Saturday, July 30, 2005

Reaching out

While most of the recent trend has been toward more stringent immigration requirements, the Ukraine is encouraging a wide group of people to visit:
Ukraine said it was scrapping visas for Canadians from August 1 and extending visa-free travel for travelers from the European Union as part of President Viktor Yushchenko's plan to move closer to the West.

A presidential decree posted on his Website said visas would no longer be required for Canadian visitors coming into Ukraine for less than 90 days.

Another decree on the same site said visa-free travel for citizens of the EU countries and Switzerland would be extended beyond the initial deadline of Sept. 1.

The effect of the earlier EU pilot project was to double EU tourism, for obvious reasons.

While we should try to coordinate with the U.S. to the greatest degree possible and preserve security at our borders, Canada should also do everything possible to reciprocate the Ukraine's actions toward a free flow of people, and to encourage similar measures worldwide. In the long term, any threat posed by the particular people travelling will be more than outweighed by the erosion of ethnocentrism.

Career opportunities

Reuters notes that politicians and diplomats moving to the private sector are finally coming under some scrutiny:
Boards need fewer super-star directors who sport prestigious resumes but lack financial expertise, governance experts argue. They say the corporate scandals of recent years show that boardrooms should be filled with seasoned business people who can sift through complex financial matters.

"When you go from (being) a member of Congress to a board you better know finance and accounting," said Roger Raber, head of the National Association of Corporate Directors, an education and research group. "I suspect a lot of people from the Hill don't have finance and accounting backgrounds."...

The financial gains that ex-government officials reap from board service also can leave bad tastes in the mouths of investors who see potential conflicts of interest.

Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who sat on the board of stun gun maker Taser International Inc., realized about $6.8 million from the sale of stock options.

You'd think that directors with little relevant experience and obvious potential for conflicts of interest would inherently be in very little demand. So far, the allure of big name directors has outweighed those concerns, but with enough attention to the process that could change.

Of course, it would help if the article actually pointed out the most obvious recent example of corporate/government overlap, but apparently Dick Cheney was out of bounds. Instead, the lesson for now seems to be that if you move among high enough positions, you'll escape the criticism given to everybody else.

Disclaimer

CNN notes that Bush has been proclaimed physically "fit for duty" after a physical. It leaves out the disclaimer that I can only presume was given by the examining physicians:

WARNING

The within opinion is based purely on a physical examination of the subject. The phrase "fit for duty" refers only to the capacity of the subject's body to withstand the remainder of the expected term of office, absent external shocks or successful grenade throws. We emphasize our opinion that subject should avoid bicycles, Segways and pretzels to the extent possible.

This opinion further makes no comment on the subject's mental capacity to engage in the duties required of his office, nor on any mental health concerns raised by the scope of the subject's work.

In particular, we suggest that the following potential concerns be closely monitored:
(1) subject's stress level, due to past comments about the difficulty of his work and due to recent polling numbers suggesting mutual dissatisfaction between subject and his employers; and,

(2) subject's level of mental activity, due to past difficulty with language.

This opinion in no way warrants the subject's fitness to continue should he cease to take vacations of the length historically taken. Nor does it warrant that subject is fit for duty for any period extending beyond his expected term of office, due to a declaration of martial law or any other reason.

Thinking ahead

Jim Elve posts on the Next Great Prime Minister contest.

This does appear to be an upgrade on the former As Prime Minister essay contest, since we should all be aware that true potential leaders don't stoop to writing their own policy ideas. I just wonder whether there will be a parallel Next Great Prime Ministerial Advisor contest for whoever most helps out the winner.

While it's obviously going to have its circus-like elements, good on Magna for getting a start on evaluating a future generation of politicians. In a couple of decades, if the planning goes well enough, maybe we'll be able to avoid speculation about people like these becoming PM.

Private-sector waiting lists

For those assuming that private-sector delivery automatically results in faster and better service (whether in health care or elsewhere), the Tyee has an important counterexample:
Maximus, the U.S. company in charge of BC’s Medical Service Plan (MSP) and PharmaCare, is being fined for the second time this year after failing to uphold a requirement of their contract with the BC government. The company must maintain a three minute waiting time for people calling in to the automated services. Currently, the waiting time is five times that much, at fifteen minutes per call...

Because employees of the two programs both work with the phone lines and conduct paper work, mailed applications are slowing down as well. According to the Times, in June, 62 per cent of new applications for MSP were processed within 40 days. In 2004, that number was 64 per cent. Both are far behind the Maximus target, which was 99 per cent within 20 days.

As an added bonus, Maximus is also under investigation in Washington, D.C. and has "had problems" in six states...yet is in the running for another of Gordo's privatization programs, this time for BC Nurseline.

The lesson to take from this is of course that privatization itself doesn't do anything to lessen the burdens on the health system - that can only be accomplished through new (and properly targeted) resources, regardless of their source. Meanwhile, the transaction costs of privatizing only distract attention from the real problems. BC is caught in that trap now; other provinces should learn from Campbell's mistakes.

(Edit: eliminated superfluous and unnecessary redundancy.)

Friday, July 29, 2005

Democracy is for sale

The New York Times may be doing a fairly miserable job addressing the corruption in its own country, but it does have an interesting piece on the effect of corruption in Latin America:
The shift from authoritarian governments to democracies, many had hoped, would squelch the kind of corruption that predominated when dictators ran the affairs of state to the benefit of a small clique of insiders and threatened whistle-blowers.

Yet successor governments across the political spectrum, whether free-market advocates like Mr. Toledo or self-proclaimed leftists like Mr. da Silva, have proved even more susceptible. With once-closed economies having been opened up and corporate profits at record levels, the opportunities for graft and bribes are larger than ever.

So widespread is the disgust that last year another regionwide poll found that a majority of Latin Americans would prefer a return to dictatorship if it would bring economic benefits. Despite improved economic indicators since then, the ranks of the poor have continued to swell, as has the resentment of those who are pocketing the wealth of the nation for their own benefit.

Needless to say, this is a terrible development for democracy and for social equality across the hemisphere - regardless of one's place on the political spectrum, there can be no doubt that corruption takes resources away from where they can do good and redirects them into an cycle of abuse.

But then, can the U.S. claim to be doing any better, particularly when the article makes statements like these?
Corruption shows itself in many ways, but perhaps its most glaring and grating form is nepotism and patronage, the flaunting of political connections that so alienates ordinary people. Those practices also take many forms, from outright bribes to jobs and contracts awarded to unqualified or inexperienced people who happen to be related to those in power...

Perhaps most ominous for the region's democratic health is that recent scandals...involve corruption not simply for personal enrichment, but also to obtain and hold onto power indefinitely, threatening democratic institutions themselves. Yet the leaders involved have denied wrongdoing and have been loath to accept any responsibility.

Does that sound like anybody you may have heard of recently?

Of course, in addition to Bushco, it also applies at least in part to Liberal operatives as revealed by Gomery. Sadly, there are strong built-in incentives for parties to play the system for all it's worth in the immediate election - particularly when the effect is for a sitting government to keep the opposition out of power (and away from the books) for another term.

Unfortunately, the Times' focus on elsewhere leaves out the most important lesson to be taken from the article. Corruption isn't just a problem for some other country a continent away to worry about when it's not developing as quickly as hoped. Rather, it's a constant danger which all governments, parties and citizens need to watch out for - and need to recognize as something to be changed, not something to be covered up.

Ground rules

Kos points out just how complicit the media has been in Bushco's selective and self-serving leaks. No wonder even Coulter and O'Reilly can't pretend that the media is anywhere but in Bush's hip pocket these days.

Comparative spending

Due credit to the National Post for this article:
Ottawa has allotted more than $10 billion for enhanced public safety since the 9-11 attacks in New York, while thousands die from air and water pollution.

"I think we're investing a lot of money on feel-good programs, that we could be saving a lot more lives in some of our environmental problems," said David Schindler, a prominent ecology professor at the University of Alberta.

He said far more people are killed by air and water pollution than by terrorism, citing an estimate by the American Microbiological Society that 100,000 Americans die annually due to waterborne disease.

"That translates into about 10,000 (Canadians) sickened by plain old pathogens, nothing that a terrorist puts into our water supply. The terrorists are us, you might say."

Stop by and leave a comment - this is in the "Sound Off" section, and right now the comments are about evenly split between those approving of such obvious truths, and those putting in a stubborn effort to avoid any sense of proportion.

Spend, spend, spend or save, save, save?

Many people will be aware, and perhaps more should be aware, of the state of politics in Saskatchewan. While the right-wing opposition Saskatchewan Party is calling for tons of spending out of the government's current surplus, the NDP government is taking a cautious approach:
Finance Minister Harry Van Mulligen released the government's first-quarter financial report Thursday showing a projected $255-million in additional revenue for the year, with $201 million from oil alone...

That leaves another $116 million in extra cash -- for now being used to lower the draw-down on the rainy-day fiscal stabilization fund -- but Van Mulligen said the government will likely wait until its mid-term report is released in November before it makes further commitments of cash.

"In terms of surplus dollars and how we would allocate those, I think it's important to look at where we were in mid-term last year where we said 'okay, we have additional revenues, what is our plan?' Our plan was one, permanent debt reduction. Another part of our plan was permanent infrastructure -- both government-owned infrastructure and third-party capital needs ... we also looked at the question of tax reduction," he said in a press conference at the provincial legislature.

"And we always have pressures every fiscal year that we need to fund."

It's hard to come up with a more sensible approach than that, and the Sask Party isn't anywhere near up to the task - their current argument is that the government should have a long-term plan to deal with short-term revenue which is based on uncertain factors, while ignoring the fact that debt reduction is the most important long-term plan a government can have.

The current provincial situation aside, the Saskatchewan NDP's approach is one that the federal NDP should be taking strongly going into the next election. Rather than the 33%/33%/33% model for tax cuts, program spending and debt reduction that has been emphasized by both the provincial NDP circa Romanow and by the current federal Liberals, the federal NDP should follow Van Mulligen's lead and make debt reduction the first priority based on its obvious impact on the ability to deliver the other two. Spending can also be increased slightly, with enough targeted tax cuts to pursue likely voters.

Making the party's platform split something along the lines of 10%/40%/50% will allow the NDP to present itself as both the best provider of needed spending, and by far the best fiscal steward, leaving the Cons and Libs to fight over the CTF vote. It may be tough to get such a message through the media, but it's one that Canadians can understand given the opportunity.

If there's an issue that can make the NDP into the most viable federal fiscal manager, this is the one. Let's run with it.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Open to uncertainty

We're still not sure whether or not most of Bushco will take "I don't know" for an answer. (For that matter, anything other than "Thank you sir, may I have another?" seems to be problematic.) But American intelligence services are being instructed to say just that when appropriate:
John D. Negroponte, the new director of national intelligence, has imposed strict safeguards intended to ensure that the government's National Intelligence Estimates are based on credible information instead of the kinds of unsubstantiated claims that were the basis for prewar intelligence on Iraq, his top deputy said Thursday...

General Hayden acknowledged Thursday that the new precautions were likely to result in estimates that proved much less definitive than in the past. But he said he and Mr. Negroponte would embrace "a higher tolerance for ambiguity" than had been accepted and would encourage analysts to be forthright about what they did not know...

Other government officials said the standard had already been applied, to a recent highly classified intelligence report on Iran, producing findings that the officials described as infused with considerable uncertainty about the status of Iran's nuclear weapons program.

It's especially interesting to hear this applied to Iran specifically; the explicit doubt (make a note of it for later) should make it much tougher for Bushco to try to force a war there later on.

There's no word yet on whether Bush already regrets appointing Negroponte. But if this order is actually going to be acted upon (and some skepticism is called for at this point), then reality may play a significantly larger role in Bush's lame-duck years than it's played so far in the administration.

From the Department of the Blindingly Obvious

According to the Washington Post:
Efforts to rebuild water, electricity and health networks in Iraq are being shortchanged by higher-than-expected costs to provide security and by generous financial awards to contractors, according to a series of reports by government investigators released yesterday.

(I)n March, the U.S. Agency for International Development canceled two electric power generation programs in order to provide $15 million in additional security elsewhere. On another project to rehabilitate electric substations, the Army Corps of Engineers decided that securing 14 of the 23 facilities would be too expensive and limited the entire project to nine stations. And in February, USAID added $33 million to cover higher security costs on one project, which left it short of money to pay for construction oversight, quality assurance and administrative costs...

Despite $5.7 billion committed to restoring electricity service in Iraq, power generation was still at lower levels as of May than it had been before the U.S. invasion in 2003. In one case, the GAO reported, the United States led an overhaul of an Iraqi power plant but then did not adequately train the Iraqis how to operate it. A widespread power outage resulted.

Crude oil production has also dropped in the past two years, even with more than $5 billion in U.S. and Iraqi funds available for rebuilding. Oil export revenues are needed to fund more than 90 percent of the nascent Iraqi government's 2005 budget, the State Department has said.

None of this should be particularly new. But the excessive amount of money being put into contractors' pockets (whether security or otherwise), combined with resources being cut from the actual programs which could help Iraqi citizens, is only cementing negative perceptions of the occupation. This may not be a problem for an administration which so easily ignores its detractors, but it'll only make life worse for whoever gets to clean up the mess.

Don't write this one off

Scott Piatkowski has some good advice for anybody applying to become Paul Martin's new speechwriter:
Hyperbole is a good substitute for action. For example, the more that the Prime Minister seems paralyzed by the thought of actually making a decision, the more important it is that his speeches trumpet phrases such as “transformative change.” Achieving actual transformative change is not your department...

Recycling can save time. Martin made some great promises on housing in 1990. He made some great promises on combatting global warming in 1993. He spoke bravely about fighting two-tier health care in 2003 and 2004. Since these and other promises have not been honoured, it's completely permissible to dust them off and make them again.

All too true. Give it a read.

Elections and legitimacy

Unlike in one conspicuous neighbouring country, any known problems with elections in Canada have fallen short of completely altering the end result. But that doesn't mean there isn't a need to make sure the process is handled carefully, if B.C.'s recent provincial election is any indication:
Mayencourt’s 11 vote victory, Stevenson argued, was the result of a screw-up by elections officials that had left 71 absentee ballots improperly certified and thus uncounted. On June 20 Stevenson asked the BC Supreme Court to throw out the election and call a new one...

Eleven of the uncounted ballots were from incomplete certification envelopes. According to Porayko the envelopes had names, addresses and everything else, but hadn’t been signed. Whether that’s because the voters forgot to sign, or were never told to, we’ll never know.

The other 60, however, were never put in envelopes in the first place. On May 17, 60 misplaced voters turned up at St John’s United Church on Comox and Broughton, in the heart of the West End. Rather than have them fill out certification envelopes, an official working at the station stuck their ballots in with the rest from St John’s. When the District Electoral Officer found out, he immediately had the ballots taken out and set aside.

Because the mystery 60 had never filled out certification envelopes, there was no way to verify that they are who they claim, that they live in the riding and that they hadn’t already voted. On this point, the Elections Act is clear, a non-certified ballot cannot be counted, Porayko said. “As administrators we didn’t write the Act but we have to follow it,” she said. And following the act meant not counting the 60 ballots.

Stevenson has dropped his challenge in order to run again for City Council. And the Liberals won by enough of a margin that it wasn't a life-or-death struggle for the parties involved.

But imagine if the same scenario were to come up in an election with a configuration similar to the last federal one (or for that matter the last Saskatchewan one). While it's always tough to see the need for action when nobody's contesting the last results, it's imperative that election workers are impeccably trained to avoid errors like the one in Vancouver-Burrard - because eventually, it will make all the difference.

Complicity through silence

From the Halifax Herald, a startling discovery:
Craig Botterill, the Crown attorney who handles such prosecutions for the province, said banks report only a fraction of debit and credit card crimes.

They are reluctant to jeopardize the hefty profits they earn from diverting business to electronic services from tellers, the prosecutor said.

"They're quite content to cover the losses in-house and not report most thefts..."

Canadian banks claim debit card scams cost them about $60 million last year, and credit card scams $163 million. But Mr. Botterill suspects the actual figures are much higher. He has heard of banks trying to keep quiet about single scams amounting to as much as $80,000.

The long-term effect of the failure to report these incidents is of course harmful for both the banks and the customers. Offenders are less likely to be caught by the bank investigation alone, and won't face criminal sanctions even if caught. Hence there's less cost to engaging in this type of fraud, and less deterrence against it. And in addition to the harm to additional victims in the future, there's also less than full recompense to the individual victim, who is effectively told that the breach of privacy is irrelevant.

If this story breaks strongly enough, then banks won't have much to gain by failing to report incidents. The public will be on notice as to the scope of the crimes, and any suspicions as to the scope of undisclosed crime will make for a strong incentive to show that all losses are being reported. Concerns over public fear would then turn in favour of reporting rather than against it.

So, pass the story along...and be all the more careful with your own information, because for now, your bank may not see its theft as worth reporting.

NHL attention down south

The good news: prominent Americans are publicly paying close attention to hockey.

The bad news: those prominent Americans are congressmen determined to impose a draconian and ineffective drug-testing regime in the NHL along with other leagues.
A bill introduced in May by Davis, Waxman and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain would suspend offending players for two years for a first offence and ban them for life if they fail a second drug test...

While Davis and Waxman also criticised the NHL's drug program because it doesn't consider "designer" steroids — created in a lab specifically to evade detection — it's unfair to suggest that the league could create a program free of loopholes, Collins said.

"Human-growth hormone has been a popular performance enhancer for two decades but a reliable test to detect its presence in urine remains elusive," he said.

The fact all too often left out of articles on steroid testing is that the tests themselves are based on ratios of naturally-occurring substances within the body, meaning that some players with a naturally-high testosterone level (or who have merely trained particularly well) will test positive despite having not taken a performance-enhancing substance. And thanks to the NFLPA, the required level for a "positive" finding is dropping - making the punishment of innocent players all the more certain.

Combined with government-mandated suspensions of the proposed length, the end result of a stricter testing regime in any sport is to bar players for life who have done nothing but train to the best of their ability. If avoiding that situation is reason for criticism, then good on the NHL for being criticized.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Wilful blindness

Not surprisingly, the EPA tried to avoid releasing a study on the fact that fuel efficiency has actually dropped since the 1980s. The surprise here isn't the effort to suppress the truth, but the fact that the truth made it into the open:
With Congress poised for a final vote on the energy bill, the Environmental Protection Agency made an 11th-hour decision Tuesday to delay the planned release of an annual report on fuel economy...

The contents of the report show that loopholes in American fuel economy regulations have allowed automakers to produce cars and trucks that are significantly less fuel-efficient, on average, than they were in the late 1980's.

One more glaring example of how miserably voluntary-compliance models are bound to fail. But fortunately, in this case the public (and the decision-makers) are able to see the facts before the final call is made - not that it'll likely make too much difference to the Congressional negotiators who make a career out of ignoring inconvenient facts.

The same Times front web page also highlights a less-than-surprising story where just the opposite was true:
Senior military lawyers lodged vigorous and detailed dissents in early 2003 as an administration legal task force concluded that President Bush had authority as commander in chief to order harsh interrogations of prisoners at Guant√°namo Bay, Cuba, newly disclosed documents show...

The confidential government deliberations over permissible interrogation techniques that ranged from August 2002 to April 2003 were prompted by a request from officers at Guant√°namo. They said traditional practices were proving ineffective against one detainee, Mohamed al-Kahtani, believed to have been the planned 20th hijacker on Sept. 11, 2001. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved a series of techniques in December 2002, only to rescind them temporarily after military lawyers complained...

Mr. Rumsfeld subsequently learned of the military lawyers' objections and that became a factor in his decision on April 16, 2003, to limit the permitted interrogation techniques.

The lesson here is that even as thorough a Bush lackey as Rumsfeld can occasionally be driven to make more reasonable decisions when presented with a better set of principles and options. Too bad that happens so rarely.

Making use of information

With terrorism back on the front pages this month, here's a little reminder that the Bush administration's focus on Iraq is diverting attention from real intelligence issues:
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's backlog of untranslated terrorism intelligence doubled last year, and the time it takes the bureau to hire translators has grown longer...

(T)he F.B.I. "has no assurance" that some 8,300 hours of untranslated material does not include information that could be critical to terrorism investigations.

In addition, the bureau told the committee that its long-delayed effort to overhaul its computer system and allow agents to search terrorism files more easily would not be completed until 2009 at the earliest...

The F.B.I. met its hiring targets in fewer than half of 52 languages examined, and the average time it takes to hire a linguist grew from 13 months to at least 14 months, according to the bureau's data. The inspector general's office said its assessment showed that the average time was 16 months, with much of the delay blamed on applicants "waiting in queue" because of bureaucratic slowdowns.

Almost makes you wonder whether the FBI could have made any use of people fired because of prejudice. Or whether $200 billion could have been used to reduce the hiring backlog.

Freer information

Saskatchewan's information commissioner proposed in a ruling today that information requests should be free where made for a "compelling public interest", a standard currently present in most provinces.

I'd agree with that step, but the progress shouldn't stop there. Ultimately, information should generally be available for free unless there's particular expense or difficulty involved in putting it together.

Effectively, the "compelling public interest" should be presumed: a province or country is best off where its citizens look carefully at the government's activities, and there shouldn't be a financial penalty for reasonable efforts to do so.

The ongoing inquiry

The Arar inquiry is back, and it's getting interesting again:
The assistant commissioner of the RCMP instructed staff to withhold key information from Canada's foreign minister about their investigation into a Canadian citizen allegedly tortured in a Syrian jail...

Former foreign affairs minister Bill Graham asked for a thorough briefing by RCMP after then-U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci suggested Maher Arar's deportation by U.S. authorities to Syria was based on Canadian intelligence.

But in an Oct. 18, 2002 memo that was read at the Arar inquiry, Richard Proulx informed the RCMP commissioner "there will be no information of an operational-tactical nature released to (Foreign Affairs)."...

The RCMP's deputy commissioner for operations, Garry Loeppky, defended the decision, saying day-to-day operational decisions, tactics employed and evidence are of no concern to Foreign Affairs.

Now, it may have helped to actually listen to Foreign Affairs in making that decision. In Graham's earlier testimony, he said that he believed the RCMP and CSIS when they each denied any involvement in Arar's rendition, but that he was frustrated in trying to get information.

The released memo makes it clear that this was the result of deliberate policy rather than a mere oversight. Heads should be rolling over that call; we'll see how long it takes for that to happen.

Nutrition and the environment

The Tyee points out one of the less-recognized effects of global warming, as our food now may be less nutritious as a result of the air around it:
A small but growing body of research is finding that elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, while increasing crop yield, decrease the nutritional value of plants. More than a hundred studies, for example, have found that when CO2 from fossil-fuel burning builds up in plant tissues, nitrogen (essential for making protein) declines. A smaller number of studies hint at another troubling impact: As atmospheric CO2 levels go up, trace elements in plants (such as zinc and iron, which are vital to animal and human life) go down, potentially malnourishing all those that subsist on the plants...

The less-nutritious plants of a CO2-enriched world will likely not be a problem for rich nations, where "super-sized" meals and vitamin supplements are a dietary mainstay. But things could be very different in the developing world, where millions already live on the edge of starvation, and where the micronutrient deficit, known as "hidden hunger," is already considered one of the world's leading health problems by the United Nations.

Food for thought. This is one more way in which the environment is fundamentally a health issue - and one more way in which that link has been sorely neglected.

And it begins...maybe

Just last month, Bush and Jaafari decried the possibility of a quick U.S. pullout.

Now, with Rumsfeld at his side, Jaafari is planning for just that:
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said at a joint news conference with U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the time has arrived to plan a co-ordinated transition from American to Iraqi military control throughout the country.

Asked how soon a U.S. withdrawal should happen, he said no exact timetable had been set. “But we confirm and we desire speed in that regard..."

Meanwhile, the U.S. is setting one problematic condition on withdrawal:
General George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said he believed a U.S. troop withdrawal could begin by spring 2006 if progress continues on the political front and if the insurgency does not expand.

If the apparent size of the insurgency will be the determining factor as to whether the U.S. stays, there are two possible results, neither of them a positive. Either insurgents could pick up the pace of attacks now to try to ensure that their best basis for recruitment remains in the country, or they could call off activity for now (perhaps infiltrating the Iraqi police forces even further) and be able to cause all the more mayhem once the U.S. pulls out.

Essentially, the U.S. has said that it'll allow the insurgents to set the timing of a pullout. Needless to say, that's a power that won't be used for good.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Rule of lawlessness

Maybe blind support for U.S. troops isn't deserved after all:
A company of the California Army National Guard has been put on restricted duty and its battalion plunged into disarray amid allegations that soldiers engaged in misconduct in Iraq, including mistreatment of detainees and extortion from shopkeepers, according to military officials and members of the battalion...

Among the allegations now under investigation is that at least six soldiers from the battalion took part in a scheme to extort money from Iraqi shopkeepers, apparently in exchange for protection from insurgents.

The payments allegedly exceeded $30,000, two sources said, and were made in U.S. currency, according to one member of the battalion who has been briefed on the investigation. Another soldier said the scheme allegedly was carried out during night patrols in the Baghdad area.

I suppose it's ultimately the result of the U.S. exporting its governance systems. But this can't be doing any good for Iraqis' collective view of the occupiers, or for their motivation to try to build a corruption-free society in the long term.

Public-Private Parity

Whenever there's a privatization movement afoot, much of the claim in favour focuses on how it's supposed to involve less expense - particularly when public-sector workers are replaced by private-sector ones with less effective unions. That has its downside too, when the less desirable job conditions lead to concurrently weaker workers.

The OPSEU is managing to avoid the expected results:
Correctional officers employed at Canada's only private adult jail have rejected the employer's final offer for a new collective agreement. Members of the Ontario Public Service employees Union Local 369 voted 95 per cent to reject the offer. Over 88 per cent of the employees turned out for the vote, held July 21...

Currently, workers at the facility run by Utah-based Management and Training Corporation earn two per cent less per hour than their public sector counterparts and receive fewer benefits and less time off. Sean Wilson, chair of the union bargaining team, says his members are united in this fight.

"The status quo is unacceptable," Wilson said. "We want the same as public sector correctional officers - period."

An excellent move by the union members to avoid a race-to-the-bottom situation - the province will surely make the same demand in the opposite direction (under penalty of further privatization) if the workers accept less now. And it's impressive to see such high numbers of members involved given the supposed malaise surrounding the union movement.

The ball is back in Superjail's court now. Stay tuned...

Resource discovery

Great news from northern Saskatchewan:
Northern Saskatchewan could soon be home to one of the first "rare earth" mineral mines in North America.

The 15 minerals considered "rare earth" are used in numerous products in the electronics industry, including MRIs, TV screens, rechargeable batteries and hydrogen-powered cars...

Industry analysts say this could be the beginning of a growing industry for Saskatchewan.

What has them excited is that all 15 minerals have been found together in abundance at a site just north of Uranium City.

The article notes that 80% of the world's current production of these minerals comes from China. A Saskatchewan deposit would be more convenient to the North American and European markets, making it a potential boon both for Saskatchewan itself, and for Canadian, American and European industries needing the supplies.

This is early going - but it's a very promising start.

Vote Canada: Now More Than Ever

Canada puts forward an interesting idea on Security Council reform:
Canada tabled a proposal Tuesday to create 20 temporary spots for elected members, in addition to the five permanent ones established after the Second World War. Holding elections would make the world organization more accountable and democratic, Canada's UN ambassador argued.

Rock said "permanence is the polar opposite of accountability." Instead, he proposed creating 20 regionally based memberships and allowing countries in each region - Africa, for instance - to regularly elect their representatives.

I doubt this proposal will get very far; the emerging powers won't want to lose the possibility of a permanent seat, the current SC members won't want to risk an organized and hostile majority on the Council, and smaller countries probably won't see it as the most desirable possible reform based on the obvious risk that their anticipated voting bloc wouldn't win out.

But I'd be very curious to see how such a system would work if implemented. Presumably one of two things would happen: either the current regional powers (India, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Nigeria, etc.) would strong-arm their way to effectively permanent seats; or, the regional powers would consider that to be less than the best possible use of their international capital, leaving softer powers (likely including Canada) to fill the spots.

Either way, this would be the most interesting election process on the face of the planet. For that reason alone, the proposal is worth a look.

Learning lessons

It wasn't part of U.S. policy when it came to Iraq, but where North Korea is concerned sovereignty is assumed:
Six-party nuclear disarmament talks opened Tuesday after a 13-month boycott by North Korea, and the communist nation's envoy said his country was ready to work on eliminating atomic weapons from the Korean Peninsula....

North Korea agreed to return to the talks following a meeting earlier this month between Kim and the main U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who assured the North that Washington recognized its sovereignty.

On Tuesday, Hill repeated those pledges.

"We view (North Korea's) sovereignty as a matter of fact. The United States has absolutely no intention to invade or attack" North Korea, Hill said in his opening remarks.

It's great to see some progress being made. Funny how it's easier to make gains through diplomacy when there's actual conversation rather than a series of demands and threats.

On encouraging progress

This is precisely the type of new idea that governments should be encouraging on the road to sustainable development:
All Marcelo da Luz wants is to drive his solar car across the country.

His dream car, designed and built with the help of a few professionals over the last six years. The one he mortgaged his house for and spent $200,000 on; the one that proves -- to himself anyway -- that any goal is attainable...

Mr. da Luz...has taken the last two years off work to complete the "Power of One'' solar car, a low-riding, flying-saucer-like vehicle powered by the 893 solar cells that cover most of its surface. It's five metres long by 1.8 metres wide and 90 centimetres deep. It can reach speeds of up to 120 kilometres an hour on the same amount of energy that powers a toaster.

The problem is that Ontario refuses to license the car, and other jurisdictions (with the exceptions of Saskatchewan and the Yukon, both of whom have granted permits) are following its lead.

The explanation is that a student was killed in a traffic accident as part of a solar car tour. The article doesn't mention whether there were differences in engineering between the different types of solar cars, and there's no indication at all that Ontario has made an effort to determine what could make da Luz' car fit to be licensed. Instead the (already stringent) conditions previously set on solar vehicles are under review.

For now, a great idea sits idle simply because it isn't the norm. With any luck, the public attention will force Ontario to look at how to let da Luz go forward; if not, then we'll have been told all definitively that Ontario isn't willing to do its part to help its citizens innovate.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Did someone feel a chill?

From the Boston Globe:

The U.S. Democrats show an unusual amount of backbone...
Democrats, who have urged Bush to fire Rove or revoke his classified clearance, stepped up political pressure on Republicans on Monday by calling for a formal congressional investigation of the Plame leak.

"The United States Congress has a constitutional responsibility to provide oversight of the executive branch, whether a law has been broken or not," the 26 senators said in a letter.

...and are rewarded with self-serving Republican politicking sinking to remarkable depths:
(Pat Roberts spokeswoman Sarah) Little said the Senate committee would also review the probe of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who has been investigating the Plame case for nearly two years.

While the committee will ostensibly be investigating the behaviour of the White House as the primary goal, it isn't hard to see where this is going.

Will Republicans Fitzgerald and Larry Johnson be slammed for partisanship against Bushco? Will the "national security" angle be used to tighten up legitimate flows of information rather than to demand accountability from political leakers?

And are the answers so obvious that it's not even worth asking the questions?

(Via Daily Kos.)

Edit: The Suburban Guerrilla points out a comment on Kos suggesting that the Republicans will grant full immunity to the White House staff under investigation. Rove may well have some tricks up his sleeve yet.

New poll results

Harper's summer swing doesn't appear to be doing much for the Conservatives. From Decima Research:
Nationally, the poll placed the Liberals at 39 per cent of decided voters, compared with 24 per cent for the Conservatives and 19 per cent for the NDP.

The national numbers are based on Decima's weekly national poll of 1,000 Canadians conducted July 14-17.

While the Star focuses on the Quebec results (which show the Liberals making up some ground against the Bloc with both the NDP and the Cons in single digits), the national numbers are the more interesting ones from my standpoint.

There's little doubt that the Liberals have a solid lead on all comers at this point; however, this is one more poll to add to the pile where the NDP is within striking distance of the Cons. Of course there are others which have included double-digit gaps.

But at this point, a fluid electorate is probably the best situation for the NDP, particularly if it's based on dissatisfaction with Harper and company. Based on the new numbers, the electorate is both fluid, and flowing (slightly) in the right direction.

A strong opinion

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has issued its opinion on the cattle injunction - and it doesn't leave much room for discussion:
The high court said Cebull should have respected the judgment and expertise of the agriculture department about safety risks instead of blithely accepting the word of R-CALF.

R-CALF, said the three judges, didn't show a likelihood of success on the merits of its case, which centred on arguments that Canadian cattle pose extensive risks to U.S. herds and human health, as well as "irreparable economic harm."

"The record does not support the district court's alarmist findings (of harm) from the stigma of Canadian beef will actually befall the American beef industry," said the Court of Appeals...

"Instead of evaluating the (mad cow) safeguards as part of a larger system, the district court parsed the regulations and faulted USDA for any risk that a given step failed to remove," said the opinion.

R-CALF doesn't want to give up, but it's tough to see how there could be any merit to a hearing on a permanent injunction at this point.

(I'll keep an eye out for an HTML copy of the opinion for further commentary - drop a comment if you spot one.)

Corporate censorship

Via The Coast of Bohemia, Boing Boing points out an appalling move by Telus:
The Telecommunications Workers' Union of Canada has been locked out by Telus, a large phone company and ISP. Two of TWU's sites (including Voices for Change, a message board where union members can discuss issues such as being without a contract for 1666 days and last having received a general wage increase 2031 days ago).

Telus is playing very dirty -- they're blocking access to the union's website so that their workers and the general public are cut off from legitimate debate about this action. This is inexcusable: imagine if this phone company chose to block all calls into union headquarters.

Indeed. The Coast of Bohemia offers links to the CRTC and Telus' complaints page - stop by and make it clear that the censorship won't be ignored.

Taking control

There's ample coverage of the dispute between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island. But before asking whether Canada should be making claims to new territory, let's ask whether Canada has done all that well handling another relatively recent addition. A new film suggests otherwise:
In 1944, Iceland, a desperately poor place, became independent from Denmark. Five years later, Newfoundlanders went in the opposite direction and voted to join Canada...

Debate ensues on the issue of provincial autonomy and how natural resources such as fish, oil and nickel have been exported to other places for processing and refining. Manufacturing of finished goods, consequently, also takes place elsewhere.

Iceland, with its similar terrain, is shown as having a lifestyle quite to the contrary. Small shops owned by Icelanders are shown vs. the big box stores of Canada. No mansions or great displays of wealth are seen. Three hundred thousand tourists visit each year. With a population of 280,000 people, Iceland publishes 1,000 books per year.

Of course, Newfoundland chose its course, and hopefully it will take some steps economically thanks to the Atlantic accord. But there should be no doubt that Canada's parental attitude has had a negative effect - and that we're still a good ways away from doing the most possible for the territory we already have.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Non-thinking caps

A new movement is afoot in the U.S. to try to tie the hands of governments - even though the one current example has been a miserable failure:
A spending restraint initiative is also expected to appear on the November ballot in Ohio, where a signature gathering effort is wrapping up. By 2006, Maine and Oregon residents probably will vote on similar proposals.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin, spending cap bills are picking up significant support in legislatures. And as lawmakers elsewhere continue to balk at such proposals — they have come up in 23 state legislatures this year but have not passed in any of them — activists are planning to go directly to the ballot in many of those places...

Colorado is bucking the trend. There, a decade-old cap threatens to squeeze state spending so much that Republican Gov. Bill Owens and leaders of the state's business community are imploring voters to pass an initiative on the fall ballot that would lift the cap for five years.

The evidence from Colorado supports what seem to be obvious intuitive problems with measures like these. Rather than paying the slightest bit of attention to the needs within a state, the caps set out an arbitrary top level, leaving all interests within the state to fight against each other for funding. It doesn't matter if a one-year investment at the right time can lead to a better long-term fiscal situation (say, a large infrastructure expense in support of expected development) - the government simply doesn't have the choice.

Never mind running government like a business; instead the government runs like a business which knows that it's prevented from expanding or investing. Which is another phrase for a business that's in trouble.

The cap movement is led by groups which effectively assume that any government spending is too much; this is never a safe assumption. But even where excessive government spending exists, the proper means of dealing with it is through a better government making better decisions with an eye to the long term, not through artificial caps which necessitate governance based on surviving the short term. Colorado has learned the hard way, and it may not be long before more states do the same.

As for Canada, we lack much of the basis for such restrictions in any event: most Canadian budgets are already under much better control than those to the south, and there's more political will for careful budgets thanks to the parliamentary system. But we should learn from the U.S.' mistakes, and make sure not to let any efforts for similar measures get near the Canadian political scene.

Boilerplate

Let it never be said that the Iraq war hasn't led to some progress. For example, the U.S. military's PR department is getting much more efficient:
Following a car bombing in Baghdad on Sunday, the U.S. military issued a statement with a quotation attributed to an unidentified Iraqi that was virtually identical to a quote reacting to an attack on July 13...

Sunday's news release said: "'The terrorists are attacking the infrastructure, the ISF and all of Iraq. They are enemies of humanity without religion or any sort of ethics. They have attacked my community today and I will now take the fight to the terrorists,' said one Iraqi man who preferred not to be identified."

The July 13 news release said: "'The terrorists are attacking the infrastructure, the children and all of Iraq,' said one Iraqi man who preferred not to be identified. 'They are enemies of humanity without religion or any sort of ethics. They have attacked my community today and I will now take the fight to the terrorists.'"

In fairness, we shouldn't rush to conclusions. Sure, it looks like the military is inventing quotes, or at least reusing them. But there's at least some chance that both quotations are from Chalabi associates who merely remembered their lines a little too well.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist

NASA's new line: the same unexplained problem that put off the last planned Discovery launch now isn't worth worrying about.
At an evening news conference, Hale and other NASA officials found themselves defending the decision to launch with a fuel gauge failure. They stressed that they will proceed with a liftoff only if the problem is well understood and involves the gauges in question - anything else will result in a postponement...

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said he supports the decision and even hopes the problem recurs to further pinpoint the source of the trouble. He acknowledged that the public might perceive that the space agency is rushing to launch, but insisted it was the right technical judgment.

If NASA wants the problem to recur so as to be able to better figure out its nature, wouldn't that suggest that it's something less than well understood?

At the moment, the administrators are trying to justify going ahead against public pressure to the contrary. But how much stronger will that public pressure be if Discovery meets the same fate as Columbia? This may well be the end of the line for the current shuttle program - and with that at stake NASA seems willing to launch on hope rather than anything approaching knowledge.

Humanitarian program at work

Tales from the UK's Home Office:
Asylum seekers were being rejected if they had not sought medical treatment after alleged brutalities, even if they lived in war zones where it was impossible to get medical help, she said.

One applicant was told that an attack they had suffered, in which others had died, was so bad that 'it is not believed that you would have been able to survive'. Others were turned down on the basis of assumptions of what officers thought they might do themselves in the circumstances...

'The examples cited in the report of refusals made by Home Office caseworkers are jaw-dropping, but what is truly shocking is that the report contains so many of them,' said a spokeswoman. 'The report paints a picture of a system dominated by a "culture of disbelief", in which refusals are the norm and stories of persecution are only ever accepted grudgingly.'...

For some nationalities, such as Somalians and Eritreans, more than a third of those rejected have the decision overturned on appeal. The Refugee Council spokeswoman said that unless decisions were made clearly and fairly in the first place, the government would struggle to reduce delays in the system and speed up removals.

The article notes that the public debate over immigration has helped to poison the immigration process. It's easy to point out an individual refugee who wound up harming a society - it's much more difficult to point out the potential contributions of would-be refugees who were turned away, or the suffering of somebody who ends up being persecuted after being sent back to a repressive state. But the latter two factors far outweigh the former, and it looks like the UK has been turning away deserving arrivals due to a lack of understanding of that point.

Let them eat cake

Conservative MP Helena Guergis demands that Canada stop giving aid to China, based primarily on the fact that China itself has enough wealth to build up a large army and a space program.

There's an obvious counterbalance to those considerations:
(T)he Canadian International Development Agency says aid to China is necessary because, despite its progress, it still contains 20 per cent of the world's poor and "some of the earth's most severe environmental problems."

Inequality between rural and urban areas, particularly in western China where women and ethnic minorities are "disproportionately affected," means "targeted measures are needed to address these imbalances."

While China probably does have enough resources to take care of its own if it so chose, it should be plainly obvious that the priorities of the Chinese regime lie elsewhere. Canada's choice is thus between either neglecting the Chinese poor entirely, or offering enough aid to allow them to at least survive, and potentially to have a role in reshaping the state in the longer term.

One would think that if reform is our goal, then our policy should ensure that potential reformers have the means and opportunity to be heard. One would then be thinking a lot more clearly than Helena Guergis.

Shocking

It's official. Tehran is now home to more accountability than Washington:
In an unprecedented report, Iran's hard-line judiciary Sunday acknowledged widespread human rights violations in prisons, including use of torture and solitary confinement, state-run media reported Sunday.

The report, which was broadcast by state-run radio Sunday, said prison guards and officials in detention centers have ignored a legal order banning torture. It also said police have made several arrests without sufficient evidence and held suspects in undeclared detention centers.

The report also made the front covers of both state-run and privately-run newspapers. It's pleasantly surprising to see what seems to be a fairly spontaneous move toward letting the truth out.

Of course, the "not following orders" defence is suspicious, but at least it's not accompanied by the "only enemies want to expose our crimes" view of the Bush administration.