Saturday, March 31, 2007

The interminable "sovereignty vs. human rights" debate

(Cross-posted at Ezra's)

There's a lot that I agree with in Michael Berubé's post here on the "sovereignty left", but I think this is actually an easy question to answer:

And it is in both camps’ interest to pretend that Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were all part of the same enterprise: all three wars were wars of liberation for the Hawks, and all three were exercises in imperialism for the Sovereignty Left. The Hawks wound up agreeing, in whole or in part, with Bush’s premise that Iraq was the next logical front in the War on Terror. And the Sovereignty Left has never quite explained what American empire was established in the Balkans, and they’ve never quite explained why they opposed the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 but opposed the Taliban’s removal after al-Qaeda’s strikes against the US. But both groups share the common goal of aligning supporters of war in Kosovo and Afghanistan with supporters of war in Iraq.

I have no particular reason to defend the individuals in Berubé's crosshairs, but I certainly think we could all do with a more critical review of what, exactly, has been happening in Kosovo since the war in 1999. First of all, it's quite clear that the early assurances from Washington and other NATO capitals that Kosovo would not be partitioned off from Serbia have proven false -- it's now almost certain Kosovo will be recognized as an independent state. The only remaining question is what price Russia will extract for not vetoing such a decision by the UN.

But specifically to the issue of American Imperialism in the Balkans, we see that in fact Kosovo is now home to one of the largest US bases in Europe, Camp Bondsteel. It seems to me that if one of the arguments that the US is conducting an imperial war in Iraq revolves around the construction of permanent US bases in that country, the construction of a massive permanent base in Kosovo is certainly relevant. I have no idea what arguments Chomsky is making these days, but "it's all about oil" was the argument Chomsky was making when I last read his works. Then there's people like Chalmers "America is an empire of bases" Johnson, who has repeatedly stated his arguments that the onward march of American bases across the planet is wholly imperial.

One of the issues that concerns me is the almost flippant disregard for national sovereignty that prominent liberals (predominantly in the anglosphere) have begun to take, especially after the UN confirmed the "responsibility to protect", a doctrine which essentially lays the groundwork for future humanitarian interventions. Even though the UN only officialized this doctrine less than two years ago, we're already seeing it used as a rhetorical club against powers like China for supporting Sudan at the UN.

I don't consider myself part of the "sovereignty left" that Berubé speaks of -- I supported and still support the NATO mission in Kosovo, with some misgivings -- but I think it's too easy to gloss over the real value that a norm of national sovereignty provides to international politics.

The problem is that this debate has not been marked by an abundance of clarity. When people talk about "national sovereignty" they tend to mean one or more of several different but related concepts. Dictators like Milosevic or Putin use sovereignty when what they really mean is autonomy, a concept that doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

To clarify: in IR-speak, de jure sovereignty is the recognized right of a government to govern a territory. (Most countries.) De facto sovereignty is the ability to do so absent international recognition. (Taiwan.) Autonomy is the right or ability of a sovereign government not to have its acts interfered with by another power. The concepts are obviously closely related, but the ways in which they are distinct are important to this debate.

I think once you clarify these concepts, the division between Kosovo and Bush's wars becomes clear: Kosovo was unquestionably a major breach of Yugoslavia's autonomy, but not so much of its sovereignty. This is why I mentioned the promises of no partition earlier -- this was important in selling the war back then. Yugoslavia was recognized as the legitimate government of Kosovo, even if it was doing illegitimate things. We didn't want to destroy the Milosevic regime, we simply wanted them to stop. (Ending Milosevic's regime took other measures, that were more effective.)

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the other hand, were clearly about sovereignty: neither Hussein nor the Taliban were legitimate governments, in Washington's eyes. It was not enough for either state to stop doing the things they were accused of -- those governments had to lose their sovereignty and be replaced by different governments.

Of course, this hasn't turned out so well in either of those cases -- certainly not as well as Kosovo. This is why I think "a curious worship of the norm of sovereignty" is actually a reasonably healthy thing to have, at least in so far as we're talking explicitly about actual sovereignty and not autonomy. If I can venture a hypothesis, I think that America is in a much better position to dictate the proper behavior of a government than dictating who is the legitimate government. Look at Iran where the international community is reasonably united on the idea that Iran shouldn't have nuclear weapons, but most of America's allies also think Iran can reasonably ask the US to forswear regime change.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Invading non-threatening countries: it's the new black

Boy, first Matthew Yglesias mused about America seizing Canada's Maritime provinces post-Quebec secession, now Stephen Colbert wants to suck out our northern fossil fuels and convert waterfowl to Christianity. I'm beginning to feel a bit like an Iraqi, circa October 2002...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A note on accusations of racism

When I say that ethnic nationalism and racism motivate too much of the Quebec separatist impulse, I really want to be clear that in no way do I think English Canada or any other political party has a particularly high horse to stand on. The persistence of racism in all sorts of corners and an antiquated "country club anti-semitism" that I've seen in Toronto still has the ability to shock me.

We all have to work on this. I happen to think that "leftist anti-semitism" is a slander that gets thrown around without much evidence, but there are elements to the NDP and Liberal parties who could use some sensitivity counseling. I suspect I don't need to talk about homophobia in the ranks of the Conservative Party.

So when the separatists stop making appeals (overt and coded) to ethnic purity and cultural homogeneity, I'll stop worrying about separatist racism.

The worries that they're naïve, dishonest, and bad for Quebec will continue.

An excellent question

Apropos of the Quebec election, nottawa asks:
What's the difference between:
(a) a federalist liberal from Quebec who storms out of a Liberal party convention, throws a hissy fit in the early 1990s, quits and starts another party; and
(b) a federalist liberal from Quebec who storms out of a Liberal party convention, throws a hissy fit in the early 1990s, quits and starts another party?

In other words, why are the very same Tories, (some) Liberals, and journalists who took great glee in referring to Jean Lapierre as a separatist going to such great lengths today to call Mario Dumont federalist? Especially given that Dumont has been giving interviews in French all day adamantly declaring otherwise?
To declare this a victory for the federalists seems so wrong it makes my head hurt. Whether or not Dumont is an outspoken separatist now -- he was once -- it's clear that his party is an easy refuge for the ethnic nationalism and racism from which too much of the separatist impulse flows. Any election where the ADQ does well is an election the separatists -- if not the PQ -- can smile about.

More puzzle pieces

The Vanity Press points out two things about the modern center-right in the US, which I'm going to repeat in large measure simply because they're rather important to understanding where we are:

One: (And this is something I've written about before) they have what you could call an "unlearned helplessness" -- they don't know sweet fuck all about important issues, so they assume those issues are unknowable, so they don't bother learning them. Look at climate change, or the profound ignorance of Arab and Muslim cultures, stem cells, or even the ridiculously horrible dance around Terry Schiavo's fate.

Two: far too many centrists -- and the vast majority of the right -- have swallowed the lie that somehow corporations and "the market" are relentlessly efficient institutions, weeding out all corruption and vice to form a crucible of pure self-interested reason. "Corporate Pixie Dust." It's as if, for these people, the gilded age and the great depression never happened. Hell, these people don't seem to remember the 1980s.

TVP adds:
Corporate Pixie Dust has basically been a rationalization for not having to know or learn anything. If all you need is a management style that can be, theoretically, applied to any kind of organization, well then you don't have to know or learn about that organization and the things that it does. That's why you can have a Michael Brown in charge of FEMA instad of someone who actually knows about emergency management.
Or George Bush in the White House instead of someone who knows anything.

If I can, I'd like to throw something else on the pile of puzzle pieces: during the 1990s -- especially from mid-decade to the Enron scandal, roughly -- we saw the Liberals in Canada and the Democrats in the US collect massive amounts of donations from corporations, when in both cases those parties had been viewed with suspicion by the business class. This was explained by, and was used to justify, both parties' shift to the right on various policies.

So long as the money kept pouring in, this state of affairs was explained largely as a matter of self-interest: corporations were (reasonably) trying to influence the election, and the best way to do that was to bet on all the horses, not just the pro-business parties of the right.

Except that in both cases, we've seen what happens when the nominal L/liberal party loses power -- business reveals itself to be a right-wing force by nature. Once the Democrats were out of the executive branch in the US, we saw a massive explosion of corruption scandals in the business world. Think that's an accident? The hemorrhaging of California during the Enron debacle ended shortly after Jim Jeffords gave the Senate back to the Dems. It's not a coincidence.

Now, we see business groups in Canada taking political positions diametrically opposed to those they allegedly held only a few years ago because they want to support the party of the right. (This makes them about as principled as your average Blogging Tory, I suppose.) So long as Harper's in a minority, they won't be able to get away with the massive swindling that they enjoyed down south, so they've apparently all decided to throw their lot in with Harper's Conservatives at least long enough for him to give away the keys to the store.

Part of the "Corporate Pixie Dust" myth was that business didn't really have strong political views, they just wanted parties of all stripes to embrace "sound management principles" and "run government like a business" (remember that?) That was actually what the kids call a "lie". Business will uncritically support right-wing parties over left-wing parties, no matter what.

I don't think that your average CEO really wants abortions banned in Canada, or even gay marriage overturned. But I do think he doesn't care about women or gays more than he cares about personally enriching himself. And he views those who do care about women and gays as likely to raise his taxes. (And environmentalists really all just hate capitalism, didn't you hear?) The point is that business -- regardless of country -- has a default position: support the right. If the right is disorganized or out of power, then business sometimes switches to Plan B: ally with the people in power, whoever they are. But the moment the right looks poised to take power again, business knows without a doubt who's going to dole out the corporate welfare most shamelessly.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that I have very little time for "pro-business" leftists of any stripe. I think the market is a wonderful mechanism for some things, but "the market" in the abstract is a very different animal from the real-life capitalist economy. The Market may be efficient, but in the real world it also has a clear political agenda, one totally opposed to progressive visions of equality, justice, or environmental sustainability.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

In a nutshell

Indirectly via Ezra, this little dialogue from October, 2002, sums up so much of the debate around that time:
I've been avoiding this Slate "Dialogue" because while I support the war in Iraq, I haven't been able to explain to myself (much less anyone else) why I support it. A faint stink of dishonesty clings to most of the arguments for war.
What was a "faint stink of dishonesty" to David Plotz was the throat-tightening, stomach churning stench of uncut lies to me, but I guess some people are more sensitive to this thing. Despite the fact that we agreed, apparently, that the pro-war side was lying to us both, Mr. Plotz supported the war. Apparently, "just because" was enough for him. He wasn't alone, of course -- there were millions of Americans who apparently signed up for a war on the basis of "why not?" Robert Wright reacted appropriately at the time:
He says he favored war against Iraq long before he had found a rationale for it. I suspect there are millions of Americans in this boat, but David is the only one I know of who has admitted it.

Dumping Pervez

This is up there on the list of things that, I'd wager, are simply not gonna happen anytime soon. But Blake Hounshell says the US should drop its support for Musharraf. Surely not going to happen while Bush is in office -- the man doesn't see geopolitics, he sees friends and enemies. So long as Musharraf makes the proper noises, he's a friend.

"Friend" status is clearly not a permanent thing, however. Witness US treatment of Putin.

I'm certainly not a fan of Musharraf, and the more Muslim democracies the better in my view, but this seems profoundly wrong:
Democratic congressman Gary Ackerman of New York, chairman of the House subcommittee that deals with Pakistan, has been critical of the Bush administration's exclusive reliance on Musharraf. "The truth is, for our goals to be achieved in Pakistan there should be more than one phone number there to dial," he complained at last Wednesday's hearing on the political crisis.
What, I wonder, does that even mean? That the United States should foster competing centers of political authority -- or military force -- in an allied country? How would Americans react, I wonder, if China decided that because the US Congress was so uncooperative, they would only deal with the government of California?

Even in a democratic state, there are norms and proper ways to deal with international issues. In any future state, the Prime Minister of Pakistan (or whoever is the Chief Executive) is going to be the only appropriate guy for the United States to talk to. Talking about having multiple partners to deal with sounds ominous to me.

So much better than the one with Lorne Green

Battlestar face-off: This time with bad music!

(Thanks, J!)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Boy, who could've predicted that?

Kanan Makiya -- one of the Iraqi exiles who beat the drums of war loudest and longest in Washington -- joins the ranks of the "oops"ers.
‘It was a disaster, an unmitigated disaster,’ Makiya said. ‘I was just so upset, even on the verge of tears. It was the antithesis of everything I had been working for. Just like everything about the war, it was an opportunity wasted.’ He catalogued the errors - including his own - that led to the present bloodbath. It is all a remarkable change of tone for the man who was once a friend of Ahmed Chalabi, has been praised in public by Vice President Dick Cheney and is highly regarded by anti-Saddam Iraqi democrats.

Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, says his disaffection with the ‘Iraq project’ has been growing for some time. ‘Now it seems necessary to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess. [!!!] A question that looms more and more for me is: just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?’
Of course, we didn't know that the Iraqis had been ruled by a dictator for 30 years before we invaded, so it's all forgiven, I'm sure.

"Gotten itself in to this mess." What, you don't remember how Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq and deposed himself? God that pisses me off. As if everything that's befallen Iraq has everything to do with Saddam Hussein, and absolutely nothing has anything to do with the actual policies Makiya advocated. What a coward. Even when he's trying to be "honest", he still needs to try and escape responsibility.

Not that I blame him. If I had to face up to the kind of horrors Makiya is responsible for, I'd probably have chosen suicide sometime in 2005. 2006, tops.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hans Island question

Can somebody please tell me why Canada doesn't just give Hans Island to the Danish?

I understand that there are resource claims at stake here, but this isn't like the French and St. Pierre & Miquelon. There, you've got a distant country that maintains a presence simply to guarantee fishery rights, among other things. Hans Island is different: it's a short hop from Greenland, Danish territory that nobody disputes.

So here's the question: Even if we gave Hans Island over to the Danish with no questions asked and no conditions guaranteed, how would it materially change anything whatsoever in the Arctic, as far as Denmark was concerned? There seems to be some idea that Canada will lose bargaining rights over the Northwest Passage, but I think Hans Island is hardly the issue we need to worry about, considering that the Americans have repeatedly said they won't ask for our permission no matter what we do.

Is this just an autonomous tic by the Canadian government -- "MUST CLAIM SNOWY LANDS FOR OTTAWA... URRR"? Really, what's the logic here? If anyone has a detailed explanation, I'd love to hear it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Pricey summer coming

Natural gas is primarily used in North America for two things: winter heating and summer peak electrical generation. We've made it out of a warm winter, which helped keep winter demand low (presumably, this will be a chronic condition) but you can expect the summer to be hot, too. That's going to mean a spike in natural gas prices, something that's going to be aggravated by news like this:
A decline in imports of natural gas from Canada may lead to higher U.S. prices this summer, said Peter Linder, an energy analyst with DeltaOne Capital Partners in Calgary.

"We're going to have the biggest decline in western Canadian production in the history of the industry," Linder said. "There's going to be 400 to 600 million cubic feet a day less production from western Canada in 2007 versus 2006."

Linder said the combination of falling imports from Canada, the potential for production disruptions from hurricanes, and a tighter supply picture than a year ago will work to keep gas prices in the $9 to $10 per million Btu range this summer.
Now, in terms of a year-on-year decline that's not catastrophic -- percentage-wise. (About -3 or -4% on the outside.) But this comes after a decade straight of spending increases in Alberta -- the gas industry is on an accelerating treadmill of investment, getting less and less gas per $ spent.

The white knight in this scenario is coalbed methane, which the gas industry hopes will replace the shortfall in production in time to avert a catastrophe. I've got to head out for something terribly annoying, but something I'd like to find more about is the environmental issues behind CBM. Apparently, this has been an issue in BC... anyone out there know more?

Ugh, ugh, ugh

I didn't know what to say about Elizabeth Edwards' cancer recurrence, and better people than I have already spoken far better than I. I do hope you'll pardon me from considering the macabre here:
However, it is unlikely her prognosis would be better than those women, among whom 24 percent were alive five years after original diagnosis, and 13 percent were alive after 10 years.
That's a far more grim prognosis than I was hearing yesterday -- which probably just means I wasn't paying proper attention. I have a few diabetics in my family, so when it was compared to diabetes I think I underestimated the severity of cancer. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this mean that an Edwards White House would, statistically speaking, likely have to deal with the First Lady's death some time in during the former Senator's tenure? What does that mean? Frankly, I don't know many people who would function at their jobs while their spouses were dying.

If feel kind of ugly writing about this, I really do. Aside from the obvious, there's a small feminist inside me yelling about how even when the wife gets cancer, it somehow becomes an issue for the husband's career. Also, yelling about whether I would raise this issue if Bill Clinton were diagnosed with a chronic illness.

In fact, I was going to write more but I don't think I'm going to. This is really just sad and I'm going to end this post by saying how impressed I am with John and Elizabeth Edwards and how they're dealing with this.

I was wondering about that

The price of a can of Coke has been approx. $1 for so long, I figured inflation meant I've been getting discount sodie pop for a while now. I was right.

That's crazy. Basically all the things we want people to eat more of -- fruits and vegetables, fresh varieties especially -- have gotten more and more expensive, while the things they should eat less of (meats, fats, and sugars) have gotten less expensive.

I think this makes the whole debate about whether people can "afford to eat organic" a bit silly. People can't afford to eat healthy even in the current market, or at least there's a strong disincentive for them not too.

We really, really need to rethink things here on Planet Earth.

The World Needs More Canada


Why I like the de facto national primary

There's some level of nostalgia over the notion of a long, drawn out primary process in which Iowa and New Hampshire kick things off. This is supposed to help the Jimmy Carter-type underdogs "build momentum" and give voters a chance to "deliberate" over their decisions.

In reality, of course, we had a system in which two non-representative states (IA and NH) decided our nominee last time, and they were gunning for the same "right" this time around.
Of course, the Liberal Party had the rough equivalent of a national primary last time around, and not only did it produce more interesting politics, it turned the underdog candidate in to the leader of the opposition.

Underdogs are favoured when the front-runners are divisive, regardless of the political structure. This year, Hillary/Barack threatens to be divisive and nasty -- especially with the Clinton team trying to muddy the waters on her Iraq vote -- so we'll have to see if Edwards can capitalize on that.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Conrad Winn?

Via IP, it seems one of my Professors at Carleton has been given the chance to ruin Canada on a much larger scale than his mediocre, unhinged classroom:
Claiming they don't want the process to be captured by special interests, the Conservatives have decided to employ what could be the very first closed-door public consultation.

They have hired pollster Conrad Winn to conduct a poll, and a think tank to convene a series of focus groups across the country. Citizens will be probed for their thoughts on the role of political parties in policy development, the decorum (read lack of it) in the House of Commons, Senate reform, civic engagement and, oh yes, electoral reform.
Let me back up a little here. I had professors at Carleton who were right-wing nutbars. I have no problem with right-wing professors, and I have little problem with right-wing professors who occasionally bring their own political views to the classroom -- I was a political science student, it's kind of inevitable. I give right-wing profs exactly the same latitude I give the left-wing profs, and truth be told I had twice as many lefty profs who annoyed me as I did right-wing profs.

(In particular, I had a rightist history prof who couldn't help but rant about the corrupt Liberals every day. In a Chinese History class.)

My point is, I hope you'll believe me when I say that I'm not so ideologically intolerant that I would reject a professor simply because they hold or espouse views I disagree with.

Conrad Winn is not just conservative. He's so conservative that other conservative students follow him around from class to class, year to year. Entering one of his classes is like entering a poorly-constituted cult: you've got the new people who have no idea what the fuck is going on, and then you've got the true believers.

I enrolled in his class shortly after New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and I remember quite clearly listening to Winn accuse CNN of "playing the race card" in order to help Democrats politically. This was in 2005, when there was no election. One of America's blackest cities was left to drown by the Federal government, but according to Winn CNN was "playing the race card."

Maybe I was still too angry about Katrina, maybe -- no, definitely -- I was just creeped out by the pod people. In any case, I am somewhat ashamed to say I walked out of the class and didn't look back, something I had never done before and don't plan on doing again.

So let's just say I can't wait to see what kind of crap Winn puts together on electoral reform. I expect a detailed poll telling Canadians that what they really want is for 2/3 of Parliament's seats to be given to Alberta.

Brain droppings

You know, watching the US Senate and Congress deliberate yesterday confirmed a feeling I've had about some conservatives -- not all by any means, but many of the most vocal ones on this issue -- that they're arguing from ignorance.

There's a shallow form of ignorance, first of all. This would be the people who lie and say that scientists used to be worried about "global cooling" (they didn't) that glaciers are in fact growing (they aren't) or that warming will be a net plus for the world (it won't.)* These people are annoying, but these claims are also transparently political and don't really surprise me much: it's just the way the game is played.

Then there's what we could call "deep stupid." The less said about James Imhofe the better, but let's simply point out (via Dave at Gristmill) that even other dyed-in-the-wool conservatives think he was a petulant little child yesterday. More than that, he's deliberately maintained a burden of incredible, fundamental ignorance about the basic science he's talking about. Ditto Brit Hume here. Ditto many of the GOP Congresscritters (and sadly, too many of the Democrats) yesterday.

The argument in Canada over Kyoto takes an impressively weird character: Conservatives can't appear to reasonably argue against emissions reductions per se, so they argue against the Kyoto Process claiming that somehow, Kyoto in particular would be unduly onerous. This is absurd, because Kyoto says absolutely nothing about how Canada must reach it's goal -- and Canada got to set the goal in the first place.

I understand that nobody can know everything, and bloggers are by definition not experts on many issues -- I've certainly stepped beyond my expertise a bit, but I try and warn you when I do. But to argue passionately from a position of total and complete ignorance really just astounds me.

Learn about actual climate science, don't just read Michael Crichton novels. If you must read science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson's latest trilogy would be worth investigating. But try Flannery's The Weathermakers. Hell, if your conservative soul can bear it, watch Al Gore's movie. Skip the personal scenes and watch the slideshow bits -- it's as good a primer as you can ask for.

Then start reading about the solutions. They all have their pros and cons -- we've no silver bullets in our arsenal. But a few are looking more and more promising. Spain's burgeoning wind industry is now producing more power than nuclear on a good day -- this in a country who's modern wind industry is only about 10 years old. (Some guy named "Quixote" seems to have been an early opponent of renewable energy...)

The problem is real, and our solutions are real too. But none of this matters if the debate is defined by all the informed people agreeing, and those vocally opposed being unshakably hostile to anything resembling a fact.

* While Time Magazine and Newsweek ran cover stories about the possibility of "global cooling", a journal review finds no evidence of any scientist anywhere arguing seriously for such a scenario. Antarctic glaciers are thickening at the center because of increased snowfall -- exactly what is predicted in climate change models, and in any case the loss of ice at the shoreline dwarfs the add thickness. And it's impossible to see how the possible starvation of billions as the Himalayas dry out could be evened out by shorter winters for Russia.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Haw, haw

So when do we start calling him Joe "Neville Chamberlain" Flaherty?

Gore, cont.

If you've got some time you never, ever want back you could go watch the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works starring -- Al Gore!

Update: Because I do, in fact, have hours that I don't want or need back, I've been watching, and I've got to say the most notable thing is how moderate the Republicans are being -- with the notable exception of James Imhofe, who is a total tool.

Gore on Capitol Hill

The President-in-Exile is testifying to Congress on the Climate Crisis:
The planet has a fever. If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don’t say, well I read a science fiction novel that tells me it’s not a problem. If the crib’s on fire, you don’t speculate that the baby is flame-retardant. You take action.
Heh. Indeed.

A raise for me, an I didna do nuthin

...this makes me smile:
The Ontario government will increase the minimum wage to $10.25 an hour by 2010, the Toronto Star reported Wednesday.

The newspaper reported that the increase will be unveiled in the provincial budget on Thursday, after weeks of campaigning on the government from the New Democrats and poverty activists.

They had been lobbying for an immediate hike to $10 an hour from the present $8 an hour.

Instead, the wage will be bumped up over the next three years, sources told the Star.
Not only is this overdue, but it's especially amusing given that when it was just the NDP pushing for it, the Liberal bloggers screamed about how ignorant the NDP was and how this would crush small business.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Constitutional fundamentalism, cont.

How's this for a strict division of powers? The Constitution of Canada, when it comes to equalization payments, says the following:
Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation
Quebec is entitled to funding for comparable levels of public services to keep its taxes comparable with the rest of Canada. Quebec is not guaranteed free money so that it can have the most expansive welfare state in Canada at moderate levels of taxation.

It's nice to see that the rhetoric about "original intent" of the Constitution is as empty and ridiculous in Canada as it is in the United States.

Oh, and where did I find this passage? In the Report on the Fiscal Imbalance published by the Government of Quebec. They had, you can imagine, a different interpretation from mine.

It's worth pointing out that the PQ's desired solution to the fiscal imbalance is the elimination of all health transfers and handing billions of tax dollars to the Provinces in perpetuity. Exactly how long do you think Canadian health care would last, given that we've basically stopped enforcing the Health Act?

How is this hard to understand?

So the Blogger's Hotstove features a debate between CalgaryGrit and Antonio from Fuddle-Duddle over the fiscal imbalance, and Charest's decision to spend some of that money on the all-important goal of... income tax cuts. Antonio's argument is summed up at his post here:
Seriously this mock outrage over the Charest tax cut is absolutely ridiculous. In the late 1990s, the Quebec government decided not to cut services like other provinces were doing. They also modestly cut taxes. Faced with the choice, Quebecers (or their government) decided to keep their generous welfare state.

Charest did what anybody would expect him to do. Quebecers have been overtaxed because we chose to wait out the federal transfers to solve the fiscal imbalance. Now that we have them, Quebecers can celebrate and Charest can return some of the money to the citizens.
What Antonio seems to totally ignore is the idea that Quebec should even be asked to consider reducing its own spending. Don't get me wrong -- I'd love to have the low tuition and high social spending that Quebecers enjoy here in Ontario. But the money that supports Quebec's social programs does not, will not, and has not come solely from Quebec. That changes things. We'd all love free money, but the real world doesn't work like that.

In the podcast, Antonio takes some Liberals to task for not believing in the Separatists Pixie Dust that is the fiscal imbalance, but here he really seems to lose his grip on facts when he talks about the money "the provinces send to Ottawa". (Um, no province sends any money to Ottawa. At all. The federal government raises and borrows money independently. Geez.) It would be easier for Antonio and other pro-Pequiste-rhetoric-Liberals if they could come up with a standard and enduring definition of what, exactly, the fiscal imbalance is. First it was that some Provinces were sending more money to Ottawa then they get back (Quebec isn't one of them) and now there's a vague idea that Ottawa needs to create "fiscal space" for the provinces, usually defined as the provinces getting a guaranteed chunk of the Federal tax revenue.

This is, in short, political cowardice of the highest order -- and not at all because it's coming from Quebeckers. Any politician who, with a straight face, says to his or her constituents that:
a) We need more money.

b) I refuse to do the honorable normal thing and cut spending, raise taxes, or run a deficit.

so c) We intend to go to Ottawa and demand, self-righteously, that our province be given money so that I don't have to face your wrath come election day.
Is a coward. No, I don't like it when Dalton McGuinty does it. But he at least hasn't been on a decade-long tear on this issue.

What's especially galling is that Antonio claims to be some kind of constitutional fundamentalist who believes that Ottawa has no role of any kind in provincial matters... except, it seems, for cutting blank checks. Look up your Canadian Political History, Antonio: the provinces were deliberately given a weaker financial position in the BNA, relative to the Feds. This has, after all, been the PQ talking point -- the Feds have the money, but the provinces have the needs. This wasn't an accident, people. The provinces were designed from the outset to have cap in hand.

This is the problem with this crap: "Fiscal imbalance" means any one of seven different things, but all just happen to mean more money for Quebec. "Constitutional powers" means that Ottawa should keep the magic money flowing, but can never, ever overstep its boundaries... meanwhile, Quebec has a Ministry of Foreign Affairs!

What a weird fucking country I live in.

God is a bastard...

...if Rick Warren's opinion on God is any indication:
Rick Warren, the influential evangelical preacher and author of the Christian best seller The Purpose-Driven Life, is encouraging his followers to support projects in Rwanda; he has embraced Kagame (who does not attend church regularly) as a "wonderful Christian leader" and asserted that Kagame's energy is proof that "God is blessing Rwanda."
Up next: God "blesses" me by kicking me hard in the nuts.

Seriously. "Rwanda." "Blessed." These words should not be used together in the same sentence. "Recovering", maybe. "Not the hellscape it once was", fine.

"Blessed", no.

Mackenzie Valley: LNG, not pipelines

Interesting opinion piece in the Financial Post about the Mackenzie Delta natural gas issue. Basically, the proposed pipeline would feed more natural gas in to the all-consuming maw of Ft. McMurray to feed the tar sands. What scraps were left would go to American consumers.

Unfortunately, costs of building the pipeline -- never cheap -- have gone up dramatically. So the proposal in the FT is that instead of building a thousand-kilometer long pipeline, the Mackenzie gas be chilled and exported in a northern LNG terminal, similar to the Russian plan for the Shtokman field.

I like the idea -- the environmental impact is lower, the costs should be similar, if perhaps a bit higher, and instead of locking our gas sales in to a small number of customers in the south, we'd also theoretically be able to export to Japan and China -- maybe India and Europe in the future, depending on the economics. Europe and China are both intensely interested in diversifying their energy supplies, and Canada is about as reliable as you can get on these matters.

The distance to Japan or China shouldn't be a big problem -- it's about the same distance from Qatar to the US, a LNG trade that is already being pursued. In fact, the maritime routes from Qatar to any of the major gas consumers are quite long, so it would seem that if Qatar can be a major LNG exporter, than the Mackenzie Valley should have some opportunity.

Of course, Canada will always be kind of a midget when it comes to the LNG market -- Qatar, Iran, and Russia alone control the large majority of natural gas reserves.

More on the Budget

One anonymous commenter down-blog seems to think that I was somehow upset at the largesse in Flaherty's budget yesterday. To which I can only say: boy, you haven't been here long, have you?

We've had two decades, at provincial and federal levels, of political parties governing by balancing the budget on the backs of the poor -- no cut was too cruel, no victim too low to be kicked. So I was terrified that when the Conservatives got to power, they'd be even crueler than the Liberals had been in power.

Well, money changes people as they say. No big tax cuts, no major reorganization of the government, no head-on attacks on the poor. It is, as I said, a thoroughly Liberal budget. I quoted Andrew Coyne as being furious that nobody was willing to slash spending and screw the poor anymore because that's what Andrew Coyne will always say, and he can turn a nice phrase when he's in high dudgeon.

But I vote for the NDP. Why would I be upset if the Conservatives and Liberals have abandoned the fetish of tax-and-service-cuts? Why would I be upset if the shibboleth of "spending discipline" has lost all meaning? For every big-spending budget the Conservative Party of Canada brings in, Paul Martin and Preston Manning die a bit inside, and that makes me happy.

The only thing that's going to save Harper on this budget is that a) the BQ is playing the role of the good whore and staying bought, and b) the Liberals are doing their best to make Harper still look "disciplined" -- Stéphane Dion is out there saying not only would he shovel more money to Quebec, but he'd spend more on Natives, the environment, etc, etc. After decades of parties competing on how little they could spend on Canada, it's nice to have the reverse situation.

It's especially nice if, like me, you believe the government has immense and expensive problems that it should be tackling -- climate change, peak oil, reinvesting in infrastructure and rebuilding our military.

So: To Stephen Harper, for doing your best to bury even the idea of small-government conservatism, I say huzzah! Thanks from the NDP!

El mundo es plano

...Babelfish says that's the Spanish for "The World is Flat", and I couldn't help but wonder if there was some Spaniard in the 1500s writing paeans to the out-sourcing that was happening to Spanish industry and the massive new era of globalization that was occuring... and would make Spain a pauper country in the process. Turns out, there was. Stoneleigh has an excellent post about Energy and Empire, but this quote stuck out in particular:
Let London manufacture those fabrics of hers to her heart’s content; Holland her chambrays; Florence her cloth; the Indies their beaver and vicuna; Milan her brocades; Italy and Flanders their linens, so long as our capital can enjoy them. The only thing that it proves is that all nations train journeymen for Madrid and that Madrid is the queen of Parliaments, for all the world serves her and she serves nobody.(quoted in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by David Landes)
The rest of Stoneleigh's article is excellent and definitely worth clicking through. This reaction in the comment threads also caught my eye:
These days Tainter's (and Homer-Dixon's) view of the fall of Rome looks a bit dated.... The archeological record does not show widespread agricultural decline. Many areas were going gangbusters and had never been better.

What archeology and the written record do show is that living adjacent to the Empire for centuries caused the barbarians to unite into fewer (and larger) polities. Their own farming output and population surged as they adopted better farming methods and traded extensively with the empire.

According to Heather, Rome did not run out of gas, it was overwelmed. And the forces that overwelmed it were in great measure a product of a dynamic that the Empire itself set in motion.
Jesus, that sounds familiar. China has been able to grow itself in to a position of power not by opposing the American-built global system, but by working within it and trading with the US. Ditto Europe.

Europe may be especially relevant -- as well as the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- as we're seeing a definite trend in middle powers coalescing into regional blocs for economic and security purposes.

So where does this leave Canada? Were there barbarians who weren't Romans, but fought alongside the Romans right up to the end of the Empire?

Mining the Ocean Floor

So torn. On the one hand, I'm an environmentalist, so I don't exactly want to encourage rapacious industrial mining anywhere on Earth.

On the other hand, I'm a big nerd, so I can't help but find this stuff cool. Mining the ocean floor! It's not the asteroid belt, but it's a start.
Heydon acknowledges that digging up the deep seas could make him a billionaire. But he insists that it’s also the solution to all the ills that land-based mining has caused. No indigenous societies need be disturbed. Better still, land doesn’t have to be butchered. There are no open pits, no leveled mountaintops. To make the most out of poor-quality ore, mining companies use cyanide to increase their yield and run the risk of polluting streams and lakes. None of that, he says, will happen underwater.

This new approach to mining comes as the industry reaches a critical juncture. Many of the major land deposits have been exhausted by the $225 billion-a-year industry. But demand for minerals has never been higher. China and India are rapidly developing a middle class that’s hungry to improve its quality of life. That means millions of new houses laced with miles of copper wiring and acres of corrugated iron roofing....

I have a supportive girlfriend

Me: Well, now that I'm going back to school, I'll need to put some money together.

Vicki: (Sounding like Antoine from Deuce Bigalow) People give me money to pleasure them.

Me: Uh, the line was "women give me money to pleasure them."

Vicki: I know what the line was. How much money, exactly, do you need to raise in 6 months?

Me: No really, I can't emphasize enough how crucial the "women" is in that line...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Shorter Jim Flaherty

Let's see... a $4 billion sop to Quebec, health care and education funding... billions more for transfer and equalization payments, tax credits for the middle class...

That's right everybody: it took the Conservatives to bring Canada the best budget of Paul Martin's career.

Or, as Andrew Coyne put it on CBC just a minute ago: Canada now has a party committed to spending more money, in real per person terms, than any previous government in history, and then it's got the parties on the left.

What a weird, weird time to be a headline junkie.

This should be the final nail in the "Stephen Harper wants an early election" nonsense. I think Paul Wells gets a lot of it right here, but more than anything it's clear that whatever else may happen, the polls don't yet support the notion that Harper would win a majority in the next election -- something he clearly wants to do. (Who wouldn't?) Harper needs some time -- maybe just another year, maybe less -- for Liberals to stop talking about his "hidden agenda" and actually try debating his policies on the merits. A hard thing, of course, when Stephen Harper is stealing Liberal policies.

And now, of course, I've gone on way too long for this to be a "shorter" anything post, so more later.

Back to school for me

Some happy news today in the mail. I've been accepted to a graduate program at a local Ontario University. (Vagueness deliberate -- I don't want you crazies stalking me.)

Because apparently I'm such a sucker for higher education, I couldn't get enough in 4 years of an undergrad.

Shouldn't affect this space until September or so.

Friday, March 16, 2007

This can't possibly be true, can it?

I never understood why a person would plagiarize an essay for University -- especially in the era pre-Internet. You still have to read the stuff you steal, right? Why not simply give a day's worth of thought to the stuff you've read and try and do something as weird as, uh, thinking about it?

The Internet changes this dynamic a bit -- you can buy papers wholesale -- but fundamentally, I still don't understand the motivating impulse. Especially if you're this dumb:
The quality of plagiarism is so much less. Students just steal crap off the internet. So it's easier to pass off this low-grade stuff as your own, but it's also so easy to catch people! I personally like it when they leave the hyperlink in the paper.
Dear God in heaven. That sounds like it's awfully common for him, doesn't it? How stupid can you be and still be admitted to post-secondary education?

Suddenly, those A's I racked up don't seem so impressive.

Operation Restore Smug

An expanded version of my thoughts on Dion's Kyoto plan, now on Gristmill.
...Canada, while signing the Kyoto Accord, actually has a worse record on CO2 emissions (relatively speaking) than the U.S., which famously didn't sign.

Worse than the Americans! Well, we can't have that. There's nothing we Canadians love more than our high horses. Today, Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion -- elected leader of his party with a promise to clean up Canada's act -- made his proposal to restore our smugness public.

The Media's war on Heisenberg

Ezra has it right here:
The media has this weird causality paradox, where they'll do things, and then pretend those things and their effects just magically occurred, and merrily report on the aftermath. That's how you get silly spectacles like the chattering class not reporting on a candidate's public pronouncements and then turning around and downgrading that candidate because the chattering class didn't report on his statements. The problem is the media, which is a major and powerful actor in our democracy, hews to an evidently absurd ethos which states that they cannot in any way influence political outcomes. Of course, there's absolutely no way they can avoid influencing elections, if only due to what they choose to cover. But if they state that publicly, the whole facade crashes down.
To quote Prof. Farnsworth: "No fair! You changed the outcome by observing it!" The note that Ezra links to is pretty egregious -- the media is judging John Edwards as a failure because they (the media) are doing a crappy job of covering him.

We've seen this before -- the media crapped all over Al Gore in 2000, and then they turned around and talked about how "weak" he was as a candidate, totally ignoring their own history of outright lying about him. (No, he never said he invented the Internet. Shut up already.)

Okay, I'm impressed.

When the Conservatives first rolled out their laughable Clean Air Act -- with it's hallucinatory targets on CO2 -- I predicted that, Canadian politics being what it is, Harper had effectively raised the bar in Canadian politics: no party could dare propose something less stringent than the Conservative plan, so the Conservatives had effectively raised the basement of political expectations. Nevermind that Harper's proposals weren't too far removed from Liberal proposals not that long ago -- the Liberals had to up the ante.

Well, Dion has announced a Liberal white paper -- God knows if it will ever become policy or law -- that manages not only to impress, but actually shock me. It's not what I would have preferred in a perfect world, but for the real world it's a proposal that actually manages to be.. brave, in the Canadian context at least.

(Must.. restrain.. praise for Liberals...)

Dion wants, as of January 1 2008, to put in a cap-and-trade system that would cap Canadian emissions at our Kyoto target. Industry would pay $20/tonne for every tonne of CO2 emitted above the cap. The revenue thus raised would be deposited in a fund for CO2 reductions.

And, to disarm accusations that the Liberals are soaking Alberta, 80% of the monies raised by the fines must be spent within the province they came from.

The reductions required, by sector:

You can see that Alberta is going to scream bloody murder here. The two heaviest-hit sectors -- electricity generation and oil/gas -- are heavily concentrated in Alberta. But by the same token, most of the money will end up being spent in Alberta and Ontario (the two biggest emitters.)

The problem here is that the lightest burden falls on industrial emitters. Now, there's a good reason for that: industry actually does emit less CO2 than other sources. Still, politically it may come across as the west being forced to pay for Central Canada's industrial firms, a charge that has some history in this country.

The other problem should be evident by how impressed I am with it: business, much of the press, and the entire Conservative apparatus are going to scream bloody murder over this idea. (I am not a particularly good barometer for public opinion.) They'll call it unrealistic, a death knell for Canadian industry, etc etc. Frankly, just proposing this idea -- even if it never sees the light of day again -- is going to hurt the Liberals. As much as I like it, I figure it might be a bridge too far for the Canadian public, who've always liked the image of Canada as a green nation more than they've liked actions to justify that image.

(What will come first: the National Post editorial calling this "Stalinist", or Sunday morning?)

That said, the rhetoric of "balancing our carbon budget" is a PR masterstroke, reminding people who it was that balanced that other budget.

To the Liberals: More of this please.

To the NDP, Bloc: Up the ante. Keep pushing.

Conservatives shouldn't like nuclear

An enduring mystery, to me anyway: Why do conservatives (regardless of partisan affiliation it seems) just love, love, love nuclear power? I mean, this is the icon of big government. An industry that literally could not exist without original and ongoing welfare on a scale that actual humans have never benefited from: The Manhattan Project was, proportionally speaking, multiples more expensive than the Apollo Program. Some 20% of US industry in the early 1940s was tasked with developing the first nuclear weapons, from which the modern industry still derives it's chromosomes.

Imagine, for a moment, if we spent 1 out of 5 dollars alleviating poverty in this country -- roughly $200 billion today. The mind does kind of boggle, even to a lefty like me.

And I don't understand why even some leftish people are warming to nuclear, when you see a chart like this (via The Oil Drum):

Look at that chart. Military uses of uranium weren't matched by civilian commercial uses until the mid-1970s. It's certainly fair to say that at least half of the nuclear industry's history has been exclusively military, that is: the production of weapons with sufficient power and number to irrevocably destroy human civilization.

Look, if you had said to me in the mid 1970s that we needed to begin a crash program to get off of fossil fuels, I'd have supported the French program, more or less: massive investments in state-run, standardized nuclear facilities. But this isn't the 1970s, and technology is already eclipsing nuclear technology. Efficiency is cheaper than coal. Wind is cheaper than nuclear. Solar is catching up quickly -- by the mid-2010s, it should easily be cheaper than nuclear.

And if we wanted to make the market fair, we'd ask the nuclear industry to do two things it simply cannot afford: take care of it's own waste, and insure its own reactors. Currently, the state does both these jobs for the nuclear industry, but refuses to provide similar subsidies for the renewable industry. But adding these costs to already-expensive nuclear power would basically price the industry out of the market (obviously, not something that worries me too much. I would, as a compromise, accept state insurance of renewable power.)

Or, to rephrase: nuclear power is something that cannot survive without massive government interference in the market, ad infinitum.

And yet, nuclear power is a kind of totem to conservatives on energy issues -- largely, I suspect, because it annoys the left. Talk about global warming, and some idiot is likely to say to you "oh, then I guess you hippies shouldn't have protested all those nuclear plants, huh?" Well, yeah. Between two bad options (coal and nuclear) on the one hand, and an actual good option (efficiency, renewables) on the other, we would like humans to choose rationally.

This is an issue I keep coming back to. I'm genuinely confused as to why nuclear has any backers in North America anymore.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Blackout law upheld

In a 5 to 4 decision, the country's highest court ruled that provisions of the Canada Elections Act must stand, forbidding the reporting of partial results in areas where the polls haven't closed.

"For the big broadcasters and big media in this country, we have been operating under this law for several years now. And we will have to continue to black out this type of information until the polls close in western Canada," CTV's Rosemary Thompson reported from the lobby of the Supreme Court on Thursday morning.
I wonder how many more years it will be until this law is totally, absolutely irrelevant -- until, that is, Ontario and Quebec no longer form a majority of the country's population.

Alberta & BC combined only just exceed Quebec's population, and Ontario alone is almost 3 times BC's population, so we've got some time yet.

As it is, technology should make it practically irrelevant. I would think the most sensible blackout would be simply to embargo all election news, nationwide, until the polls close in BC. That would, however, mean that Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians go to bed without knowing who their PM is, which doesn't seem that unreasonable to me. The Americans have had two Presidential elections where they went to bed not knowing who the President would be, and not knowing for a night didn't hurt anyone. (Indeed, the results were much worse than the confusion preceding them...)

It would also carry the risk of me having to listen to blowhards like Mike Duffy and Rex Murphy prattle on, fact-free, for a few more hours on election night. Not that anyone would notice the difference...

Why I bother reading Slate

Two interesting pieces:

1) Fred Kaplan on Bush's strange obsession: gratitude.
In his memoir of his year in Baghdad as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer recalled that President Bush once told him that the leader of a new Iraqi government had to be "someone who's willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq."

Bremer noted that Bush made this point three times in the course of a single conversation...
As Kaplan goes on to note, Bush's attitude on gratitude seems to stem from an imperial mindset -- the bloody wogs ought to be grateful, right? And it's not just Iraq -- Bush genuinely seems to think that a) America is the best country in the world (a reasonable belief for an American President) BUT also b) every other country should also recognize that yes, America is the greatest country in the world. It's a lord-vassal mindset.

2) Jack Shafer praises Patrick Fitzgerald, from the reporter's point of view:
Thanks to the Valerie Plame investigation, the First Amendment lies in tatters on the ground, and a chilling effect has already started to freeze out press sources.

That's what many reporters and academics would have you believe. But now that the Plame investigation has ended, and all the subpoenas and threats of subpoenas are history, I don't buy it. The press (including me) may have overreacted in regarding special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald as some sort of Torquemada, and our fears of a shredded First Amendment are starting to look a little overwrought.

If the press needs somebody to blame for the last four years of First Amendment anxiety, it need look no further than the vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. If he had told investigators the truth or even claimed Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination when they came knocking, the press would likely have been spared....If Libby used the press consciously, he gives every reporter a paradox to consider: If journalists are in the business of finding and printing the truth, how tolerant should we be of liars, especially liars whose lies bring subpoenas down on the press?
What kills me about the whole Miller saga is that nobody ever points out that she chose to go to jail. Libby had already issued a waiver to every journalist in Washington, and every other journalist (including Cooper at the Post) had accepted that waiver, though in Cooper's case it was at the last minute. Miller was the only one who chose to believe that the waiver wasn't genuine. That's not Fitzgerald's fault, it's not even Libby's fault -- that's Miller's fault.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Wacky construction projects

A rail tunnel between Africa and Europe. Neato.

This is coming at a time when African countries are getting more and more serious about developing export industries, so this rail link to Europe could have a profound effect on development.

With all the talk about China's race for Africa, one wonders if we'll see a push from Beijing for a solid rail line from Africa (Egypt, I guess) to Central Asia. Time for me to go look at a map of old Soviet rail lines.

Now all we need to do is bridge the Korean strait, and the entire eastern hemisphere will be linked with lines of steel. Then there's the small matter of the Bering Strait....

Heh. Kinda funny.

Air traffic control humour. No surprise, my favourite is this one.
Ground (with quite arrogant impatience): "Speedbird 206, have you not been to Frankfurt before?"
Speedbird 206 (coolly): "Yes, twice in 1944, but it was dark,... and I didn't land."
(via Digg.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Well said

R Stanton, in comments over at LGM:
Those who argue that some citizens should be excluded from military service because their presence would hurt "unit cohesion" are saying that current soldiers should be able to decide with whom they serve. This is bravo sierra--the military is not a country club whose members should be able to blackball undesireables.

As a tank platoon sergeant I faced a variety of obstacles to unit cohesion, including affairs and arguments over women, unpaid gambling debts, racism, gang membership, laziness, and simple personality conflicts. The biggest one was the constant squabble between single junior enlisted troops who lived constricted lives in the barracks (daily inspections, etc), and the married soldiers who lived off post and lived much more freely (and also got time off for things like sick family members).

The point is that conflicts will always arise among any group of people large enough to complete a destructive military mission, and leaders--like General Pace--have the mission of solving these problems.... Saying that military units cannot integrate homosexuals into cohesive units is the same as saying that our armed services have too few effective leaders.

What strikes me as most interesting is not that General Pace is comfortable classifying a non-trivial number of his own troops as immoral. It is that there is a mission that he can't or won't complete because of morality or ethics, but this mission has nothing to do with killing thousands of innocent civilians or breaking the Marine Corps he leads. It regards instead his refusal to validate sexual preferences his religion demonizes.

Zhao lives

Zhao Ziyang died under house arrest two years ago now. And in case you were wondering why, exactly, he was under house arrest in the first place, a new book will remind you:
Zhao Ziyang’s thoughts, available in a new book, point to his vision of change in China. The deposed Party Chief supported more elections, party democracy, and accountability.

Speaking from the grave, a remarkable Chinese political figure is calling for drastic changes in the Communist Party, including the elimination of the post of party chief, the abolition of party branches in ministries and companies, the introduction of independent trade unions and direct popular election of officials up to the city level.

In life, Zhao Ziyang, who was prime minister and party general secretary for nine years until he was purged after he refused to sanction the crackdown and massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, was an unpleasant reality for Beijing, a popular reformer who was kept under house arrest until he died in January 2005.
While certain aspects of Zhao's programs may eventually be adopted by the People's Republic, I'm going to reiterate my belief that the Communist party simply cannot survive local elections at the city level. The moment any kind of crisis came along, you'd have a perfect recipe for chaos -- the mayors of the largest cities in China (certainly Shanghai, Beijing, Nanking, Chungking) would, if directly elected, hold more authority (or legitimacy) than the officials nominally calling the shots.

Further, the idea of delinking the party from government and business is a perfectly rational idea... if your aim is to eventually remove the party from government. I have a hard time believing that these kinds of reforms can be started and stopped to the liking of high officials.

(One of the ideas I like to think about is what kind of country a democratic China will be. There's a lot of factors that would, I think, push other countries towards a weak-federalist model. But national unity has a kind of totemic power in China, and this is a country that still remembers the period of warlordism pre-1949.)

Now, I think elections would be a good thing because I don't think the CPC could coexist peacefully with them for long. But as I say, you can understand why Zhao was under house arrest until his death.

For more backstory, see here.

And this quote from the same article is just priceless, illustrating why exactly Deng Xiaopeng was such a bastard:
“A Communist Party that does not crush the masses is certainly not a Marxist Communist Party,” he once said.
There's an honesty there that you almost have to admire.

Blatant pro-Athenian bias in the Star

via Ezra Klein:
This touches on 300's most noteworthy abuse of history: the Persians are turned into monsters, but the non-Spartan Greeks are simply all too human. According to Herodotus, Leonidas led an army of perhaps 7,000 Greeks. These Greeks took turns rotating to the front of the phalanx stationed at Thermoplyae where, fighting in disciplined hoplite fashion, they held the narrow pass for two days. All told, some 4,000 Greeks perished there. In 300 the fighting is not in the hoplite fashion, and the Spartans do all of it, except for a brief interlude in which Leonidas allows a handful of untrained Greeks to taste the action, and they make a hash of it. When it becomes apparent they are surrounded, this contingent flees. In Herodotus' time there were various accounts of what transpired, but we know 700 hoplites from Thespiae remained, fighting beside the Spartans, they, too, dying to the last man.

No mention is made in 300 of the fact that at the same time a vastly outnumbered fleet led by Athenians was holding off the Persians in the straits adjacent to Thermopylae, or that Athenians would soon save all of Greece by destroying the Persian fleet at Salamis. This would wreck 300's vision, in which Greek ideals are selectively embodied in their only worthy champions, the Spartans.

This moral universe would have appeared as bizarre to ancient Greeks as it does to modern historians. Most Greeks would have traded their homes in Athens for hovels in Sparta about as willingly as I would trade my apartment in Toronto for a condo in Pyongyang.
Now this is far more interesting than the schoolyard snickerings about how gay it is, isn't it?

Unstated assumptions

Scott Tribe writes about immmigration:
...despite criticism of the system from the right-wing (and some from those who consider themselves left-wing as well), Canada is going to need such a system for continued population growth in Canada.
And why does Canada need continued population growth?

Before I go any further, I'll just state the obvious: I'm wildly pro-immigration. My mother moved to this country as a young girl, my paternal grandmother moved here after serving as a Red Cross nurse in WWII (where she met my grandfather.) My girlfriend's parents came here for school when they were young, something I'm immensely happy for every day. So I'm in no way opposed to immigration. My reasons are just different from Scott's.

But for some reason we all seem to assume that Canada needs to keep growing, an assumption I don't think we tend to think about critically, if at all. What are the arguments for continued growth?

The most common one -- the one Scott uses -- is economics. Population growth is one aspect of economic growth. It is not, however, the most important one. That would be productivity, right? The economy could keep growing with a shrinking population -- see Russia since 1998. "GDP" really is just a number, and even if the aggregate GDP were static, in a shrinking population we'd all be getting richer.

We need to recognize that as much as we want there to be more Canadians in the world, there's a flip side to having more people in Canada -- those people live like Canadians. Inefficient, intensely polluting Canadians. It's even more problematic if we keep doing immigration the way we have been, with immigration channeled in to a small number of large cities that are already choking on urban problems -- sprawl, waste disposal, mass transit.

Let's assume, however, that we solve the environmental issues and we decide we still want Canada to growing (in numbers of people) as rapidly as possible. There are other alternatives: the French have successfully reversed their slumping birthrates by pursuing policies that are extremely family-friendly: guaranteed paid maternal leave, cheap national day care, and others. In then next few years, France should see it's birthrate exceed the replacement rate for the first time in decades.

So immigration isn't the only means for reversing a population slump. You want people to have large families? Make it easier for them to have larger families. Baby bonuses, subsidies for larger homes, try and direct some jobs in to smaller towns so people can afford houses more easily... there's plenty of alternatives.

Despite the environmental issues (which, if anything, deserve more time than I'm giving them here) I'm still, as I say, wildly pro-immigration, and I do think Canada should try and keep it's population growing. If nothing else, because we've got the room and I genuinely think that Canada is one of the finest places to live anywhere, and I was raised to share.

Monday, March 12, 2007

We're on a mission from God.

I hate Taiwanese Nazis.[/elwood]
"We are attracted to the feeling of unity of that period," he said, "isn't that why people joing political groups of any sort? That sense of belonging and togetherness?"
Yeah, but, dude. Some of us are smart enough to join the side that won.


General Peter Pace reads from the GOP hymnal:
“I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral, and that we should not condone immoral acts.”... In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Pace also compared homosexuality to adultery. He claimed that the military should “not tolerate” homosexuality just as it rejects “military members who sleep with other military members’ wives.”
This is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, btw. Americablog has the headline quote of the day:
Maybe if General Pace spent as much time worrying about Iraq as he does my sexual orientation we wouldn't be getting our asses kicked by a bunch of two-bit thugs with homemade bombs.

Sure, they're just eggs now...

But each and every one is guaranteed to be a chicken! I'm sure of it!
With the Quebec election in full swing, one thing is clear: André Boisclair and his separatist Parti Québécois are in the middle of a full-scale political meltdown....

The abysmal performance of the PQ in the polls is nothing less than the political confirmation of a decade-old economic and cultural fact: the threat of Quebec separatism is over and gone for good.
Um. Right. The ADQ that's eating away at the sovereigntist vote? It's probably doing well among separatists because, well...
In the 1995 Quebec referendum on the Parti Québécois government's proposals for sovereignty, Dumont campaigned for the "Yes" [to breaking the country] side...
This is more than just a little odd. First of all, let's just say it's an odd kind of federalist who thinks the ADQ is a white knight. It's especially odd coming from the head of the Dominion Institute, committed to a pretty WASPy, Upper Canada Tory vision of Canada.

But all this really pales in comparison to looking at an extremely tight, 3-way race for first in Quebec and proclaiming that separatism is dead.

The Problem

Tony Smith in the WaPo:
Iraq had flustered the congressional Democrats because Democrats don't have an agreed position on what America's role in the world should be. They want to change the Bush administration's policy in Iraq without discussing the underlying ideas that produced it. And although they now cast themselves as alternatives to President Bush, the fact is that prevailing Democratic doctrine is not that different from the Bush-Cheney doctrine....

In fact, these neoliberals are nearly indistinguishable from the better-known neoconservatives. The neocons' think tank, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), often salutes individuals within the PPI, and PPI members such as Marshall signed PNAC petitions endorsing the Iraq invasion. Weeks after "With All Our Might" appeared, the Weekly Standard, virtually the PNAC house organ, gave it a thumbs-up review. And why not? The PPI and PNAC are tweedledum and tweedledee.
I would, unhesitatingly and immediately, say that anyone who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 was a moron*. That said, the underlying critique -- that Clinton-era neoliberalism was not sufficiently distinguishable from actual Republicanism -- has been borne out by the facts. Neoliberals flocked to the GOP banner -- whether they admit it or not -- to fight this damn war, and the only excuse they have now is that they thought they'd win. Well, duh.
It isn't easy to offer a true alternative. The challenges to world order are many, as are the influential special interests in this country that want an aggressive policy: globalizing corporations, the military-industrial complex, the pro-Israel lobbies, those who covet Middle Eastern oil. The nationalist conviction that we are indeed "the indispensable nation" will continue to tempt our leaders to overplay their hand. The danger lies in believing that our power is beyond challenge, that the righteousness of our goals is beyond question and that the real task is not to reformulate our role in the world so much as to assert more effectively a global American peace.
I'll keep asking until I get a good answer: Is America prepared to be just another country? Or will we see war after war after war based on the premise, not that America is powerful and good, but that America is powerful because it is Good.

*The question of whether Ralph Nader had an empirically correct analysis of the situation in 2000 is totally different from the question of whether he was worth voting for in 2000. Nader's political objectives have never been particularly noble, something that only became clear to me post-2000. In any case, I'm happy to say I never wasted my vote on him. (Yes, I am able to vote in US elections. Sadly, only in New York.)

Ralph, why must you turn my office in to a house of lies?

It would be nice if the people who keep claiming -- as loudly as possible -- that there's still this yawning chasm of debate about global weirding would, um, stop lying.
n the part of the "Swindle" film where I am describing the fact that the ocean tends to expel carbon dioxide where it is warm, and to absorb it where it is cold, my intent was to explain that warming the ocean could be dangerous---because it is such a gigantic reservoir of carbon. By its placement in the film, it appears that I am saying that since carbon dioxide exists in the ocean in such large quantities, human influence must not be very important --- diametrically opposite to the point I was making --- which is that global warming is both real and threatening in many different ways, some unexpected.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Teh Gayz

So, just asking: Does every single review of 300 talk about how gay the movie is? Has anyone read a single review of this movie that hasn't used the word "homoerotic" in some way?

I mean, I get it: oiled men, spear thrusts, etc. And let's not even mention the whole Greek aspect. But reading the reviews, you'd think we're lining up for Brokeback Mountain II: Persian Boogaloo.

Yay for the EU. Can we join yet?

I once again renew my calls for Canada to join the EU.
Leaders of the European Union have reached a historic agreement to reduce greenhouse gases and transition to renewable sources of energy in the ongoing fight against climate change.

The ambitious plan will see EU nations commit to a binding agreement to achieve a 20 per cent share of renewable power from sources such as wind energy and solar power.
Good news, all in all. But this little tidbit weirds me out.
It also met a requirement set out by the Czech and Slovak members, with a phrase that states nuclear energy meets the growing global concerns about safety of supply.....

Some of the poorer EU nations, including Slovakia and Poland, raised concern about the details of the plan, claiming they could not afford to invest in expensive alternative energy sources such as wind.
So on the one hand, you've got eastern countries pushing nuclear as a CO2-light alternative, but they're also saying they can't afford wind.

One problem: Wind is cheaper than nuclear. Wind is nipping at coal's heels, for chrissakes. Has been for years now. So it's a mystery why Slovakia would be pushing nuclear while avoiding wind. What we have here is the usual failure of imagination when it comes to renewables.

Evolving standards

You know, I'm actually kind of surprised to see newspapers dropping Ann Coulter's column over the whole "John Edwards is a faggot" incident.

Let's be clear -- I'm not that old. But not ten years ago, I'm quite certain this wouldn't have gotten Crazy Annie dropped from any papers, much less 6. Ten years ago you would have had some Conservative applauding her brave words and stance against the dreaded "political correctness".

I think it's fascinating to remember just how acceptable Ann's kind of homophobia was within my memory. (My parents, of course, get to remember a whole different level, lucky them.) I remember very clearly, about fifteen or so years ago now, CBC deciding to air some whackjob who blamed the entirety of the AIDS epidemic on gay men. Because, you know, no straight people ever have unsafe sex, ever. Or something. Also, around the same time, I wrote a school project on the history of the Gay Rights movement in North America, and for my trouble I got threatened with physical assault from my "peers". It goes without saying that my sexual orientation was also questioned, but that was (still is?) kind of a given for all boys that age.

It's important to note that the conservatives Crazy Annie was talking to cheered her remarks, and applauded her homophobia. I'm not painting anybody with that brush -- unless you were in the audience, I guess -- but it's clear that gays and lesbians still have a lot of work ahead of them. Still, it's moments like this where I can't help but remark how much has actually changed.

Tech stuff

This is interesting. Bob Cringely (who ought to know):
I have heard that Apple plans to add hardware video decoding to ALL of its new computers beginning fairly soon, certainly this year.

Why Apple would do this is fairly clear to me, but first let's clarify what I mean by hardware video decoding, because it isn't implicitly the MPEG-2 format used in present-day DVDs. I'm not saying Apple's video-decoder chip won't also decode MPEG-2 (it may or may not -- I simply don't know), but the chip's primary codec is H.264, which is at the heart of both Apple's QuickTime software and its iTunes video downloading service.

WHY Apple would add H.264 video-decoding hardware to its entire line of PCs comes down to supporting iTunes and any similar video distribution efforts Apple may spring on us. By going with a chip, Apple ensures the same base performance level from every machine it sells, from the lowliest Mac Mini right up to the mightiest four-core Mac Pro. Up until now it took a multi-core machine with a lot of memory to support real 1080p (HDTV) decoding, but soon you'll be able to do that easily on a Mac Mini while leaving the main CPU to handle other chores like networking, running the graphical user interface, or perhaps integrating in real time a variety of video ad streams.

Apple's new policy, if true, will turn on its head the whole notion of forcing users upmarket if they want better video support. THE POLICY WILL COST APPLE MONEY, not just for the video chip, but also for the lost sales of higher performance machines.
It is just a rumour at the moment, but it's one I believe. It would fit in to Apple's long-term behaviour: give individuals the creative tools to manipulate, edit, and create whatever media that available technology will make feasible. This goes back to Apple's long-term advantage in desktop publishing, and continued with the iPod and the "Rip, Mix, and Burn" campaign. I think it's clear that Apple is doing this again with video this time, and so does Cringely:
So what's in it for Apple? Potentially a lot, because the chip Apple has chosen doesn't cost $7, it costs more like $50, and it doesn't just do hardware H.264 decoding, it does hardware H.264 ENCODING, too.

This will change everything. Soon even the lowliest Mac will be able to effortlessly record in background one or more video signals while the user runs TurboTax on the screen. Macs will become superb DVR machines with TiVo-like functionality yet smaller file sizes than any TiVo box could ever produce. In a YouTube world, the new Macs will be a boon to user-produced video, which will, in turn, promote the H.264 standard. By being able to encode in real time, the new Macs will have that American Idol clip up and running faster than could be done on almost any other machine. Add in Slingbox-like capability to throw your home cable signal around the world and it gets even better. Add faster video performance to the already best-of-league iChat audio/video chat client, and every new Mac becomes a webcam or a video phone.
Apple has earned a reputation as a disruptive company. And they do love that reputation, they love it sooooo much. But this really is an interesting jump -- it will be interesting to see how PC companies react. What will Dell and HP start packing on their systems? Will they follow Apple's lead, or go with another standard?

Fascinating time to be paying attention to the computer industry.

Surprising as sunrise

So. Newt Gingrich -- you remember him, right? Divorced his wife while she lay in her hospital bed, attempting to survive a little thing called malignant cancer? Because he was already fucking around with some younger piece of GOP hill tail? It turns out, he was also screwing around when he was spearheading that whole "let's impeach the President for a blow job" foofaraw. Sez Newt:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was having an extramarital affair even as he led the charge against President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, he acknowledged in an interview with a conservative Christian group.

"The honest answer is yes," Gingrich, a potential 2008 Republican presidential candidate, said in an interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson to be aired Friday, according to a transcript provided to The Associated Press.
But wait! It's not over yet!
Gingrich argued in the interview, however, that he should not be viewed as a hypocrite for pursuing Clinton's infidelity.

"The president of the United States got in trouble for committing a felony in front of a sitting federal judge," the former Georgia congressman said of Clinton's 1998 House impeachment on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

"I drew a line in my mind that said, 'Even though I run the risk of being deeply embarrassed, and even though at a purely personal level I am not rendering judgment on another human being, as a leader of the government trying to uphold the rule of law, I have no choice except to move forward and say that you cannot accept ... perjury in your highest officials."
But of course, this isn't the only case recently of the country's "highest officials" committing perjury, right? We've just concluded the trial of now-convicted-felon Scooter Libby. And what, pray tell, does Newt have to say about this shame of the nation, having some of the most powerful people in the world lie to federal officials under oath?
I think that's very dangerous for the United States to criminalize actions that are meant well. Now, again, I think we have to wait and see what the report looks like, but at least, up to this point, I have not seen any evidence from Mr. Fitzgerald that there was, in fact, a crime initially committed.
You see, Newt -- like all red-blooded conservatives -- knows who's really at fault here:
Joe Wilson was a stunningly malicious person systematically defaming the president of the United States in a way that was harmful to the United States.
Boy, if only we could criminalize harmfully defaming the good name of a sitting President, huh Newt? Then we could really shake things up. And I'm sure that Republicans would never, ever break that kind of law.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

"America has been conducting an experiment...."

"...for the past six years, trying to validate the proposition that it really doesn't make any difference who you elect president. Now we know the result of that experiment. If a guy is stupid, it makes a big difference."
Those are the words of Gen. Tony McPeak, USAF (ret.) Who, incidentally, originally campaigned for Bush in 2000. Sucker.

In the same article by Rolling Stone, Sen. Bob Graham looks on the sunny side of life:
I believe the chance that the chaos in Iraq could bring countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia into the mix is in the forty to fifty percent range. The big danger is what I call the August 1914 Syndrome. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo — what would have been in the scale of history a minor event — set in motion activities that turned out to be beyond the ability of the Western powers to control. And they ended up in one of the most brutal wars in man's history by accident.
Nice. Read a nice line a few days ago -- "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Seems apt.

Carrots, Sticks, or birthday cakes?

Matthew Yglesias:
The basic idea is that you maintain a running dialogue with Iran offering carrots in exchange for verifiable steps at disarmament, while simultaneously maintaining a running dialogue with America's main allies and the other major powers about ratcheting-up Iran's diplomatic and economic isolation. The idea is to ensure that the United States is consistently the reasonable party, consistently the one prepared to strike a deal, and therefore that international diplomatic momentum remains on our side.

Among sensible people this is one major school of thought. The other, represented by Flynt Leverett's ... holds that we should be aiming at a "grand bargain" to resolve all the outstanding bilateral issues. ... they think this is "not practical." Leverett, by contrast, thinks it's not practical to separate the issues.
First off, the obvious: neither of these sensible options will be pursued while Bush is in office, nor would the Iranians trust an American initiative coming from this White House. So this discussion really is the definition of academic until January 2009.

That said, I think the piecemeal approach is the preferable one here. Neither side is particularly trustworthy to the other, so before you can negotiate some kind of big-bang, all-encompassing solution -- as preferable as that might be to both sides in theory -- you need some trust-building steps in the interim. I would say as a first step Iran should comply fully with the IAEA inspectors (which would not, yet, mean they have to change their nuclear program in any way, much less abandon it) and the US should make a pledge not to attack Iran and to pursue these issues diplomatically.

Leverett has a point, however: the Iranians don't want a piecemeal negotiation, because they think the Americans will agree to the stuff that most benefits them and abandon any issues that could benefit Iran. I don't have a particularly good answer to that concern, and it's a valid one from Tehran's point of view.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A Canada that can say "no".

I kind of laugh when Canadian politicians talk about "guarding Canada's sovereignty". Especially when Conservatives do it, but the Liberals (especially from the business wing of the party) aren't immune from my skepticism. The Conservatives, however, are in power at the moment, and have racked up a bit of a record already. Softwood is the best-known, but in general Harper has made it clear that he actually has no real idea for a Canadian foreign policy separate from the wishes of the United States.

I don't actually think the Harper-Bush comparisons are fair, and I think they over-complicate things. Harper would be trying to make nice with any American president, because he can't imagine a way for Canada to a) dissent from American views that wouldn't b) risk upsetting American business or political leaders. I think he's probably right about that: I just don't particularly worry about B, and I don't think it's proper or right for the Prime Minister of Canada to base every single foreign policy action on those concerns.

Which brings me to this question of Canada's national sovereignty. On the one hand, we have a party and Prime Minister who have loudly proclaimed their goal of guarding Canada's claims over the Arctic. On the other, the very same party has made it clear that a) they will not oppose American foreign policy objectives, and b) they will accuse those who do of "anti-Americanism" and endangering Canada's most important relationship.

(This anti-American canard has a happy home in the Liberal party as well. See Ignatieff, Michael and Martin, Paul.)

Some authors, most recently Jack Granatstein, argue that Canada needs a larger military to protect our sovereignty and participate in the War on Terror. (Much of Granatstein's efforts have been devoted to convincing Canadians that the GWoT is "our war too." So on the one hand, we're supposed to give ourselves the tools of sovereignty, but we mustn't contemplate using them in any way other than that dictated by Washington. But sovereignty isn't particularly useful getting dusty in the closet. Unless Canada actually does something as radical as disagree with the United States, and act on that disagreement, we might as well not be sovereign at all.

Let's take the hypothetical case of an attack on Iran: There's plenty of evidence that such a thing is planned, and is certainly favoured, by constituencies in America. But there's no conceivable explanation that such an attack is in Canada's interests. (There's no sane explanation that it would be in America's, or even Israel's interests either, but we're talking Canada here.) There's plenty of ways that such an attack will in fact do great harm to Canada's interests -- not the least of which is retaliation against NATO forces in Afghanistan. What, then, is the proper response for the Government of Canada if American bombs start falling on Iran?

Does anyone think that Stephen Harper's instincts will be to immediately and loudly denounce the US? Anyone? If so, based on what?

How about something even more hypothetical: Assume we actually had a robust Navy capable of operating in the Arctic, and the Americans began sending ships through our waters without permission. Would Stephen Harper, say, order the RCN to board those ships and turn them around? He's claimed the mantle of both sovereignty-champion and America-friend. What happens when they're in conflict?

This is the dilemma for the pro-American (that is, anti-Canadian) sovereignty hawks: For good or ill, the country that will threaten Canada's sovereignty and interests the most is the United States, simply by virtue of American power and America's own interests. (I'm not imputing malice here. Just the usual American attitude of ignoring Canada, "all tucked away down there.") You cannot simultaneously crow about protecting Canada's sovereignty unless you're willing to, at least on the big issues, break with Washington and risk DC's opprobrium. Yes, Fox News will call us the Venezuela of the North. Live with it.

One of the things our home and native placate-America-at-all-costs Parties of both sides curiously forget is that Canada really is a country that was, is, and will always define itself in opposition to the United States. The United Empire Loyalists literally came here because they didn't want to be Americans, and they built Ontario as a result. Francophones not only don't want to be Americans, they're still not totally sold on this whole "Canada" idea.

The point is that "anti-Americanism" isn't just something that Canadians affect as an air of superiority, though it is sometimes that. Not being American is what we do up here, though we still like to sell stuff to the Yanks. Lots of stuff. Cheap.

Speaking of which: oil. I've said before that if Canada is serious about meeting Kyoto, then we simply must begin closing down the tar sands. There's no way that maintaining, much less expanding, such a CO2-intensive energy sink is possibly compatible with Canada's environmental goals.

At the same time, we can't do this without cutting off our largest customer. How exactly does Stephane Dion plan to do one -- meet our Kyoto objectives -- while placating the pro-business, pro-American side of the Liberal Party? (I assume Harper won't even try.) I don't envy Dion the task, I really don't.

James Laxer has some thoughts on what an independent Canadian foreign policy would look like, which prompted this post.