Thursday, November 29, 2007

This will please me, and my friends

Vernor Vinge has released his latest book, Rainbow's End, for free on the Internet.

Interesting side argument: Rainbow's End was released in May 2006. So: we can assume one or both of two things. It's possible that Vinge believes the commercial lifetime of his latest work is approximately 16 months, or that he believes releasing his text for free on the Internet will drive sales more than it harms. Or both, like I said.

Either belief utterly undermines that claim that creators need ever-stronger copyright protections in the 21st century.

Ah, but you say, Vinge's book is a bestseller, he's already made a pile of money off of it and other books. This is true. It is also exactly the reason that, according to the standard arguments pro-eternal copyright, that he should be most heavily invested in the status quo. Apparently, he is not. So either: the standard description of how creators are motivated by copyright protections is generally false, or at the very least it cannot accurately predict the behaviour of exactly the people it is supposed to benefit most.

None of this matters, of course, because despite the utterly false bilge published by the content industries, Canada seems likely to move towards the worst-ever copyright laws in the world. Hooray us!

First softwood, now this

Will the lasting impact of the Afghanistan War be to undermine one of Canada's main export industries?
KABUL, Afghanistan — The fields of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan were free of opium poppies this year, a success touted often by Afghan and international officials. But one look at Mohammad Alam's fields uncovers an emerging drug problem.

Ten-foot-tall cannabis plants flourish in Alam's fields. The crop — the source of both marijuana and hashish — can be just as profitable as opium but draws none of the scrutiny from Afghan officials bent on eradicating poppies.

Cannabis cultivation rose 40 percent in Afghanistan this year, to 173,000 acres from 123,550 in 2006, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated in its 2007 opium survey. The crop is being grown in at least 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, according to the survey released last month.

"The government cannot provide a good market for other crops like cotton, watermelon and vegetables, so I have to grow marijuana instead of poppy," said Alam, a farmer in Balkh province, which the U.N. singles out as a "leading example" of an opium-free area.
It turns out that farmers can make as much money from pot as they can from Opium poppies. Seems like a decent trade to me, except that this doesn't seem to be reducing the absolute amount of poppies produced, either.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

WTF?

What following random links gets you: Yglesias links to he of the doughy pants, who writes:
We live in an unconscious civilization, as John Ralston Saul might put it, where premises are assumed at the most fundamental level.
Let me just venture a guess that a) Jonah Goldberg hasn't actually read any of John Ralston Saul's work, and if I'm contradicted on A than I venture b) he didn't understand any of it.

One of the arguments in The Unconscious Civilization was that western societies had been captured by the idea that the economy was more important than politics, that capitalism caused freedom, whereas Saul argued that, to the contrary, that capitalism caused enormous abuses of people's dignity, which then led to revolutions, which led to democracy.

He also argued that modern conservatives fundamentally misread Adam Smith when he talked about "unproductive elements" in society. While rightists read that and hear "welfare queen", Smith was talking about middle management on the one hand, and dead weight patronage on the other.

Not that Jonah Goldberg would know anything about getting a job he'd never earned. Who's his mom again?

Update: There's of course a deeper irony here. Goldberg is regularly chiding liberals for not being in touch with their founding texts, but here he is, quoting an author and text who's explicit point in his book is that the demigods of the Church of the Right have been alarmingly misinterpreted by their current followers.

Seriously, WTF? Did Jonah look at the cover one day and think, "Hm. Unconscious Civilization. I bet I know what that means...."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

No time, I've got to go soil myself in fear

Anybody heard any good news on the climate front lately?

Jonathan at Past Peak points out that 1) oceans seem to be sucking in less CO2 than they have previously (based on Realclimate post here) and 2) the increasingly-dry forests in the Northern Hemisphere may now, on balance, be net emitters of CO2, not "sinks" as they have been before. Basically, trees have this irritating tendency to catch fire as they dry out. Drier weather = more fires. More fires = CO2 emissions.

Positive feedback, she be a bitch.

This really deserves to be more than a side note on a blog, but I'm increasingly despairing of the possibility to actually meaningfully avert catastrophe when it comes to climate change. That train's already left the station, I fear.

Joe Klein isn't a journalist

Let's just say, this is woefully insufficient. If you haven't been following this story, Joe Klein wrote a column where he accused Democrats of coddling terrorists for revising the law on NSA wiretapping. Then, well...
Everyone makes mistakes, even big ones. But Klein's meltdown has been epic. He first denied the problem, then conceded it, then argued it wasn't a big deal, and then concluded he couldn't figure out if he got it wrong or right and it wasn't a big deal anyway.
So then we finally get this, as a correction:
In the original version of this story, Joe Klein wrote that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would allow a court review of individual foreign surveillance targets. Republicans believe the bill can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don't.
Okay, so according to his Wikipedia page, Joe Klein lives in Westchester County, NY. That puts him within driving range of, say, Columbia Law School, whom he could also have found contact info for here. But reporters are busy, so conveniently Columbia provides it's faculty with these things called "telephones". At Columbia, he could have spoken to actual, um, lawyers, who could have given him an informed opinion as to whether or not the law actually says what Republicans say it does. Or, if he was in Washington D.C. when he was writing his smear-piece, he could have gone to this place called Georgetown University Law Center, who he can learn about here, who also have a reputation for producing half-decent legal minds.

See, if journalists aren't experts in a particular field, they have a duty to consult outside experts and at the very least make an effort to get an independent opinion. This is what other people call "research". It's what journalists call "not getting fired" in most cases, but it's apparently what Joe Klein calls "too hard to bother with."

Because -- and this might shock young Joe Klein -- Republicans aren't inclined to say nice things about Democrats, and vice versa. The GOP says this bill would protect terrorists? Fuck me, the GOP says Social Security protects terrorists! They say fucking food stamps protect terrorists. These are the people who blamed the teaching of evolution for the Columbine shootings, you nimrod. That doesn't make it so.

Journalists, and I can introduce you to some if you'd like, are supposed to determine the accuracy of statements, not just mindlessly repeat them.

Nixon said he wasn't a crook. Apparently, that was enough for some people.

Sorry, we're not that interesting

via Greg, Robin Spears has an excellent post-mortem of the Ontario provincial election. (PDF!) I disagree with almost none of it. I say "almost", because while I agree there was more than a whiff of racism to the Liberal "booga booga religious schools booga" strategy, I think it's way, way, way over the top to compare it to Nixon's 1968 "Southern Strategy", as Spears explicitly does.

This is worth dwelling on for a moment: In 1968, the battle for Civil Rights in the US was already receding from some heady successes in 1964-65, and the white backlash was already underway. Martin Luther King was murdered that year, setting off riots across the country, and prompting the formation of radical groups like the Black Panther Party. In this setting, Richard Nixon comes in and starts wink-wink-nudge-nudge talking about "states' rights" and how the Feds have been trampling on Southern honor. This isn't particularly subtle now, it certainly wasn't back then.

But we shouldn't over-estimate the impact this had on the election: Southern Democrats were notorious racists, too! And in any case, the real die-hard racists didn't actually go to Nixon, they went to Wallace. (Who should have been disqualified by the very act of picking Curtis Lemay as his running mate...) As it was, Nixon won the election with... a 0.7% margin of victory. With Wallace in the race, the Southern Strategy wasn't even particularly effective at winning him the racist vote. Without Wallace in the election, many southern racists would probably have voted for their traditional Democrats, handing Humphrey the White House, and sparing us all from Watergate. In short, Nixon won in 1968 by only slightly more than he lost in 1960. With a marging that slim, we can say that the Strategy was "decisive", but so was the Vietnam War, or RFK's assasination, or any number of things.

Now, the Southern Strategy was still an outright appeal to racists, and should be condemned on those grounds alone -- it doesn't become less noxious because it barely worked. The real source of Republican strength in the south doesn't come from 1968, but from the deaths and retirements of octogenarian Dixiecrats since 1970 or so. As old patrons retired, they were replaced by Republicans who were more willing to say what the old plantation set wanted to hear.

Meanwhile, in 2007, in Ontario, people barely paid any attention to this election at all, and they certainly didn't get in to the kind of heart-and-home-rending violence that marked the civil rights struggle in 1968. Moreover, the damage done to Tory by the schools issue wasn't so much that people hated the policy (though they did that) but because he never managed to change the channel. I generally don't believe that political campaigns are helpless with these kinds of things -- this was a dumb idea, but it needn't have been the gaping hole beneath the waterline of the good ship Tory.

I found this election confusing because you had this weird combination of people absolutely not caring about the one issue that they were told about. As part of my schoolwork, I've had to talk to more than a few people about this stuff in downtown Toronto, and less than three days before the election I was speaking to a number of community activists and leaders who, when asked, couldn't name a single issue in the election they cared about. Not that they didn't care about issues, but that nobody had paid any attention to the stuff they cared about. The contrasts with 1968, with wars at home and abroad, is pretty clear, I think. As usual, Canadian politics is a pale imitation of someone else's fight, only more boring.

That said, this passage in Spears' article rings so true it makes me hurt:
A massive NDP refit and renewal exercise is now well past urgent, starting with a leadership change. But drafting even a rock star new leader without revamping the partys tired brand and 60s platform will not stop the rot. Even a party loyalist such as Dave Cooke, a senior minister in the Rae government and lifelong New Democrat, appealed to the party to seize the post-election review period to make big changes, or else.

The path forward is not hard to find. A night on Google, clipping pages from the Web sites of most of the successful social democratic parties in the rest of the Western world, would by itself catapult the party forward a couple of decades. A serious outreach to the best Canadian and international thinkers on social inclusion, sustainable growth and a progressive innovation agenda could make the party into a serious contender for government again. Part of the problem remains that for many Ontario New Democrats, the experience of power was so painful they would really rather not return.
Ouch.

What's the bargain?

Thomas Walkom made a reasonable point a few weeks ago:
Take one example: Harper's decision to reduce the GST from seven to five per cent. He has been roundly assailed for this move. The New Democrats say the tax cut favours the rich. Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion says it is so odious that, if elected, he might reverse it.

And yet many of these same left-liberals were equally outraged this week by a new study pointing out that the tax system has become less fair since 1990 because (wait for it) governments have been relying too much on regressive sales taxes like the GST.
Sure, and if the deal was the GST gets cut and income taxes in the high brackets get raised, I'd be for that in a hot second. But that's not the deal on offer: the choice is between a government that has $60 billion to spend and do things with over the next few years, or one that doesn't. For progressives, that's no choice at all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Somewhere, Steve Forbes is crying

Reading at Tapped:
Fred Thompson unveiled his plan for a voluntary flat tax. The plan would allow taxpayers to choose to pay a flat income tax, charged at 10 percent for joint filers with income up to $100,000 or $50,000 for individuals and 25 percent on incomes higher than that.
Whur? Even the Republicans, when putting forward a flat-tax proposal in the primaries (i.e., when they'll never be called on to add up the numbers, so they can make up damn well whatever they like) still put in two tax brackets in their flat tax?

That's... that's just sad, really. Get some spine, Thompson! Look at Ron Paul! He wants a return to the gold standard! That's some high-quality wingnuttery.

Mini-nuke reactor?

I confess, even a hard-bitten nuclear skeptic like myself is intrigued by this idea. Though I don't know remotely enough about it to offer an informed opinion, the potential applications in the north of Canada are tantalizing -- though given how lightly populated the north is, even this mini-reactor might be too large:
The portable nuclear reactor is the size of a hot tub. It’s shaped like a sake cup, filled with a uranium hydride core and surrounded by a hydrogen atmosphere. Encase it in concrete, truck it to a site, bury it underground, hook it up to a steam turbine and, voila, one would generate enough electricity to power a 25,000-home community for at least five years....
There's (a bit, not much) more at the company's website.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Priorities: I'm a disgusting slob edition

Me: Jeez, I've only got 9 gigs left on my HD. I should clean up a bit.

The patient, ever-loving girlfriend: He said, surrounded by a desk and two tables piled high with his crap.

The dualistic way of [losing at] war

It's one thing to read a sentence like this about a war in the past, say from a history textbook:

While the military finds success in a virtually unbroken line of tactical achievements, intelligence officials worry about a looming strategic failure.

But when it's written today, about an ongoing war, you've really got to wonder why anybody bothers writing history books, since it's clear that nobody reads the damn things anymore. Except maybe Kevin Drum. Moreover, maybe it's worth repeating once more that war isn't something that you can half-win.

American commentary really seems to regard war -- generically, but also specifically in the cases of Iraq, Vietnam, and Afghanistan -- as nothing more than a collection of battles. If America "wins" every time they fight the Taliban in the open, then America wins. Hooray! And yes, it's now officially boring to point this out, but it would be nice to see behaviour change sometime soon.

There really is no clean line between the "tactical" and "strategic" side of the war. This isn't Iron Chef: you don't get to win on style but lose on substance. You just lose. American soldiers killed many multiples more Vietnamese in battle than they lost. So what? The Republic of Vietnam doesn't exist, while the Socialist Republic of Vietnam does. As far as verdicts go, it's pretty clear that the main objective of US military force in that region was a collossal failure.

I can't count the number of times I heard, in 2003, American newsbots talk about how "amateurs think strategy, professionals think logistics". And I thought to myself, wow, what a classically American way of thinking about things: the most important thing is to make sure that weaponry is available, in appropriate volumes, to destroy the enemy. Not, for example, making sure that institutions of power and control are effective and corruption free, but that nothing gets in the way of the precious, precious trucks. Strategy is, in this way of thinking, explicitly subordinated to a task that Wal-Mart performs every day, without the necessity of Abrams tank escorts.

But of course, if we really did think about war strategically, we would have to admit that we keep losing, so best not to think strategically at all.

Meanwhile, the Taliban not only reinforce their control over the rural areas (where most Afghans live) but extend it beyond their core areas in the South. And not to be left out in the annals of military mediocrity, the Canadian government's much-touted Operation Medusa, which was supposed to have wrestled Panjwai district away from the Taliban, is now basically obsolete: according to the same Post story, the Taliban are back to their previous numbers in Panjwai.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Connect the dots

What picture do you see?
OTTAWA -- The federal government's coffers bulged by an additional $700 million in September, bringing Ottawa surplus for the first six months of the fiscal year to a breathtaking $9.3 billion....
Now draw the line here...
OTTAWA -- The federal government is about to stop its practice of giving extra money to Canadian soldiers posted to some of the country's most expensive cities.

Since June 2000, almost half of Canada's soldiers have been receiving a bump in their monthly salary -dubbed the post living differential - for living and working in cities with a high cost of living....

In Toronto, soldiers would lose more than $1,200 a month, according to figures from 2004.
But remember, if you want to bring Canadian troops home, you might as well just shoot them in the head.

Are Americans bearing external costs for global conservatives?

So I read this story a few weeks ago, and this quote in particular got me thinking:
"At the moment, I don't think Iran takes the threat seriously. We need Iran, and the rest of the world, to realise that this is not just a bunch of crazy Americans on the one side and flaky Europeans on the other - that we are united on this one."
There was a similar game played pre-Iraq, where there was tremendous pressure brought upon the Canadian government to lend Canada's support to the invasion, not because Canada could meaningfully affect the outcome in any way whatsoever, but because it was a useful branding excercise. As it turned out, Tony Blair was sufficient.

But the results of the last few years have intrigued me: other conservative leaders have been elected since 2003, but all of them have been at pains to keep Bush at a distance -- certainly, here in Canada "a Bush-style conservative" is a label our current PM has tried very hard to avoid, even while using many tactics that Bush would be familiar with.

Now maybe conservatives in other countries would never be so radical anyway, though I'm skeptical of that: see Thatcher, Margaret. So here's a question: is the sheer radicalism of the Bush Administration helping to moderate conservatives in other countries? Are the costs of being associated with Bush so electorally toxic in Europe and elsewhere that, in effect, the revulsion ends up benefiting the left?

There's another thing to consider: that America's current loony-tunes right has also been very inviting for wingnuts from other countries (see Steyn, Hitchens and Frum.) Is America's importing of these wealthy, overfed, few removing the worst forms of conservatives from the debate in other countries?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The other war we're losing

So Afghanistan is kind of going balls-up on us. Sad to say, but this is just the most recent in a series of reports that show the Taliban's influence is growing, and the solutions are basically impossible.

The full Senlis Council report is worth reading in full, if you can bear to read 100+ pages of PDF file. Main points:

  • The Taliban have "a permanent presence" in more than half (54%) of the country, with a "substantial presence" in another 38%.
  • The Taliban are well positioned to retake Kabul in 2008.
  • Tactics invented in Iraq are being imported to kill NATO soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. Thanks again, Mr. Bush!

So what's the answer, according to Senlis? Doubling NATO forces, removing all restrictions on the use of national forces in Afghanistan (many countries have large contingents, but are prevented from being used in combat), a shift from counter-terrorism to counterinsurgency, and -- wait for it -- a land invasion of Pakistan! In fairness, the Senlis report says we should get Pakistan's permission first, but it's difficult to see that happening.

One wonders why they didn't save their breaths and countless innocent pixels by simply saying "Afghanistan: time to go."

Because that's what the report really amounts to. There's no serious indication that NATO nations are inclined to double their commitment, much less remove the provisos they've put on the use of their soldiers. As for invading a nuclear power, do we really need to ask why this is a bad, bad idea?

The sad thing is that I don't think Senlis is wrong -- indeed, they're probably low-balling the costs of reversing the years of failure in Afghanistan. (80,000 troops to secure the south of Afghanistan?) But it's a mark of how dishonest the rhetoric is in our other "easy, cheap war" that the government of Canada summarily dismissed the report, calling it "not credible."

So we've got two wars with not enough troops to win either one of them individually, and certainly not enough to win both. Well, that's not quite true: NATO has literally millions of troops that could, in theory, be used. And if we actually thought Afghanistan was worth it, other countries could raise those numbers further. Which brings us to the last question here: after leaving Afghanistan, what will be left of NATO?

You've got to wonder what it means when an alliance of most the world's biggest military powers (after the US, the UK, France, and Germany are 2,3, and 4 in spending, and have a combined population of 200 million) can't win a war like this, even after having pretty well won the war already in 2001 -- the victory in Afghanistan actually seemed to hold for a year or two, unlike the victory in Iraq that never was.

So we're looking at two major strategic defeats not just for the US, but for the whole transatlantic alliance. And while it's tempting to blame Bush for most of this -- and indeed, others should feel free -- it's worth pointing out that, for example, the Canadian Prime Minister has followed Bush's lead by claiming simultaneously that the war in Afghanistan is an all-out fight for civilization, but not so important that we do something as radical as postpone tax cuts. In truth, not a single western leader has treated Afghanistan seriously, and we're paying the price for it now.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Okay, he's a douchebag too

Equal time: Jim Flaherty said this today:

"We're not in the pothole business in the Government of Canada," he added.
And I agree with him. Except, he also said this:
"One of the realities is in the areas of high growth, like the (Greater Toronto Area), some of the municipalities did not keep up with their infrastructure needs and did not establish adequate reserve funds and that's their jobs as a government,"
This would be ridiculous coming from anyone. The cities "did not keep up" with infrastructure because they couldn't while provinces offloaded service on to them.

Coming from Jim Flaherty, who was a finance minister under Mike Harris, this is just plain offensive. Flaherty was an accomplice to the hobbling of Ontario's municipalities.

In a just society, it wouldn't be allowed for you to break a person's knees, and then mock them for not walking straight.

Not doing your job: tripartisan!

Former Liberal leader joins with Conservatives to demand that someone else do the job we signed up for. Classy.

Coles Notes for those who're watching at home:

-- Toronto has been given a wide variety of new taxing powers, but is unwilling to use them to settle all of its accounts, preferring instead to demand the Province hand over money.

-- Ontario has even larger taxing powers, is actually running a surplus, and is constitutionally required to look after cities, but Dalton McGuinty is demanding that the federal government hand over money.*

-- Canada has larger taxing powers still, larger surpluses, and is the sole level of Canadian government with the power to raise an army, and is one of the few NATO members who actually think fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan is a good idea. So of course, we're demanding that other NATO allies do a job they don't want, but we do.

Given that the Mayor of Toronto just recently let his NDP membership lapse, I guess we can call buck-passing an tri-partisan consensus among Canadian leaders. It's just too bad about all the people caught in the middle, I guess.

*Of course, Dalton McGuinty isn't actually "asking" for money in the sense that he expects to get any. He's putting on a kabuki show to make it look like he tried, so that he can go back to Toronto and say, "see, not my fault!" Meanwhile, the number of things the Liberals could do tomorrow if they were actually inclined to help cities in Ontario literally defies enumeration, but here's a short list:

--reverse, in part or in whole, the downloading of services from the Province to the cities.

--raise the PST, and guarantee cities a permanent share of the revenues.

--give other cities in Ontario the expanded tax-raising powers that Toronto has now.

Sure, tens of millions will die. But who cares?

Hard for me to wrap my head around this kind of moral degeneracy:
Yale University economics and environment professor Robert Mendelsohn lists a number of gains that Canada could expect from a 50- to 100-year shift to a generally warmer and wetter climate.

Among them would be the ability to grow fruit and vegetables in areas that now are useful only for grain, and the opening of iced-over Arctic waters to navigation and other commercial uses.

"Canadians will clearly be better off in the future than they are today. I can say that with confidence," he predicted. "The most dramatic gains could be in agriculture, depending on precipitation."
So agriculture -- 2% of our GDP, huzzah! -- will benefit. That will be useful, because demand for food in the US, China, and India will skyrocket as crops fail. So we'll be better off, unless of course the Americans decide on a non-market based solution to the problem of high food prices. Or, if a global recession causes demand for industry (29% of GDP) to decline by 10%, we'll definitely see a net loss.

But the whole thing is kind of perverse: how, exactly, are Canadians better off if everyone else in the world is worse off, save Russia and maybe the Baltic states? Canada doesn't live in a vacuum, and if tens of millions of people are starving to death, it seems awfully inhumane to say "whee, my grain futures have paid double!"

Monday, November 19, 2007

Occasional tech blogging

Congratulations, Amazon: you've made a device even crappier, more customer-hostile, and more bogged down with stupid restrictions than Sony. I barely imagined that was possible.

Amazing. Amazon makes an e-book reader, and then gives no compatibility -- NONE WHATSOEVER -- for PDF files. The Sony Reader is looking better all the time.

Who's afraid of Richard Cheney?

via Chet, we see that Friedman's gone off his meds again:
When negotiating with murderous regimes like Iran’s or Syria’s, you want Tony Soprano by your side, not Big Bird. Mr. Obama’s gift for outreach would be so much more effective with a Dick Cheney standing over his right shoulder, quietly pounding a baseball bat into his palm.
Okay, what the hell? Dick Cheney is not a scary person. He's a retirement-age grandfather and five-time heart attack patient. Take away the gun rack and the six pack, and I guarantee you I could kick his ass. As could Bashar Assad, and I'd put my money on Kim Jong-il.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama would only have trifling little negotiating chips like "the United States Air Force" and "Trident nuclear missile submarines." But yeah, I'm sure it's Dick Cheney that keeps the lights on in Tehran at night.

Done and done-er

Guh. I'd pretty much abandoned Obama after his dalliance with raving gay-haters. And I've always been more of an Edwards fan. But this is really silly -- Obama quoting Jeff Gerth, the guy who invented the Whitewater "scandal"?

Paul Krugman asks, "Is it really possible that Obama and his advisers are this out of touch?" I'd add, what happened to that whole "audacity of hope" thing, Sen. Obama? Where does that fit in with the whole "dredging up a decade-old non-problem to slime a Democrat for the GOP?"

Now, I still have a number of concerns about Sen. Clinton. For one, I think the LBJ analogy is too close for comfort. America can't afford another progressive President who's too afraid of the right to break with America's fundamental foreign policy failures.

On that note, read this from the Atlantic: "How could Vietnam Happen?", circa 1968.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's official!

cash advance

As of this posting, this blog written by me alone requires a higher education than all the authors of Lawyers, Guns, and Money put together! And some of them have Phds!

Alternate hypothesis: they're smarter than me, but don't flaunt it with overly-obscure writing. Jerks.

Gristmill, where I also blog, scores a mere "junior high school". Clearly, I raise the average every time I grace them with my presence...

Okay, enough of that.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Now I have the sinking suspicion nothing I do will ever be this awesome

...President Al Gore, a senior adviser at Google, told the Chronicle he has been invited to the wedding but will not be able to make it because he will be picking up the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
Okay, sure, I edited out the words "former Vice" from that sentence, but I think my version is snappier.

The hell?

Seen in Toronto, on University Ave:

Ron Paul supporters, with picket signs outside the US Consulate. Hur?

I confess, when I was biking up to them, my first thought was "What's the writer's strike doing up in Canada?"

The truth is always weirder than you expect.

Don't blame me, I voted Robot Overlord

Kung Fu Monkey strikes again!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Seriously?

This poll confuses the hell out of me:
Support for the Senate's abolishment varied from province to province:

* Quebec showed strongest support at 63 per cent
* Ontarians were least supportive at 36 per cent
* Most BC residents, 44 per cent, support the idea
* Prairie residents are evenly divided -- 39 per cent support the idea while 42 per cent oppose it...

Justin Trudeau, who officially entered politics as a Liberal candidate this year, is the most popular choice to replace current Leader Stephane Dion.

Trudeau received 40 per cent of national support, followed by Michael Ignatieff (25 per cent) and Bob Rae (23 per cent). Former leadership contender Gerard Kennedy trailed far behind at 11 per cent.

The poll concludes that among Liberal voters, however, support for Trudeau waned to 35 per cent, though he was still the most popular choice.
Justin Trudeau? Huh? Where does this guy's constituency come from?

The Senate numbers are confusing in their own way, too. I think somewhere in my brain, I kind of "knew" for some reason that the Senate was valued by Quebeckers for some reason. Guess I was wrong again.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Do your jobs, II

So, while we're talking ad nauseam about the various fiscal responsibilities of the levels of Canadian government, let's talk about National Defense, shall we?
OTTAWA - The Conservative government's long-standing promise to dramatically increase the size of the Canadian military is being pared back, a federal report shows.

The Defence Department's latest performance report says the 2006 pledge to increase the number of regular reserve soldiers, sailors and aircrew has been revised because of costs and the high attrition rate of serving members.

The initial plan was to boost the size of the Canadian Forces to 75,000 regular members and 35,000 reservists. The increase was to happen in two stages, with the first target of 70,000 active and 30,000 part-time members over five years, and the remainder to follow at some undetermined point.

But the report says the government has not allotted enough money to meet even the short-term target and will have to extend its self-imposed deadline by a year.
National defense, it seems, is the "municipalities" of the federal government: something that's clearly and solely the purview of the federal level of government, and something that governments even occasionally claim to care about. But it's always, always, always a second-level priority: not something you put off tax cuts for, not something you risk an election over putting front and center, and despite having serious and pressing needs, not something you ever allocate the necessary resources for.

But unlike the provinces, Canada's national government never goes around whining to super-national fora demanding that other militaries do a job we aren't willing to pay for...

Oh, wait.

God, we're a nation of children. Obnoxious children.

The poverty of modern thinking

Al Gore, today:
"What we are going to have to put in place is a combination of the Manhattan Project, the Apollo project, and the Marshall Plan, and scale it globally... We all believe that markets must play a central role."
...which he said, accepting his job at a major investment firm.

Andrew Leonard points out the obvious: uh, if that's what we need, then working at Kleiner Perkins isn't going to help. You'll note to profound absence of investment capital in either Manhattan, Apollo, or Marshall programs. Those were government programs -- remarkably successful, astonishingly ambitious government programs.

If that's the cure -- and I think Gore's right, at least about the scale necessary -- then making nods to the wondrous role of "the market" (because it's worked so well for the climate thus far!) isn't going to help any.

And what, pray tell, did you do monday night?

I helped a first-year undergrad write a paper on communications theory. Good thing I still remember the name Paul Lazarsfeld.

Nothing makes me miss undergraduate studies like... doing master's work.

From the mailbag

So my father apparently thinks that comment threads are for the little people, and decided to email me his disagreements with my blog post here. So at the risk of boring everyone on the Internet to dry hacking tears, let me restate things.

The issue is not, "wouldn't it be great if Harper spent some money on cities." Sure it would. There's a bunch of things I think it would be great if the government spent some money on. But that's why I vote NDP -- to spend other people's money! Woot! But that's very different from saying that the Feds have a positive obligation to spend money in the cities.

But when Harper says cities are a provincial responsibility, he's not stating his opinion, and he's certainly not saying "drop dead" as the Star wrote. He's stating empirical, legal fact. This thing called the Constitution Act of 1867 makes that clear.

Meanwhile, the argument that the feds should spend money on cities boils down to a few well-known facts: most Canadian live in cities, cities deliver services closest to people, cities are important, etc etc etc. But none of these facts, I would argue, has any relevance to the issue of whether the Feds should pay for cities instead of the provinces.

This is not about "should cities get money". Of course I think they should. The question is, who should pay? Well, McGuinty could have raised the PST by two notches in the last 2 years and not, on balance, hurt a single Ontarian taxpayer. That he would have been pilloried for doing so by the Toronto Sun and the National Post changes what, exactly? Or forget the GST -- the feds have been cutting income taxes and corporate taxes for years now. The provinces can tax those same pools of revenue -- if they're the foundations of the federation the way they so often claim to be, why not step up to the fucking plate for once?

The provinces generally, and Ontario most especially, don't suffer from a lack of fiscal capacity. They suffer from having endorsed the false premise that we can have government without ever paying a tax increase. Even Dalton McGuinty, who actually did raise taxes (sanely, and with my full support) seems to have only learned the lesson that if you raise taxes, you better grovel for your life and beg not to be kicked by talk radio hosts.

My father says I'm letting the perfect be the enemy of the good -- it's all fine to talk about constitutional responsibilities, but cities need money, and the feds have it. Harper's being callous and disregarding an urgent situation. (Paraphasing my father, I think.)

Well, maybe. But let's be clear: this is Stephen Harper we're talking about, so it's possible that the perfect is being the enemy of the bad. Stephen Harper stepping in to municipal affairs isn't exactly a risk-free scenario, if you get my meaning. And then there's the issue of whether provincial premiers (not all of whom are as blandly moderate as McGuinty, remember) would allow Ottawa to write checks direct to municipal governments.

I don't envy provincial governments. They suffered from downloading in their own ways, when the Feds cut transfer payments. But they responded with downloading their costs on to the cities. The two answers to this problem are for provinces to give cities room to breathe, fiscally speaking, and for provincial political leaders to stop supporting Federal leaders who insist on tax cuts -- meaning yes, McGuinty needs to come out swinging against Stephane Dion as well as Stephen Harper. If this is about anything other than rank political cowardice, consistency demands it.

There might, in the future, be some grand fiscal bargain that could be struck between the feds, the provinces, and the cities, where we all walk away happy. I doubt it. At the moment, you've got two levels of government who theoretically could give money to the cities, but only one level of government whose job description literally requires it.

It's not like I enjoy agreeing with Stephen Harper on this one. Or at all. Ever. But sometimes the sky actually is blue, the grass really is green, and sometimes, just sometimes, Stephen Harper states an incontrovertible fact. Why, as a resident of the city of Toronto, I'm supposed to be angry at him for that, eludes me.

The Free Market: The best of all possible systems, until something goes wrong

It seems we're never more than three years or so until some country (or group of countries) needs to institute capital controls to keep the international markets from fucking them up.

It's funny to see that Bloomberg piece explicitly compare the death of what some have called "Bretton Woods II" to the death of the original Bretton Woods. Funny if you're a big nerd like me, that is.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

How hard is it for people to do their jobs?

I'm about to say (er, write) something that won't be very common on this blog: Dalton McGuinty is wrong, and Stephen Harper is right. And the Toronto Star needs to fire their headline editor. The original headline for this piece -- the one that ran on papers across the country -- was "PM to Cities: Drop dead". The Star apparently has Stalin's appreciation for historical accuracy -- no embarassing fact that can't be airbrushed out!

The basic issue is this: the Premiers have spent the last decade screaming like raped sheep every time they get even a whiff of "interference" from the Federal government, so Dalton McGuinty can't really expect any federal leader, regardless of party, to step in to this one.

More than that, and I'm sounding more and more repetitive on this point, the provinces have plenty of money, and Harper's tax cuts have made more room for the provinces to raise money if they want. If -- a-doy -- McGuinty hadn't promised never to raise taxes again until 2011, he'd be able to find the money he needs to do his job without asking for free money from the Feds.

So Harper's rolling in surpluses. So what? It's not his job to fund cities, it's the Premiers'. Harper doesn't spend his time begging the Provinces for money for the Canadian Military or RCMP. Neither, to my recollection, did Martin or Chretien.

It's really aggravating to watch even Premiers who I like -- and despite my partisan leanings, I like McGuinty -- playing in to the bad behaviour that the institutions of Canadian federalism make profitable. Need money? Ask the feds. High energy prices? Take a whack at Alberta.

Let me pose a question for the audience: Schools and universitites are, as Mr. McGuinty described cities, "centres of innovation and wealth creation" and as important to the economy as supporting cities. Should Mr. Harper therefore shovel money in to school boards? Before you say yes, remember that Federal money can always come with conditions -- what if Mr. Harper decides that he wants to fund separate religious school boards, as the recently-defeated Mr. Tory wanted to?

One other thing -- why, exactly, is Hazel McCallion getting a pass from the press for her tax hike, while the editorial boards of the Sun and Post nearly burned Miller in effigy for his?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

What a sick, sick world I live in

Gee, let's see what's in the papers today. First, we've got Alan Dershowitz writing, in all seriousness, that if torture was good enough for the Nazis, it's good enough for him![1]
There are some who claim that torture is a nonissue because it never works--it only produces false information. This is simply not true, as evidenced by the many decent members of the French Resistance who, under Nazi torture, disclosed the locations of their closest friends and relatives.
Who claims this Alan? The fictional straw men in your head? Look at what actual experts say, and they'll tell you that torture never produces reliable, actionable intelligence -- and using it is the mark of a corrupt, doomed regime. The Nazis are not a modern, contemporary example of successful political organization. And there's a reason for that, except you wouldn't know it by looking at the modern GOP:
"Several days before his first meeting with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Michael Mukasey's Justice Department handlers arranged a private meeting for him with a number of 'movement conservatives.'... They pushed aggressively on the torture question. They wanted Mukasey to pledge that he would toe the administration's line" by not criticizing the administration's approval of waterboarding and similar interrogation techniques, and they wanted him to "protect those who authored the [interrogation] program" by issuing opinions that would keep those responsible for the program from facing criminal prosecution.
Rosa Brooks writes that "torture is the new abortion", in that the conservative movement is demanding unflinching loyalty from its public servants on this issue. Unbelievable.

It's really quite amazing how drenched in their own fear these people are. They're clamoring, begging to have the US government descend on the path trodden before by the worst regimes in human history -- torture, illegal surveillance, and legal black holes for anyone with dark skin or a funny name. It seems to never occur to them that these regimes were consigned to the ashbin of history for a reason -- Nazi torture didn't substantially restrict the actions of the French resistance, much less guarantee victory in a global war. Soviet torture didn't root out class enemies because the Soviet government was the class enemy. And these were regimes that actually could pose an existential threat to the United States -- and yet the US never tortured Nazis, but insists that half-witted terrorists who're already past their best before date need to be tortured.

[1] There's the added irony that Dershowitz is reliably the first voice to smear critics of Israel as anti-semites, but here he is literally comparing US and Israeli policies to Nazi Germany. The difference, of course, is that Dershowitz is comparing the Nazis to the US favourably -- their torture worked! Fucking amazing.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Simple answers to simple questions

Chet asks: why can't sadists figure out that Jack Bauer is a fictional character?

Answer: when you live in a world where global warming is a conspiracy between Greenpeace and the Comintern, Jack Bauer is as real as they come.

A danger to the community

"They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society."
-- Margaret Thatcher

"Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."
-- Ronald Reagan

I was reading Ian Welsh' post here on societies with mandatory military service. Going back to Athens and the "hoplite democracy" there an idea that only universal military mobilization can create the conditions needed for a sustainable democracy. In the case of Athens, you literally stood side by side in the line of battle with your fellow citizens. The Swiss have famously had one of the world's oldest democracies and still possess one of the only conscript armies left in Europe. And there's a number of surveys that show Americans believing they were more fulfilled and more connected with each other during WWII. So it's not like this is an idea out of nowhere.

And then I was reading Rick Perlstein's post here about how Republicans are trying, and failing, to block federal aid to drought-ravaged states in the US because government spending is basically communism in drag, right? It's a telling example of how the right-wing revolution has critically neutered the American capacity for basic self-government.

And there's an interesting common element between the two posts: one of the leading thinkers for both America's right-wing putsch and the end of mandatory military service was none other than Milton Friedman. Friedman participated in the Gates Commission which recommended a volunteer military for the US Government, in which he gave the classic reply to Gen. Westmoreland:
Mr. Westmoreland said he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. Mr. Friedman interrupted, "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?" Mr. Westmoreland replied, "I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves." Mr. Friedman then retorted, "I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher."
I think it's clear that both Friedman's economic and military views were informed by the same basic principle -- and calling Friedman's views anti-statist is, I think most observers would agree, like calling the Pope Catholic.

(Two things to note here: one, I'm not even entirely unsympathetic to Friedman's argument about mandatory military service. Two, please, please, please don't write in saying it's unfair to glom Friedman in with the modern conservatives: the man was a self-professed Republican until the day he died, and he endorsed Bush twice. He explicitly rejected Blair-Clinton "third way" politics and said Thatcherism was the only option for the Continent. Oh, he also said the Euro was doomed, doomed I say!)

This ideology, which Friedman helped rebirth in the 1970s, and Thatcher, Reagan, Mulroney, and others all ran with, has been rhetorically successful, if a failure in practical terms. As Brad Delong is fond of pointing out, it's bizarre to say that politicians like Goldwater or Gingrich have "won" the debate when they've managed to roll back 1% of the New Deal, leaving the other 99% intact. Social Security checks still get dutifully mailed out, and the Tennessee Valley Authority still sells electricity.

But this ties in with a common sentiment I hear expressed about unions all the time: Sure, unions were necessary back in the good old days when bosses could just beat their workers in to submission, but we don't need them now. We've solved that problem. Indeed, one of the prime arguments used against unions is that we have a well-developed corpus of labour laws in the developed world, so unions are irrelevant.

Ignore, for the moment, that the same people who broke strikes back in the day with truncheons also fought tooth and nail against labour laws. Ignore, for the moment, that the same people who think unions are irrelevant are usually the same people screaming about "government red tape" like, you guessed it, labour laws. And ignore the fundamental foolishness that we've "solved" the issue of worker exploitation in a a capitalist's system.

The basic problem with the idea that limited government is acceptable because "we solved those problems" is that problems never stop coming. And I'm not even talking about the real hard stuff -- social change like racial equality or gender roles -- but the tangible, solveable problems: roads, rails, energy, environmental problems, health care, and education. These are things that we tackled, achieved amazing progress with in some case, but have largely left to rot with neglect thanks to a mantra of low taxes and inactivist government.

We are, I submit, never ever going to solve climate change so long as we remain mentally shackled to the belief that, as modern conservatives seem to hold so fervently, government can only ever be part of the problem. Or that there is no such thing as community. That, at a basic level, your problems will never ever be my problems, and mine never yours.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Keep digging

Bush beats Nixon!

Worst. President. Ever.

Stop dreaming, start fixing.

This Star editorial is really wrong-headed, I think:
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's failure to give cities the penny they sought in his economic update last week is no reason to abandon the One Cent Now campaign. Far from surrendering, Canada's urban advocates must redouble their effort to win, for cities, one cent from the goods and services tax on every dollar in a transaction....

Ontario's provincial government has been criticized for not raising the provincial sales tax by one cent as the GST drops, and passing that to municipalities. This seems unfair. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty supports the One Cent Now campaign, but simply instituting a provincial version would let Ottawa escape its duty to cities.
Uh, unfair? There's this thing called S. 92.8, and Mr. McGuinty should have been familiar with it before he applied for his current job. Let's run this down a bit:

1) Cities need money.

2) Provinces and the Federal government both have money, and have the fiscal capacity to raise more money. (Ontario especially!)

3) The Constitution clearly gives the provinces the responsibility for municipalities.

THEREFORE, according the the geniuses at the Star:

4) Ottawa should pay the cities money.

If McGuinty believes that cities need money, he should step up and raise taxes. Hell, this is the 21st century: he could easily let the cities raise their own sales tax -- allow Toronto, say, to charge up to 2% sales tax, harmonized with the PST. That would, conveniently enough, give him political cover over his twice-stupid promise not to raise taxes.

Waiting for Ottawa to step in and fix McGuinty's problem -- a problem that, yes, is in his job description -- is lazy and cowardly. Whether or not, in a fantasyland, we would prefer Ottawa or Queen's Park to pay our bills is kind of unimportant when there's a whole lot of red ink flowing out of Toronto City Hall. The Star should be in the business of advocating for the most rapid and practical solutions, not flacking for McGuinty.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Pakistan

So, when George Bush says "Our hope is that he will restore democracy as quickly as possible..." was the very next question, "So you think Musharraf should step down?" Or forget the question, and just run the headline: "Bush says Musharraf should step down" -- the plain english meaning of his words.

To say that Musharraf should "restore democracy" means, by definition, reverting to the time before he illegally took power in a military coup. Right?

And I do so wish reporters would avoid using Musharraf's words, "emergency powers". For these powers to be "emergency"-based, there would have to be an actual, you know, emergency. The only emergency in Pakistan at the moment is the terrible, urgent problem of the rule of law possibly applying to the President and ruling him an illegal usurper of political power. While I can see this is an emergency to our man in Islamabad, it's not a justification in any way for his actions.

Reporters generally try to be careful about using labels -- you don't uncritically use the words "pro-life" to describe abortion protesters, for example. The same rule should apply here.

Some days I love my country so damn much

via Scott Tribe:
OTTAWA–The Conservative government found that just one in five Canadians supported the death penalty as a criminal deterrent in a survey it commissioned this summer in support of its justice policies.

Support for the death penalty was highest in Alberta, where almost one-third supported the idea of capital punishment, and lowest in Newfoundland with 17 per cent support. In Ontario, 21 per cent thought some convicted prisoners should be put to death, according to the poll of 4,005 people.
Two out of three Albertans oppose state-sanctioned murder? I take it all back, Alberta. You're not the Texas of Canada, and never were.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Neptune's Navy

That's the title of an amazing article in the New Yorker about Paul Watson, a founder of Greenpeace and more recently, er, pirate. Or nautical vigilante, if you prefer.

On January 19th, the day he moored his ships together in the Ross Sea, he wore a black, military-style sweater adorned with Sea Shepherd patches, and a rainbow-colored belt that held a sheathed knife. Watson was captaining the Farley, a rusty North Sea trawler built in Norway in 1958. The ship, black with yellow trim, featured a skull and crossbones painted across its superstructure and, on the forward deck, a customized device called “the can opener”: a sharpened steel I-beam that is propelled outward from the ship’s starboard side and is used to scrape the hulls of adversaries. Watson’s plan was to transfer as much furniture, equipment, and crew as he could from the Farley to the Hunter, in part because the Farley was old and barely seaworthy, in part because it was operating illegally and could be confiscated upon entry into port, and in part to ready it for a procedure that he called Operation Asshole—so named because it involved ramming one vessel into another’s stern.

The damage that's been done to the oceans of the world is really astonishing, when you consider their size. It's a sign of how powerful humans are in the modern world that most large fish stocks are depleted by as much as 90%. The article goes in to how, exactly, this happened:

In 1995, the process of forgetting was given a name—“shifting baseline syndrome”—by Daniel Pauly, a scientist at the University of British Columbia. “Essentially, this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes,” Pauly argued in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. He concluded, “The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species.” When Pauly and others took a longer view, they noticed another worrying trend. Humanity had been eating its way down the ocean’s food web; as large marine predators became scarce, people developed a taste for smaller and smaller fish. Animals that were once used for bait or that were considered worthless (hagfish, sea cucumber) were later taken in large quantities for human consumption. “Bait thirty years ago was calamari,” Pauly told me. “Now it is served in a restaurant. It is very nice. But it was bait before.” Future generations, Pauly predicts, only half in jest, will grow up on jellyfish sandwiches.

I'm generally opposed to food that glows in the dark. Call me picky. But I suppose I'll get used to it.

I don't know what the answer is to the whaling problem -- aside from "hey, let's stop killing them". The arguments made by whaling nations seem to be pretty lame where they aren't outright contradictory. (It's impossible to argue that whaling has a negligible effect on whale populations, but a substantial positive impact on fishing stocks.) But then, whaling is only one of the many problems where the simple answer -- stop doing that! -- is considered impossible, irresponsible, etc.

The pro-barbarian vote

Let's be clear about something: Rudy Giuliani never tortured anyone. I refuse to believe that the pre-Gonzales US Attorney's office would allow something like that. And hell, just saying it might give those mobsters grounds to appeal their sentences. But it's equally clear that the state of GOP politics is such that Giuliani believes he can gain votes by making dog-whistle appeals to the sadist crowd. And, sadly, I bet Giuliani is probably right about that.

I don't know what kind of person brags about torturing someone when they clearly could never have done anything like that.

Friday, November 02, 2007

But... but... that's not fair!

I was amused to see Jim Flaherty reduced to befuddled whimpering last night, as the news of Chrysler's job cuts came out. He seemed shocked, genuinely shocked at the idea that Chrysler would piss in his cereal like that. "We just announced ridiculously lopsided tax cuts for you people!" he as much as said.

Of course, it's not like tax cuts can re-create Chrysler's market share, or make a poorly-run company, uh, not poorly-run.

I don't buy the argument that there's nothing the government can do to prevent these kinds of job losses, but the question is always, "why should we want the government to do that?" It's not like there's a pressing national interest in us having American branch-plants here in Ontario as opposed to anywhere else, or not at all. What this does show, however, is how laughably obtuse the rhetoric about tax cuts being a magical solvent that dissolve all problems in our economy is. Frankly, Flaherty could announce tomorrow that corporate taxes were now zero and it wouldn't matter to these people -- it's never enough.

Oh, and a brief follow-up. I wrote a few days ago that Flaherty's $60 billion giveaway to the rich could have instead built 1,500 kilometers of high-speed rail, in the two most frequently-proposed corridors. I was deliberately understating things, but even I didn't quite realize by how much. In 2004, the Van Horne Institute did one of the most complete estimates of the cost of building high-speed rail in Canada, and came up with a figure of roughly $12 million/km. This is their most expensive option -- basically, the French TGV model transplanted in Canadian steel. (And while they strongly endorsed HSR, the TGV model is not the option that the VHI reccomended.) This tracks nicely with the experience in Europe, where the most recent line cost the French government roughly C$13 million (after exchange rates) per km. So even if we assume that the cost is $15 million/km, that gives us enough money for 4,000 km of HSR, or both the Quebec-Windsor line and the Edmonton-Calgary line, with enough left over for track from Calgary to... Sault Ste. Marie. If costs were contained to the $12 million/km estimate, we could link Calgary with Toronto. Or scrap the national rail idea, and link Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg and still do the Quebec-Windsor line!

Now, it's possible that either or both of those ideas is a white elephant in the making. (I think the second idea is probably the better one, but linking up with Vancouver would be both a good idea but tricky in practice: HSR needs long, straight tracks that are possible in the prairies, but as far as I can tell impossible/absurdly expensive through the Rockies.) But my personal pet idea of the moment isn't really what matters here. I think it demonstrates rather well the scale of what our reflexive tax cutting costs us in real terms.