Saturday, June 25, 2005

Incarceration is on the march

Don't worry if most of Iraq isn't being rebuilt yet. In addition to the already-noted construction of permanent U.S. facilities going on in the Green Zone, there's another area of rapid expansion:
The two main U.S. Army-run prisons, Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, are operating near their maximum or "surge" emergency limits. As of Saturday, the two prisons together held 10,178 inmates, with 1,630 detainees awaiting processing in different Army divisional and brigade headquarters.

The Army is expanding both sites and working on the third major prison, near Sulaymaniya, which would house up to 2,000 prisoners; the additions will increase the total U.S. long-term detention capability to more than 16,000 prisoners.

Because of the added need for prison space, Abu Ghraib is still in use and will be for the foreseeable future. The timeline for ending its use has been pushed back from this spring to next winter, and it doesn't look like there's going to be any end to the increased numbers of prisoners anytime soon:
A Combined Review and Release Board...decides which prisoners can be released and which pose an immediate threat and must be detained. Rudisill, the Army spokesman, said the criteria include: the quality of the evidence against the prisoner; capabilities such as military training or electrical skills that could be put toward making bombs; suspected connections to insurgent cells; and "expressed philosophy."

Note that actual evidence is only a small component of the review criteria. More important is any real or perceived interest running against the occupying army. Needless to say, the Board errs on the side of leaving people to rot in jail, as 60% of all those reviewed are judged as "high risk".

But let's be fair - if there was some significant sovereign Iraqi demand for such incarceration, the U.S. at least shouldn't be on the hook for it. So what's the view among Iraqis?
The detentions are among the most controversial U.S. practices in Iraq, triggering daily demands for the release of most prisoners from Iraqi lawmakers, clerics and community leaders.

So, to review, the current prison system in Iraq is expensive, ineffective and unpopular, and growing by leaps and bounds. One more success story for the invasion.

Reopening the border

The U.S. has discovered another case of BSE. And Canadian ranchers are pointing out the obvious. Canada and the U.S. are now undisputably in the same boat there's no reason at all for the U.S. to keep out Canadian cattle anymore.

Of course, don't try telling that to R-CALF. It's bad enough that R-CALF still refuses to acknowledge that the U.S. is no less a "BSE-affected country" than is Canada. But even worse, R-CALF is calling for increased BSE testing while implicitly criticizing the USDA for retesting cattle - including the one that just tested positive.

The Cowardly War

The Canadian Cynic on the U.S.' cowardice in the Iraq invasion.

Read it.

Non-investigative reporting

For the most part, I tend to be a fan of the Star, but here's some due criticism. This article deserves nothing but scorn - not because the data isn't somewhat interesting, but because the conclusions are twisted far beyond belief.

The premise is that a reporter, David Bruser, put on a Southern accent and pretended to be a Bush supporter to test reaction from Canadians.

Here's a fun little test. In each of the following pairs, see if you can spot which quote is which.

1. One quote is from a person surveyed by Bruser. One is from a prominent American political pundit.
(a) "Reconsider your views."
(b) "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

2. One quote is from a person surveyed by Bruser, speaking about American politics. One is from Canada's Blog of the Year speaking about Canada's government.
(a) "On the rather central issue of the country's medium-term survivability you have two naked parties complaining about each other's choice of clothes. Gee, what's not to trust?"
(b) "They boast. They have this and they have that. (If they spent less) time doing that, they'd just get their problems solved."

3. One is the percentage of people approached by Bruser who, in his view, "acted snotty" toward him. One is the percentage of Americans who approve of the use of torture.
(a) 23%
(b) 39%

4. One is Bruser's feared reaction from two people who cracked a joke at his expense. One is the actual result of the rendition of Maher Arar.
(a) "The screams of my fellow inmates filled my waking hours and remain with me to this day."
(b) "The way they carried on, I thought they were going to high-five each other."

Now somehow, out of this, Bruser's thesis is that he's proven the presence of "ugly anti-Americans" in Canada, and that we should all be ashamed.

From the above comparisons, let's make two things clear.

First, in both the actual American public discourse and Canada's view of its own politicians, Bruser's idea of "ugly" wouldn't even register as worthy of note.

Second, there are genuinely ugly aspects of current American policy which are supported by a large number of Americans. Granted, we shouldn't make unfair generalizations or forget the importance of the U.S. to ourselves and the world at large. At the same time, we also shouldn't be so desperate to be seen as polite as to be silent when America does wrong.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The real story

The CP highlights this:
In the wishful-thinking category, if we could each have a share of the net worth of Canada we could each bank $134,400.

Don't feel too bad if you're just a touch below this number. That includes all individual, corporate and governmental wealth. And it's an average rather than a median. Even the Canadian Press can tell that it's wishful thinking to think this reflects anything based in reality.

Untouched in any of the media stories that I saw, and buried in the middle of the original Statistics Canada report, is this:
The first quarter of 2005 was marked by the first negative savings by households in decades with the personal savings rate dropping to -0.6%.

The demand for consumer and mortgage credit was up from the previous quarter. With sustained low interest rates, the growth in total household debt continued to outpace the growth in personal disposable income. This resulted in a debt to income ratio of 107.3% in the first quarter, up from 105.8% in the fourth. However, the ratio of household debt to net worth slid to 17.9% in the quarter, as growth in net worth exceeded growth in debt.

This shouldn't be news to anybody: in terms of actual income to outflow individual Canadians are continuing their slide toward increased debt, but are coming away with small increases in wealth (I presume largely due to increased housing prices).

Meanwhile, governments aren't the only organizations reducing their debt-to-income ratio:
Since 2000, corporations have generated more funds from internal operations in most quarters than they required to finance their non-financial capital acquisitions. As a result of this profit-driven string of surpluses, the corporate sector has been a net lender to the rest of the economy and has also used these funds to restructure their balance sheets, largely through paying down debt.

For non-financial private corporations, the ratio of debt-to-equity (at book value) continued its downward trend, reaching a new low in the first quarter as it has done in each quarter over the last four years.

To sum up: for the past 12 years, the federal government has been steadily reducing both its debt and its debt-to-income ratios. Throughout the past four years, corporate Canada has been able to do the same.

Meanwhile, for consumers, debt is through the roof, while real wages would be falling if not for increased education.

Now tell me again which group should be benefitting most from the federal government's surplus?


Now this is how to deal with renderings:
An Italian judge has ordered the arrest of 13 operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency accused of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric on a Milan street two years ago and sending him to a prison in Egypt for questioning, Italian prosecutors and investigators said today...

The judge's action represents the first time that American operatives face prosecution by a foreign criminal justice system for carrying out the C.I.A.'s policy of "extraordinary rendition," the legal term for the agency's practice of seizing terror suspects in one country and delivering them to be detained in another, including countries that routinely engage in torture. Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 100 terrorism suspects have been transferred by the United States to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and other countries, where some former captives have said they were tortured.

Of course, in practice this likely only means that the affected agents will have to tread carefully in Italy itself - there's no chance the U.S. will voluntarily turn them over. (Unless Valerie Plame is somehow involved.)

But at the very least, this makes clear what the renderings are: kidnappings leading to torture, not legitimate law-enforcement activity.

All aboard the No Labour Rights Express

The Klein government takes a bold step into the 19th century:
Restaurant owners in Alberta are now able to hire children as young as 12 without first getting provincial approval as a result of what government officials call a "procedural change" in employment practices...

The change, which took effect June 3, means that employers in the restaurant and food services industry can now hire children between the ages of 12 and 14 for their establishments without first getting a provincial permit.

The rule was also changed without any legislative debate.

An Alberta Labour Federation spokesman rightly points out the reason for the change:
"Restaurants, particularly fast food joints, are having a hard time finding people willing to work for the wages and conditions they put them in," he said. "So rather than take a good look at their wages and working conditions, they've decided to expand the pool they can delve into."

Now, this isn't an entirely new policy - the major change is that now there's no provincial approval required for such employees. But as pointed out by the AFL, the effect is that the province will now have no idea where 12-year-olds are working, making it virtually impossible to enforce special labour standards for young employees.

And of course, by making it easier for restaurants to hire children, this change also makes it less likely that they'll hire adults who likely have a greater need for the job, but who are also more likely to stand up to an employer if working conditions so warrant.

Of course, nobody will claim this is a surprising move from Klein. If anything, the surprise is that the AFL thinks that lobbying might be able to change it.

It's not working! Let's do more of it!

You know it's a bad article on the economy when King Ralph is the relatively progressive voice. Goodale makes some effort to point out that reducing corporate income taxes won't instantly cure all that ails Canada:
And many of the government's other spending promises have a strong and direct impact on productivity, from spending on education and skills training to infrastructure and technology, he added.

"All of those things contribute to productivity growth as well as competitive taxes, as well as fiscal responsibility, as well as strengthening the economic union and reducing internal trade barriers."

Naturally, neither big business, nor the Senate, nor the Canadian Press wants to listen:
"We're in a decline . . . and the government, what is it doing? It isn't walking the talk," said Conservative Senator David Angus.

A flurry of reports in recent months has highlighted Canada's sluggish productivity record.

One of the most striking was a study by Don Drummond, TD Bank chief economist, which concluded that Canadians have seen almost no improvement in their living standards in the last 15 years and prospects don't look good for gains any time soon.

Now, I don't buy the premise that Canada's economy is doing poorly in the first place; over the last five years labour productivity has been the lone down side, while employment, education and economic growth have been at the top of the G8. And of course the quotes feature massive jumps in topics, ranging from labour productivity to standards of living to...well, we don't even get told where Angus thinks a decline is happening.

But if one accepts that Canada's current productivity and competitiveness are in decline, shouldn't the article at least mention that past massive tax cuts couldn't have done any good?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

And it's done

No more election threats until at least this fall: C-48 has passed.

Not only that, but at the request of the Bloc, the Liberals have committed to a vote on C-38 before the sitting ends.

Of course, the Cons are up in arms about a "deal with the separatists", failing to notice that it's in fact a matter of every other party agreeing on the issue besides them. Which can only make them look all the worse in the public eye.

All in all, a great day for Canadians.

Causing Homelessness

According to a Street Health study, homelessness in Ontario can be directly traced to the switch to EI:
Shartal said 1996 changes to Employment Insurance made it much harder for workers to get short-term disability payments, while changes to Ontario's long-term support plan in 1997 resulted in delays of up to nine months in processing applications...

Street Health said its study of homeless people in Toronto found many had a place to live before a sudden illness or disability forced them off the job, and the unexpected loss of income meant they quickly had trouble paying the rent.

"We begin to see the slide to homelessness," Shartal said. ``Homelessness for people who are partially disabled, who are sick and who are working, has now moved from something that might happen to something that is very hard to avoid."

Ninety per cent of homeless people surveyed by Street Health had 10 to 20 years of work experience before they became sick and eventually lost everything.

Needless to say, this is a failure on many levels. The long-term damage is obvious: a greater need for expensive shelters, more health problems arising out of time on the street, less employable workers.

And what's the short-term cost of changing the system?
The study recommends a seamless support program be established to help sick workers pay rent and other basics, saying it would cost much less than the $18,000 to $25,000 a year it takes to house people in shelters...

"There'll be a savings of between $550,000 and $800,000 a year to the adult shelter system."

And what strong action is Ontario's current government taking? The minister responsible recognizes a gap, and is talking about reviewing the current system. Looks like the "providing for basics" idea is just another solution too sensible to receive any serious consideration.

Highlight of the day

Some good news on the energy-conservation front:
WLED technology is based on a diode that conducts electricity in one direction through various materials, like phosphorus, germanium, or arsenic, which light up as electrical current passes through them. Such diodes are inexpensive to make, exceptionally bright, and shine continuously for 30 or 40 years...

WLED lighting not only has a long life, but may help us curb our electricity use. Twenty-two percent of electricity use now goes to lighting, and in a recent issue of Science, Fred Schubert and Jong Kyu Kim, two experts on LEDs, suggests this number could be cut in half by moving to solid-state lighting.

So far, these lights have mostly been installed on First Nations reserves which otherwise lacked proper lighting altogether since they weren't connected to electrical grids. That's how efficient this lighting is: it can run off the electrical charge present on a telephone line. And it's headed for use in the third world soon, in a project to ensure that every human has access to lighting - making this development doubly positive.

The right question

For those wondering whether the NDP was ignoring the possibility of asking questions on health care, the answer is a resounding "no":
Hon. Bill Blaikie (Elmwood—Transcona, NDP): Mr. Speaker, my second question is on a completely different topic. It has to do with health care. The question is for the Deputy Prime Minister, also a former minister of health.

She may be aware that the doctor who successfully challenged the ban on private insurance in Quebec is now being feted by conservatives in America. He is probably being quietly feted by Conservatives here, but they are not as open about it. He has gone to the United States and he says:

I would like to make a team with American entrepreneurs and go to Canada and create a private parallel health-care system.

This is exactly the kind of thing the Prime Minister has said he is against. What is the government plan to do something about this before it happens?

Dosanjh decided to throw himself in front of the bus with a "we'll prevent it from happening, and we won't tell you how" non-answer. It goes without saying that the "inaction isn't an option" principle is one that the NDP should be following up on at every possible opportunity - kudos to Blaikie for making that point about as well as can be done.

Human Testing - Guantanamo and beyond

From the Star:
Medical records compiled by doctors caring for prisoners at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay are being tapped to design more effective interrogation techniques, says an explosive new report...

The report's authors...say that while Guantanamo veterans are ordered not to discuss what goes on there, making it difficult to know how, exactly, military intelligence personnel have used medical information for interrogation, they've been able to assemble part of the picture.

They suggest that interrogators at the camp, set up in 2001 to detain prisoners captured in Afghanistan and later Iraq, have had access to prisoners' medical records since early 2003.

That contradicts Pentagon statements that there is a separation between intelligence-gathering and patient care.

In fairness, at the very least the detainees at Guantanom are fed chicken for their trouble. That's more than one can say for the American public:
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT), chairman of the subcommittee overseeing EPA spending, will likely oppose a provision in the House version of the agency's appropriations bill that bans the agency's use of data from pesticide testing on humans...

Nothing more to add, other than a brief shudder.

Warning: Troll feeding time

Anonymous, in the most profound post of the year, asks whether or not I can add. My suspicion is yes, but feel free to check my math. I assume that the Speaker votes against legislation on third reading to maintain the status quo; again, let me know if that's wrong.

Here are the current party standings in the House of Commons. If all Cons and BQ members show up, and two independents vote against C-48 (Kilgour seems like a lock and O'Brien has to be at least a maybe), that's the end of the story: 154 "nay" votes out of 308, the bill is defeated.

If, as is more likely, O'Brien votes for C-48, then there are 153 "nays" to 155 "ayes". If Cadman is still not healthy enough to vote, and Sarmite Bulte's travel plans fall apart again, then it's 153-153. Tie goes to the status quo, government falls.

Hence my agreement with Mike that for all the Cons' tough talk, they'll have members ready to avoid the vote at a moment's notice.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

This must be a joke

CTV claims that the Conservatives haven't given up on bringing down the government and triggering an election this sitting:
"I expect we're going to have every member in our caucus here whenever the vote is," B.C. Conservative MP John Reynolds told CTV News on Wednesday. "Whether it's tomorrow or next week ... we will have every member here, and this government deserves to be defeated."

And sayeth Craig Oliver:
"We're back into brinkmanship again. It's unlikely, but it's not improbable, that the Liberal government could fall in the next vote...

"This is a serious attack on the government and it will come very quickly and we should be ready for it when it comes."

Now, I know that the Cons are always happy to pretend they have the most power possible, and trash-talking about bringing down the Liberal minority has been as close to power as they've come in well over a decade. But surely they can't honestly believe that an election now will lead to anything but a disastrous result for them, can they?

(And somewhere, a nagging voice says "of course they can...")

Speaking of keeping talented workers...

...Saskatchewan bumps up its minimum wage to $7.50 an hour. According to the Leader-Post:
Two more increases are planned that will eventually push the wage to $7.95 an hour by March 1, 2007.

Kudos to the NDP for passing this, and I'll give the Sask Party due credit for not reflexively condemning any change, contrary to their position last election campaign.

Tolerance and Economics

The Tyee has this interview with Richard Florida, an author who has a surprising answer to the third pillar in a successful economy:
What I say in my work is that there's this third T -- apart from Technology and Talent -- called Tolerance. The reason this third T is an important part of economic growth and economic advantage is because it attracts talented creative people from all races, ethnicities, income ranges, -- whether they're white, black, Hispanic, Latino, Asia, Indian, women, men, single, married, or gay. So places that are the most tolerant, the most diverse, the most, in words of the new book, "proactively inclusive" have an addition economical advantage...

It's really been our emphasis on being open -- providing economic opportunity, for sure, but being open to people, culturally and politically. My message is that this is really the core axis of economic competition. And my fear is -- I'll just be quite candid --that there's absolutely no awareness of this in Washington D.C. It's so terrifying.

This is a great point, and one that all progressives should be quick to pick up on. C-38 isn't merely a matter of conscience, nor merely a matter of human rights, though it's important on both of those levels as well. More importantly, it (and other similar measures) helps to define whether Canada is able to attract all of the best talent available - rather than merely that talent which the Conservatives are comfortable fully including in Canadian society.

And of course, note the stark contrast between Canada and the U.S., which can't even bear to let gays serve a vital role in its supposed war for survival. Could this be both (a) one of the truly defining differences between the two countries, and (b) one of the main reasons why Canada's economy is generally doing well while the U.S.' has been in the toilet ever since Bush took power?

Restoring faith in Parliament

Good news: according to the ethics commissioner, Gurmant Grewal's immigration scheme was merely a bad idea rather than corrupt.

The scary part is how well that decision fits the Cons' general means of pitching themselves - they don't mind having poor judgment, as long as they can claim there's a bit less corruption than on the Liberal side.

Choosing one's symbols

The Liberals, trying to decide who should represent their efforts at democratic reform, have made a couple of surprising choices.

First, an ethics commissioner so widely respected that both other national parties want him to resign for incompetence.

And second, a party-switching MP turned Minister for Democratic Renewal who, on my reading of Hansard, hasn't yet so much as answered a question in the House related to that file. (On EI and other human resources issues she's given plenty of "I don't know yet" and "Of course I don't think what I used to" answers. Personal reform, by all means. Liberal renewal, I'll grant. Democratic reform, let's not kid ourselves.

The other main change highlighted by the Liberals is a change in the whip structure on votes - but then it should also be obvious that there's a strong incentive to loosen party reins in a minority government setting in hope that opposition parties will do the same. We'll see how long the whips stay off if the Liberals get another majority, but I wouldn't expect it to last long.

And that's apparently Paul Martin's grand democratic achievement. Now think what could get done if there was a real reformer leading the charge.

Responsible consumer spending, or a lack thereof

April's spending numbers:
According to the latest survey by Statistics Canada, Saskatchewan consumers spent 6.9 per cent more on purchases in April than they did one year earlier...

The increased spending is due, in part, to the fact that incomes in the province are up by about 1.9 per cent after inflation...

Even allowing for other factors (low interest rates? better weather for renovations? a generally happy provincial outlook due to higher oil prices?), that's a disturbingly high jump based on not much more real wealth. And even worse, it looks like Saskatchewan was more restrained than other areas: the jump in spending was below the national average of 8.2%.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Just how sovereign are they?

A tip of the cap to Stageleft for noting that Iraq's new leaders want foreign troops out of the country:
Iraqi lawmakers from across the political spectrum called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from their country in a letter released to the media June 19...

Eighty-two Shiite, Kurdish, Sunni Arab, Christian and communist deputies made the call in a letter sent by Falah Hassan Shanshal of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the largest group in parliament, to speaker Hajem al-Hassani.

Nearly a third of the current Iraqi parliament signed the letter. It's of course far from unanimous, but certainly seems to reflect a good chunk of the country.

Meanwhile, all indications are that the U.S. plans on sticking around awhile:
The price of building materials has gone up unbelievably, in spite of the fact that major reconstruction has not yet begun. I assumed it was because so much of the concrete and other building materials was going to reinforce the restricted areas. A friend who recently got involved working with an Iraqi subcontractor who takes projects inside of the Green Zone explained that it was more than that. The Green Zone, he told us, is a city in itself. He came back awed, and more than a little bit upset. He talked of designs and plans being made for everything from the future US Embassy and the housing complex that will surround it, to restaurants, shops, fitness centers, gasoline stations, constant electricity and water- a virtual country inside of a country with its own rules, regulations and government. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Republic of the Green Zone, also known as the Green Republic...

The Green Zone is a source of consternation and aggravation for the typical Iraqi. It makes us anxious because it symbolises the heart of the occupation and if fortifications and barricades are any indicator- the occupation is going to be here for a long time.

Well, the WMD and terrorism excuses for invading have been long since disproven. I suppose that by refusing to allow for any degree of local freedom during at least the course of his term of office, Bush is aiming for the trifecta.

Post of week? lifetime?

Whether or not this is actually Rick Mercer, it's brilliant.

Nuclear Wasteland

I can almost hear "The Circle of Life" playing in the background. According to the Prairie Dog (scroll halfway down the page), Saskatchewan is being considered as a dumping ground for nuclear waste:
With Canada’s nuclear reactors creating enough radioactive waste over the years to fill a football field one meter deep, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization is looking for a place to store the stuff.

Well, says a recent NWMO draft report, why not Saskatchewan? Not only is the province a source of uranium (maybe we can just put it back where it came from?), it’s also geologically stable: no fault lines for earthquakes or pressure points for volcanoes, which could cause the radioactive material to leak into the earth.

Sadly, this seems to be the best option anybody's put forward, despite some obvious drawbacks:
(T)rucking radioactive material across Canada looks like an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen...A truck crash, fire, or possible terrorist act would spew radioactive material into the air, rendering square miles of Canadian countryside—or cityside—unlivable.

Linda McQuaig makes largely the same points in discussing why new nuclear plants aren't the right answer to an impending energy crisis:
Right here in Ontario, the McGuinty cabinet, under pressure to make good on promises to close coal-fired electricity plants, is contemplating reviving its nuclear commitment...

(E)ven if we're unfazed by the prospect of a meltdown, a terrorist attack, a million-year waste problem and the mega-billion-dollar cost of new reactors, there's an added hitch: New reactors can't be built in time.

A reactor takes 15 years to build, notes energy consultant Ralph Torrie. Cutting corners on regulatory standards — hardly a great idea — could shave five years off that time, still leaving us five years short.

The amazing part is that just as the NWMO is finally coming around to dealing with the aftermath of previous nuclear construction, others are proudly ignoring the problems with those past projects. We can't undo the past damage; we can avoid causing even more of it now. No new nukes.

Famous firsts

It may not have happened before. It may never happen again.

Paul Martin refused to promise something - namely, added foreign aid in response to Live 8:
Martin responded in the House of Commons Tuesday by saying he is not prepared to make promises that the federal government can't keep.

"The problem with international public policy is that, too often, commitments are made on the grounds of photo ops and I will not do that," Martin said.

Of course, when it comes to domestic policy, photo ops on promises that might not be kept are just fine.

Who knew?

It turns out that urban life and rural life aren't that different.

Try telling that one to Saskatchewan voters.

Car-Free Sundays

Is this idea too good to be allowed to continue?
Last year, an initiative called Pedestrian Sundays saw several of Kensington's main thoroughfares blocked to traffic, with the city's blessing and more than $30,000 in funding from taxpayers.

Pedestrians took over the narrow streets, while musicians and street entertainers performed for free.

The problem this year? The initiative didn't receive any funding, even though it reduced its request to $12,000 - because suburban councillors grouped it with street festivals in their own districts which didn't receive funding.

Fortunately, there's a familiar name on council still pushing for funding:
Councillor Olivia Chow...argues that the whole project has been misunderstood by some of her fellow councillors.

Pedestrian Sundays shouldn't be looked at as a street festival, she argued in an interview.

Instead, the initiative is an example of how people can live, work and shop without cars in compact areas of the city like Kensington, Chow said. That means cleaner air and a healthier environment.

Note that the business community is split on this one, as the drive for more car-free days is being led by a restauranteur. An idea which seems at worst neutral for business, and which has obvious health, environmental and cultural benefits, is being rejected solely based on a small price tag. I'm sure suburban street festival organizers feel much better knowing that.

Differences in personality

Am I the only one who figures that put in the same situation, Pierre Trudeau would go out of his way to turn up in Geremia's church the following Sunday? Or, for that matter, the only one who'd like to see Martin do the same?

EDIT: Typo.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Happiness is... the process of being quantified:
Hundreds of academics, farmers, environmentalists, business people, entertainers and health professionals are trying to figure just how to do that, and to convince others that it is just as an important indicator of a country's success as its economic well-being...

Colman and other delegates contend that a better way of determining a person's well-being and the well-being of their surroundings is by looking at several factors - environmental preservation, sustainable economic development, cultural promotion and good governance.

A fascinating initiative to be sure, and one that the NDP should be strongly supporting (while emphasizing that continued economic development is still a huge part of the total package). This is precisely the kind of index which, if widely reported and accepted, could start to put some kind of easily-understandable measure on the importance of progresive policies.

Of course there are problems in the project. Nice though it would be to put together an index on all these ideas, there's always the concern that the attendees themselves will miss other important issues. And the weighting of the actual factors must be close to impossible. But anywhere the discussion turns toward "which of good government, economic growth and environmental protection is most important, and how do we encourage all three?" rather than "how can we put this government out of its misery?", progress is being made.

Let them graze on crops

Gordon Campbell's post-election cabinet shuffle includes putting the responsibility for social housing under the ministry of Forests and Range. The precise duties of the Minister:
Forest stewardship and timber supply
Forest protection – pests and fire
Compliance and enforcement
Forest investment
Timber pricing and sales
BC Timber Sales
Grazing and range stewardship
Housing and homelessness policy

Apparently B.C.'s homeless should give up on ever seeing the luxury of Porta-Potties - instead they'll be sent out to the woods to fend for themselves. (It remains to be seen whether Rich Coleman, the Minister responsible, will classify the homeless as "pests" under his mandate.)

Nuclear insecurity

Of course, maybe Pakistan isn't the only state that needs to guard its nuclear secrets:
Sixteen illegal immigrants gained access last year to one of the most sensitive weapons sites in the country, according to a report issued Monday by the Department of Energy's inspector general...

The report further said there was "compelling" evidence that security tests have been manipulated since the mid-1980s...

Several sensitive activities take place at the Y-12 plant, including the warehousing of enriched uranium and the dismantlement and storage of weapons. The site was being tested to see if it could defend against potential security incidents.

Amazing though it is that workers without proper documentation had access to sensitive documents, the most remarkable part of this is the fudging of security tests over a 20-year period. You'd think at some point during that time, the site would have been more interested in knowing its actual capabilities than in looking good on a test.

Old story, new twist

It was fairly well-reported last year that Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was responsible for selling nuclear technology to Libya and Iran. Because of Musharraf's support for the War on Terror, the U.S. was just fine with Khan receiving a pardon for his trouble.

Now it turns out that the damage may have gone further: blueprints for nuclear centrifuges have gone missing.
A senior official said several sets of blueprints for uranium centrifuges - the so-called P-1 and more advanced P-2 systems which were peddled by the Khan network - have gone missing.

"We know there were several sets of them prepared," said the official. "So who got those electronic drawings? We have only actually got to the one full set from Libya. So who got the rest, the copies?

"We have no evidence they were destroyed. One possibility is another client. We just don't know where they are."

And it gets worse:
It is now also clear that multiple components secretly made for Libya's $100m (£54.6m) centrifuge programme did not reach Libya and have gone missing.

"We are still missing something from the picture in terms of critical equipment, certain parts of centrifuges ... There is equipment missing important enough for us to search, an amount that makes us worried.

Keep in mind that the operative rationale for keeping Guantanamo open is that it's a source of "useful the war on terror". Would it perhaps be useful to know just how many blueprints Khan sold, or where parts might have been shipped? And if so, why is the man who knows the answers entirely off the hook?

And speaking of intractable...

Stephen Harper is good enough, he's smart enough, and doggone it, he doesn't care if people don't like him:
Despite Conservative talk of changing tack with a summer-long charm offensive by the party’s leader, Stephen Harper says he’s not interested in an image makeover.

“I don’t intend to change myself,” Harper told Vancouver radio station CKNW during a nationally syndicated call-in show today.

“I am who I am.”

Indeed. And he is what he is, as well. Namely, unelectable. (Much to Warren Kinsella's chagrin.)

What common good?

Here's what happens when you get too many right-wing ideologues in one place:
Calgary's mayor says city residents must conserve water or the city will shut off the taps.

Dave Bronconnier is angry that water usage actually increased in Alberta's largest city after an appeal to cut back in the wake of weekend flooding...

The city has already been forced to ban outdoor water use and anyone caught watering their lawn, outdoor plants or washing off driveways could be fined up to $2,000. Water rationing is the next step.

Wonder if we can take a few lessons from this. For example, that voluntary individual compliance isn't generally a viable means of altering behaviour on environmental matters. Nah - it'll all be forgotten by the time the floods subside.

Consumer Debt

For all the talk about governments acting responsibly over the past decade and a half, the reality is that a lot of the debt has simply been passed along to consumers:
(B)allooning paper wealth combined with ultra-low borrowing costs are also inspiring Canadians to dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt, breaking records every year.

Debt as a percentage of an average household's disposable income hit 122.3 per cent last year, double the 61.1 per cent level in 1961.

The federal government has, of course, been going in the opposite direction:
Since its peak in 1995, Canada’s ratio of total government net financial liabilities to GDP is estimated to have been reduced by 38.2 percentage points to 31.1 per cent of GDP in 2004, which was again the lowest in the G-7.

Lest there be any doubt, I'm not advocating that the government try to increase its own debt at the same level as consumer debt. On the contrary, what would should be striving for is for consumers to live more within their means as well. Instead, what we see is this:
The "false economy" of surging house and stock values is certainly contributing to yet another hefty increase in the number of people getting into debt trouble, said Laurie Campbell, program manager of Credit Counselling Service of Toronto.

"There doesn't seem to be any limit to the amount of credit people can get, and they just keep borrowing and borrowing."

That borrowing is undoubtedly helping to drive the economy for the moment. But surely we know by now that the positive effect of added short-term economic growth isn't worth the long-term harm of a foreseeable market crash. I don't have all the answers to make sure that doesn't happen, but some public awareness of the problem seems like a start.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Highlighting the alternative

For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnam's prime minister will visit the United States. And as part of the trip, Phan Van Khai will get an audience with Bush at the White House.

An interesting event, but it's hard to see where Bush is coming from here. It sure wasn't a human rights angle, seeing as that protesters were out to note Vietman's poor record on that front. It does highlight Vietnam's economic emergence and help to put money in American pockets, which seems to be the main plus for Bush.

But there's of course another side to this which makes me wonder what Bush was thinking - and it goes beyond simply putting the name "Vietnam" in the news.

In giving unprecedented approval to the regime that drove the U.S. out of Vietnam, Bush also gives added ammunition to everybody who wants to see a pullout from Iraq. After all, it signals that Vietnam has become a stable state capable of acting internationally on its own, after failing to become that while U.S. soldiers were around.

A more thoughtful president would wonder whether the same strategy would be more effective in Iraq. And even if that thought won't occur to Bush, this move at least ensures that it'll come to mind for more Americans than would have been the case otherwise.


Heather Mallick rightly blasts the developed world's past trade policies toward Africa:
But the problem is not, and has never really been, aid. Cash helps temporarily. What crushes Africa are the trade policies of the rich nations. Africa is asked to open its markets to the massively subsidized goods of the rich, thus destroying their own agriculture and attempts at export. “Trade is the root of the problem,” the Make Poverty History campaign has told the BBC. But trade is not mentioned.

Fortunately, there is one error, as trade is on the table for at least some G8 countries:
Tony Blair will warn his European partners in the final two weeks before the crucial Gleneagles G8 summit that unless they dismantle the £30 billion Common Agricultural Policy, Africa will never free itself from poverty.

The acrimonious stand-off in Brussels last week over the cost of the CAP was a signal of Britain's determination to push farm subsidy reform to the top of the agenda.

There's no excuse for Canada not to be Britain's strongest backer on the issue, and preferably taking a lead role in trying to win U.S. approval. For Canada alone among G8 states, the idea of eliminating farm subsidies is a winner both internationally and domestically (since the same EU and US subsidies that hurt Third World farmers also do somewhat less damage to our own). If our leadership can just focus a bit more carefully, there's chance to do some real good.

So much to talk about, so little time

Paul Martin wants to talk about everything under the sun in a two-hour meeting with EU leaders.

My guess is that with Europe's eyes watching, "Mr. Dithers" sees an opportunity to change his characterization at the hands of the Economist. I'm sure he'll look forward to having the moniker changed to "Mr. Surface Discussion" in the next issue.

A modest proposal

One small suggested first step in the fight against global warming and climate change:

Keep these off the roads. And preferably from being built in the first place.