Saturday, September 10, 2005

When in doubt, nuke

You'd think that after the Iraq debacle, somebody in the U.S. military would stop to consider the problem with military action based entirely on presumed intent. But a new document from the Joint Chiefs of Staff would allow for use of a nuclear weapon based solely on intent:
The document, written by the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs staff but not yet finally approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, would update rules and procedures governing use of nuclear weapons to reflect a preemption strategy first announced by the Bush White House in December 2002. The strategy was outlined in more detail at the time in classified national security directives...

A "summary of changes" included in the draft identifies differences from the 1995 doctrine, and says the new document "revises the discussion of nuclear weapons use across the range of military operations."

The first example for potential nuclear weapon use listed in the draft is against an enemy that is using "or intending to use WMD" against U.S. or allied, multinational military forces or civilian populations.

The article points out that Congress has at least taken some steps away from the nuclear abyss, particularly by refusing to fund new categories of nuclear weapons. But that's cold comfort when the U.S. is capable of wiping out whatever it wants to with the weapons it already possesses.

The effect of the proposed standard would be to give any president carte blanche to launch a nuclear weapon based on another state's intent. There would no requirement for existing war or conflict (which is of course the only situation in which atomic weapons have been used), no requirement for the scope of the intended use, not even a requirement that the state or entity in question actually possess WMDs. As long as the president firmly believed that an entity planned to use WMDs in some form at some point in the future, that would be grounds to send in the nukes.

The concept is bad enough in principle, but it's particularly egregious given that the language used is exactly that used in the invasion of Iraq. If the proposed policy had been in effect at the time of the invasion, then Bush would have had documented approval to wipe Iraq off the face of the earth, in spite of the actual absence of WMDs. And to my knowledge, Bush never stopped making the "Saddam intended to use WMDs eventually" claim: the policy could ultimately be spun as retroactive justification for nuclear action in an effort to minimize the actual harms from the war.

Mind you, the danger for spin is far less important than the danger of an itchy trigger finger in the future. And while this administration may be particularly eager to go to war based on innuendo and reverse onuses, it's difficult to justify any future administration (no matter how peaceful or competent) having a need to use nuclear weapons in response to a threat believed only as a matter of intent.

Unfortunately, Bushco still has control over the button for a few more years. And thanks to the policy that it's ordered, the threat of a nuclear attack in that time looks far too real.

How not to vacation

It's been well-documented that the Canadian Coast Guard's northern operations should receive a lot more attention and funding than they do. But the Globe points out that the icebreakers that we currently have are being wasted thanks to tourists spending their vacation navigating the Northwest Passage:
“It's been my duty all summer long — babysitting these Arctic boaters,” sighed Jean Ouellet yesterday, as he described how an icebreaker ship came to the aid of two boats that ran into trouble trying to sail through one of the world's most treacherous maritime passages this week.

“We tell them not to do it, but every year they come, and every year this happens,” the Canadian Coast Guard spokesman added...

The reason the Coast Guard doesn't ignore the adventure-seekers completely is because there is a concern that if they don't keep track of the boats, it could eventually turn into a costly search-and-rescue mission, he explained.

The calculation for the Coast Guard may be a necessary one under the circumstances. But the decision of individuals to waste the time of Canada's military resources is one that should be seen with nothing but contempt.

There may be no way to stop people from making irresponsible choices. But at the very least, an appropriate fee for the Coast Guard's services should help them to appreciate the real costs of their trips. The icebreaking (and for that matter, unnecessary search-and-rescue) operations necessitated by an individual's choice should be borne by that individual, not by an already-underfunded Coast Guard.

Firing the potential messenger

The latest message from Texas: Don't tell the truth about anything. Because if you do, it could turn out to involve Karl Rove...and when you mess with him, the punishment is clear:
Elizabeth Reyes, 30, of Austin said she was fired Tuesday after she was quoted in a Post story that ran Sept. 3 about tax deductions on Rove's homes in the District and in Texas...

The Post's story reported that Rove inadvertently received a District homestead tax deduction on his Palisades home, even though he had not been eligible for the benefit for more than three years. Rove was eligible for the deduction when he bought the home in 2001, the story said, but a change in the tax law in 2002 made the deduction available only to District property owners who do not vote elsewhere. Rove is registered to vote in Texas...

When Post reporter Lori Montgomery telephoned the press office of the Texas secretary of state, the press officer was on vacation, and Montgomery was transferred to Reyes. The attorney, who spoke in two separate telephone calls, told Montgomery that it was potential voter fraud in Texas to register in a place where you don't actually live, and she was quoted as saying Rove's cottages don't "sound like a residence to me, because it's not a fixed place of habitation."

It's not as if the story is even particularly big: the mistake was an innocent one, as a district office took the blame for failing to inform Rove of a change in rules. (I'll avoid speculating as to the accuracy of that admission.)

The district's media policy supposedly allows staff to talk to the media on ordinary issues, with the PR specialist to be called in for "special" or "controversial issues". It seems fairly obvious that tax policy unrelated to any individual would be about as normal and uncontroversial as anything a district lawyer would talk about. And indeed there doesn't seem much chance that a PR specialist would have been able to answer the question in any event.

But never mind all that. According to the Texas secretary of state, giving accurate information to the press, even unrelated to an individual, is a termination-worthy offence - at least when that information is later tied to a key member of Bushco. Good to know there's one more group of people going out of its way to make sure Bush and company aren't burdened by anything resembling reality.

Sneak preview

For those awaiting the results of the Gomery inquiry, the Globe releases a hint at the outcome:
Gomery is concerned that federal officials may have...tilted the sponsorship program in favour of “advertising agencies that donated to the Liberal Party of Canada,” inquiry documents show.

In addition, Judge Gomery has indicated he may find that the sponsorship program was managed in a way that “lacked transparency and failed to optimize resources.”...

Among other things, Judge Gomery indicated in his letter that he may find that federal officials “intervened, directly or indirectly, in the selection and management of sponsorship and/or advertising activities of the federal government in an inappropriate manner that is incompatible with the non-partisan and professional character of the civil service.”

The article points out that the letters merely set out a set of suspicions to allow Bard to respond. And nothing from the letter should be too much of a surprise based on the testimony so far. But that doesn't mean the release of the letter won't have some effect on the Canadian political scene.

For the moment, any incentive Martin had to call a fall election should be reduced as the inquiry gets put back on the front page. And there's no doubt that the contents of the letter will find their way into at least some opposition discussion over the next couple of months.

For later on, however, a staggered release of information could dilute the effect of the final report, particularly if some of the suspicions from the letter are determined not to be well-founded. And any party which spends too much time on the allegations will look bad in the end if the final report exonerates enough people. (For that reason I'd hope the NDP will limit its talk about the letter - while it'll have to be mentioned somewhat to win protest votes, there are bigger Liberal failings to talk about.)

We'll find out in due time whether both today's letter and the wider Gomery report help to sink the Liberals, or whether they merely toss Harper yet another anchor.

Friday, September 09, 2005

As paranoid as one has to be

I hate to be one to impugn the motives of members of the judiciary, even when a decision goes against how I'd want it decided. But sometimes, exceptions have to be made. And I can't help but to notice that it seems more than a bit suspicious that less than a week after a second vacancy pops up on SCOTUS, this decision gets released - particularly given that the decision could have been released at effectively any time:
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously to reverse a judge's order that the government either charge or free Jose Padilla, who has been in custody for more than three years.

"The exceedingly important question before us is whether the President of the United States possesses the authority to detain militarily a citizen of this country who is closely associated with al-Qaida, an entity with which the United States is at war," Judge Michael Luttig wrote. "We conclude that the President does possess such authority."...

Padilla's lawyer said his client would probably appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, adding that the appeals court decision could have grave implications for all Americans.

"It's a matter of how paranoid you are," Andrew Patel said. "What it could mean is that the president conceivably could sign a piece of paper when he has hearsay information that somebody has done something he doesn't like and send them to jail - without a hearing (or) a trial."

As noted by the article, Luttig's name has been mooted as a possible Supreme Court nominee. And getting his name out in the media as the point man supporting infinite power for the President doesn't seem like a bad way to get pushed to the top of the list.

Never mind that the decision seems to contradict a Supreme Court precedent:
The Supreme Court held, in the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, a Louisiana-born Saudi-American seized in Afghanistan, that American citizens seized overseas during military operations must be given access to American courts to challenge the legality of his detention.

If the Times' article is correct, Luttig found no difference between Hamdi's situation and Padilla's - but reached the opposite conclusion from the Supreme Court anyway. And if Luttig does get appointed to SCOTUS prior to an appeal from today's decision, then the Supreme Court deck will be stacked, as Luttig will have to recuse himself, necessitating a 5-3 margin to overturn today's decision. Which might be added motivation for Bush to nominate him.

Granted, Luttig's ideology may make him likely to decide in Bushco's favour in any event. But this seems like a blatant gift to the man who'll decide whether or not Luttig gets what's presumably his dream job.

Mad cattlemen

If there's one thing you can't criticize about R-CALF, it's the group's devotion to the cause even in the face of virtually certain defeat:
R-CALF USA has requested that all 11 judges who sit on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals review a ruling made by three judges on July 14 that overturned a temporary ban on young Canadian cattle imports. "The three-judge panel . . . missed or misunderstood numerous key aspects of this case," Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF, said from Billings, Mont...

Russell Frye, R-CALF's chief lawyer, said if the Appeal Court agrees to review the case, and then rules in their favour, the border would close again to live Canadian beef.

"Probably the effect would be the preliminary injunction that had kept the USDA rule from coming into effect in March would be reinstated," Frye said from Washington, D.C.

The latter statement seems particularly optimistic on the part of R-CALF, as there's no compelling reason for the preliminary injunction to be reinstated. In essence, R-CALF will be left arguing against itself, trying to claim that the recent imports haven't done enough damage to make the injunction pointless, while at the same time claiming that future imports under precisely the same conditions would cause irreparable harm.

The article points out that 89,000 Canadian animals have already crossed the reopened border, and there's no particular reason for the court to conclude that cow #89,001 will prove fatal to the U.S. beef industry. Which means that Canadian producers should have little to worry about from the ongoing court process.

Laying the foundation

Tasteful Future has the rundown on Layton's recent speech in Quebec. The conclusion:
We need to reduce Bloc influence in Ottawa by showing up the majority of voters just how ineffective it is. We need to give Bloc-fearing Québécois another option than voting Liberal by default. Harper's not interested in Québec, it doesn't take a genius to understand that, so the path is clear for the NDP to move in and open up some new ground for a substantial amount of voters who suffer electoral fatigue. I've said it before and I'll say it again: modern history shows the province of Québec as a socio-democratic province with very left-leaning values. The NDP could make major, major inroads if they could help break their image in Québec of being a "farmer's party."

Layton's doing exactly what he needs to at this point: sending a message that'll resonate across the country, but more importantly questioning regional assumptions in the process. There's a substantial Bloc vote that's more a protest vote than a resounding endorsement of separatism, and it's about time to point out that the protest vote would be better given to a party which actually uses its position to change the status quo. A similar message should be the focus of the NDP's prairie campaign against the Cons: why keep voting for a party which utterly failed to do any good when it could have dictated the terms of the budget?

The biggest potential payoff in seats is likely an election or two away, as entrenched regional positions may die hard. This could be why the Cons are putting their attention elsewhere (along with the fear that a similar strategy might be effective against them elsewhere). But as pointed out by Case, that's a perfect opportunity for the NDP in the long term. And Layton's message shows that the NDP isn't going to pass this one up.

Long-term prevention

Today, Aileen Carroll will announce a $250 million to the Global Fund set up to prevent the spread of contagious diseases in Africa (and potentially to support health infrastructure buildup as well). Full credit to the Libs for a worthy investment. But as always, it's not quite that simple.

The new investment brings up the question of why money to fight AIDS is seemingly being shuffled around randomly. After all, nothing in the article suggests that Ottawa will reinstate funding for clinical trials of vaccines which were already developed by the Canadian Network for Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics, despite public pressure from Stephen Lewis. And surely the word of the UN Secretary General's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa has to be worth something in figuring out which policies need to be pursued.

More investment in AIDS prevention is a plus. But no progress will be made, either in vaccine development at home or in infrastructure development abroad, unless funding is stable enough to ensure that long-term projects can be carried out. And on that score, Ottawa's unexplained change in focus can't leave anybody confident of how much support they'll receive in the future.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Responsible debt reduction

Not that it should come as any surprise, but word came out today that the Saskatchewan's finances are in great shape:
Auditor Fred Wendel says in his fall report that the government made $844 million dollars more than it spent for the fiscal year ending last March.

It's the largest annual surplus since 1991.

The result was that the government could reduce it's (sic) net debt from $9.3 billion to $8.5 billion dollars.

There's a good ways to go in paying down the debt, but taking care of over 9% of it in one year makes a substantial difference. And unlike some neighbouring provinces, Saskatchewan's fiscal health hasn't come at the expense of social well-being.

Of course, Calvert and company can't get much credit for high gas prices. But the NDP deserves plenty of credit for running the province responsibly when prices weren't so favourable, and it's reaping the rewards this year. Based on the combination of even higher resource prices and a great agricultural season, the province should be able to put an even bigger dent in the debt over the next year.

Positive investments

The Guardian reports on increased investment in alternative energy sources:
Big companies are also stepping up the pace of investment. In May, General Electric, the US conglomerate that makes products from jet engines to power generation, announced plans to double its annual investment in renewable energy technologies to $1.5bn (£816m) by 2010. In Europe, companies such as Spain's Iberdrola and Britain's Npower are making big investments in wind power projects...

According to New Energy Finance, a London-based energy research company, the second quarter of 2005 saw near-record levels of venture capital and private equity investment in the clean energy sector - some 45 deals worth an estimated $340m. "It is good to see that the number of renewable energy funds and the amount of money flowing into these funds is increasing," said Juliet Davenport, the chief executive of Good Energy, a UK supplier of 100% renewable electricity. "The renewable generation market is at an important stage in its development; it needs the continued support of the consumer, investor and government to ensure that it reaches its potential and really starts to make a difference to climate change."

Currently, only around $20bn a year is invested worldwide in renewable energy capacity; mainly wind and solar, with some in biomass and biofuels. A further $5bn is spent on research each year, particularly into hydrogen and fuel cells. But that figure is bound to grow. New Energy Finance expects the figure to increase to over $100bn within a decade - a sustained compound annual growth rate of 15-20%. That means there will be opportunities to make money provided investors make the right choice.

Now should be the time for pension funds and (especially) ethical investment funds to take a serious look at large-scale investments in renewable energy, as social responsibility intersects with high investment potential. It's unfortunate that it's taken this long for renewable energy to become a top investment option, particularly when some of the delay can likely be traced to government subsidies of the non-renewable alternatives. But however late it is, at least some investors are starting to look in the right direction - and the most influential ones should soon follow.

Within reach

The CP notes that softwood lumber isn't the only issue where Canada has strong motivation to lobby the U.S. at the moment - nor the issue where Canada's efforts could make the most difference:
An upcoming U.S. congressional vote on oil drilling in Alaska's national wildlife refuge is too close to call and strong opposition from Canada could make the difference, say environmentalists who want to protect the area.

"We're counting noses in the Congress," Monte Hummel of World Wildlife Fund Canada, told a news conference Thursday. "We figure we're within somewhere between two to five votes in the Senate. It's that close.

"We've been told by folks in Washington that having Canada come out and make a strong statement could just make the difference."...

The environmentalists applauded Prime Minister Paul Martin's recent statements opposing drilling, but they'd like to see a formal statement from the government.

Stephane Dion is apparently on the case to the extent of privately lobbying senators, but not in making a formal public stand. If there's anything to the Wildlife Fund's position, then Dion needs to pull out all the stops to make sure that momentary oil panic (which itself isn't solved to any meaningful extent by potential drilling) won't override basic environmental protection.

Ownership, evacuation and destruction

For those noting that the U.S. is reluctant to accept aid from Cuba, the explanation may have less to do with commie-bashing, and more to do with an attempt to avoid any comparisons between the hurricane management strategies of the two countries. Fortunately, Murray Dobbin doesn't let Bushco off the hook:
The horror of New Orleans is rooted in the extremes of American individualism. With lots of advanced notice of the terrifying category five hurricane about to hit the city, what did elected officials do? They announced that everyone should evacuate. Full stop. There would be no help. People would have to devise their own private way out of the disaster area. Yet, 35 percent of African American families in New Orleans had no cars.

Not for America a collectively organized, 'forced' evacuation as in Cuba where last year 1.3 million people were evacuated in advance of a similar category five hurricane. Not a single person died. And when Cuba evacuates people it also evacuates their most valuable possessions so they aren't destroyed.

Something to keep in mind next time Bush goes on one of his "ownership society" rants: not only have thousands died unnecessarily as a result of the lack of proper planning before Katrina, but those who survived have lost large amounts of personal property which would have been preserved had the same storm hit in Cuba. And the difference in evacuation plans (i.e. having one as opposed to not having one) is in spite of Cuba's lower amount of local resources.

Instead of retaining their most valued possessions, many Katrina evacuees (those leaving now whose property has been destroyed, and those who left earlier who lacked the capacity to take belongings with them) will have at best an insurance cheque, and at worst nothing (or perhaps FEMA's payoff after the fact) to replace everything that once was theirs.

It's glaringly obvious that everyone affected by Katrina would have been far better off if the new $2,000 per evacuee had been spent on either proper levee construction, or at least a genuine evacuation plan. But for a president far more concerned with political damage control than good policy, the actual choice shouldn't be surprising. Even if it means hundreds of thousands of "ownership society" members losing everything they owned.

On informed citizens

So much for the Cons not trying to be seen as threatening, as their heritage critic has explicitly come out in favour of slashing the CBC:
"If this [lockout] continues on for too long, there's a lot of people -- I've been reading the press and the letters to the editor -- and there are letters there that are questioning 'do we need a CBC?' Particularly English-language television," (Bev Oda, the Cons' heritage critic) said.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has never said his party would cut funding for the CBC, but has faced criticism from CBC advocates for failing to offer clear support for the public broadcaster in its current form.

The article notes that the Libs, much to their discredit, have done more than their share of damage to the network as well. But the Cons' extreme position should bring the issue to the forefront, and even highlight the cuts the Libs have made - to the benefit of both the NDP, and the general public.

If the CBC isn't seen as a good investment at the moment, that could easily be because it's been cut too far already to completely fulfill its mandate, or because it's been too busy trying to preserve what it has against yet more cuts to look for new ways to reach the public. If a debate on the CBC highlights those possibilities, then we'll be one step closer to having a network dedicated to informing Canadians; if it's purely a question of how much more to keep hacking at the CBC, then we'll be on the way to losing one of our national icons as well as a great source of information.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

On appearing to blink

According to the usual anonymous Lib sources whose claims go unchallenged (as well as one Martin spokesman), PMPM doesn't want an election this fall, and will avoid bringing forward any legislation that would force a confidence vote:
The prevailing desire of the Liberal minority is to avoid tempting the electoral fates before Justice John Gomery issues his report on the sponsorship scandal at year's end, government and party officials said...

An official in Prime Minister Paul Martin's office agreed the government will avoid a pre-Gomery election but declined to discuss strategic details.

"The prime minister made a commitment to call an election 30 days after Justice Gomery reports," said Martin spokesman Marc Roy.

"What we intend to do between now and then is not to play chicken with the opposition. It's to govern and progress on our legislative agenda."

The big question in response to the Libs' current position is whether or not this is simply a bit of reverse psychology. The ideal situation for the Libs is probably to let the Cons use up a lot of resources planning for a fall election, have a successful fall sitting, then go to the polls after a positive result from Gomery. And another few months of Harper desperately trying to goad the Libs into a game of chicken can't hurt their chances in an upcoming election either. But if Harper boils over in the meantime, then Martin will have a strong incentive to force an election (though he'll want to be able to claim to have tried to avoid it).

As for the NDP, it looks to be in exactly the same position as this spring: the sole opposition party focused on anything other than trying to gain seats in an immediate election, which should allow it to wring at least some concessions out of the Libs as long as Parliament is in session. And there doesn't seem to be much to lose. If an election's going to happen this fall, it'll be because Martin decides that the Cons are far enough down and out not to pose a threat, and that's still the ideal scenario for Layton and company.

Is the end in sight?

You know NAFTA is coming under a ton of scrutiny when even the heads of business groups are mentioning that it's in jeopardy. But that's just the message that was sent today:
Lumber dominated Wilkins' one-hour meeting with the Business Council of British Columbia.

"There was really nothing new from the ambassador," said council president Jerry Lampert. "It was very respectful but frank."

Canadian business and political leaders see softwood as a litmus test of the entire NAFTA treaty. Business support for NAFTA is undermined when the U.S. is perceived as not abiding by its rules, said Lampert.

The conversation between Wilkins and the group was friendly from the CP account, but nothing indicated that either side is going to give on the lumber issue anytime soon. We'll see how long it takes for the issue to be put back on the front burner - but if even the businesses who benefit most from American sales don't think that NAFTA is worth preserving (and let's make clear that tearing up NAFTA doesn't mean slowing down trade in general), then the agreement may not last much longer.

Not mainstream media

As noted elsewhere, locked-out CBC employees have taken to creating their own news feed - and this article for one is exactly the kind of coverage the media normally lacks, connecting the mundane news of an increased interest rate to its impact on Canadians:
The rate hike will be a financial shock for some consumers, who are carrying more debt than ever before. Household debt has more than doubled since the early 1980s, reaching an average of $66,800 last year, according to the Vanier Institute of the Family.

“Even small rate increases are significant when you are so indebted,” says CIBC senior economist Benjamin Tal.

Canadians have fuelled rising spending by taking on more debt. While spending and debt have been growing, Tal says incomes have stayed about the same and saving rates have dropped. People can still service their debt because interest payments are so low, but are extremely vulnerable to rising rates.

All too true. Since the CBC's official site is otherwise only featuring wire content, and since the new site is a worthy link in its own right, I'll be switching the side link to CBC Unlocked until the end of the lockout.

Emerging markets, stagnating standards

While the Globe and Mail reported this week on booming business opportunities in Africa, a U.N. report released today shows that there's an awfully long way to go to alleviate African poverty:
Despite progress globally, many countries are falling behind, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where the HIV/AIDS pandemic is dramatically reducing life expectancy and creating financial and social burdens that slow development.

The stark findings contained in the 2005 Human Development Report were presented to world leaders a week before they meet in New York for a UN summit to review progress toward the Millennium Development Goals. The goals include halving extreme poverty, reducing child deaths by two-thirds and achieving universal primary education by 2015...

Since the UN Development Fund's first report in 1990, more than 130 million people have been lifted out of poverty, Wednesday's report said. Life expectancy has increased by two years in developing countries, there are two million fewer child deaths annually and 30 million more children in school.

Yet 18 countries – 12 of them in Africa and the rest in Europe – registered lower scores on the UNDP's human development index than in 1990.

The progress that has been made should be celebrated, and it's a plus that private investment is increasing. But the investment so far has been fairly empty in terms of side benefits to local citizens: it's relied mostly on imported goods and separate infrastructure rather than creating jobs or needed services locally.

What's worse, the one country that's doing best investing in Africa still fell a long way in its standard of living: the AIDS epidemic has caused South Africa to drop by 35 places on the list despite moving out of the apartheid era. Just one more reason why it's unrealistic to try to draw a direct link between fiscal status and standard of living.

The U.N. report is yet another reminder that there's been a lot more talk than action on improving conditions in the developing world - no matter how many cell phones are selling in Congo. Unfortunately, with Gleneagles in the rear-view mirror, it doesn't look like that'll change anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Softwood lumber after Katrina

With all the other federal leaders having made their points on softwood lumber in the last little while, Gilles Duceppe stepped up today and took a rather shocking position given the timing:
The Bloc Quebecois is urging the federal government to mount a global campaign to denounce the American government's "arrogant" attitude on the softwood lumber dispute.

Prime Minster (sic) Paul Martin should warn that the Americans "don't necessarily respect their word," Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said in an interview Tuesday with The Canadian Press...

Duceppe said the prime minister should also make his case directly to Americans.

"He (Paul Martin) should tell American consumers that their government is to blame for them paying too much for softwood lumber," Duceppe said.

The unfortunate part is that Duceppe followed a terrible idea with a great one - and the former will likely get more press as a result. At this point, the world is largely focused on trying to help the victims of Katrina (even if Buscho is going out of its way to prevent that from happening); a campaign to kick the U.S. while it's down won't win any friends internationally, and will only make the U.S. seem relatively reasonable on the softwood file.

On the other hand, an appeal to the American people (and indeed to the world at large) as to the effect of protectionist tactics seems to have nothing but upside, particularly on a good that'll be necessary for reconstruction. My only caveat as to Duceppe's remark is that the campaign shouldn't be a direct attack, but should rather seek to present the benefits of affordable lumber to the States.

Consider the impression if Canada were to present a quick and public comparison as to the costs of reconstruction with and without the tariff, and combine that with a positive PR campaign about how Canada has helped in the recovery and wants to help in the reconstruction. We could simultaneously make a powerful point about the value of free trade, and win some points for presenting (sadly enough) a more practical plan to make reconstruction affordable than I've heard from any U.S. source.

Granted, the success of such a compaign would be far from guaranteed. But it would certainly beat doing nothing in the meantime, as seems to be the current plan. The costs are low - even if it doesn't work, as a positive campaign it wouldn't create any enemies outside the U.S. lumber producers who are backing the tariffs. And the potential upside, winning both some public opinion and potentially the market access we've long sought, would make the effort worthwhile.

Update: Time for credit where credit is due. While Harper's envoy plan doesn't make any sense, he nailed the reconstruction point:
Harper said the tab for rebuilding 500,000 homes in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina could cost $500 million more than necessary because of duties "imposed on American homeowners by the domestic political interests of a few companies and a few congressmen."

Making progress

While the rash of referenda against gay marriage in '04 shows that there's a long way to go toward equality in a lot of American states, California wasn't far behind Canada's federal government in approving same-sex marriage through the political process:
The California legislature on Tuesday became the first legislative body in the country to approve same-sex marriages, as gay-rights advocates overcame two earlier defeats in the assembly. The 41-35 vote sends the bill to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger...

(Rep. Mark) Leno's bill had failed in the assembly by four votes in June, but he was confident he could get it through on a second try after the Senate approved a same-sex marriage bill last week.

No word in the article on whether Schwarzenegger will sign the bill, though there doesn't seem to be much reason why not. To my recollection he seems to trend libertarian on social issues, and sadly a subsequent ballot initiative to reverse the decision could be his best shot at keeping power in '06.

Even if a referendum goes forward, Canada's experience shows that once civil rights have been won, there's not much public appetite for taking them away. Hopefully that will hold as true in California as it has here.

Update: According to the L.A. Times, Schwarzenegger is expected to veto the bill based a previous ballot initiative. We'll know for sure by October 9.

On being careful what one wishes for

Harper responds to another wave of bad press by demanding a chance to go to the polls:
A spring and summer of firings and resignations in Stephen Harper's office peaked Tuesday with a fall clearout of staff.

But the Conservative leader dismissed the half dozen or so layoffs as nothing startling and concentrated instead on challenging Prime Minister Paul Martin to test Liberal popularity by calling an election...

"The Liberal party thinks they've got great polls? Call the election - we've got the money, we've got the candidates, so ask them what the problem is."

In fairness to Harper, its sounds like there are reasonable explanations for the staff clearout. But even if the staff cuts were planned, the Cons would have been much better off keeping around some differing opinions on today's response.

Instead of putting the focus on the reasonable explanation, Harper went with the Macho Steve act - and we know how well that went over in Campaign '04. A couple more outbursts like this, and PMPM may just take Harper up on his offer, laughing all the way to a majority.

(As an aside, a research assignment for any entrprising readers. Harper claims in the article that that he never discusses his office staff; this might be worth comparing to his historical record, particularly at the time when people were hired. I'll take a look later on tonight, but any input is welcome.)

Gender imbalance

While gender disparity is becoming less of an issue in some higher-skilled professions, a new StatsCan study says that it's still a problem when looking at the wider labour picture:
As for women, although they made up less than have (sic) of the population in the workforce, they comprised 55 per cent of the chronically unemployed population. They also made up nearly two-thirds of the population that never found a job during the study period.

"Lone parents were especially over-represented among the chronically unemployed and the always unemployed. These were mainly women, as they head the vast majority of lone-parent families," StatsCan said in its report.

Lest there be any doubt, this wasn't a matter of the women in the study choosing to stay home with children. Membership in the labour force is based on attempts to find work, meaning that stay-at-home months may be a factor in the lower percentage of females in the workforce to begin with.

Instead, women in general and single mothers in particular are having a significantly tougher time finding jobs when making an attempt. And that suggests that there are still systemic factors (even if far less direct than once existed) operating against equality in the workplace - both in who's working to begin with, and in how much they get paid.

The rational explanation

One more link to Mike's post at Rational Reasons on why the response to Katrina should be political:
I've watched for a week now the unfolding tragedy in New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast. I have read a myriad of blogs, news articles and opinions. One of the more troubling themes emerging in the last few days of last week and over the weekend has been a "Now is not the time for recriminations" or "There will be plenty of time for blame later" or "Lets concentrate on rescuing and helping the victims, using Katrina for political cheap shots is improper" meme...

I feel I would do a great disservice to the thousands of people that died needlessly last week waiting for the rescue that never came, by remaining quite (sic) and polite. They demand justice. We all should.

Amen to that. And, as shocking as the possibility may seem in U.S. politics, that justice shouldn't be demanded on a partisan basis. Any problems at the state and local levels should also be thoroughly addressed, though from what I've seen (and Mike provides a nice rundown) the inaction started at the top.

In order to prevent similar tragedies in the future, the first step is to figure out exactly what went wrong. And that's necessarily going to involve a careful analysis of the political decisions that made Katrina far worse than it had to be.

Preparing for the worst

Paul Wells takes a look at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, and notes that Canada's preparations for weather disasters may not be that much better than those in the U.S.:
McBean says the new federal Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness is far more concerned with guarding against the long-shot danger of a terrorist attack than with the more mundane menaces of wind, rain, fire and disease. There's very little thought in federal infrastructure programs given to ensuring that infrastructure can survive a natural catastrophe. But even as he decries this, McBean says it's easy to understand. Disaster relief is bold work for politicians: swoop into the disaster zone, hug the bereaved, distribute largesse. Disaster prevention could hardly be more mundane. "What you're actually trying do to is create a situation where, when the hazard happens, nothing happens," he says.

Levees hold. Sewers don't overflow. Tornadoes fail to blow the roofs off houses that were designed to avoid such a fate. Power lines fall under the weight of ice and are reinstalled within hours, instead of transmission towers crumpling and taking weeks to rebuild. "What's the benefit of that?" McBean asks. It's obvious, of course, but hard to tally. Every dollar that could go to safeguarding against a vague threat is a dollar that can be spent today on health care or tax cuts or a war on terrorism. Today's needs are pressing; tomorrow's dangers are hard to see until it's far too late. Which is why specialists in disaster reduction live in a world of we-should and why-don't-they, while the victims of catastrophe are trapped in a world of should-have and why-didn't-they.

In that dichotomy lies precisely the reason why politicians' feet should be held to the fire in response to situations such as the aftermath of Katrina. If the political fallout from a poor response doesn't outweigh both the benefits of disaster-relief photo-ops and of spending the money on other projects, then there'll always be an incentive for governments to put their money into more visible projects.

As pointed out by McBean, the surest sign of a great prevention program is that potential crises never become severe. It's difficult to guess whether we've avoided Katrina-like disasters out of sheer luck or as the result of luck than of substantially better planning. But either way, now should be the time to demand a full explanation of what our governments have planned in case of a similar scenario - and to ensure that we're putting in a due amount of preparation against natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Anteing up

Haiti's Lavalas party, facing the choice of running a candidate from jail or not running at all in the country's next election, chose the former today:
Aristide's Lavalas Family party said it would register the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste as its standard bearer next week, apparently ending a heated internal feud over whether to participate in elections - the first since the bloody February 2004 uprising that helped topple Aristide.

"Even if he is in jail, we will register him," Rene Monplaisir, a Lavalas leader in the pro-Aristide slum of Cite Soleil, told cheering supporters in an assembly hall in Port-au-Prince, the capital.

This is the first possible positive sign for democracy in Haiti in quite some time: at the very least the party which has consistently won past elections is willing to come to the table.

But that doesn't mean Lavalas will accept the process if it doesn't turn out for them - and as long as Jean-Juste is trying to conduct his campaign from behind bars, there'll be ready backing for a claim that the interim government has stacked the deck. Meanwhile, there's absolutely no reason to think that the military groups who launched coups against Aristide will accept a Lavalas victory this time out.

Unfortunately, the election may be nothing more than a means to determine the parties' positions in another set of gang and military clashes. Lavalas' willingness to work toward again winning the upper hand democratically is a plus, but the table is still just waiting to be overturned.

Public opinion: a crude analysis

Leger Marketing releases a poll with remarkable results:
In the Leger poll, which was provided to The Canadian Press, 49 per cent of respondents wanted petroleum resources nationalized while 43 per cent said they would like to see the same fate for gas companies.

Quebecers were the strongest supporters of resource nationalization at 67 per cent, followed by residents of the Atlantic provinces at 53 per cent, Ontarians at 45 per cent and British Columbia at 42 per cent.

Forty per cent of respondents on the Prairies and 36 per cent of Albertans were in favour. Among those opposed, Albertans led the way at 49 per cent followed by British Columbians at 39 per cent...

Seventy-six per cent of respondents indicated they would like the government to intervene after recent gas hikes preceeding Katrina. Fifty-four per cent suggested they would like the government to fix the pump price.

Now, I don't agree with nationalization as a strategy (though hanging onto the federal government's Petro Canada shares would have been a good idea). And directly regulating prices is a potentially dangerous action which shouldn't be moved toward without very compelling reason to believe that there won't be serious unintended consequences.

But based on the poll, many or most members of the Canadian public favour major interventionist measures which haven't received a significant amount of press or discussion. And it isn't strictly a regional issue either - even in Alberta, a substantial minority backs nationalizing the province's strongest industries. Rather than Ontario against Alberta, the bigger faultline is between the public at large and the political sphere.

It's clear from the poll that the traditional "we can't do anything" line isn't resonating with the public. And when the public so obviously believes that something needs to be done, that view provides a platform from which to encourage more government action toward reducing our oil dependency.

Looking for a payoff

Dalton McGuinty makes his presence felt again - but rather than pushing a good plan for a commission on equalization, he's looking for another handout just months after previously securing $5.75 billion extra from PMPM:
Mr. McGuinty says he will not shy away from trying to get another potentially divisive debate on the federal election agenda: the estimated $23-billion gap between what he says the province pays Ottawa and what it gets back to help pay for federal services...

“We will continue to campaign on behalf of Ontarians to reduce the $23-billion gap before, during, after any federal election, and we will work with all the parties at the federal level to ensure that we're just getting a fair deal here in Ontario,” Mr. McGuinty said during the interview.

Translation: never mind taking a close look at the entire system, Ontario will apparently accept the status quo if it gets enough hush money (aka "fairness") in the heat of a campaign. A rather different position from last week, to say the least.

This should be the time for Martin (and the rest of the federal leaders) to hold McGuinty to his previous plan. If the system needs fixing, which hardly seems to be in dispute, then the only appropriate response is to take a complete look at how to change it - not to sign even more side deals to complicate the picture. And if a commission finds that Ontario isn't suffering in the current system, then McGuinty should be willing to accept that fact and deal with underfunding at home rather than looking for more federal money.

Flypaper and breeding grounds

Meanwhile, with U.S. attention focused elsewhere, the War on Terra isn't quite going as planned:
Abu Musab Zarqawi's foreign-led Al Qaeda in Iraq took open control of a key western town at the Syrian border, deploying its guerrilla fighters in the streets and flying Zarqawi's black banner from rooftops, witnesses, residents and others in the city and surrounding villages said...

Zarqawi's fighters were killing officials and civilians seen as government-allied or anti-Islamic, witnesses, residents and others said. On Sunday, the bullet-riddled body of a woman lay in a street of Qaim. A sign left on her corpse declared, "A prostitute who was punished."

But surely that'll only turn the locals against Al Qaeda and concurrently make them trust their occupiers, right? Not exactly:
Karim Hammad Karbouli, a 46-year-old resident still in Qaim, said he was waiting only for his brother to come with a pickup truck so Karbouli could load up his household and leave. Karbouli feared both Zarqawi's fighters and U.S. bombs, he said.

So not only is Al Qaeda now establishing strongholds in Iraq, but the local citizens don't see any difference between them and the supposed liberators. In other words, the battle for hearts and minds is even more of a failure than the battle for territory.

Hail to the Chief

Bush nominates John Roberts as Chief Justice of SCOTUS. It's surprising for a couple of reasons - not least because Antonin Scalia, the apparent frontrunner, has been on the court for ages and has a much more reliable record of pro-conservative judgments.

But if Bush trusts Roberts completely enough to want him in the top job even without any experience on the court, that'll only make the Democrats dig even harder to make sure of his credentials. And judging from some of the material that's popped up so far, there may be ample reason for concern if a lot of prior documents are combed more thoroughly. Why would Bush be willing to call that much more attention to Roberts' track record?

It could be that the nomination is a means of calling public (or at least pundit) attention away from Katrina's aftermath; a simple one-level promotion for Scalia would have been much less interesting. So far, so good on that front, as the nomination is now the top story on the New York Times and Washington Post websites.

But there's a simple counterattack from the Dems' standpoint as well: that just like the current heads of FEMA and DHS, this is another example of Bush promoting somebody based on ideology rather than qualification related to the task at hand, with potential to do damage to ordinary Americans for several decades. There's valid reason for the comparison in some of Roberts' known writings, as well as the fact that there are 7 other justices who are plainly more qualified in the SCOTUS setting, as well as countless others with more experience (both judicial and administrative) on lower courts. The main question now is whether the Dems have the guts to make the connection.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Failing negotiations

A rare piece of relatively good news for Bushco lately: contrary to earlier appearances, the U.S. is only one of many countries making it difficult for anybody to agree on UN reform:
"We are in a crisis situation at the moment," said Pakistan's UN ambassador, Munir Akram. "There has to be something for the heads of state and government to adopt, but obviously we're not going to reach a conclusion by doing what we've been doing."...

Seven issues are snagging talks: poverty and development, terrorism, collective action to prevent genocide, disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation, a new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission, a new Peacebuilding Commission to help countries emerging from conflict; and the overhaul of UN management.

Diplomats involved in the negotiations said the United States, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela had taken hardline positions on different issues...

India's Sen said differences remained on all the key issues and that some "are insurmountable," citing disarmament and nonproliferation and intervention in another country in case of genocide or war crimes.

Now, to any state genuinely pursuing UN reform, this is a disastrous state of affairs. The issues still in dispute don't appear to be ones that can possibly be worked out without some serious give and take - and two of them (disarmament and nonproliferation) are plainly ones where the U.S. stands alone against most of the rest of the world.

But it's clear from the above list that the U.S. doesn't mind being seen as a rogue state, even if it means taking a very curious side when it comes to the total picture. The U.S. is now fighting against the entire E.U. and 100 other countries who have signed onto the current draft. On Bush's side is a group of nuclear proliferators (India and Pakistan), human rights abusers (Egypt and Iran) and countries which are going out of their way to try to counter the U.S.' influence (Cuba and Venezuela).

(Of course, some of the holdouts fit into more than one of the above categories. Mix and match as needed.)

Needless to say, there doesn't appear to be much chance of a meaningful deal being reached. But don't expect Bushco to be too disappointed. Because if the goal is to try to prove through sheer obstructionism that a multilateral decision-making body is unworkable, then this is on the verge of truly being a Mission Accomplished.

Vacation time

For those not bombarded with the Expedia commercials making the same point, Ipsos-Reid notes that a quarter of Canadian workers don't take all the time off that they're entitled to, largely out of fear that time off will hurt their standing in the workplace:
Stefane Kabene, a professor of human resources and organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario, said many employees worry about losing their footing as they climb the corporate ladder.

He says workers are increasingly avoiding taking off large blocks of time, in exchange for two- or three-day breaks.

"Their biggest fear is what's going to happen at work when they're not there," said Kabene. "If you leave for three or four weeks, you don't know who might be replacing the place you're leaving."

The most surprising part of the survey is that of the people who don't take time off, more work on vacation days out of fear (30%) than out of financial need (20%, based on the article's statement "one in five" - thought note that it's not clear that the number is from the same survey).

This isn't a matter of choice, it's a matter of corporate culture. And some added recognition that most workers need time to recharge could do as much good for employers as for the workers who stay on the job when they don't have to.

(Edit: typo.)

Respect for those worst off

The Star has the terrible story of a homeless man being beaten to death in Toronto - allegedly by three members of Canada's Armed Forces Reserves:
Paul Richard Croutch, 59, died at St. Michael's Hospital on Wednesday as his case manager stood nearby. An autopsy performed Friday found the cause of death was trauma to the head, and the injuries were consistent with being punched, kicked or stomped.

Police were called to an assault in Moss Park, near Sherbourne and Shuter Sts., shortly before 5 a.m. on Wednesday. An unconscious Croutch was rushed to hospital but died later that morning.

A woman who witnessed the beating and intervened was treated for soft-tissue damage and bruising, police said.

There can be no doubt that whoever committed the crime, it reflects utter contempt for human decency. And based on the assault on an innocent bystander who tried to help, there'll be awfully little basis for any claim that there wasn't some serious thought behind the act.

It's too soon to say much about the alleged perpetrators without delving into the realm of speculation. But I'll take one small step into that realm: if it's true that three well-trained Canadian forces members were responsible, then it'll be time for a serious look at Canada's current recruitment and training methods. Canada must demand that its representatives abroad demonstrate more respect for humanity than was demonstrated in the attack.

Making news accessible

The BBC plans to make all television and radio programming available for up to a week after it airs:
"I accept the premise that if the BBC remains nothing more than a traditional TV and radio broadcaster then we probably won't deserve or get licence-fee funding beyond 2016," Mr. Thompson (the BBC's Director General) said at Edinburgh International Television Festival. "That is very definitely not our plan."

I've mentioned before the value in trying to make current-affairs programming more accessible for public scrutiny. BBC is already ahead of its Canadian counterpart in making transcripts available, and it looks to be taking the lead on further accessibility. Kudos to the BBC; it's about time for Canada's networks to start planning for similar policies.