that the God of Americanism has foresaken you to the unemployment line - and that he thinks it's your own damn fault, you're probably not so keen to go visit him in his house.

It also indicates an interesting cognitive dissonance in American culture - the impression one gets from the media and from politicians is that religious observance is actually on the upswing in America when, for most Americans, it is becomes less of a factor in their lives. This points to the fact that the narrative that gets play in the media - and which fits the rich, white boys who dominate both houses of Congress - is a narrative of the upper classes. (As Marx once said: "those who control the means of production, also control the means of mental production"). But this also indicates that a gap has opened up culturally and ideologically between rich and poor in America. Frankly, that's a good thing. It suggests that American workers are less culturally identified with the American ruling class than at any other time since the Second World War. The weakening of that ideological hegemony (domination) is a pre-condition for winning workers to an alternative worldview that emphasizes their interests.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Owe Jack Layton $20,000

I've been a bit swamped with work in recent days and in my own world, so I was shocked to hear about the passing of Jack Layton. I must admit that it made me misty eyed. I won't pretend that I agreed with everything Jack stood for but he was a principled guy and played an important role on the left over many, many years. Something that most of us can only ever aspire to.

When someone passes the response of people who knew them is generally to reminisce about them and what they meant to their own lives. I didn't know Jack well and he probably wouldn't have been able to remember my name, to be honest. But I have a few strong memories of him.

The first time I had heard much about Layton was shortly after I'd gotten into politics, after his run at the mayoralty. I remember that the Toronto Star came close to endorsing him but balked at the last minute - he was a socialist after all. There was a rally at Nathan Phillips - I don't even know what it was for now - but a friend of mine was doing his socialist duty, selling the Socialist Worker newspaper, which happened to have a headline about police racism. The cops on duty, not surprisingly, weren't very happy with the headline and were giving him a hard time. Jack, a high profile councillor, went out of his way to put himself between my friend and the cops and get them to back off.

I later saw him at a post-election public meeting following the decimation of the NDP in Ontario and the election of the Mike Harris Tories with their ultra-right "Common Sense Revolution". Most people on the left were feeling pretty defeated and disoriented by the betrayals of the NDP government, which couldn't even rouse itself to pass same sex spousal legislation. I don't remember much of what Jack said but a few things struck me - his willingness to say that he didn't have the answer but that he thought the extra-parliamentary movements - social movements, trade unions - held part of the answer. The second thing was his assertion that he would never run for the NDP again. When he became leader of the NDP I wondered what changed his mind and always wanted to ask him. I regret that I'll never be able to.

Finally, and the reason for the blog post title, there was Jack's involvement in the ant-war movement. The movement was really building as Jack was campaigning for the leadership - winning in January, 2003. I remember at the time that there was some frustration that he wasn't using his own campaign enough to build the anti-war movement. I can't say now whether that was a fair assessment or just an exaggeration borne of the intensity of those days. What is certain is that he did ultimately step up to bat - using his election and newfound high profile as leader of a national political party to widely promote the February 15 protest against the looming war in Iraq. That protest ended up being massive - 80,000 in Toronto, 250,000 in Montreal. It was the defining moment that made the Liberals blink and call off their official participation.

In April of 2003 the group that I was centrally involved with, Artists Against War, organized an anti-war festival in Nathan Phillips Square called the One Big No anti-war arts festival. It was a big venture, including a professional stage for an evening concert. Being without funding, the cost of everything went credit card. I believe that it was about $22,000. I was working as a waiter at the time and definitely didn't have the disposable income to cover that cost. Because it was at City Hall, we couldn't charge admission - which wasn't the point anyway.

As the evening arrived and crowds began to arrive in large numbers for the headline concert, we were getting a bit nervous about how much money we were collecting. In fact, we were approached by City Hall security and told that we weren't allowed to pass buckets for donations. As luck would have it, Olivia and Jack showed up at that very moment. While Olivia ran block with security, Jack got up on stage, pulled out a twenty dollar bill and encouraged everyone in the audience to do the same. Hands went up with bills in them - there were several thousand people there - and the buckets went around. Later, when Kristy, our indefatigable event manager, painstakingly rolled all the coins we had almost $20,000. If it weren't for Jack, the One Big No probably would have turned into One Big Owe for me. I have to say I wasn't only impressed with Jack's ability to rouse the crowd but also with how much of a team he and Olivia were.

As a secondary note, I was thinking recently about Jack's election as party leader and its significance - not just in the recent election but in terms of the political trajectory of the NDP. Prior to Jack, the party had languished under a series of "realists" who often flirted with the right wing "Third Way" of Tony Blair in the UK. Then came the anti-globalization movement  at the end of the 90s. This electrified a new generation of activists, particularly youth, who mobilized in their tens of thousands to put the brakes on global capitalism's destructive dynamic. That movement also fired up people in the NDP, many of whom were actively involved in organizing anti-globalization events and campaigns. The coming together of the movement outside of the NDP and within it found expression in the New Politics Initiative. I'll leave aside a discussion of the history of the NPI but it was avowedly anti-capitalist in its founding document. And it had wide support in the NDP, including for its proposal to dissolve the NDP in order to found a new party that united the struggle at the ballot box and the struggle in the streets (the very idea that motivates Quebec Solidaire). The motion for dissolution won 40% at the NDPs 2001 convention. The NPI sort of drifted after that, finally dissolving in 2004.

Sometime around 2004 I was at a meeting of leftists and people were bemoaning the fact that the NPI opportunity was lost. I said at the time that I thought part of the problem of the left was that we were sore winners. Even when we won partial victories - and let's be honest, all victories are partial and qualified - we couldn't admit it and were morose about the failure rather than optimistic based upon the success part. Layton's victory, I believed, was a vindication of the NPI and of the left. He wasn't a signatory but he was a supporter of the NPI and he was identified with the left. Layton's only real opponent was Bill Blaikie. Blaikie was a critic of globalization but he wasn't identified with the left wing of the party - more with the middle. Generally, it has been the squishy middle candidate that wins - Alex McDonough had won largely based upon an "anyone but Svend Robinson" sentiment in 1995. To the right of Blaikie was  Lorne Nystrom (who also ran in 1995). That the party chose to go left to Jack and not to the centre with Blaikie was a sign of the power of the anti-globalization movement, the success of the NPI and the ability of Jack to personify the ideals of those movements. He wasn't a radical leftist but there can be no denying his role in pushing for the NDP to adopt a policy opposed to the war in Afghanistan and for working hard to demonstrate that the NDP was a viable option for the Quebecois - not least with the resolution to respect Quebec's right to decide its own fate. He also selected Libby Davies, a long time stalwart of the left in the NDP, as his Deputy Leader. These were significant shifts after the McDonough years and to have massively increased the NDP's share of the popular vote has shown that the NDP does best when it hews to the left. To have transformed the party in that way and led the historic breakthrough into Quebec is a powerful legacy. Jack will be missed. And I wish I'd gotten to thank him for the $20K.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Research Suggests One Possible Cause Of Diabetes Epidemic

photo by my charming & talented wife, Kathryn Palmateer

Just sayin...

Goodbye Gaddafi, Hello NATO

There will be much celebrating across Libya over the next several days even as the mop-up operations get under way. Of course, there's no guarantee that this will be over for a while. It's hard to know what kind of resistance to the rebel victory will remain - amongst regime elements and Libyan tribes that weren't allied with the rebels. But for the moment there seems to be euphoria and you can't really begrudge Libyans that excitement - their dictator has just been overthrown.

But who will replace him? That is the question that now burns in Libya. All indications are that the National Transition Council led by Mahmoud Jabril - a CIA man - will have the support of NATO in consolidating a new Libya regime. As a pre-condition to winning the military support of NATO and political recognition by NATO countries and their allies, the TNC has already agreed to maintain the central policies that had previously endeared Gaddafi to the US and Europe. Oil contracts will all be respected (though I wonder about those of China and, to a lesser extent Russia), as will treaties that make Libya the immigration gendarme of northern Africa, keeping Africans from fleeing poverty and war.

Some will want to turn the enthusiasm for the deposing of Gaddafi into a picture of revolution and liberation - a further deepening of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. But this is to miss some fundamentally different dynamics. Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt were supported by imperialism until the end. Now, of course, the US is in favour of democracy in Egypt - or rather, supports the Egyptian military council that runs the country in the name of future democracy (while jailing pro-democracy activists, trade unionists, and others). In Libya, a section of the ruling class - ironically, the one most aligned with Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam - broke from the regime early. No doubt this was rooted in the more fractious and regionalized Libyan context, whereas in Egypt tribalism plays almost no part in politics. But it mean that before the revolution could establish independent organizations the initiative was seized by opportunists, Gaddafi insiders and, ultimately, CIA/NATO bagmen.

The independent initiative of the early days was snuffed out as the revolution was subordinated to the command structures of the TNC and, in the west, those of Misurata. Even here some on the left have tried to suggest that the rivalry between Tripolitania-based Misurata and Cyrenaica-based Benghazi has some political basis, that perhaps the Misurata leadership have asserted their independence from the TNC based upon some principled opposition to imperialism or cronyism. But this is without any evidence. It is more likely part of the emerging dynamic of regional and tribal power-brokering. Certainly, the leadership in Misurata were happy to accept NATO advisors and air support. There were no complaints about the conditions imposed by NATO.

All of this means that the likely course of action now will be that a NATO-brokered agreement, using the carrot of frozen Gaddafi funds and market access along with the stick of being excluded, will establish a unified state under the control of a national unity government of various groups. If they don't fall out - as has already been happening to a certain extent, evidenced by the assassination of rebel military commander Younis - they will turn their attention to disarming the irregular militias or incorporating them into the military command structure. The norms of daily life will be resumed as quickly as possible and the state structure - minus some of the authoritarian police apparatus, which is not an insignificant thing - will remain largely intact. The TNC will continue the program of privatizations that Gaddafi had already started and will probably move to implement a more even distribution of resources across the country (Cyrenaica suffered discrimination in this regard under Gaddafi). I expect that the US military will quietly move their African Command (Africom) from West Germany to Libya now that they have a regime that is in their debt. That is an advance for imperialism. It will also increase tensions with China on the continent where it was making gains at the expense of the USA and NATO countries. I imagine that this will impact the ways in which China engages with African governments, encouraging them to strengthen the military component to counter any temptation by the west to displace China through proxies.

Will there be deeper changes - a truly free press, trade union rights, freedom of assembly and the right to form political parties? Some concessions will be expected by the population, for certain. But all of the political training and experience of the TNC & Misurata council has been in the authoritarian practices of the old Libyan regime (or of the CIA). The only guarantee will be if the Libyan people's enthusiasm for the overthrow of Gaddafi finds expression in independent organizations and mobilizations - little evidence of which presently exists. In Iraq the overthrow of Hussein has not won many of the democratic rights noted above - protesters are shot and killed, independent trade unions are outlawed, there are secret police and political prisoners aplenty. It would be naive to think that the Libyan ruling class is any nicer or that NATO has changed its stripes.

Of course, one hopes that the revolutionary councils and initiative of the early days re-emerges. But NATO and the TNC will be doing everything in their power to ensure that this doesn't happen - and they now have the initiative.

Pockets of resistance as rebels claim Tripoli - Africa - Al Jazeera English

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right..."

Well, there's something you only ever hear from economists when they're pooping their pants because the system is going in to meltdown. We heard it in the early 1990s and again when the financial crisis hit in 2008. And now Nouriel, who resists the delusional boosterism of pro-capitalist economics more than most, has reminded us that the "Old Moor" had a few things to say about capitalist crises and their inevitability. Of course, Roubini can't accept that Marx's conclusions were correct - "his view that socialism would be better has proven wrong" - so all that we're left with is TINA - there is no alternative. So, suck it up all you workers out there who are getting laid off and facing cuts to services and benefits.

But if Marx doesn't offer a solution - rational planning based on human need as determined by democratic control of the economy, rather than the control of unelected oligarchs and corrupt and decadent bond traders - then neither does Roubini. Within the same article he contradicts himself when prescribing a solution. First he writes:

Until last year, policymakers could always produce a new rabbit from their hat to reflate asset prices and trigger economic recovery. Fiscal stimulus, near-zero interest rates, two rounds of “quantitative easing,” ring-fencing of bad debt, and trillions of dollars in bailouts and liquidity provision for banks and financial institutions: officials tried them all. Now they have run out of rabbits.

Then, after telling us that governments have no options left for staving off the growing crisis in both the financial and real economy (and demonstrating this claim with figures and examples), he offers us a solution.

The right balance today requires creating jobs partly through additional fiscal stimulus aimed at productive infrastructure investment. It also requires more progressive taxation; more short-term fiscal stimulus with medium- and long-term fiscal discipline; lender-of-last-resort support by monetary authorities to prevent ruinous runs on banks; reduction of the debt burden for insolvent households and other distressed economic agents; and stricter supervision and regulation of a financial system run amok; breaking up too-big-to-fail banks and oligopolistic trusts.
Uh, wait a second Nouriel - didn't you just go to great lengths to demonstrate that precisely these kinds of measures, other than make taxation more progressive, were no longer possible given the financial state of many western governments. Europe is on the edge of a meltdown precipice. America's debt has been downgraded. Which is it?

Is Capitalism Doomed? - Nouriel Roubini - Project Syndicate

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Riotous Double Standards

Some riots we like, some not so much - by Oliver Heinrich
I've been swamped with work - and working on a longer post on science geek stuff that I hope to post by Monday. In the meantime, my old friend Oliver sent along the above cartoon, hopefully the first of many.

Like a lot of people, I've been disgusted by the shameless double standards involved in the prosecution, and persecution, of accused rioters. People who took a bottle of water are getting six months in jail - two kids who did nothing more than put up a post on their facebook wall got five years of juvenile custody. Compare that to the treatment of the scum from Murdoch's tottering empire - all close friends of Tory ministers, including David Cameron.

They received a polite call requesting that they show up for arrest and were then released immediately on bail. The bankers, of course, who have given us years of economic and financial turmoil, have received nothing - except big fat bonuses.

So, it's no wonder that on top of these hypocrisies, they pile the fact that they encouraged revolts in the Middle East and the use of social media to organize battles with the local cops - and now they are talking about shutting down access to the internet during protests and upheaval. In San Francisco, the local transit authority actually did shut down internet access to stop a protest taking place.

In the end, the only thing consistent about the Tory's response is that it is driven by hatred and fear of the poor. It only differs from the out of touch, condescending response of the dictators of the middle east in that the riots didn't turn into a movement to bring down the government. Hopefully that won't be a permanent difference. As an article in the UK Guardian newspaper points out, it is the poor who have suffered and rioted and who are being punished with unprecedented sentences.

One of the most striking features to emerge is the proportion of those who have appeared in court so far who come from deprived neighbourhoods.
He found that the majority of people who have appeared in court live in poor neighbourhoods, with 41% of suspects living in one of the top 10% of most deprived places in the country. The data also shows that 66% of neighbourhoods where the accused live got poorer between 2007 and 2010.
This was a revolt by the poor fed up with austerity.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why Keeping Interest Low Won't Save The Economy

As the old saying goes - expecting different results while repeating the same act over and over again is a sign of psychosis. That, however, has never stood in the way of government policy where bureaucratic inertia, the desire of the ruling class to continue in the ways that have worked in the past, and plain old electoral opportunism tend to reinforce the idea of using the same basic policy tools even after they're well past its best before date. So it is with the response of the US Federal Reserve Bank, the Bank of England and even the Bank of Canada, to the present round of bad economic data and the downgrading of US debt. And, yes, it is a sign of social and economic psychosis.

But first, it's useful to summarize the state of the economy. To return to the UK, USA and Canada what we see is, at best, growth so slow that it is almost a stall. In Canada the last quarter saw the economy shrink by o.4 percent. In the USA there was some cheer at last week's announcement that the economy created some 170, 000 jobs and the unemployment rate declined from 9.2 to 9.1 percent. Except that the only reason that there was a decline, and not an increase, was because 200,000 people gave up looking for work altogether. The Bank of England has now lowered forecasts of growth to below two percent for this year and with next year barely reaching two percent (Frankly, I think, given the austerity being imposed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, this is either naive optimism or an attempt to calm the markets and give support to the program of cuts).

I've discussed the cause of the crisis elsewhere as being rooted in the decline of the rate of profit over an extended period since the 1970s. One expression of that decline has been the increasing financialization of the economy and the growing centrality of debt fuelled growth that has seen an almost unbroken increase in debt levels - both public and private - since the Reagan years. Most mainstream economists, even progressive ones, see the debt situation as a question of accumulated problems as a result of bad policies - too much spending on social programs, cuts to taxes, too much stimulation of speculative/real estate/commodity bubbles, etc. Nouriel Roubini, an astute and widely respected mainstream economic, for instance, writes the following (website requires registration):
The subpar growth of most advanced economies has been ongoing since the recovery started in mid-2009. The crisis was caused by too much debt and leverage (my emphasis) in the private sector (households, banks, financial institutions and even the fat tail of the corporate sector) and then in the public sector (following stimulus, automatic stabilizers and bailouts of the financial system); and now a painful process of deleveraging—spending less in the private and public sectors to increase savings or reduce dissavings—to reduce debts and leverage has led to a weak, U-shaped recovery from a balance-sheet-crisis-driven recession, rather than the typical V-shaped recovery that occurs after plain vanilla recessions caused by monetary tightening following overheating growth.
Nobel Prize-winning economy Joseph Stiglitz, writing in the Financial Times, writes approximately the same diagnosis as Roubini when he says:

Pre-crisis, America, and to a large extent the world economy, was sustained by a bubble. The breaking of the bubble has left a legacy of excess leverage and real estate. Consumption will therefore remain weak and austerity on both sides of the Atlantic now ensures the state will not fill the void. Given this, it is not surprising that companies are unwilling to invest – even those that can get access to capital.
Again, this is roughly true in terms of the symptom but, lacking a deeper analysis of the real causes of the crisis has its own problems, to which I'll return in a future post. However, if we assume for a moment that the problems we now face are the result of the whole economy - households, financial institutions, companies and governments - being overleveraged (i.e. deep in debt). And if that is the result of encouraging the formation of a speculative bubble - first in dot com stocks at the end of the 90s and then, at an even higher level, in real estate and various forms of "asset backed securities" or "collateralized debt obligations" throughout the first decade of this century. If all that is true then doesn't it seem utterly insane that the only response to the present crisis is that the Fed, the Bank of England, and the Bank of Canada have sworn to keep real interest rates at zero, thus encouraging another bubble (at worst) or, at the very least, encouraging people who are already tapped out to take on more debt.

Of course, there is a certain logic here: governments want to get rid of their debts. But those debts are by and large accumulated as a result of providing services paid for by taxation (well, until taxes for the wealthy were repeatedly cut, drastically reducing tax revenues). Reducing government debt means cutting services like healthcare or community centres or unemployment insurance benefits. That money has to be made up somewhere else, which means that consumers have to take out more comprehensive health insurance policies - either negotiated through their collective agreement or paid for by cash-strapped households - leading to an increase of debt by households. So, there is a certain logic here - cutting services means that workers can only keep their heads above water by taking on more debt. To make that possible in the context of reduced demand - as a result of cuts in government spending - requires that affordable debt be available.

As a result, rather than encouraging economic growth for most of the population, it is possible that the continuation of historically low interest rates, rather than spurring on growth will simply allow a delay in the day of reckoning. There will be no benefit to growth because cuts to government spending - as demonstrated by the International Monetary Fund - lead to a reduction in GDP. And the further accumulation of debt means that consumers - who make up 70% of GDP in North America - will be unable for a longer period of time to drive growth. If this sounds like a large scale form of kiting - shifting debt from one place to another by writing cheques that will bounce on one bank account but then writing a cheque from another bank account (that will also bounce) to stop the first cheque from bouncing - then, you're right. The present austerity is absolutely that: kiting.

What the Fed's announcement that it will keep real interest rates at zero demonstrates is the absolute poverty of alternatives at the governmental level. Part of the problem is that there is no real pressure from below by strikes, occupations, etc - to push for a different response. Part of it is that the ruling class - and the working class - will always try to resolve problems in the way that problems have been resolved in the past. We always seek the path of least resistance. There are other ways to "solve" the problem of long term economic stagnation or inflation or deflation, etc. But those ways are out of the ordinary - they are tools like war, hyper-inflation, fascism and dictatorship - from the side of the capitalists - or revolutionary struggles, strike waves, mass civil disobedience - from the working class. But to choose those alternatives, to make them even something that could even be contemplated, requires that the relative classes must feel that no other alternative is on offer and that their existence is threatened. We're certainly not there yet - though we're beginning to see the glimmerings of that conversation in the mainstream media - and so, instead, what we have is the increasing madness of proposing the same solutions to solve problems that they have proven utterly incapable of solving in the past.
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