Friday, February 29, 2008

Memo to Stephane Dion - You Don't Need an Excuse Any Longer

Forget the budget or the nonsensical mission to Afghanistan or even climate change. Stephen Harper's government deserves to be toppled for the pure sake of the Canadian people.

Read the accounts, Dana Cadman's claims, Jodi Cadman's claims, the taped voice of Harper himself - these people are morally unfit to control our government.

Stand up Stephane and do what's right - defeat Harper. Oh, and by the way, while you're at it come up with some clear, workable policies that Canadian voters can understand and support.

Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other

Your Choice:

- Taliban Justice

- Warlord Justice

Detainees Back for more Afghan Hospitality, Bye Harry

Canadian forces in Afghanistan are back to handing detainees over to Afghan authorities for - why, for detention of course.

Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security has assured us that they won't torture or otherwise abuse detainees never, ever, ever again. Really, they mean it. No, really.

From the Globe & Mail:

"The Afghan government has been lobbying Canada to resume its transfers, in part because the cutoff indicated Canada's belief that detainees face torture in the Afghan system — a propaganda victory for the Taliban, Afghan officials argued, and a source of friction with other NATO allies in southern Afghanistan who are also bound by legal conventions that forbid sending detainees into the hands of known torturers."

Interesting, it was the Canadian belief, not the actual torturing itself that was a propaganda victory for the Taliban. Curious place, Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Prince Harry is winging his way home, plucked out of Afghanistan after that vermin, Matt Drudge, got the enormous journalistic non-scoop and ran the story of Harry's service with his regiment in the combat zone. Brit journalists had known about it for, well forever, but kept the secret to ensure Harry's and his comrades' safety.

Charles McVety - Another Reason to Dump Harper

Harper must hate it when his creepy underlings come up for air and that includes evangelist Charles McVety of the Canada Family Action Committee.

McVety, who looks like a Tony Soprano Capo, has lurked behind Harper for years and the more you look into the guy, the less there is to like.

Now McVety is claiming that he's behind SHarper's "social conservative" move to deny tax credits to TV and film productions that contain graphic sex and violence or other "offensive" content.

Memo to Harper: I don't want you or those "the world is 6,000 years old" freaks, whether within your cabinet or not, deciding what will and won't be sufficiently decent to qualify for tax credits. Take your "social conservative" agenda and ram it right up your Born Again ass.

Have a Good Weekend, Connie

I genuinely hope Conrad Black has a good weekend if only because it may be the last one he spends as a free man for several years.

Lord Crossharbour of Wastewater has been ordered to the GreyBar Hotel no later than Monday.

I don't know what it says about me but I can't find any joy or mirth or satisfaction in his imprisonment. It's like a Greek tragedy. He had so much but always demanded more.

Cadman Day II - It Only Gets Worse

It was one thing for the Harpies to maintain, even without having the guts to come out and say it, that Chuck Cadman's widow, Dona, was wrong about her claim that her husband was offered a million-dollar insurance policy bribe to vote against the Martin government. Now Chuck's daughter has confirmed her mother's account.

From the Toronto Star:

"Independent MP Chuck Cadman confided on his deathbed to his daughter days after the 2005 budget vote that he had been offered an insurance policy for a million dollars by the Conservatives.
Jodi Cadman said this morning she burst into tears when her father revealed that news to her.

"My first reaction was I was hurt, very hurt and I started crying," she said in an interview. "If there was an Achilles heel for him, it was complete selflessness. It would have benefited myself and my mom."

That despicable, greasy, lying pr__k of a prime minister isn't going to talk his way out of this one. The author of the Cadman bio has a tape of Harper making it clear he knew the offer was going to be made and did nothing to stop it. He claims he told them not to bother because Cadman wouldn't accept but he didn't order them not to do it.

You can listen to the tape itself, Harper's own admissions, here:

On Transplanting Democracy

A revealing study released by the Brookings Institution yesterday. It was a survey of what happens to democracy when superpowers instal a new head of state. The study went back through the Cold War years and examined "regime change" American-style and the Soviet-variety.

The remarkable finding was that, democratic American or totalitarian Soviet, the result was pretty much the same - a significant loss in democratic freedom for the people after regime change. The numbers were close enough you could almost say they were a match between the US and the USSR.

The paper, entitled "Superpower Interventions and Their Consequences for Democracy," explained why the installation of a new leader to bring democracy to a people actually does just the opposite. To be overly simplistic, it's because the installing superpower doesn't pick the new leader to bring democracy but to put down a group or groups of unwanted types in that country. To fulfil his mandate, the new leader has to crack down and that often entails ignoring laws that interfere with doing just that.

To make it seem as though democracy is the real agenda, the superpower often ensures that safe elections are held. Good for public consumption at home. Sound familiar?

For the first five years, on average, there is a marked decline in political and human rights in the wake of regime change. After that, it seems to depend on how much success the new boy has had in wiping out the bad guys.

And that kiddies explains why Afghanistan and Iraq remain such horrible failures and why their innocent civilians will continue to suffer so.

Just In Case You Were Wondering - Kambakhsh Still Sits on Death Row

Outrageous blasphemer and, worse, journalism student, Pervez Kambakhsh still languishes in an Afghan prison cell and still has a date with the hangman.

Balk Province Attorney-General Qazi Hafizullah Khaliqyar told The Independent:

"Of course we didn't intend to violate any rights of journalists. The media law clearly prohibits insulting religious values and beliefs. [Journalists] can't violate the values of Islam and they have to keep that in mind," Khaliqyar says. Kambakhsh "has been referred to an Islamic court and would be dealt with according to Shari'a law."

As long as we've got the planes and the bombs over there anyway, how 'bout we send a few Khaliqyar's way where they could really do some good.

Is This Progress? Afghan Reality

If you listen to Harper and Hillier and Scheffer, the US and NATO are making real progress in Afghanistan.

If you listen to Afghanis, you get a different story. To see how Afghan women see Afghanistan, stop by every now and then at Here are the top headlines for the past week:

- 70 Percent of Afghanistan still lawless

- Husband cuts toes off his wife, pours hot water on her (with photos)

- Afghanistan - women's lives worse than ever

- Bashira, gang-raped in Sar-e-Pul province, calls for justice

- Wanted for empty prison, some convicted Afghan drug barons

- The masscre in Shagay, Bakwa district of Fara Province

- Afghanistan sitting on a gold mine

- Gang-rape of young girls in northern Afghanistan.

A warning: this site has photographs of abused Afghan women that are, to say the least, disturbing.

Six years after we drove out the Taliban, this is what we've allowed the place to become? The people of Afghanistan will never be free or safe until we destroy the warlords' iron grip on that country.

We need to realize that we have delivered the people of Afghanistan into the hands of a gang of butchers that is almost indistinguishable from the bunch we drove out. If we're there to liberate the people of Afghanistan, let's do it - starting in Kabul.

Boyd Coddington Dead at 63

Boyd Coddington, the maestro of custom car production, has died at 63 of complications from surgery. Coddington suffered from diabetes. His custom hot rods are the stuff of legend, genuine rolling works of art like the 1957 Chevrolet Belair above called CheZoom.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Tories' Lying Line on Cadman

The Vancouver Sun has published excerpts from Question Period today when the allegations of bribery of Chuck Cadman were raised by the opposition:

The government line is plainly "there were no offers." Nothing to see here, move along. Peters Politics has a post from May, 2005 that includes the following quote from the Guelph Mercury of May 4, 2005:

"The tense atmosphere was underscored when the Conservatives made a public overture Tuesday to Independent MP Chuck Cadman.

The onetime B.C. Conservative is being guaranteed a nomination in the next election if he rejoins his former party now, said Tory election co-chair John Reynolds.

Cadman has not yet responded to the offer. His vote could be decisive in toppling the Liberal-NDP alliance."

I guess John Reynolds, according to Harper's pathetic denials today, was also a bald faced liar. There was at least some sort of offer. The only question now is what was the full deal offered? Does anyone really believe this gang wouldn't up the ante to toss in a million-dollar insurance policy if that would make the difference to toppling the Martin government?
So, let's get this straight. According to Reynolds himself, the Tories were already making offers to Cadman by May 4th. That was two weeks prior to the critical vote of May 19th during which Chuck Cadman showed all the integrity his former colleagues lacked. Two weeks. But we're supposed to believe there were no further offers? Yeah, right.
Then there's Reynold's bizarre account of offering Cadman a guaranteed nomination if he played ball. The guy was two months away from his death. An offer could not have been more pointless. C'mon Reynolds, get real, what did you really offer Chuck Cadman? Reynolds, as you may recall, was instrumental in getting Emerson to defect from the Libs before he was even able to take his seat in parliament. Neat trick. No offer there either. Of course not.
Why would Dona Cadman make this allegation if it was groundless? After all, she's supposedly intending to run as a Conservative candidate. It makes absolutely no sense that she would lie to bring this down on her head for absolutely no good end. There are plenty of people with plenty of reasons to lie about this but that doesn't include Dona Cadman. I believe her - absolutely. You should too.

US Will Cut Emissions - If

The United States has announced it's ready to accept binding emission targets - if China and India accept the same deal.

Sounds good, don't it? But there's a hitch. The United States isn't going to consider per capita emissions standards but only national standards. That means the US, which is barely a quarter of the population of China, reserves to itself the right to produce the same volume of emissions as China. On a per capita basis that would leave Americans able to be four times as dirty as Chinese.

NATO's Doom Foretold Yet Again

Every time the United States doesn't get its way with NATO some American leaps to his feet and warns that NATO is just a breath away from breaking up.

The latest boy to cry "wolf" is Lt. Gen. Henry Obering. He warned that European failure to adopt Washington's missile defence system could spell the end of NATO. From The Guardian:

"...Obering, director of the US Missile Defence Agency, painted almost apocalyptic scenarios at a conference at the Royal United Services Institute in London today. He said that Iran could simultaneously block the Straits of Hormuz and provoke terrorist attacks in Europe, and that al-Qaida could acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran would be able to launch ballistic missiles which could hit most capitals of Europe in "the next two or three years", he said.

He described a hypothesis in which in 2015 Iran announces it has long-range missiles with a nuclear capability and Europe does not have a missile defence system. Iran blocks the Straits of Homuz and provokes terrorist attacks in Europe. There are riots in Europe and only Athens and Rome are protected from Iranian missile attack.

"We would start to see fractures in the alliance," he said. In another 2015 scenario, he said al-Qaida would capture ships and nuclear-armed missiles.

If a missile defence system was in place, he argued, "we can defeat the missiles and dissuade Iran", while European leaders would be able to "bide time" before they made crucial decisions."

Vic Toews Weighs in on Cadman - "It's Bullshit"

Treasury Board chairman Vic Toews has dismissed claims that MP Chuck Cadman was offered bribes to vote to bring down the Martin government as "bullshit."

Vic "Taser" Toews, the former Justice Minister who saw a fledgling serial killer lurking within every 12-year old young offender and whose fondest dream was to introduce the rack, the waterboard and the guillotine as instruments of criminal rehabilitation, dismissed the widow Cadman's claims as old nonsense.

So, Vic, you're saying that Chuck was a liar and his widow is too. Pretty nice, Vic. You're all class.

Arms Race Update

I've decided on using this forum of "updates" because whether the subject state is China, India, Russia, the Koreas, Japan, Brazil or the United States, usually two or more of them are involved in any development. After a while it becomes almost impossible to address these stories on a neat, country by country basis. Ultimately this is one huge arms race that's going on in a bunch of different places simultaneously.

A couple of days ago it was the story of India's new, submarine-launched nuclear missile and the even bigger news of India's plans to design, build and deploy its very own nuclear missile subs.

Today it's the visit of US defense secretary Robert Gates to India to seek an elusive alliance aimed at isolating China. To do this the US is dangling the prospect of letting India buy modern US military hardware. The crown jewel in the deal is the long-awaited, Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-35 incorporates a lot of state-of-the art technology, next generation stuff, and it's hard to imagine the US going along with that degree of sensitive technology transfer to a country that continues to maintain its strong ties to Russia and is expanding its ties to China.

Western journalists depict India as technology-starved and in pressing need for our stuff to replace their old "Soviet era" hardware. What a crock! The era of the British Raj is over and we have to stop seeing these people as mahouts and rickshaw drivers.

It was only last October that India inked a deal with Russia to develop, "a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft (FGFA), with a deadly mix of super-manoeuvrability and supersonic cruising ability, long-range strike and high-endurance air defence capabilities." (Times of India) China, meanwhile, is already deploying its own, new generation fighter.

China is graduating more than 10-engineers for every one coming out of American universities and they're good, very good. India is opening 27-new universities this year alone, heavily focused on technology and science.

The American gambit smacks of desperation. India knows it's being courted by Washington and it's acting accordingly. Among other things, it's insisting on wholesale technology transfers with new American weapons purchases - something that would have been unthinkable in the past. It's also holding out for its nuclear deal to clear the US Senate.

Trying to play wedge politics in Asia may well backfire on Washington. India and China are both pursuing their economic ascendancy and, in the long run, the best that America can offer will be overshadowed by what they stand to gain from each other. The worst part - for the West - is that they know it.

What is America achieving by this gambit? The biggest effect has to be stoking up anxiety in China, fueling the continuation of this arms race madness.

The Happy Face of Afghanistan

According to US Director of National Intelligence, Hamid Karzai controls about 30% of Afghanistan, the Taliban another 10% and the rest is under the control of warlords. These questionable number were what Mitch McConnell produced when he appeared before the Senate armed services committee yesterday.

McConnell, of course, happily carries water for the Bush White House. That's why those numbers, grim as they may sound, are unquestionably inflated. What does McConnell mean by "controlling" territory? A lot of southern Afghanistan isn't "controlled" at all but is in a disputed state of insurgency. He obviously lumps that in to Karzai's 30%. As for the Taliban then controlling, undisputed, 10% of the country, that's a far cry from the estimates of knowledgeable independents such as Sarah Chayes.

He obviously maintains that Karzai "controls" the cities, Kandahar and Kabul for example. That's becoming increasingly unclear. As Chayes notes, the drug barons openly build mansions in Kabul. And then there's the warlords.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a showdown in Kabul between the Afghan police and infamous warlord/thug Dostum. A disaffected Dostum aide had split from his master. Dostum and about 50-60 militiamen stormed the aide's house, killed two of his bodyguards and kidnapped the guy. The Afghan police managed to rescue the badly injured aide and then surrounded Dostum's compound, a hundred of them. Dostum went to the rooftop and hurled taunts and insults at them, daring them to attack. The police simply went away. Now is that how Karzai "controls" his capital?

When Dostum is behind bars for murder and kidnapping, when Karzai arrests the drug barons who sport their wealth freely in Kabul, then you can tell me that Karzai controls the city. Reigning as mayor at the suffrance of warlords and criminals isn't controlling anything.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Cadman Scandal - Men of Mystery

It was an appallingly craven act - trying to bribe a legislator dying of cancer with a million-dollar life insurance policy to coerce his vote to bring down a government. Chuck Cadman, showing enormous courage and integrity, somehow refused.

Who were the Tory representatives who worked this vile coercion on a dying man, once one of their own? Let's assume they were prominent Alliance Conservatives from Cadman's home province of British Columbia. If that's right, the next question would be which BC Conservatives were established and powerful enough that they could float a million dollar life insurance policy for a terminal cancer victim?

I'm pretty sure I know who it must have been. There weren't many within that pack of rabble with the clout, immorality and deviousness to arrange something like that. But there was at least one, a genuinely greasy fixer, and he stands out like a sore thumb.

Oh, Hillary!

Peter Brookes, The Times of London
It could all be over next Tuesday. reports that a number of surveys show Obama tied or slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton in Texas a state she needs to win decisively to remain in contention for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Some polls show Clinton still leading in Ohio but just barely.

Robot Wars

A British expert on robotic weaponry warns that they could soon become an affordable weapon of choice for terrorists and insurgents. From Reuters:

Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield said he believed falling costs would soon make robots a realistic option for extremist groups.
Several countries and companies are developing the technology for robot weapons, with the U.S. Department of Defense leading the way. More than 4,000 robots are deployed in Iraq.

"The trouble is that we can't really put the genie back in the bottle. Once the new weapons are out there, they will be fairly easy to copy," Sharkey will tell a one-day conference organised by the Royal United Services Institute on Wednesday.

"How long is it going to be before the terrorists get in on the act? With the current prices of robot construction falling dramatically and the availability of ready-made components for the amateur market, it wouldn't require a lot of skill to make autonomous robot weapons."

Sharkey says a GPS guided drone could be produced for about $500.

Gone to Neo-Con Heaven, William F. Buckley Jr.

William F. Buckley Jr., conservative icon and founder of the uber-right National Review is dead at 82.

Arms Race Update

India this time. The country has successfully test-fired its first, submarine launched, nuclear capable missile, the Brahmos.

Naturally it's got Pakistan all in a tizzy with Pakistan's top sailor claiming this will spark a new arms race between the countries.

The big news that seems to have escaped much attention is that India is planning on building its own submarines to carry the missiles. An Indian capability to deploy submarine launched, nuclear missiles goes far beyond issues of Pakistan, all of which is already vulnerable to Indian land based nukes. It would, in fact, extend India's nuclear reach throughout the intended range of India's navy - from the Middle East to the Sea of Japan.

Do the Poor Even Matter Any More?

The reports are beginning to roll in daily - food shortages here, food insecurity there, mass starvation risk somewhere else. A lot of the world is in a lot of trouble but, as my drinking friends would say, "who's counting?"

I think this is another example of what Jared Diamond calls "landscape amnesia." That's the phenomenon where we accept today's circumstances as normal by forgetting what normal really meant in the past. Once you forget, it saps your impetus to remedy the adverse change. There's a lowering of expectations without any recognition that this is a regressive thing that can just keep on taking us further down. We learn to settle and, in that process, we steadily settle in.

So, what about these food shortages then? We in the industrialized world have certainly played a role in the misery that's besetting these troubled nations. We've done it through AGW climate change. We've done it by diverting grain into alternative fuels, driving up world food prices. We've done it by really destructive farm subsidy systems.

What are we going to do for these people? Very little, borderline nothing.

Looked through a window of just a few years, today's extreme weather events can appear normal. Floods and droughts from England to Africa to Asia to the southern USA have become norms but those most seriously impacted by them know there's nothing normal in their suffering.

Flood and drought cycles impact freshwater systems. Too much precipitation when it's not needed, causing loss, disease and suffering. Too little when it is needed, causing crop failure and other problems. That, in turn, increases reliance on groundwater resources which is a dangerous dependency, a short-term answer at best.

Now the International Monetary Fund is mulling over short-term emergency aid to countries hardest hit by fuel and food price increases. In a world where wheat prices have jumped 83% in the past year, short-term aid of any sort is a sop, a bandaid solution. More indebtedness for Africa. That makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

As we drift back into the arms of Morpheus and lose sight of these people, those who survive our indifference aren't losing sight of us. What is more easy to manipulate than a person caught in life-threatening poverty? We're talking here about the "nothing to lose" crowd. It's a rapidly growing club.

So what? Ask our soldiers in Afghanistan. They know the powerful role poverty plays in Taliban recruiting. The United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs has a report today on the problem:

Abdul Malik, aged 17, joined Taliban insurgents in the south after two Taliban supporters gave him a mobile phone. A short while later his dead body was brought to his family.

"He was killed in a military operation near Musa Qala District [Helmand Province]," Malik's older brother told IRIN in Lashkargah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province.

"In our district many young guys join Taliban ranks for pocket money, a mobile phone or other financial incentives," said Safiullah, a resident of Sangeen District in Helmand.

The report cites a new Senlis Council study:

"Where the government is failing to provide basic services, often the Taliban are filling the gap with more radical alternatives. This means that sought-after trust from the Afghan people is going to the radical militants rather than the elected government," said the report Afghanistan – Decision Point 2008.

"Research undertaken by The Senlis Council since 2005 shows conclusively that aid destined for the south is not reaching the people," the report said."

These problems aren't going away and they can't be bombed away, that only makes them worse. Our policies aren't working - for anyone, anywhere - and we can't begin to develop practical alternatives until we stop our self-serving amnesia and learn again to distinguish normal from abnormal. Let's do that, if only for ourselves.

Euros (Wisely) Question Afghanistan Strategy

We might just get the Afghanistan debate we so badly need after all, it just won't be in Canada and we'll have to wait until April. It'll be at the NATO summit in Bucharest that several key European members will give their take on "the mission" and on the Canadian government's demand for another 1,000 combat troops for Kandahar.

Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star's European bureau writes that the Europeans, at least, are asking hard questions about the fundamentals of the mission:

"No matter whether you ask in French, German, Spanish or Italian, the pat response is to turn aside the question [of coming to Canada's aid in Kandahar] itself. And to ask a series of more difficult questions instead. Such was the case yesterday, when a senior French government source told the Star:

"The question is not `how far,' but simply `how?' – how are we going to rebuild and pacify Afghanistan? How are we going to cope with the present strategy? How are we going to win? And what do we mean by `win'?"

Though they are presented with the freedom of anonymity, the doubtful misgivings of European officials polled by the Star in recent days point to a hidden debate on whether the time has come for NATO to reconcile the international community's ambitious goals in Afghanistan with the drifting, uncertain reality of the mission on the ground.

French military analysts say the prospect of a stronger French commitment to Afghanistan has little appeal within the corridors of power in Paris, where the landlocked central Asian country has never before appeared on the radar of traditional French interest.

"Most people in decision-making circles don't see Afghanistan as an problem unto itself," said Etienne de Durand, a defence specialist with the French Institute for International Affairs.

"They see it as a place you need to go to for the sake of trans-Atlantic solidarity, even if we don't really belong there. I don't agree with that. We should be there and we should have been there earlier. But saying so doesn't make it so.

"And if President Sarkozy decides this is what he is going to do, a very pessimistic French public will want explanations. Especially if we start taking casualties in big numbers."

"Let us say France comes through with a bit more or a bit less than the 1,000 soldiers Canada wants in Kandahar," he said. "It puts us at a huge risk, but it won't necessarily help you guys out in a big way.

"That's because we don't actually have a strategy. We talk about democracy, but a lot of us now believe it is not even possible to create democracy in Afghanistan. Instead, the best we might hope for is a reasonably functioning government with an army that can keep the peace, at least by Afghan standards," de Durand said."

At least we can hope that we have, in Bucharest, the honest, meaningful debate we're not getting from our own MPs in Ottawa.

You Folks in Toronto Are Weird

Even your bank robbers are weird.

Yesterday, a 16-year old punk on bail, tried to rob a CIBC branch in North York. While the robbery was underway, a police officer slipped into the bank and insinuated himself among the massed employees.

When the robber exited the bank with a hostage and headed toward his getaway car, the officer followed behind and jumped the kid.

What I want to know is how did the robber not notice the cop in the midst of the bank employees? According to the Toronto Sun, the plainclothes officer was, "sporting a Mohawk haircut and tattoos on his arms."

Slamming the Cell Door on Robert Pickton

BC Attorney General Wally Oppal says the Crown won't proceed on the remaining twenty murder charges against Robert Pickton if Pickton's appeals of his six, second-degree murder convictions are dismissed.

Oppal has called this one exactly right. The families of the other victims might want to hear Pickton pronounced guilty of their loved ones' killings but that's not reason enough to undertake the herculean effort and expense that further trials would entail. Don't forget, the province also has to fund Pickton's legal aid defence team.

The evidence on the 26-counts varied in quantity and quality. The six counts on which Pickton was convicted weren't picked at random. They were chosen by the Crown as its strongest cases against Pickton. Convictions on the remaining cases, especially convictions for murder, aren't as certain.

For all the grumbling of the law and order types, the system does recognize that "life means life" for the worst offenders. That's why you won't be getting an employment resume from Clifford Olsen anytime soon or, for that matter, ever. Likewise there's not the slightest chance Robert Pickton will ever see another day as a free man.

It's time to slam the cell door on Robert Pickton. Wally Oppal made the right call.

The Ethics Committee's Ethical Quandry

Brian Mulroney has sent his stooges to Ottawa to tell the Commons ethics committee that he'd rather not face any more questions into his shady dealings with Karheinz Schreiber. That's entirely understandable from his perspective. He's spun so many tales that he's cornered and, for BMPM, it can only get worse.

The committee could subpoena Mulroney to attend and even have him brought before them forcibly if he resists. Now wouldn't that be a sight. But it seems the committee doesn't have the appetite for subpoenaing a former prime minister, even one of Mulroney's shabby stature.

I think the committee should just put the Mulroney issue on hold - for now. There are several other witnesses who should be called to testify including one Robert Hladun, Schreiber's former lawyer. It was Hladun who basically confirmed author William Kaplan's hunch that it was Schreiber who leaked the RCMP letter that led to the National Spot article that served as the launching pad for Mulroney's lawsuit against the federal government. I'd like to hear that from his own mouth.

Then there's the phone calls - two of them - Hladun supposedly received; one from Mulroney's lawyer, the other from the lawyer and Mulroney himself. Schreiber's narrative has these calls being placed to Hladun to get a letter or an affidavit from Schreiber claiming that no monies had ever changed hands between Schreiber and Mulroney. This was back when CBC's Fifth Estate revealed it had copies of Schreiber's Swiss bank records and - here's the kicker - before Mulroney's "voluntary disclosure" to Revenue Canada.

If Hladun corroborates Schreiber's account of these calls, it's over for Mulroney, he's suborned perjury, and that goes directly to his credibility when he gave a grossly misleading answer about his dealings with Schreiber in his sworn evidence in the lawsuit itself. Cheque please, Mr. Mulroney - and don't forget the interest.

The committee may not have the spine for a showdown with Brian Mulroney but there's no excuse for not getting Hladun's sworn evidence on these points.

Renegotiating NAFTA

Both Democratic candidates have pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, if they reach the White House. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at last night's candidates' debate pledged to renegotiate America's deal with Mexico - and with Canada - to get, as they put it, "fair trade."

What's "fair trade" anyway? Well, according to Obama it means making America's trading partners toe some sort of line on labour and environmental standards. Wait a second, labour standards? What are we supposed to do, scrap our labour standards to scurry into the American abyss? Environmental standards? Well, he's got a point there, we both need to do better on that score.

It's the adjective "fair" that worries me. Americans tend to judge fair by the tilt of the table and they usually like to see it tilting their way. Take a look at the softwood lumber shakedown we've endured these past several years.

I wonder what "fair" means in the context of America's debt crisis? That little problem, an entirely made-in-America brew of wanton spending and profligate borrowing, is coming home to roost and the landing may be hard and bumpy. It's bad enough that world markets, including Canadian, have found themselves duped into holding ginned-up American subprime derivatives. Are we also to become America's free trade whipping boy?

Navigating the coming years with the United States will require a strong Canadian prime minister and not the kind who instinctively drops his pants and bends over the barrel when Washington snaps its fingers - the kind we have now.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dion Dodges Another Election Opportunity

If he thought he could win, Canadians would be heading to the polls. However Stephane Dion, our Liberal leader, has announced he'll prop up the minority Harper government on the budget and on Afghanistan.

We are assured, however, that the Dion Liberals are totally prepared to fight an election should an issue come along that warrants one, whatever that may be.

Why Choose One Thug Over Another?

Memo to Harper, memo to Dion, memo to Hillier - we're stuck in a civil war between two decidedly and thoroughly nasty groups - one called the Taliban, the other we like to call the democratically-elected government of Afghanistan, aka "the warlords." At the moment, and for as long as we do their fighting for them, the warlords are content to let us play soldier in their land. But we may find that there's a price for backing one bunch of thugs simply because they were opposed to another.

Scott Taylor, in an op-ed piece entitled, "Afghans long on memory and short on forgiveness," illustrates NATO's wilful blindness:

The Myth of Lorne Grunter

It's the most read and most e-mailed story in the National Spot, Lorne Grunter's powerful article exposing the myth of global warming. Grunter is no climatologist, he's not much of a journalist for that matter, but someone operating at his low standards can find proof in this cold winter that global warming just isn't happening.

It's a fairly lengthy item but not long enough to include any mention much less an explanation of why we're getting this cold weather. Grunter refers to conditions in the Arctic and theories about the Atlantic ocean but not one mention (naturally) of what's going on in the central Pacific.

It's called La Nina, the ugly step-sister of the other weather making phenomenon, El Nino. Now Grunter, from his encrusted perch high in the paper's birdcage, could have easily found out about this La Nina. It was identified many months ago and resulted in a cold-winter forecast. That's what happens during a La Nina. Of course Grunter could have found this out but he chose not to because that would have slowed down his greasy spin. And that, kids, is why Grunter's paper, the National Spot, lies neatly folded to cover the bottom of his cage.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Real Canadian Smut

I found this hilarious piece at It's an article on the Canadian Border Service Agency's latest list of porn titles that may or may not be brought into Canada. The entire, 24-page list is available here:

What's remarkable about this is to scan down the titles and, especially, those that are deemed allowable. I mean, "Welcome to the Sickest Video on Earth" makes it in, say what? And who decided to let in "Entrails of a Virgin?"

Shocking, positively shocking!

Piling On Poor Hillary

What's with the New York Times in this election cycle? First the paper endorses John McCain for the Republican presidential candidacy then it "breaks" a pretty lame story about a possible affair involving McCain and a lobbyist eight years ago.

Now it's published an Obama story that smacks of boosterism.

I'm no fan of Hillary Clinton but surely fairness ought to have kept today's story on hold until after the Texas and Ohio primaries.

It's a story that ties Barack Obama to Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King - convenient and timely. The story essentially askes whether Obama is risking a bullet in his run for the presidency.

It's not that Barack Obama isn't at real risk of an assassination attempt. I have no doubt that he is and, should he become president, will remain in jeopardy. There are still plenty of racists and ultra right-wingers who would love to see him gone.

What bothers me is that, with everyone furiously piling on Hillary at the moment when she's facing a mortal threat to her campaign, are stories like this one really necessary right now?
By the way, if you don't recognize the picture, there's a grassy knoll in the upper left quarter. Obama's motorcade passed through there last week en route to a rally in Dallas. He said he didn't even notice where he was at the time, worrying instead about a head cold and a runny nose.

Libs & Tories Back Afghanistan Extension

"Our troops should never be used as props in our domestic political landscape"
- Liberal leader, Stephane Dion
Right you are, Stephane. We should only use them as props for the international political landscape and, of course, for dodging unwanted elections.
With that pronouncement, Stephane Dion acknowledged that his opposition and Stephen Harper's government are snugly in the same olive-drab sleeping bag on the Afghanistan mission extension. Needless to say, the remainder of the "debate" on Afghanistan will be a real yawner with the truly relevant questions neither asked nor answered.

Looking Into the Eyes of the Dead

British scientists have discovered a way to accurately judge the age of human corpses by looking into their eyes.

It seems that carbon isotopes were released into the atmosphere by nuclear weapons tests half a century ago. That isotope, C-14, level has been declining ever since. If you were born after 1950, you absorbed a certain amount of that isotope in the first two years of life. So, by measuring the amount of isotope in the lens of an eye, it's possible to determine the year of birth.

The technology is expected to be useful in aiding in the identification of bodies after tsunamis and other disasters.

Alabama's Iron Curtain

If you watched 60 Minutes last night you saw an expose on the political set up and take down of Alabama Democrat and ex-governor Don Siegelman. It was a story of an atrocious abuse of power by Republicans - federal attorneys, state and federal operatives and politicians and even Karl Rove - to railroad a political threat who may not have even committed a crime yet now sits behind bars.

TPM Muckraker is reporting today that the CBS 60 Minutes broadcast was actually blacked out last night in northern Alabama by the Republican-owned CBS affiliate. When an uproar ensued, the station said it had suffered a technical glitch and rebroadcast the show at 10 p.m.

Dead From the Neck Up

Tory, Liberal or NDP - take your pick. All three have something in common, leaders who don't really connect with the Canadian public.

Layton was to have used the Harper ascendancy to move the New Democrats into something approaching second place. That's why he's attacked both the Harper government and the Libs at every turn. Unfortunately when you break out to move up through the pack there's a price you pay for it. You lose your opportunity to influence policy, to make a difference, because you're seen for what you are, just an opponent.

Finally, when an election does arrive, there's the risk you'll be seen as having run out of steam. Your positions are old and, frankly, boring. It's that "oh, not again" syndrome. The effect on the New Democrats is already being seen in the polls where, recently, public support has been found as low as 12 and 13%.

I won't go on about Dion, if only because I'd like to take a break from that for a day.

SHarper, however, is proving to be the best thing the Tories have done for the Libs or the NDP. Canadians don't trust him, at least not enough to give him a majority government. He's the one at the cocktail party you keep an eye on to make sure he's not pocketing the good silver. He's ultra-secretive and a known control freak. Best of all, there's nothing remotely charming about the guy. He's a stiff. A mere circulatory system away from being a corpse.

We may be headed for an election but it'll be one where all three parties seem dead from the neck up.

Is Hillary Now Reduced to Sarcasm?

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Like the Bismark at the end, circling haplessly, its rudder jammed, and firing its cannon desperately in all directions, Hillary Clinton seems reduced to mocking her rival, Barack Obama, with a desperate barrage of sarcasm while she circles, waiting for the end.

I'm not counting Hillary out but that's not the impression she herself is giving. The public has already shown they have no appetite for this approach and it does have a sad emptiness to it, as though Ms. Clinton has run out of anything else with which to lure support to her faltering campaign.

Mockery exudes desperation and fear, not the hallmark qualities of a come-from-behind presidential aspirant. Besides, it's far too easy for Obama to swat away like nothing more than a pesky fly. He gets to focus on his message, she's forced to focus on him. That's a losing hand at any table.

Mama Get the Chequebook, Daddy Bought a War

What's the tab going to be for George w. Bush's eternal "War on Terror" in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, writing in The Times of London, figure it'll come to at least $3-trillion. That's three thousand billion dollars or, if you like, three thousand thousand million dollars. Figure that out at roughly $8,000 for every man, woman and child in America, $32,000 for a family of four, and it's all borrowed money so there'll be plenty to be paid in interest before that's ever squared away.

So, you're probably asking yourself, who are Joe Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes? He was chief economist at the World Bank and won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2001. She is a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The right-wing nutjobs (like our own SHarper) constantly rave about "socialist plots to transfer wealth." Here's a transfer of wealth on a previously unimagineable scale - except its from the taxpaying working and middle classes to the already enormously wealthy, taxation exempt, investment classes, America's rentiers, the guys who own big hunks of Halliburton or Blackwater or Lockheed Martin.

Remember when Rumsfeld boasted that the Iraq war would cost the US $50-billion, $60-billion tops? Remember when Larry Lindsey, President Bush's economic adviser and head of the National Economic Council, suggested that they might reach $200 billion and got ridiculed and sacked for it?

At the moment, the operating costs for the US war in Iraq is running at $12.5-billion per month and the bill for Afghanistan is actually higher - $16-billion per month. But it still seems a long reach from $29-billion a month to $3-trillion. That, according to Stiglitz and Blimes, is in what's not included in the operating expenses.
To put this in perspective, $3-trillion is way more than the US bill for Korea or even its war in Vietnam. It's more than US costs for WWI. Only WWII, which cost a grand total of $5-trillion USD was more expensive.

"From the unhealthy brew of emergency funding, multiple sets of books, and chronic underestimates of the resources required to prosecute the war, we have attempted to identify how much we have been spending -- and how much we will, in the end, likely have to spend. The figure we arrive at is more than $3 trillion. Our calculations are based on conservative assumptions. They are conceptually simple, even if occasionally technically complicated. A $3 trillion figure for the total cost strikes us as judicious, and probably errs on the low side. Needless to say, this number represents the cost only to the United States. It does not reflect the enormous cost to the rest of the world, or to Iraq."

By the time the America people are finally asked to begin paying off this colossal debt, the profits will be long gone, fltered out to Bush's "base" in bloated dividend cheques and squirreled away in offshore tax havens.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Nader's Back

Ralph Nader has returned, throwing his hat into the ring in yet another Quixotic run for the White House.

The now clearly messianic, 73-year old, consumer crusader says he's running because the other contenders are too close to big business, aren't tough enough on ending the Iraq war and aren't bold enough in their healthcare proposals.

Republican candidate Mike Huckabee welcomed Nader's declaration noting the obvious - that he inevitably does far more harm to the Democrats than to the Republicans.

Exxon's Stalls Out

It's been twenty years since the Exxon Valdez veered off course and ran onto rocks, spilling 11-million barrels of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. Now, after dodging its responsibility to those it injured for fully two decades with appeal upon appeal, Exxon has reached the end of the litigation line, the US Supreme Court.

On appeal is the jury award of $5-billion in punitive damages which the company is trying to have the court set aside entirely or at least reduce.

Twenty years. That sounds like a litigation case in India, not a modern, Western nation.

Twenty years that have seen the deaths of nearly twenty per cent of the fishermen, cannery workers, native Alaskans and others who prevailed in the suit. Six thousand of them, in total, haven't lived to see Exxon finally run to ground.

Exxon's best line of defence, ironically, lies in 2oo-year old maritime case law concerning a shipowner's liability where the crew, once at sea, turns privateer. Hmm - Exxon relying on a piracy case, sounds about right, eh?

It remains to be seen now whether Exxon has hit a wall or sailed into a safe harbour - the Supreme Court dominated by rightwing judges of the likes of Roberts and Scalia. A huge corporate defendant couldn't have asked for more.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Untreated

A new study by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS found that 40% of the 1,436 HIV-related deaths between 1197 and 2005 were victims who had never accessed antiretroviral drug therapy.

A disturbing report in the Vancouver newspaper The Province says the untreated group incorporated a large number of the "poor, homeless, mentally ill or drug-addicted."

Antiretroviral drug therapy is available free in British Columbia and can extend lifespans by decades.

The antiretrovirals have improved in the past 10 years from a "burdensome quantity of therapy" requiring "many doses, many side effects" to a once-a-day dose that can prolong a person's life for decades, said Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the centre.

They also prevent those infected from spreading the disease.

"The treatment is free and effective but in reality is not accessible to those who need it most," he said.

He said the problems of mental illness, homelessness, drug addiction and food security have to be tackled first because those infected may not be pursuing treatment of a long-term illness while they're faced with more immediate concerns.

He also said 25 per cent of the [infected] population across Canada isn't aware they're infected with HIV, so the number who die of HIV without treatment would be greater.

The Afghanistan Ottawa Won't Tell You About - the Afghanistan We're Being Asked to Fight to Defend

Some of us support the Canadian mission to Afghanistan. Some of us oppose it. On both sides, the great majority of us support our troops. This week our MPs are scheduled to have a "debate" on extending the mission to 2011. Our top general, the Big Cod, has already weighed-in on the debate, shamelessly insinuating that subjecting his (and it very much is "his") mission to political debate could place Canadian soldiers' lives in jeopardy (which, from Hillier's mouth to the Talibans' ears probably ensures it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy - and that jackass impugns our patriotism and support for the troops!).

What is the point of debating this if the arguments are to be framed on deliberately scripted myths and propaganda - half truths and outright lies? For that is exactly what has been dished up to the Canadian public by our political and military leaders. That is what has been fed to you and to me.

From Washington to Brussels to Ottawa the mission to Afghanistan has never been much more than a political football. That's why, six years down the road, it's an utter failure. Pursuing our political objectives is what guaranteed failure from the very outset.

Our political agenda treated the creation of a new Afghan government almost as an afterthought. We staged elections that saw our guy, Hamid Karzai, win as president without bothering to notice that the real reins of power were falling into the hands of warlords, thugs and common criminals.

Were we to defeat the Taliban - pretend for the sake of argument that could be possible - what would we leave behind? All that would remain would be a powerful, criminal enterprise under the control of Islamic fundamentalist warlords, our supposed former allies in the "Northern Alliance." If you take the Taliban out of the equation today that's what you have left, a feudal, Islamist narco-state under the grinding heel of Sharia law. That's what we have created, more by omission than act, in today's Afghanistan.

This week you'll hear a lot of patriotic jingoism from the floor of the House of Commons, most of it deserving to be shovelled rather than printed because it'll be heavily laced with pure, manipulative bullshit.

Sarah Chayes is a former National Public Radio reporter who's been in Afghanistan since the early days after the fall of the Taliban. She handed in her microphone to do development aid work shortly afterward. Today she's widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable and reliable sources of just what is going on in Afghanistan and - surprise - it's not what you've been hearing from Rick Hiller or Peter MacKay or that practised dissembler, SHarper, or just about anyone else in Ottawa.

Chayes was interviewed on Bill Moyers Now this week. The entire interview can be watched on the website. Here are a few excerpts from her remarks that may help you make sense of what you hear this week when our own MPs debate the mission to Afghanistan:

"SARAH CHAYES: You know, you can drive around the streets of Kandahar. You can drive around the streets of Kabul, and you see some massive buildings. Massive buildings. You see the price of property in Kandahar is probably close to the price of property in New York City.

BILL MOYERS: So who's living in those buildings? Who's using those buildings?

SARAH CHAYES: Government officials and drug traffickers. So it's either the opium money, or it's the development money. And we're not following that money trail. The same problem in Iraq. I mean, there's just millions of dollars that are kind of leaking out of the system.

BILL MOYERS: So, has this become an opium economy?

SARAH CHAYES: Definitely, it's an opium economy. And it's totally integrated into the economy. It's a normal aspect of the economy. And you can feel it. For example, in opium harvesting season, we needed one of our herbs. We needed somebody to -- basically wild crafting to harvest herbs up in the hills. We couldn't get anybody because there were you know, buses at the Helmand, is the province right next door to us where most of the opium is growing. And there would be, you know, from the Helmand bus depot, they would just drive people straight out into the fields. Because, and the price of labor was going up. Normally, labor is unskilled labor is $4 a day. It was $20 to $25 a day in opium harvesting season. It totally absorbs all of the available manpower. Now, the cliché that I don't subscribe to is that the Taliban are running the opium business.

SARAH CHAYES: Well, we're paying a billion dollars a year to Pakistan, which is orchestrating the Taliban insurgency. So, it's actually us-taxpayer money that is paying for the insurgents, who are then killing, at the moment, Canadian troops. Now if I were the government of Germany or France, I'd have a hard time putting my troops in that kind of equation. I would demand from Washington, that Washington require a lot different behavior from Pakistan.

BILL MOYERS: But the money's supposed to be to stop the Taliban in Afghanistan.

SARAH CHAYES: Has anybody done very strict accounting on where that money is going? I suspect that if you start looking at some of the receipts, you'll find that there's money missing.

SARAH CHAYES: yeah. I mean, you know, these are districts that are in the hands of the Taliban. There's a district I used to go to frequently. We would gather herbs for our essential oil distilling up there. And now there was a deal between the district chief, the government and the Taliban saying, "so long as you don't kill the police, we'll let you go wherever you want." Now what has started to happen, couple of things have happened. One is people are just so disaffected with the government that we put in power.

BILL MOYERS: Ordinary people.

SARAH CHAYES: Ordinary people.

BILL MOYERS: Disaffected?

SARAH CHAYES: Yeah. Their government is shaking them down. I have people telling me, "We get shaking down by the government in the daytime, and shaken down by the Taliban at night. What are we supposed to do?"

BILL MOYERS: This is the Karzai government.

SARAH CHAYES: That's correct.

BILL MOYERS: This is the government the United States put in power.

SARAH CHAYES: That's correct. It's basically a criminal enterprise. And we haven't really asked it for any accounts in any serious way. And that's where the average person in Kandahar is totally perplexed. They assume that this degree of corruption, which is everywhere. You hear about it in the police department. It's not just the police department, it's in customs. It's in any adminis--You have-- you want to get a driver's license. You have to fork over money.

BILL MOYERS: So what's our bind in southern Afghanistan?

SARAH CHAYES: I think there are two binds. One is our relationship with Pakistan, which is a contradictory one. And the other is our unwillingness to hold Afghan public officials to any standard of decency in government. We keep hearing in the west, about the democratically-elected Afghan government. And, oh, no, we can't get in there and interfere with any of these people, because they're the government of a sovereign country. Well, you could have fooled the Afghans. The Afghans-- the only person who's really elected, who has any power, is president Karzai. But every other government official that Afghans interact with on a daily basis, they didn't elect. And they don't have any recourse. They've got no way of lodging a complaint against this person. Or nobody who can put any leverage on them. And that's the other bind. We're only fooling ourselves when we talk about this democratically-elected Afghan government.

...SARAH CHAYES: Correct. And we made an alliance with these thugs than we then placed into positions of power. So it's sort of like a--it's like a western movie. You know, you've got a posse. You're going go out after the outlaws, so you gather together a posse and it's usually a posse of criminals, right? But in a western movie, you don't then put the posse on the city council. You know.
BILL MOYERS: So who is the sheriff?

SARAH CHAYES: We're the sheriff.


SARAH CHAYES: In this particular metaphor, we're the sheriff, right? We're going go out after the outlaw, Osama bin Laden. We gather this posse of Afghan criminals to gallop off with us. And then we put them in positions of the governor. We make them into the governor, the mayor, the, you know. And we don't ask them anything about how they're governing. We don't demand-- all we say is, we have to support the Afghan government. We have to support the Afghan government. And so we've fed them money, we've fed them arms, and then we say to the people, "okay, you're supposed to hold your government accountable." they're looking at these thugs with the whole power of the entire world, is what it looks like to them, behind them. And the Afghan people say, "you want us to hold them accountable?" So this, I think, is really the root of the problem.

Sarah Chayes went on to say that some Afghans believe the US supports the Taliban because they know Washington supports Pakistan and, to them, Pakistan is the Taliban.

So, by propping up the Afghan government, we're bailing furiously with one hand while we are busy boring holes in the hull with the other. Now that sounds like something worth continuing, doesn't it?

It is only because we're pursuing our political agendas - civilian and military - that we can demand that this counterproductive and contradictory failure continue. This isn't about Afghanistan and the future of the Afghan people. If it was, we wouldn't be acting the way we have been and the way we intend to continue acting.

Friday, February 22, 2008

We Didn't Start the Fire

It's almost inspirational. Check this out:

Go "fullscreen" with this one.
Enjoy and have a great weekend

If The Truth Matters...

The mission in Afghanistan may be the worst example in Canadian history of the government and its military manipulating public opinion.

Forget the nonsense you've been getting from Harper and MacKay, forget the obsequience of Dion, forget the crass and shameless manipulations of General Rick Hillier.

If you want the truth, the unvarnished reality of conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, watch the rerun of Bill Moyer's Journal on PBS on Sunday. Moyers has an interview with Sarah Chayes that you should find both illuminating and troubling. It presents a scathing indictment of all the garbage that's being spun to ordinary Canadians from Parliament Hill and National Defence Headquarters.

If you don't know who Sarah Chayes is, Google her name. Then watch the show on Sunday and come to your own conclusions about what has become perhaps the darkest moment in Ottawa in decades.

UPDATE - Many thanks to Ed for the link below to the PBS site where you can watch the Chayes interview or read the transcript. As for Chayes herself, Jonathan Landy of McClatchey Newspapers who covers Iraq and Afganistan praised her to me as one of the most knowledgeable and reliable sources in Afghanistan.

Hillier Delivers Paid Political Message to Pet Shills

Dick Cheney has Faux News, Rick Hillier has the Conference of Defence Associations, a group dependent on half a million dollars a year out of Rick's budget.

Hillier had'em all standing on their hind legs today as he claimed that the "debate" on Afghanistan (didn't know we had one) was putting the lives of Canadian soldiers at risk. He trumped that by claiming the suicide bomb attack on a Canadian convoy earlier this week was intended to influence the non-existant debate. Hillier doesn't seem to understand that the attack was intended to send a message to the Afghans that when Canadian convoys come through the civilians are in danger. It's a classic tactic of guerrilla fighters and, if the Big Cod doesn't know that much, he's far more of a danger to Canadian soldiers than any debate in parliament.

But I don't believe Hillier is that stupid. I think he's just playing politics and, come to think of it, he's a damned sight better as a politician than he is as a general.

Catch A Wave

Surfers know you have to catch a wave before it breaks. Yet American legislators are now tossing around policies to surf out of the subprime mortgage collapse long after the wave has broken.

Banks in the US are howling and, when that happens, Congress responds. Unfortunately the current economic minefield isn't as neat and tidy as the Savings & Loan collapse of the early '90s. This time no one's really sure just how bad the problem is, much less what might work. From the New York Times:

"Not since the Depression has a larger share of Americans owed more on their homes than they are worth. With the collapse of the housing boom, nearly 8.8 million homeowners, or 10.3 percent of the total, are underwater. That is more than double the percentage just a year ago, according to a new estimate of the damage by Moody's

The housing slumps of the mid-1970s and late 1980s were confined to the coasts. The current bust, while leaving some cities relatively unscathed, has cut a far wider path and it comes just when home debt is at its highest level since World War II.

In Washington, it will be difficult to engineer a bailout similar to the one for savings and loan companies in the early 1990s, because Democrats and Republicans alike cringe at the very word bailout and fear a backlash by people who never became overextended.

But with millions of homeowners already underwater and the prospect that millions more may face the same situation, Democrats and Republicans alike are scrambling for ideas to keep people from simply walking away from their homes and to help those struggling to pay their bills.

John M. Reich, director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, the agency that regulates savings and loan companies [has a] plan, still in rough form, that would create a voluntary system under which mortgage lenders would reduce debt and monthly payments to reflect the diminished sales value of a home.

It would take the remainder of the mortgage as a “negative amortization certificate,” a lien that the investor could recoup if the house were later sold for its original mortgage value or higher."

The collapse in housing prices is having a variety of negative effects. One is mobility. An underwater homeowner is tied to his unsaleable property and that makes it very hard to move to secure better employment.

Then there is the phenomenon of people unwilling to sell at a loss in a steadily declining market. Rather than cut their losses, they hope against hope and hang on while the market declines and their losses soar. I know from my experience in my former bankrutpcy practice how common and powerful that emotional inertia can be.

The worst part, however, may be a matter of timing. This is 2008 and it's turning out to be the biggest election year America has faced in decades. Eventually the presidential nominees from both parties will have to lock horns on this issue and you can bet it'll be their political fortunes, not the plight of imprudent homeowners, that will shape their policies.

Hillier Does It Again

The headline in the Toronto Star tells it all - "Support Our Soldiers, Hillier Tells MPs."

Hillier says if parliament extends "the mission" to 2011, MPs should pass a motion expressing their support for Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Implicit in that is the message that support for the troops, indeed patriotism itself, is a question of extending Hillier's wobbly, hapless mission. That means that the NDP or BQ, for example, are clearly unpatriotic and hate the troops.

If Hillier was interested in "supporting the troops" he'd be out there howling at the moon to get his piddling force reinforced, big time. Instead he wants a motion that's more about endorsing his slack ass than anything to do with our soldiers.

What a Difference a Day Makes

Last week Russian president Vlad Putin angrily accused the US of using the supposed need to destroy a disabled satellite as a ploy to mask what was really an attempt to test its anti-missile defence system. No, not us, claimed Washington, we'd never do that.

So they fired a Standard missile at the errant satellite and, bingo, a hit. And then, bursting with pride, they couldn't wait to herald a great success for their missile defence system.

"I think the question over whether this capability works has been settled," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, quoted by AFP news agency.

"The question is what kind of threat, how large a threat, how sophisticated a threat [the US faces]."

The US approach was one of "complete transparency", he said.

"We provided a lot of information... before it took place," he said, adding: "We are prepared to share whatever appropriately we can."

Yeah, sure you will, Bob. Meanwhile, Vlad, looks like you were right. That should give you renewed impetus to develop that new generation of Russian missiles and warheads. Great, rachet up the arms race.

And Now a Word From Our Leader?

Well I said I would post any response I received to my open letter to Stephane Dion about the Canadian mission to Afghanistan. I did get an unsigned reply, one that I was reluctant, for the sake of the Liberal Party, to post. Yet, here it is. You may note that it doesn't even attempt to address any of the fundamental questions I posed.

"Thank you for taking the time to write to the Liberal Party of Canada. As you know, the Liberal Opposition recently put forward an amendment to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s motion to extend Canada’s mission in Afghanistan until the end of 2011. Since that time, the government has modified its own motion to reflect many of our amendments.

We will not abandon the people of Afghanistan, but Canada’s mission has to change. We are pleased that the government has adopted some of the Liberal language in its motion, but we will carefully study the new motion before deciding whether or not to support it.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

An Open Letter to Stephane Dion

Some weeks ago I sent an e-mail to Stephane Dion, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae concerning Canada's mission to Afghanistan. It took quite a while but I eventually received an acknowledgement of receipt from Mr. Dion's office and nothing at all from Igantieff or Rae.

That led me to finally send a somewhat confrontational message to the Liberal leader. The contents of it follow:

Dear Mr. Dion:

I am a lifelong and committed Liberal supporter. I am also the son of a horribly wounded, WWII Canadian army veteran. My dad's experiences and those of his family in the aftermath of WWII leave me very sensitive to the notion of politicians exploiting the lives of Canadian servicemen and the welfare of their families for political advantage.

In your policy speech of February, 2007, you asserted that the Liberal Party would reject any extension of the Afghanistan mission beyond February, 2009. It was a reasoned, thoughtful and principled position that you espoused.

Now, for reasons unknown, you propose abandoning you previous position and, instead, supporting the extension of the mission to 2011.

I want to know why? What has changed, save for electoral fortunes, to justify yet another two year extension of the mission?

From my perspective, Mr. Dion, the mission has already failed. It has failed due to lack of commitment from the political side. We left a force that was woefully understrength from the outset to confront an insurgency that steadily, year by year, expanded in numbers and influence. In the result we have retreated, gone on the defensive.

I call upon you to justify your proposed extension. Surely somebody must. Give me one example of a counterinsurgency success in these circumstances. Just one. Show me where a grossly understrength counterinsurgent force has prevailed. Then explain, please, why the Canadian mission to Afghanistan has the remotest chance of success.

If you cannot muster even one relevant example, please explain why you now support extending the mission for another two years. What is to be gained, save perhaps not having to go to the electorate on this issue? What is more important, the survival of your own position as leader of the opposition, or the lives our parliamentarians are willing to squander in their political self interests?

Having received no substantive response, whatsoever, to my previous e-mail to yourself and Messrs. Rae and Igantieff, I will be posting this an an open letter on Liblogs and Progressive Bloggers. I will, of course, promptly post any reply you may offer.


Perhaps this will finally get a response, a partial discourse of the debate that Canadians deserve but may not have.

I will post any replies as soon as they're received.

Just What NATO Needs - Another Failed-State Dependency

The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance has yet another failed state to defend - this time it's Kosovo. Like Afghanistan, the newly-minted Kosovo doesn't have a viable economy. Like Afghanistan, Kosovo is insanely dependent on foreign aid. Like Afghanistan, Kosovo has a burgeoning criminal element. Like Afghanistan, Kosovo faces an existential threat that requires NATO to secure its borders. Like Afghanistan, Kosovo shows no signs of getting better anytime soon. Like Afghanistan, NATO is going to have one hell of a time walking away.

Kosovo - instant failed state, just add water and stir.

Like Afghanistan, NATO went into Kosovo without the slightest idea how it would ever get out.

Turning Our Backs on Pandemic

Emerging infections diseases of the SARS/Ebola/HIV type are on the rise and, unfortunately, we in the affluent West are looking in the wrong direction. A team of scientists has studied the development of infections disease from 1940 to 2004 and your suspicions were right, the incidence and spread of these diseases is increasing.
Their study, published in the journal Nature, has identified a disease highway that begins in nature and then spreads through wildlife to livestock to humans. The past decades have witnessed rapid infringement on the environment, forest clearing for example, and a massive increase in livestock populations. In the result, what once was a 2-lane road has been transformed into a disease superhighway.
The researchers have produced a map (above) showing where the next major diseases are most likely to develop. These hotspots are those depicted in red while the least active regions are in green. They contend the West needs to put its disease focus on these tropical hotspots instead of simply worrying too much about what is happening at home.
While we tend to think of diseases such as HIV and SARS, the scientists identified 335 "emerging diseases" during the 64-year span of their study and they're sure there are plenty more to come.
“We are crowding wildlife into ever-smaller areas, and human population is increasing,” said coauthor Marc Levy, a global-change expert at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), an affiliate of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “The meeting of these two things is a recipe for something crossing over.” The main sources are mammals. Some pathogens may be picked up by hunting or accidental contact; others, such as Malaysia’s Nipah virus, go from wildlife to livestock, then to people. Humans have evolved no resistance to zoonoses, so the diseases can be extraordinarily lethal. The scientists say that the more wild species in an area, the more pathogen varieties they may harbor. Kate E. Jones, an evolutionary biologist at the Zoological Society of London and first author of the study, said the work urgently highlights the need to prevent further intrusion into areas of high biodiversity. “It turns out that conservation may be an important means of preventing new diseases,” she said.
While new diseases are most likely to come from the tropics, the West has played a huge role in the evolution of the most lethal diseases. We have been so undisciplined in our use of antibiotics that we've created new, increasingly drug-resistant strains. At the same time, modern transportation and industrial agriculture have accelerated the spread of emerging diseases.
The report argues that the West needs to take a more prophylactic approach to emerging diseases, pushing the front lines of detection and intervention to the hotspots themselves instead of waiting for these diseases to arrive at our own borders. We also need to explore the role that conservation of remaining tropical forests can play in reducing the rate of disease emergence.

"Making Do" in Afghanistan

When you're the attacker you get to concentrate your forces on the target being attacked. When you're the defender, however, you have to spread your forces around to cover all the vital targets your enemy might attack. The more places you want to defend, the more diluted your force becomes. The fewer soldiers available for the job the fewer targets that get defended and, sometimes, the weaker the defences for those points you do try to protect. I think it was Stalin who said that quantity is a quality of itself.

In Kandahar province, Canada lacks the quality of quantity. A combat group of 1,000 at best on a good day is said to yield a sustainably deployable force of about 500. Kandahar province is over 50,000 sq. kms. in area. When you do the math it's not comforting.

A panel discussion on the CBC two nights ago examined "the mission" in the context of a resurgent Taliban. Finally I heard what won't pass the lips of Hillier or Harper or MacKay - we're shaping "the mission" according to our weakness.

Put another way, it's our limitations, our weakness in numbers, that now increasingly defines "the mission." Our lack of force has come to dominate other factors such as the growth of the insurgency, the needs of the Kabul government or provincial reconstruction. One reflection of this is our retreat from the countryside into much smaller, strategic areas. That leaves the insurgency more uncontested areas in which they can transit, mass, operate and - govern - in between waging a barbarous form of guerrilla warfare in ISAF territory.

It's not just the Taliban that sees our weakness. The ordinary people are keenly aware of it also because, to some extent, it portends their own fate. They have to weigh their options and choices very carefully. They know Westerners come. They know those Westerners go. They know what can await them when we're gone. So, in order to genuinely support us, they need to see real and tangible success in defeating of somehow taming the insurgency. They need to know they can safely bet on our side.

Only days ago 80-Afghans gathered to watch dog fights were killed by a suicide bomber. The very next day three dozen more were felled by another suicide bomber who notionally attacked a Canadian army convoy. I've thought about it and I don't think his real target was the convoy but rather civilians in proximity to the convoy and I think his brutal message got through.

Just about everybody now gets it that we can't defeat the Taliban militarily. We can, however, lose to the Taliban militarily. That's not to say they can actually defeat our soldiers with our tanks and artillery and air power but they don't have to physically destroy us. They win - militarily - by wresting the support of the populace away from the government we're notionally supporting.

America's counter-insurgency guru, General David Petraeus, makes it powerfully clear that there is no substitute for numbers, for the "quality of quantity," in fighting against an insurgency. It's the type of war where you either go big or go home.

So, if we're not in Kandahar to win, explain to me why we're there at all and why we're planning on staying until 2011?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Porsche Versus London

Porsche has served notice that it's not going to tolerate the City of London's levy on gas-guzzling cars driving in the city centre. The City recently introduced a 25-pound daily tax for cars driven in the city. The tax applies to cars that produce more than 225 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

Porsche claims that deterring car traffic in London won't cut greenhouse gas emissions and, worse, it will deter businesses from the urban core.

The carmaker says it will send a letter to Lord Mayor Livingstone asking that the tax be repealed and, if he refuses, will take its case to court on an application for judicial review.

There's A Reason They're So Damned Big

The giant Tiger Prawn. You can find these succulent monsters just about anywhere today but you should think twice before you give into temptation and cart home a bagful.

You need to think about the environmental, social and health issues associated with these supposed delicacies. These creatures didn't get that big all on their own. Think fishmeal diets and powerful antibiotics. Think growth hormones.

Most Tiger Prawns sold in North America come from Asia or South America. They're a farmed or, more properly, "pharmed" product. That's because they're raised, actually grown, in shallow ponds.

The object is to get them to grow large, fast. Now, as you might suspect, that means careful control of their diet. That usually means fish pellets. That sort of feeding produces two problems - pellets that don't get eaten and prawn poop. As waste levels build the ponds can become disease-ridden. To avoid losing the crop, antibiotics are commonly used.

When bigger is better, food alone isn't always enough. Some producers spice up the critters' diet with growth hormones. Between the antibiotics and hormones what ends up on your plate could well be a "pharmed" product. That's the health issue but there's more, much more.

Prawn farming has been shown to be environmentally devastating. In many places, mangrove forests are cleared to make way for prawn pools. Coral reefs and seabed grasses depend on the mangroves and so do local fishermen. It's not at all uncommon for fish stocks to collapse in areas of intensive prawn pharming. Fish stocks are further depleted in the production of fish pellets and fish oil to feed the carniverous prawn crop.

Then there's the waste water which is often pumped into canals, rivers and coastal waters polluting them with pesticides, antibiotics and disinfectants. In some places groundwater contamination leaves the locals without safe drinking water.

Isn't this just the price of bringing prosperity to the poverty-stricken? No. A Vietnamese study found that half of the country's prawn farms lost heavily. Of those that made money, 80% were outsiders.

The World Bank once lavished money on prawn farming operations. In Indonesia 70% of these wound up abandoned. Half of Thailand's shrimp ponds lie unused. Once abandoned, the salination of the mud means they can't be reclaimed for rice growing. In some countries, big industrial producers steadily move inland clearing forests to make way for shrimp ponds.

Finally there's the constant problem of the antibiotics. Two products pop up from time to time - nitrofurans and chloramphenicol, a known carcinogen. When either of these is detected by Western inspectors an import ban generally follows. Other products are, however, permissible. The problem seems to be that poor farmers use whatever they can afford to keep their prawns alive until they're big enough to market. In a money-losing business that's sometimes bad news for consumers.

You get what you pay for.

An article in today's Environmental News Network reports on a study conducted by Swedish human geographer Daniel A. Bergquist. He found that the market price of Tiger Prawns is horribly depressed and would have to be five times higher than today's prices to allow proper environmental protection and a fair wage for the industry's workers.

As you may have guessed, I don't eat Tiger Prawns but, then again, I can get my fill of delicious, wild BC sidestripe shrimp or spot prawns less than a mile down the road. That doesn't mean I haven't been tempted when I see a line of those big monsters laid out on a bed of ice in the grocery store. That's where I find the Tiger Prawns but that's also where I find a curious disconnect. Sometimes I ask where they're from and, invariably, no one knows. Are they from Bangladesh or Equador or Vietnam or China? Nobody ever seems to know. That's why I don't even bother asking whether what's laying on that bed of ice has been tested for hormones and antibiotics.

Fidel Deals Himself Out

The 49-year reign of Fidel Castro is over. The Cuban strongman has advised his countrymen that he won't be returning as president or commander-in-chief of his country's armed forces.

Castro has had a remarkable half-century run, a mark not typical of strongman rule. His longevity likely owes a great deal to the memories of the tyrant he ousted, Fulgencio Batista. While some opponents claim Castro turned Cuba into a police state, they choose to overlook the tyranny and corruption of the Batista regime.

Those who praise Castro generally applaud his reforms in public education and health care.

There is no doubt that Castro brought good things to his people and there's no doubt that he also was a ruthless dictator. He is a nuanced character, a blend of good and bad, readily seen differently from differing vantage points.

Fidel is expected to be replaced by his brother, Raul, who, at 76, will probably be replaced himself before long.