Sunday, November 30, 2008

George, Take Care of This Before You Leave

Poor Incurious George. Everything he's touched has turned to complete crap - everything. He's wasted eight years of America's promise reeling about like a drunken frat boy dictating foreign policy with a bottle in one hand and a bong in the other. Now he's not just a lame duck, he's a dead duck. People are so consumed trying to clean up the mess that George and his fellow Repugs have left that no one is even paying attention to the guy.

But maybe, just maybe there is one thing that George can accomplish before the movers come to haul away the trash. Maybe he can focus on one of the few places where he's still liked, India, and use that goodwill to prevent open conflict between India and Pakistan.

America has already been somewhat successful in talking New Delhi down after its parliament was attacked in December, 2001 and following last summer's bombing of its embassy in Kabul. It'll be much tougher yet to rein in India after the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, especially given the actions that Washington itself has taken toward Pakistan lately.

From The New York Times:

Officials in New Delhi might also feel less compelled to follow calls for a controlled response from the Bush administration, which has steadily escalated a campaign of airstrikes on Pakistani soil using remotely piloted aircraft. The Pentagon has even sent Special Operations forces into Pakistan to attack suspected militant targets, partly in an attempt to stop the militants from crossing the border into Afghanistan, where they are helping fuel an increasingly robust Taliban insurgency.

The White House has adopted a clear position to justify those attacks: if a country cannot deal with a terrorism problem on its own, the United States reserves the right to act unilaterally.

Should it become clear that the men who rampaged through Mumbai trained in Pakistan, even if the Pakistani government had no hand in the operation, what will stop the Indians from adopting the same position?

The ongoing, low-grade conflict between India and Pakistan is vastly more complex than the century-long struggle Britain had with Irish nationalists. There is a host of geopolitical factors in play in a region that gave birth to the term The Great Game. The scope of these factors and the players involved at various levels stretches from the Middle East to the Black Sea to China itself. An Indian-Pakistani war, even if it didn't go nuclear, would send shockwaves across this entire, enormous region. It will resonate in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. It will colour ongoing developments in Georgia and Ukraine.

Events of the past year have left this mess considerably more complicated and potentially more dangerous. America has entered into a nuclear and military co-operation pact with India that is to China of a similar magnitude as Washington establishing anti-missile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic and trying to march NATO to Russia's doorstep is to Moscow. China has responded, albeit tentatively, by inching Pakistan and Iran toward membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, its own military security alliance. China has also brokered its own nuclear deal with Pakistan although the details are vague at best.

Open conflict between India and Pakistan would destabilize the region and it's not clear that there would be any winners. India could probably defeat Pakistan's military or its conventional forces at least but transforming that into some sort of lasting victory would be nigh impossible. China might be able to exploit the opportunity to bring Pakistan into its geopolitical fold which would cut off India's overland routes except through Burma. In particular it could kill India's hope of pipeline access to Middle East oil and gas.

Washington might have a tough time keeping an Indian-Pakistani war from being depicted as America using a proxy to stage yet another attack on a Muslim state. It's not difficult to see how that would play straight into the hands of al Qaeda and other Islamist groups from Morocco to Iran,Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is not a good time for Washington to find itself entangled in such a predicament. Its armed forces are already strained to the breaking point and it's in an economic battle for survival. Even faltering at this critical moment could have repercussions as far away as the Eastern Europe or the Taiwan Strait.

It's too much to hope that the Bush administration could broker some sort of peace deal between Pakistan and India. That would demand a degree of diplomatic flexibility utterly beyond the Bushies. After all, the past eight years have taught us that George w. doesn't do complex. His mind is pure mono with one tinny speaker.

At best, it is possible that Bush once again could persuade New Delhi to keep its forces in place for at least another couple of months. If he doesn't, if India mobilizes, all bets are off.

Worst Case Scenario for US Bailout - $8.5-Trillion

It's a staggering amount of money but, according to Bloomberg analysts, it could cost the United States as much as $8.5-trillion to bail itself out of the current economic meltdown. Depending on how quickly the US economy turns around it could be less, maybe just half that, but no one is sure what lies in store.

Consider it the equivalent of a latter-day, in-house Marshall Plan without the communists. Or a Marshall Plan on steroids. The actual programme to rebuild Europe as a bulwark against the Soviets came in at just 17-billion in 1947 dollars. Somehow that amount of money turned into chump change today.

The LA Times is warning not to expect too much from the bailout. The paper claims this won't be a New Deal style bailout:

Much of the Depression-World War II spending was on industrial production -- building new factories and converting existing plants to produce tanks, planes and ships. Huge sums also went into developing new technologies.

Those investments, combined with pent-up consumer demand and savings from the lean war years, quickly led to budget surpluses and sharp economic growth in the late 1940s as the baby boom began.

Analysts warn not to expect that to happen again. This time the government spending is largely ethereal, with the Federal Reserve printing more money to inject liquidity into the financial system and keep banks and other institutions afloat. And savings rates are low.

"Too many Americans have overextended themselves with regard to credit and debt, and too many have been following the bad example of the government," David Walker [president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and former head of the Government Accountability Office] said. "It is imperative that we recognize that this country has been living beyond its means and that we face large and growing structural deficits even after we turn the economy around."

Walker, the former US Comptroller General, has played the role of Cassandra in recent years warning everyone from graduating cadets at Annapolis to Daily Show audiences of their nation's and their people's debt affliction. Including unfunded liabilities, such as Social Security and Medicare, he estimates the average liability, per household, comes in at $480,000 against an average annual household income of just $50,000. He's compared it to carrying a really big mortgage on a really luxurious house except minus the house.

Much as some analysts don't expect a New New Deal, an American recovery might not be possible without it. It has been America's shift from manufacturing to a FIRE (financial services, insurance, real estate) that has underpinned this crisis.

The greatest wealth transfer in American history has been the result - not the product of the "socialist plot" scenario the Repugs use to scare blue collar America with, but the direct consequence of open markets and outsourced jobs. That has caused America's wealth to be invested in growing the economies of its rivals, notably China. It's a short-term policy that reaps huge rewards for the rentier class who see their investment incomes blossom but at the direct cost of the wage-earning public and the nation at large.

America cannot and will not recover until it rebuilds its middle class. They are the key to that nation's economic engine and, without them, it's a nation reduced to a gaggle of wealthy who generate their bounty from investments abroad. Good luck with that.

What is often overlooked is that the rapidly expanding gap between rich and poor is a warning sign of problems to come. It's a lesson we in Canada also need to relearn.

America is in dire need of a redistribution of wealth to make good all the wealth that's been transferred from the working and middle-classes to the wealthiest few, especially during the Bush regime. All that madness must be undone if the United States is to pull out in time. The alternative is a society riven with bitterness, recrimination and disunity.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Abuse of Power

Since Harper came to power nearly three years ago, he has constantly exploited his minority status to rule as though he'd achieved a solid majority, as though he'd actually won a mandate for some sort of platform.

Harper, who so self-righteously condemned the Martin government when it did try to govern as a minority, pulled out all the stops once the RCMP handed him a squeaker of a win. Not only did he show contempt for the views of the opposition - the majority of Parliament - but he was thoroughly meanspirited, manipulative, even malevolent about it.

Now, despite having been denied a majority by the Canadian voters again, Harper thought it was enough to promise cooperation with the majority opposition and then do whatever he liked. That better than three out of five Canadian voters wanted to be governed by someone else is of no moment to Steve.

As Harper chimed endlessly during the Martin years, a minority government prime minister has a "duty" to work with the opposition. He never bothered to clarify that he wasn't talking about a jackboot thug like himself.

It was bad enough that Harper governed like an Emir in his first government. Then, running true to form, he called a snap election despite having denounced that very sort of thing when it suited him to appear somehow moral. But - and here's the kicker - when you pull that stunt, and the voters still deny you a majority - it's time to respect the Canadian public and accept that you're a minority prime minister. That means being open and conciliatory with the opposition majority. It means working with them to advance an agenda that has the strongest possible consensus.

Steve talked the good game but wasted no time in making plain that he was, yet again, lying to the Canadian people and lying to parliament. He had a second chance but treated it dismissively instead of respecting it for what it was.

Too bad, this joker has shown he can't help but abuse the limited power entrusted to him. We can't have a guy like this hanging around for another two years. Dump him now. Tell him to pack up his things and look for new digs.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Toxic Delusion of Exceptionalism

A great many Americans believe in Creationism but, of all the fanciful myths our southern cousins embrace, none rivals the notion of American exceptionalism. Ronald Reagan parlayed American exceptionalism from myth to outright delusion because of the horde of believers.

The notion of American exceptionalism is grounded in the genuinely exceptional (for their time) concepts that forged the creation of the United States of America. It's why American courts constantly struggle to read into their country's constitution the intentions of the "founding fathers." The idea is that strict adherence to the beliefs of a gaggle of highly privileged, 18th Century white guys somehow assures the security, sanctity and vigor of the state even into the 21st Century.

Ronald Reagan duped his people with the cheap parlour trick of restored exceptionalism. The Reagan vision they so eagerly embraced carried with it an enormous price tag that garnered scant attention. Ronald Reagan came into office when America was the world's largest creditor nation. He left America, eight years later, as the world's largest debtor nation.

In the post WWII era, successive administrations, Republican and Democratic, had steadily whittled away at their nation's debt as a percentage of GDP. Under Reagan's stewardship that unglamorous effort by his predecessors was utterly trashed as the debt to GDP ratio soared madly.

The graph above depicts the betrayal of America as shown in the red lines of Bush/GHW Bush and, later, GW Bush. That's the malignancy that has brought the United States to its knees. Reagan and Bush Sr. and Jr. have savaged their own country and its promise.

The mortal sin of the American people must be their gullibility. I recall many years ago Pierre Berton opining that the greatest difference between Canadians and Americans was that Americans were guided by a powerful "need to believe." This craving has left them easy meat for hucksters like Reagan and the Bush dynasty. It has led them to a childish indifference to debt and a retarded, self-destructive antagonism to taxation.

Harper, his buddy Tom Flanagan and the University of Calgary cabal, still cling to the Reagan vision albeit with a lower tolerance for public debt. They embrace the Norquist ideology of shrinking government (through privatization where possible) until it can be drowned in a bathtub.

Yet the world we'll see by 2015 will put the lie to their ideologies as those nations with strong central governments ascend to dominance. America's greatest fear is of the day its foreign lenders no longer fear an abrupt American economic decline and, instead, come to accept it as an unfortunate inevitability offset by commensurate prospects for their advancement.

George w. Bush spoke of America's "addiction to oil" but never touched on the greatest affliction, America's addiction to borrowing and debt. No matter how dark the scenario confronting president-elect Obama, try to imagine what he and his countrymen would have to face if the foreign lending tap was turned off. Imagine what America would look like if it was forced to live on its own GDP. That's so frightening as to be almost inconceivable.

And yet there is a creditors' psychology that comes into play whenever they're confronted with a particularly troublesome debtor. There's a tendency to let bad debts ride - for a while, sometimes a long while - hoping against hope that a miracle turnaround might appear. But eventually there comes a stage of painful resignation where a creditor knows it has to cut its losses, it has to take a big hit now instead of an even bigger hit later. There's a whole basket of emotions that comes into play - self-ridicule at not having acted sooner, anger at the debtor's betrayal, even a thirst to punish the debtor in non-pecuniary ways. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've seen this process played out at levels great and small.

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the lesser players were true believers in American exceptionalism. They freely drank of the cup of hemlock served up by lunatic outfits such as the Project for the New American Century which proclaimed that the 21st Century belonged to the United States provided it was prepared to be both ruthless and mass murderous in its pursuit of global domination.

What they never understood is that the PNAC vision, as restated in the puerile Bush Doctrine, couldn't begin to work in any nation that couldn't live for a year on its own takings. It couldn't possibly work for a country permanently dependent on foreign lenders. Someone had to pay for those enormous military expenditures.

Can Obama rescue America? I can't see how. He can probably, at best, stablize its decline, make it bearable and spare his people complete chaos. What he cannot do is restore the United States to anything resembling pre-Reagan America. Too much damage has already been inflicted, too many rivals are on their way up. The Reagan legacy has done its work.

The day will come, probably within the next decade, when Americans are shaken out of their stupor and finally confront the reality of their notional exceptionalism and those who used it to con them. I wonder what they'll think of Reagan and his disciples then?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Georgia - Still Soviet in Some Ways

During the era of Soviet rule, making up history on the fly was pretty much standard fare. Truth was pretty much whatever those at the top said it was (hey wasn't that what Bush did too?).

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is still playing that game. It's been apparent from the outset that last summer's scrap between Russia and Georgia was sparked by Georgia's attempt to subdue the breakaway region of South Ossetia by invading and hammering the place with artillery barrages. Russia retaliated, driving Georgian forces out of South Ossetia and proceeding to invade and bomb the Georgians.

The Russians seem to have goaded Georgia into its rash attack but the fact remains that Georgia did initiate the military conflict by attacking South Ossetia.

But we're only talking about Georgia and South Ossetia and some place called Abkhazia, so who cares? Well it turns out that Washington cares and Moscow cares. The Russians care because letting Georgia into NATO brings the alliance right to Russia's borders. The Americans care because shoehorning Georgia into NATO works geopolitical magic for them. Say what?

Here's the deal. Georgia and Ukraine represent many things to Washington, including the western route for access to the considerable oil and gas reserves of the Caucasus and Caspian Basin. The whole NATO thing is to protect the fossil fuel pipelines from Russian domination and that, in a nutshell, is it. This has sweet Fanny Adam to do with spreading and defending democracy. That's merely the cover story.

Now, once Georgia is squeezed in to the NATO alliance, we all become obliged, under Article 5 of the charter, to come to its aid if it's attacked. Do we really want that obligation? The Italians and the Germans and the French certainly don't like it and neither should Canada.

Go back to the 60's at the height of the Cold War. I doubt NATO back then would have lasted a week if it was infected with a member state that thought it would be dandy to poke a stick in Moscow's eye. But, of course, back then no one would have considered doing precisely what Georgia has shown itself all too willing to resort to today. And that, kids, is why we should tell Georgia - and Washington - thanks but no thanks on NATO membership.

As if we needed a reminder of how unreliable Georgia is, take a look at what happened at their parliamentary commission hearing into this summer's war. Georgia's former envoy to Russia testified that his country, not Russia, started the August war. Erosi Kitsmarishvili caused an uproar on the committee because the Georgian government now wants to pretend that Russia opened the conflict. From BBC News:

Russia was ready for this war, but the Georgian leadership started the military action first," Mr Kitsmarishvili told the commission on Tuesday.

...the former envoy also claimed that Mr Saakashvili told him in March of plans to use force to retake Abkhazia - another Georgia's rebel region.

He said the president had also told him he would move the Georgian capital to Abkhazia's capital, Sukhumi, in August.

This is not a country that has any business belonging to NATO. Sarah Palin may have thought it was just peachy to go to war with Russia over Georgia but, then again, she is Sarah Palin. In fact, if someone like Palin endorses Georgian membership in NATO, that's probably reason enough to say no.

The NATO alliance is under considerably more strain than we're told in our mass media. The Wall Street meltdown has seriously undermined American credibility in Europe and has caused some European leaders, like France's Sarkozy to look for new deals both on global economics and European security. The Western European leaders realize that countries like Georgia are loose cannon, volatile states that they're not really willing to defend in a scrap with Russia.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Don't We Deserve to Know?

Somebody has wrecked a lot of people's lives. Somebody has walked away with an enormous amount of plunder. Somebody is undoubtedly sitting atop vast stores of looted wealth waiting for their opportunity to pounce as soon as everything bottoms out and parlay their ill-gotten gains into ever greater megawealth.

The United States is looking a a trillion-plus dollar Wall Street and bank bailout plus something around another trillion-dollars for economic stimulation. Around the world there's at least another trillion or two being shoved into bailouts.

All that taxpayer money is money going in to make good the damage caused by equally vast sums of money that flowed out to create this global meltdown. One expert interviewed on 60 Minutes several weeks ago claimed to personally know at least one individual who became an instant billionaire out of this scam. There must be new billionaires in the hundreds keeping their heads low until the heat dies down.

These scoundrels have inflicted damage on the United States and the West on an order of magnitude, several probably, greater than bin Laden's wildest, most malevolent dreams. They have injured their country, caused it real and lasting harm, probably even knocked it off its perch as the top nation in the world. So why is no one outing them?

Could it be because they've actually done nothing illegal? How could ponzi schemes this cancerous to the most powerful nation on earth not be illegal? Oh yes, I forgot - because Congress, in particular the Senate Banking Committee then headed by Republican Phil Gramm - decriminalized them and even exempted them from regulatory oversight. Credit Default Swaps. Upwards of $60-trillion of bogus insurance policies that had to be called "swaps" because they couldn't legally be called insurance. Credit Default Turnips, Credit Default Turds, Credit Default ________ (pick a word).

The housing bubble and associated subprime mortgage/securitized mortgage/credit default swap scandal was both similar and markedly different than previous bubbles. There were huge losers left in its wake but also huge winners who gamed the market, took total advantage of its vulnerabilities, and got out before the crash with truckloads of loot. They sailed away from the dock with the shiploads of money that taxpayers now have to make good. Why are taxpayers taking the hit? Because this swindle was hatched by their elected representatives and, as such, was conducted in their name.

Where is Phil Gramm?

If you don't know who Phil Gramm is and what he's done, you'll never understand the mess we're all in. He's at the centre of it all and I mean Ground Zero.

Most recently Gramm was the co-chair of the McCain presidential campaign and chief economic advisor to the Arizona senator. Gramm received a doctorate in economics from the University of Georgia in 1967. A Texas Republican, he was first elected to the US senate in 1984. He won again in 1990 and 1996. He retired in December, 2002, a few weeks prior to the end of his third term.

During his 18-years in the US senate, Gramm moved steadily up through the Republican ranks. From 1995 to 2000, Gramm held the chairmanship of the powerful US Senate Banking Committee from which perch he sowed the seeds of the disaster that's befallen us all today.

It began in 1999 with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that served as the springboard for what became, in 2007, the subprime mortgage crisis. But the real landmine came in the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act, that Gramm co-sponsored, which contained a variety of deregulatory provisions including one that became known as the "Enron Loophole." Gramm's wife was sitting on the Enron board at the time. The CFMA also decriminalized what became known as Credit Default Swaps.

So who says Gramm is the evil Dr. Moriarty of the ongoing global meltdown? Well, let's see. The Washington Post this year named Gramm one of seven key players instrumental in winning dergulation of derivatives trading. Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman ranks Gramm, along with Alan Greenspan, as the two individuals truly responsible for the current global recession. CNN had Gramm among the Top 10 individuals to blame for this mess. And a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer, Michael Donovan, claimed that, "Phil Gramm is the single most important reason for the current financial crisis.”

So where is Phil Gramm today? He pretty much slipped beneath the surface back in July when the fit hit the shan. Yet he surfaced in an article in the New York Times last week that's a must-read if you have any delusions about Gramm's role in this:

There must be something powerful in Texas drinking water because Gramm, like Bush, is utterly incapable of taking the slightest responsibility for the devastation he has wrought.

Hurry Up or Get Out - Karzai

Oh poor Hamid. He's getting so desperate you can never tell what will come pouring out of his mouth from one day to the next. Here's the latest from our man in Kabul, President Karzai himself, from the Toronto Star:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a visiting United Nations Security Council delegation Tuesday that the international community should set a timeline to end the war in Afghanistan.

It appeared to be the first time Karzai has called for such a deadline to defeat Taliban militants and raise a stable and competent Afghan security establishment.

"If there is no deadline, we have the right to find another solution for peace and security, which is negotiations," Karzai was quoted as saying in a statement from his office.

Now wait a minute, Hamid. You want us to promise to destroy the Taliban by, oh I don't know, let's pick next June 17th and, if we don't eliminate them by then, you'll be free to negotiate a settlement.

I've got an idea. How about we make the deadline midnight, December 31, 2008? That deadline is about as meaningful as any other we could possibly set. Then, starting on New Year's Day we'll begin packing up our tanks and trucks, artillery and, most important of all, our soldiers so we won't get in the way of your negotiations. After all, the Taliban have said repeatedly they won't negotiate while we're still in your country.

Oh yeah, as for that "stable and competent Afghan security establishment" well we'd better just let that one slide. You can't even hope for a stable and competent security service if it works for a thoroughly corrupt government, something you haven't even tried to clean up.

Why I Hope Bush Pardons Conrad Black

Okay, this is one of those posts where I came up with the title and then tried to come up with something, some argument to support the premise.

Forget it. I've tried and tried and I can't think of one reason Bush should pardon Lord Black of Crossharbour or even commute his sentence.

That said, you might be a bigger, brighter soul than I. Any takers? Do you think Connie ought to be sprung from the Greybar Hotel? Why?

Games for the Social Conscience

Found this at The Guardian. It's a webpage at where you'll find a selection of free computer games aimed at your social conscience.

Try "Oiligarchy" described as: "Now you can be the protagonist of the petroleum era: explore and drill around the world, corrupt politicians, stop alternative energies and increase the oil addiction. Be sure to have fun before the resources begin to deplete". Or how about "Faith Fighter": "...the ultimate fighting game for these dark times. Choose your belief and kick the shit out of your enemies. Give vent to your intolerance! Religious hate has never been so much fun."

My personal favourites are Tuboflex: "The need of mobility has grown to excess since the first years of the millennium. That's why Tuboflex inc., the world's leading Human Resources Services organisation, created a complex tube system that make it possible to dislocate employees in real time, depending on demand." And don't forget Tamatipico: "Tamatipico Is Your virtual flexworker: He works, he rests and he has fun when you want him to! Raise his productivity but pay attention to his energy and his happyness because he could get injured or strike."

The games are all downloadable, free. Find these titles and more at:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes - Conrad Blasts US Penal System

Lord Black of Crossharbour doesn't think much of the American penal system, his host for the next five plus years. In a letter to the Sunday Times of London, Black blasts back (c'mon, say that 10-times real fast) claiming the US penal system is a corporate scam:

"The U.S. is now a carceral state that imprisons eight to 12 times more people (2.5 million) per capita than the UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany or Japan," Black, serving a 6 1/2-year sentence for defrauding millions from his former media empire, wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times of London.

"U.S. justice has become a command economy based on the avarice of private prison companies, a gigantic prison service industry and politically influential correctional officers' unions that agitate for an unlimited increase in the number of prosecutions and the length of sentences."

"The entire 'war on drugs,' by contrast, is a classic illustration of supply-side economics: a trillion taxpayers' dollars squandered and (one million) small fry imprisoned at a cost of $50 billion a year; as supply of and demand for illegal drugs have increased, prices have fallen and product quality has improved."

Hey, wait a minute. Is that Lord Black hisself vouching for the improved quality of street drugs in America? What does he know that we don't? Has he been sampling the wares from inside the Greybar Hotel?

What's Next, Forcing Canadian Airliners to Land in the US?

The Americans are demanding to know who's aboard commercial airliners transiting American airspace even if those flights don't land in the United States. I wonder what Maher Arar thinks about that?

The Toronto Star reports that the US Transportation Security Agency is behind the scheme:

"The name, gender and birth date of Canadians flying to destinations such as Cuba, Mexico or even Europe will be transmitted by airlines to the TSA under its Secure Flight program, to take effect next year. The agency will then vet the names against watch lists aimed at keeping dangerous people on the ground.
Washington recently published rules for the initiative following consultations with parties including the Canadian government.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says Secure Flight, which transfers the task of watch list screening to the TSA from individual airlines, will reduce the number of false matches and clear up mistakes more quickly.

Roch Tassé, of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, says the program is a threat to Canadian sovereignty.

"It's the United States having control over which Canadians are allowed to board a plane or not," he said. "So it's a big political conundrum. It's a Kafkaesque situation where our Charter rights will be breached by another country."

The potential ramifications of this policy are indeed bizarre. Does it mean that Canada will have to adopt America's ludicrous "no fly" lists? Could it lead to American authorities ordering Canadian airliners to land in order to inspect and possibly apprehend people like Maher Arar? Let's say the Americans mistakenly conclude a person associated with al Qaeda is aboard a Canadian flight transiting their airspace. Does anyone believe they won't force that plane to land, adopting their standard "shoot first and ask questions later" policy?

I think it's time for America to decide whether it's going to respect Canadian sovereignty and I think it's a question that ought to be put to them with clear consequences if they won't.

Harper's Neo-Con Side is Outed

How will Furious Leader cope with the recession setting in in Canada? If Harper's former chief of staff gets his way, the Boss will pursue the neo-conservative path.

"I'm hopeful there will be some ideologically driven, neo-conservative cuts to government," political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Harper chief of staff, said in an interview.

Such cuts, he added, would be consistent with Harper's long-term goal of reducing the size and scope of government.

"I think that's always been sort of the long-term plan, the way that Stephen was going about it of first depriving the government of surpluses through cutting taxes ... You get rid of the surpluses and then it makes it easier to make some expenditure reductions."

Oh dear, they're not even trying to hide it any more. By the way, Tom, wasn't it the neo-conservative policies of deregulation and greed south of the border that brought this mess to Canada? In fact, Tom, it was just that. Deregulation, defunding and outright legislative swindles. Yes, Tom, of course we need a heaping bowl of that gruel.

That might be Harper's long-term plan but he hasn't got the guts to try it right now. He knows it'd bring down his government and give the voters the excuse they're waiting for to throw him and his ideology into the crapper where they belong.

Iraq, Afghanistan and Other Pipedreams

Whether a country is beset by a civil war or an insurgency, the chaotic violence usually results in a terrific opportunity for old fashioned thugs, common criminals, to prey upon the population. It's happening throughout Afghanistan and, according to The Guardian, Iraqi society has also fallen victim to rule of the gun:

"Even the judiciary cowers in fear from the criminals, or militants, who have held the country to ransom for at least three years. Many of the gunmen are filling the ranks of the so-called Sons of Iraq, the steadily growing movement credited with steadying Iraqi security.

Among the Sons of Iraq rank and file are former al-Qaida insurgents who once used to be the US military's targets. At a Sons of Iraq pay day at the Hamani police station, north of Baghdad, Captain James Polak from the 2/14 Stryker Brigades was supervising the handover of responsibilities from his troops to local Iraqis.

Asked how they decided which former insurgents were jailed and which were given salaries, he replied: "We have been told that anything that happened longer than four months ago is the cut-off."

The upshot is that among Iraq's judges and victims, there is a growing sense that justice will never be served.

"As judges, we are under the most critical of threats," said one Iraqi supreme court judge, who refused to be identified because of a terrorist attack on his home during the summer."

Afghanistan has shown what happens when a region or an entire people lose faith in or access to a functioning judicial system. They inevitably turn to alternatives that do offer some form of justice, even if it is arbitrary and often harsh. It's why the Taliban, in establishing a presence in an area, always seem to set up courts - civil and criminal - in short order. When they do, the locals are quick to bring their grievances and disputes for hearing and resolution and the insurgents build one more bond between their movement and the populace and drive one more wedge between those same civilians and their government.

It's another reason why Iraq, like Afghanistan, isn't suited to the sort of instant democracy envisioned by Bush, Cheney and the neo-cons. You can't create a nation without a functioning judiciary and you can't put a system of laws and courts in place without an effective security and law enforcement system which, in turn, you can't accomplish until basic political authority is consolidated and viable.

In Iraq, it's the Kurds - the only pro-Western group in the bunch - who steadily undermine the notion of central government in Baghdad. If Maliki can't reach some settlement with the Kurds that falls short of total capitulation to their demands, what hope can he have for dealing with his enemies among the Sunni Arabs and the nationalist Shiites of al Sadr? In Afghanistan, Karzai has managed to establish himself as little more than the mayor of Kabul. The rank corruption in his security services and judiciary steadily drives the rural population into the arms of the insurgents.

We pursue these notional goals of democracy at our peril. It's not going to happen - not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan - at least not now and probably not in our lifetimes. Democracy can't be created in a political vacuum, it can't be thrust upon people who don't understand it enough to be willing to fight for it. Look how long it took us to get from Magna Carta (1215) to the form of democracy we enjoy today. Some women (those who qualified) got the vote in 1918 but it wasn't until 1948 that we purged the last property qualifications from the right to vote in Canada. That's just 60-years ago.

So, if we in the West tie our military campaigns in these countries to achievement of democracy, we're not helping anyone, ourselves included. In the case of Iraq, if it is to be held together, it will need the sort of leader who can do what it takes to impose central rule throughout the country. At the end of the day, that someone may look an awful lot like the guy we just toppled.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The National Post - Best Thing Bush Did - IRAQ!

Can somebody tell the editor of the National Spot that they don't have to keep trying so hard to prove they're the most idiotic newspaper in Canada.

The Post ran an op-ed piece on Friday in which a supposed professor from Gettysburg College claimed the best thing Bush did was invade Iraq. Yes, he actually wrote that. Iraq - the best thing the feeble-minded bugger accomplished.

The second best thing, in the mind of the Post's revered Allen C. Guelzo was the "Axis of Evil" speech. Really. The second best thing Bush did was read (sort of) a speech written by David Frum. Eight years and that's second only to the genius of destabilizing Iraq and giving Iran a free ride to regional ascendancy.

Nos. 3, 4 and 5, in the nutty professor's mind were faith-based initiatives, "blunting the metastasis of abortion" and "balancing" the US Supreme Court bench.

You know, maybe the good professor is right. Maybe those are the best things Bush did. Maybe everything else he did was simply worse.

p.s. I must apologize for posting this two days after it appeared in NatPo. Truth be told, that rag is so bad I just can't bring myself to take a look at it more than once or twice a week.

Climate Change Deniers Denied! No Holds Barred = Part 1

When you're at YouTube, check out the other five parts in this video. Only after you've debunked these six videos can you came back to this blog with climate change skepticism. Hey, a new House Rule! Yippee.

While You Were Surgin'

It was the cornerstone of the McCain-Palin campaign, the mantra of the Bush administration and every other delusional right-winger - "the surge is working," bringing victory to Iraq. As the Brits would say, "bollocks."

Maliki's own Iranian-leaning, Shiite Badr Organization occupies the Iraq security agencies, waiting to pounce. Muqtada al Sadr's nationalist, Shiite Mahdi Army itself lies in wait. Much of the Sunni insurgency, freshly armed and trained by the US military hovers about sullenly while their leaders seethe at being ostracized by their Shiite Arab cousins and driven back by Iraq's Kurdish state in the north. Meanwhile, Iran, Syria and Turkey glower from the sidelines.

Sounds like "peace in our time" doesn't it?

Apparently the Kurds don't think so. The Washington Post reports that the Kurdish Autonomous Region (consider it Iraq's own experiment in Sovereignty Association) has been flying in cargo planeloads of small arms from Bulgaria. Probably the full party pack assortment of grenades, RPG rocket propelled grenade launchers, AK 47s & 74s, rounded off with some PKM and NSV machine guns. Three Hercules loads so far but who's counting?

What for? If you ask the Kurds they'll say it's so they can better fight the war on terror. My grandma, what big teeth you have! Right.

"The large quantity of weapons and the timing of the shipment alarmed U.S. officials, who have grown concerned about the prospect of an armed confrontation between Iraqi Kurds and the government at a time when the Kurds are attempting to expand their control over parts of northern Iraq.
Iraq's ethnic Kurds maintain an autonomous region that comprises three of the country's 18 provinces. In recent months, the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad, which includes some Kurds in prominent positions, has accused Kurdish leaders of attempting to expand their territory by deploying their militia, known as peshmerga, to areas south of the autonomous region. Among other things, the Kurds and Iraq's government are at odds over control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which lies outside the autonomous region, and over how Iraq's oil revenue ought to be distributed.

Iraq's interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, said in an interview that central government officials did not authorize the purchase of weapons from Bulgaria. He said such an acquisition would constitute a "violation" of Iraqi law because only the Ministries of Interior and Defense are authorized to import weapons."

What the central government, and the Americans for that matter, overlook is the Kurdish constitution. In order to keep the Kurds from splitting off when Saddam was toppled, Baghdad gave in to Kurdish demands that their own constitution be incorporated into the Iraqi constitution and, so far as Kurdish matters are concerned, it trumps Iraqi law.

Baghdad promised the Kurds a referendum to decide whether Kirkuk and its adjacent massive oil fields would be considered part of the Kurdish region but that's been scheduled and postponed twice already due to fears it would spark a war between Iraq's Arabs (Sunni & Shiite) and the Iraqi Kurds. This whole thing is just waiting to blow up.

"You could easily have a huge eruption of violence in the north," said Kenneth B. Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "Nothing having to do with the Kurds is resolved."

In reality, Iraq remains a mess of ticking time bombs waiting to go off. There's the internal Shiite struggle between the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army. There's the looming Shiite versus Sunni challenge. And, of course, ticking the loudest is the Arab versus Kurd conflict. In short, Iraq remains as three, possibly four civil wars waiting to break out. Each of these issues has been around since America invaded. Not one of them has been resolved since. Not one. And there's no resolution to any of them on the horizon either.

The American military command in Iraq has become so mired, confused and hapless that it's gone on record as saying that, in the event of civil war between the Kurds and Baghdad, it will pull all US forces back into their bases and just let the games proceed.

Don't blame the Americans save for their naivete and their hubris. The roots of these apparently nascent conflicts actually go back almost a century to the Ottoman empire and World War One. They were shaped by Britain's duplicity and betrayal of the Kurds in the treaty of Sevres and the sellout, three years later, in the treaty Lausanne with Ataturk and the manner in which the Brits and the French then carved up the region.

How the Bushies thought they could knock over Saddam, toss together a democratic government and see it survive without re-opening these blood-soaked religious and ethnic disputes is astonishing.

Tying the American military presence in Iraq to the level of violence in Iraq is to shackle American foreign policy to every mistake inflicted on Iraq and the greater region by the British and French in 1920. America can't make that right and it doesn't even intend to try. Why not just declare "mission accomplished" and di di mau out of their before this all hits the fan?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Who Said Being Dumb was Easy?

Great piece on the Huffington Post about how severely US presidents age in office. The first picture is Bush during his primary campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000. The bottom picture is the same guy today.

Talkin' Turkey with Sarah

Sarah Palin, havin' a little fun at the turkey farm. You betcha!

Was Gonzales Just Dickin' Around?

The grand jury indictment of Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales and a gaggle of others related to a private prison corporation is strange to say the least. Okay, so Cheney had his company put $85-million into the prison company, so what? Turns out there may be more to this than meets the eye.

What Would Jesus Buy?

Reverend Billy & The Church of Stop Shopping

China's Environmental Nightmare

The biggest obstacle in the path of China's economic ascendancy is China or, to be more specific, the inability of the central government to effectively manage the country.

It's one scandal after another. Lead in kids' toys, melamine in the food and a lot more. However it's a series of environmental issues, and China's inability to come to grips with them, that pose the greatest threat to the country's future prosperity.

China already has a serious problem with desertification, the degradation that transforms arable farmland into useless desert. A new report says that China is losing approximately 4.5-billion tonnes of topsoil annually to erosion. From Reuters:

Over a third of China's land is being scoured by serious erosion that is putting its crops and water supply a risk, a three-year nationwide survey has found.

Soil is being washed and blown away not only in remote rural areas, but near mines, factories and even in cities, the official Xinhua agency cited the country's bio-environment security research team saying.

If the loss continues at this rate, harvests in China's northeastern breadbasket could fall 40 percent in 50 years, adding to erosion costs estimated at 200 billion yuan ($29 billion) in this decade alone.

Mike Harris Puts Mulroney to Shame

Former Ontario premier Mike Harris has used the National Spot as a convenient forum to twist his own record and take pot shots at the current Liberal, McGuinty government. Curiously not a peep about how Harris' revolution left the incoming Liberal government to wrestle with a tightly concealed, fiercely denied $5.5-billion annual deficit of any of its other chicanery.

What's with these disgraced Tory charlatans and their desperate bent for revanchist prattle?

Just in Time for Christmas

Just got this fabulous offer from the Houston Chronicle. What would Christmas 2008 be without this?

The CIA's Rogue Red Barons

It made headlines in 2001 when a Peruvian air force jet, guided by a CIA observer plane, opened fire on a light aircraft, killing an American missionary, Veronica Bowers, and her infant daughter, Charity. The pilot of the light plane managed to crash land, saving the lives of Bowers' husband and their 6-year old son.

The incident sparked the inevitable Congressional inquiry at which the CIA assured legislators that it was all a terrible mistake, a sheer fluke.

They lied.

It's now coming out that the CIA directed at least 10-shoot downs without properly identifying the suspect aircraft of giving them an opportunity to land. From the Washington Post:

"...according to the inspector general's report, agency officials sought from the outset to conceal the program's serious problems, while portraying the 2001 shooting as an aberration.

"Within hours, CIA officers began to characterize the shoot-down as a one-time mistake in an otherwise well-run program," the report stated. "In fact, this was not the case."
Instead, in nearly every instance, CIA and Peruvian participants ignored guidelines intended to prevent innocent pilots from being shot from the sky, it said. Often, suspect planes were shot down "within two to three minutes of being sighted . . . without being properly identified, without being given adequate warnings to land," it said.

Hoekstra, citing the still-classified portions of the report, said the CIA's program was "actually operating and being implemented outside the law." The investigators found that CIA managers "knew of, and condoned" the violations and failed to properly oversee the program, he said.

Lying to Congress is one thing but wilfully killing people on a bare suspicion they might be transporting illicit drugs without even giving them a chance to surrender is - it's murder.

The Double Standard of the Red Serge

Just what is the RCMP policy on when to try to influence an election? A report in today's Globe & Mail claims that the mounties deferred an investigation into Maxime Bernier's relationship with Julie Couillard until after the last election campaign:

The meeting with the former minister occurred on Nov. 4, three weeks after the end of the recent election campaign, during which the Mounties interviewed other Conservative officials about the same matters.

At the time, the RCMP seemed hesitant to approach Mr. Bernier for fear of appearing to disrupt the campaign, including his efforts to retain his seat in the riding of Beauce.

Enough said. Could it have anything to do with the appointment of a Tory apparatchik to run the force?

McQuaig Outs Harper - Fiscal Charlatan

In the industrialized world, Canada stands best positioned to weather out the looming recession. And, as Linda McQuaig recounts in today's Toronto Star, we can be thankful that Harper didn't have more time to undermine Canada's fiscal strength:

"Harper's resistance to European calls for tighter regulations is ironic, since he has the luxury of presiding over a country that's been spared the worst of the financial meltdown, largely because of the Canadian tradition of tighter domestic financial regulations.

This has allowed Harper to ride out the current financial storm politically unscathed, even gaining re-election in the middle of it.

In fact, although Harper's record on this has received little attention, his government had started to push Canada down the dangerous road toward looser financial regulation.

In its first budget in 2006, the Harper government changed the rules in ways that effectively opened up the Canadian mortgage market to U.S. insurers. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty noted that these "new players" would bring "greater choice and innovation" to the Canadian mortgage market. Unfortunately, they did just that. They introduced risky products – like mortgages amortized over 40 years with little or no down-payments.

The new mortgages quickly caught on. With their lower monthly payments, they made houses seem more affordable. In reality, however, they dramatically increased the cost of a home, roughly tripling it.

As the implosion of the U.S. housing market provided a vivid example of the pitfalls of looser mortgage regulations, Flaherty finally intervened last summer, tightening CMHC's rules."

Harper, a supposed economist, didn't see this recession coming. He ought to have seen it. He could have consulted his fellow economist Paul Krugman or simply read Krugman's columns in the New York Times. But no, the Boy Genius, was too busy stuck in his rancid ideology to bother looking up and noticing the obvious. He was more concerned with defunding the federal government than bolstering its strength to withstand this recession.

No matter what some Liberals may say, we ought to be very grateful indeed for the guiding hand of Paul Martin in the post-Mulroney years. We'll be reaping the benefits of that guidance in the turbulent near future. And it's all no thanks to the stooge who's running the show at the moment.

David Brooks - American Valedictocracy

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks has lamented what he sees as the scourge of Republican anti-intellectualism. In his latest column he points out that the Obama administration won't be short of intellectual heft. He's even coined a term for them, the American Valedictocracy:

Jan. 20, 2009, will be a historic day. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law), looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.).

The domestic policy team will be there, too, including Jason Furman (Harvard, Harvard Ph.D.), Austan Goolsbee (Yale, M.I.T. Ph.D.), Blair Levin (Yale, Yale Law), Peter Orszag (Princeton, London School of Economics Ph.D.) and, of course, the White House Counsel Greg Craig (Harvard, Yale Law).

...Already the culture of the Obama administration is coming into focus. Its members are twice as smart as the poor reporters who have to cover them, three times if you include the columnists.

...And yet as much as I want to resent these overeducated Achievatrons (not to mention the incursion of a French-style government dominated by highly trained Enarchs), I find myself tremendously impressed by the Obama transition.

Unlike past Democratic administrations, they are not just handing out jobs to the hacks approved by the favored interest groups. They’re thinking holistically — there’s a nice balance of policy wonks, governors and legislators.

Obama seems to have dispensed with the romantic and failed notion that you need inexperienced “fresh faces” to change things. ...because he is so young, Obama is not bringing along an insular coterie of lifelong aides who depend upon him for their well-being.

As a result, the team he has announced so far is more impressive than any other in recent memory.

First, these are open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence.

Second, they are admired professionals.

Third, they are not excessively partisan.

Fourth, they are not ideological.

Finally, there are many people on this team with practical creativity. Any think tanker can come up with broad doctrines, but it is rare to find people who can give the president a list of concrete steps he can do day by day to advance American interests.

Believe me, I’m trying not to join in the vast, heaving O-phoria now sweeping the coastal haut-bourgeoisie. But the personnel decisions have been superb.

Gee, I think Brooks may just have to surrender his membership card in the party of proud and defiant ignorance. It sure sounds like the hillbillies are on their way out of town.

How Do You Say "We're Number One" in Chinese?

By 2025 America will no longer dominate the world as it has ever since the end of WWII. Says who? America's 50-billion dollar a year intelligence community, that's who.

An intelligence briefing prepared for president-elect Barack Obama paints a picture of an emerging world that will be both different and more dangerous than anything we in the West have known. From The Guardian:

The United States' leading intelligence organisation has warned that the world is entering an increasingly unstable and unpredictable period in which the advance of western-style democracy is no longer assured, and some states are in danger of being "taken over and run by criminal networks".

Looking ahead to 2025, the NIC (which coordinates analysis from all the US intelligence agencies), foresees a fragmented world, where conflict over scarce resources is on the rise, poorly contained by "ramshackle" international institutions, while nuclear proliferation, particularly in the Middle East, and even nuclear conflict grow more likely.

"Global Trends 2025: A World Transformed" warns that the spread of western democratic capitalism cannot be taken for granted, as it was by George Bush and America's neoconservatives.

"No single outcome seems preordained: the Western model of economic liberalism, democracy and secularism, for example, which many assumed to be inevitable, may lose its lustre – at least in the medium term," the report warns.

It adds: "Today wealth is moving not just from West to East but is concentrating more under state control," giving the examples of China and Russia.

"In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the state's role in the economy may be gaining more appeal throughout the world."

Obama got an earful, none of it very good. Two bright spots - al Qaeda isn't expected to fare very well although terrorism is expected to evolve into a nuclear threat and, by 2025, the world may have found an alternative to oil.

The report forecasts a series of climate-change driven catastrophes and predicts a wave of migration of about 250-million climate refugees. If anything, that's likely a conservative estimate.

How reliable is this latest National Intelligence Council outlook? Much of it seems to be a rehashing of what has now become conventional wisdom. We have already witnessed the evolution of "sovereign wealth funds" particularly in China where the state has amassed foreign reserves in excess of a trillion US dollars. We have seen how well capitalism thrives under totalitarian rule. Despite our claims to the contrary, we've been bloody awful at fostering democracy abroad and our old schtick isn't selling very well any more.

Also, don't assume that America is somehow going to sail off the edge of the earth into oblivion. That's not the way these things work. America will decline - but only somewhat. A greater factor will be the ascendancy of China and possibly India driven by growth in those countries.

America's decline will probably look a lot more like the British experience in the 20th century. There will be some lapses, a period of weakness and decline, and then a period of stabilization and recovery. Until it got caught up in the same fiscal madness that infected the United States, Great Britain had been doing quite nicely.

I expect the West will again find unity if only out of necessity. The trans-Atlantic bonds that have been so frayed will be rewoven. Both sides have a great deal to gain from it and risk becoming marginalized if they don't. One thing is clear. It will have to be a more co-operative effort with the United States playing the role of a major partner, not the major partner.

As the report apparently warns of catastrophic environmental impacts heading America's way it would be interesting to learn how the US intelligence community thinks Asia, which is at far greater risk of climate change disasters, will absorb the blows. By 2025 both India and China will be struggling with major decline in their already limited freshwater resources and a host of air, soil and water contamination problems. It's anything but an ideal time to be leading a nation of a billion plus people through an industrial revolution.

The newspaper account also doesn't mention how the National Intelligence Council squares its 2008 assessment with the last one it issued in 2004 when Bush won his second term.

It was called Mapping the Global Future, and looked forward as far as 2020 when it projected "continued US dominance, positing that most major powers have forsaken the idea of balancing the US".

That confidence is entirely lacking from this far more sober assessment. Also gone is the belief that oil and gas supplies "in the ground" were "sufficient to meet global demand".

Of course the 2004 assessment came at a time when Rumsfeld was still Defence Secretary and Cheney, Feith and Libby were running roughshod over America's intelligence agencies. Those were the days when intelligence was cooked according to a very specific recipe.
The report will undoubtedly dismay American imperialists, the neo-cons who hatched the Project for the New American Century and the Bush Doctrine but I, for one, am comforted with the idea of Canada going into the next several decades with a calmer, more introspective America next door.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How Badly has Bush Damaged America?

There's no question that George w. Bush has crippled America's standing in the world. Bush never understood the narrow limits of American power or the degree of Washington's interdependence on America's allies. He failed to grasp his country's real strengths or its weaknesses.

It's tempting to judge America's health by looking at its rivals and potential adversaries, particularly China. But it may be events in Europe that are most telling. Once again we return to America's love/hate relationship with France.

When he came to power, Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to be Bush's instant BFF. Lately, however, Sarkozy has been staking out turf in a way that's decidedly anti-American.

The global meltdown triggered by the spread of bogus US derivative securities throughout world markets apparently infuriated Sarkozy. He saw the world's markets thrown into disarray by American greed and mismanagement. The second part of the one-two punch was the crisis in Georgia fueled by America's relentless pressure to push NATO to the very borders of Russia. Sarkozy hasn't come right out and said it but it's apparent that he sees NATO for what it's become under Bush, America's Foreign Legion.

Sarkozy knows that America's NATO policy toward eastern Europe has little or nothing to do with democracy and a great deal to do with securing control of the Caspian Basin oil and gas reserves. Georgia and Ukraine are essential to getting pipelines to bring that energy west and out of Russian domination. The alternative are pipelines running straight through the insurgent strongholds of Afghanistan and the unreliable and troubled regions of Pakistan. Washington has been remarkably indifferent to the headaches caused Europe by destablizing its relationship with Russia.

So what has Naughty Nick done? Without consulting the Americans, he's announced a European-Russian summit next summer to define Europe's future security relationship with Russia. America is invited to attend, of course, but Sarkozy has made it clear that Europe will make its own deals, in its own interests. It won't be shackled to American geopolitics any longer.

Then, in the aftermath of Bush's world economic summit convened to deal with the made-in-America/inflicted-upon-the-world meltdown, Sarkozy again gave Bush one up alongside the head. After leaving the meeting claiming to have tamed the animal instincts of America capitalism, the French president returned home to announce he'll be holding his own summit on the same problem in just a few weeks time, taking the Americans by surprise. From today's New York Times:

"Mr. Sarkozy said nothing about his plans to convene a meeting to President Bush or the 18 other leaders while he was here. A senior European diplomat said he found the French proposal “amazing,” while an American official said that that would be a charitable description.

"French officials said the gathering on Jan. 8 and 9, which is to be co-hosted by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is merely a conference, intended to bring together political leaders and prominent thinkers to discuss issues like globalization and the values of capitalism.

"..Much of this is posturing by ambitious leaders, but it also reflects a genuine philosophical debate about how best to fix the fractured global markets.

"On one side is Mr. Sarkozy, the supercharged French leader, determined to keep the initiative on what many in Europe regard as a long-overdue discussion of the excesses of American-style capitalism.

"On the other is Mr. Bush, playing out his final weeks in office but unwilling to allow Europeans, especially the French, to dominate the debate on how to overhaul international financial regulations.

"Certainly, the two leaders had sharply different interpretations of what happened at the meeting. Mr. Sarkozy portrayed it as a shift in power, saying, “Europe for the first time expressed its clear determination.” Americans had “never, ever” been willing to negotiate these kinds of regulatory changes, he said."

Last month Sarkozy called for an end to American style "speculative capitalism" and the institution of a new, global economic order based on what he termed "entrepreneurial capitalism" in its place. He's gone on record claiming he'll settle for nothing less than a "new financial world" with tough, international regulation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Alberta Wobbles and Worries

Peter Lougheed, arguably Alberta's best premier ever, castigated Ralph Klein for the haphazard way his government managed the Athabasca Tar Sands development. It appears that, with the drop in world oil prices, some of those criticisms are being borne out.

Alberta's energy boom transformed most of Western Canada. It became a jobs, jobs, jobs pandemonium. Money, it seemed, was everywhere and in truly bountiful abundance. As oil prices reached $140 a barrel there seemed no end to it.

The problem is that $140 a barrel oil creates a $140 a barrel economy. It's reflected in labour rates, housing costs, even the price of a pint of beer. When you've got a wallet stuffed with bills, paying high prices becomes less problematic.

Booms also create enormous vulnerabilities because they can end so abruptly and turn in very short order into busts. Asset values shrink and once comfortable debt levels turn unmanageable.

From the Toronto Star:

Energy-rich Alberta's multibillion-dollar surplus projections have taken a $6.5 billion beating over the last three months as the result of plunging oil prices and crashing markets.

Finance Minister Iris Evans is putting on a brave face, bragging that the province is still looking at a $2 billion surplus and is in a good shape to "weather the global economic crisis."

But opposition politicians and economists aren't so optimistic, warning that the worst times may still be ahead for Canada's oil-fuelled economic powerhouse.

"It's official, the boom is over," said Liberal Opposition Leader Kevin Taft.

Economist Mike Percy said Alberta's grim financial news is bound to have an impact on investment in the province, which will affect job growth and tax revenues.

"This year, they're kind of skating by," Percy said. "It's the budget for next year that will really see the province squeezed.

"When you look down the road, they're going to have to trim operating expenses, especially for health care."

The Alberta government has been roundly criticized in recent years for setting aside just over 8% of its oil royalties as contrasted with Alaska where the state sets aside 25% and Norway which holds 66% of its North Sea oil royalties in a long-term fund. Eight per cent may sound like a lot but it's really pittance in an overheated economy that's dangerously vulnerable to a bust.

Those who forget their past... After the 1990's bust that plunged Alberta into recession, bumper stickers began appearing that read, "Dear God. Let there be another oil boom and I promise not to piss it away this time."

Has Stephen Harper Crossed the Floor?

This thought crossed my mind a few days back when Harper sought to muzzle the old social conservative Reform/Alliance core of the party but today's Throne Speech sounds like it could have been written by a Liberal leader.

The committments are admittedly vague but they seem to touch on most of the key notes:

- aid to Ontario's auto industry. That will probably await Obama's decision on what to do for Detroit.

- ensuring the "social safety net" is as effective as possible (lots of wiggle room) there to meet the needs of those who lose their jobs.

- a promise to see 90% of Canada's electricity generated from "non-emitting" power sources by 2020.

There was, however, a little Republican gimmick slipped in as well, a brief mention of giving the private sector a greater role in administration to "deliver better services at a lower overall cost." That one, I'm sure, is going to be contentious particularly if it leads to attempts to dismantle our public healthcare system. At the moment, however, I doubt Harper would be that bold. His approach is always incremental, finding a way to back into his objectives.

All in all, there wasn't much Sturm und Drang in the Throne Speech but, as Harper told the party faithful recently, this is no time to act like a Conservative.

Hillary for State Secretary

The Guardian is reporting that Hillary Clinton will accept the post of Secretary of State in the Obama administration.

Hillary Clinton plans to accept the job of secretary of state offered by Barack Obama, who is reaching out to former rivals to build a broad coalition administration, the Guardian has learned.

Clinton would be well placed to become the country's dominant voice in foreign affairs, replacing Condoleezza Rice. Since being elected senator for New York, she has specialised in foreign affairs and defence. Although she supported the war in Iraq, she and Obama basically agree on a withdrawal of American troops.
Rumours of the appointment have been circulating for the past two days but this is the first indication that Senator Clinton has decided to accept the offer.

Could Mitt Be Right? Scuttle Detroit

I know the dippers won't like to hear this but Mitt Romney thinks Washington should let the Big Three automakers - GM, Ford and Chrysler - fall into bankruptcy and he may just be right.

No mistake about it - the bankruptcy would be a vehicle to take the automakers off the hook for crippling labour and pension costs which grew during the boom years but now leave America's car companies at a critical disadvantage in competing with foreign automakers, including those with plants in the United States.

Romney's anti-bailout prescription for rehabilitating America's automakers appeared in today's New York Times:

In 1954, my dad, George Romney, was tapped to run American Motors when its president suddenly died. The company itself was on life support — banks were threatening to deal it a death blow. The stock collapsed. I watched Dad work to turn the company around — and years later at business school, they were still talking about it. From the lessons of that turnaround, and from my own experiences, I have several prescriptions for Detroit’s automakers.

First, their huge disadvantage in costs relative to foreign brands must be eliminated. That means new labor agreements to align pay and benefits to match those of workers at competitors like BMW, Honda,
Nissan and Toyota. Furthermore, retiree benefits must be reduced so that the total burden per auto for domestic makers is not higher than that of foreign producers.

That extra burden is estimated to be more than $2,000 per car. Think what that means: Ford, for example, needs to cut $2,000 worth of features and quality out of its Taurus to compete with Toyota’s Avalon. Of course the Avalon feels like a better product — it has $2,000 more put into it. Considering this disadvantage, Detroit has done a remarkable job of designing and engineering its cars. But if this cost penalty persists, any bailout will only delay the inevitable.

Second, management as is must go. New faces should be recruited from unrelated industries — from companies widely respected for excellence in marketing, innovation, creativity and labor relations.

The new management must work with labor leaders to see that the enmity between labor and management comes to an end. This division is a holdover from the early years of the last century, when unions brought workers job security and better wages and benefits. But as Walter Reuther, the former head of the United Auto Workers,
said to my father, “Getting more and more pay for less and less work is a dead-end street.”

...It is not wrong to ask for government help, but the automakers should come up with a win-win proposition. I believe the federal government should invest substantially more in basic research — on new energy sources, fuel-economy technology, materials science and the like — that will ultimately benefit the automotive industry, along with many others. I believe Washington should raise energy research spending to $20 billion a year, from the $4 billion that is spent today. The research could be done at universities, at research labs and even through public-private collaboration. The federal government should also rectify the imbedded tax penalties that favor foreign carmakers.

But don’t ask Washington to give shareholders and bondholders a free pass — they bet on management and they lost.

Reality sets in. The far left will erupt in ideological fury at Romney's proposals, seeing only that they will undermine American organized labour - and they plainly will. It's a terrible blow to labour - until you consider the alternatives.

Getting Detroit running again is the city's only hope, it's auto workers' only hope. If you want to see how bad it's gotten, take a few minutes and do a search of Grosse Point real estate listings. You'll find pages of listings of gorgeous houses, Grade A prime real estate, going for half the price of a Vancouver bungalow.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Embracing Reality - Global Warming and Other Challenges We Must Confront

Global warming deniers rely on a bag full of weak tricks. One is to blur the distinction between weather and climate.

Weather, the stuff you get on your TV or radio, is so variable as to be almost unpredictable beyond a day or two in advance. There are a few exceptions. We are able to detect weather-influencing phenomenon such as the mid-Pacific el nino or la nina. Weather forecasting is getting better all the time as more sophisticated weather models and modelling computers come on line but it's still far from reliable.

Climate forecasting is even worse - in the short term. On a decadal basis, however, it's pretty accurate. Climate science entails looking beyond weather "static," the haphazard variability of weather from day to day or month to month or even year to year. Climate science assumes that temperatures and precipitation will be variable during these intervals - it always has been and always will be (we hope).

The graphs above illustrate this point. The red line represents actual recorded mean temperatures, year by year. The blue lines, however, are 8-year trend lines. You'll see a number of these blue lines go negative, reflecting cooling intervals. Others are positive, some sharply positive. The tale of the tape runs is found by going from the bottom left corner (around 1977) to the top right corner three decades later.

Global warming hucksters love the blue lines but only so long as they can pick and choose the trend lines that suit their fantasies. All the other blue lines, especially the really positive blue lines, they prefer to leave out of their arguments.

That's how these people work. Take an isolated bit of favourable data, a kernel of truth, and then distort it out of all proportion so that it misleads. They use sleight of hand logic to hold out weather as climate, knowing that they have the added advantage of telling people what any of us would like to believe and that's a very powerful advantage.

The psychology employed by the denialists is simple. With very few exceptions we're pretty good people. None of us wants to believe that we're handing our grandkids' generation a rotten future. None of us wants to believe that cruising in our SUVs or jetsetting to exotic, foreign destinations is going to leave a tab that someone else is going to have to pick up. When good people don't want to believe something badly enough, it's astonishing just what they can choose not to perceive. The denialist hucksters play on every one of these powerful quirks of human nature.

While I'm troubled by global warming, I worry that human nature will prevent us from dealing with it effectively. As its impacts become more obvious, undeniable, we will acknowledge it and muster our forces in response, but that may do us as much harm as good.

When it comes to crises the world is pretty good at dealing with them as they emerge - one at a time. We did a pretty good job when it came to WWII. We reallocated resources and industries, mobilized the citizenry to form massive, instant armies and had at it. But what if we had been confronted with WWII, III, IV and V simultaneously? The point I'm trying to make is that we don't multi-task crises very well at all.

A year ago, global warming was universally acknowledged as the greatest threat to mankind. Even Harpo said that. Then the hens came home to roost from the US subprime mortgage/bogus derivative security/credit default swap crisis and now it's all hands on deck to fight for our economic lives. Suddenly dealing with our carbon emissions problems has been detoured down a side road. Only temporarily, mind you. We'll get back to it just as soon as we can. Trust us. - Yeah, sure.

It's this ad hoc approach to steadily growing global problems that's troubling. It's like a house fire in which you start hosing down the kitchen and then just switch over to the guest bedroom while the blaze consumes the rest of the house.

If we're going to have any realistic chance of getting mankind through the next century relatively intact, we're going to have to become realistic about what challenges confront us. Here's a list of many of them, although I doubt it's complete: global warming and associated climate change; global security threats including terrorism and the several arms races now underway; nuclear proliferation; deforestation; desertification; resource exhaustion; freshwater depletion; species extinction; air, water and soil contamination; the spread of contagious and other diseases; and the one we absolutely don't want to mention - overpopulation.

While these crises don't affect all parts of the planet equally, they do affect all parts of the planet both directly and indirectly and their impact is spreading.

I have finally put aside my last bit of scepticism about James Lovelock's notion of "sustainable retreat." Our industrial revolution-born dependence on growth to solve our problems doesn't work any more. We've come to the point where it's like trying to spend your way out of debt.

The proof is all around us. We merely need look to see it. Take something man plainly cannot live even a week without - freshwater. You can starve for a long time but you'll go down within days without water. We depend on water to hydrate our bodies, we depend on water to grow our food, we depend on water to sustain all forms of life.

It's estimated that, within a decade or two, 60% of mankind will lack access to adequate supplies of clean, safe, freshwater. That means three out of five will be on the hunt for potable water. That's four billion people give or take a few hundred million.

The American southwest stands as testament to man's lack of respect for water. Las Vegas speaks for itself. Imagine, in the middle of a desert, building lakes around casino resorts and irrigating golf courses. Then there are all the retirement Meccas that have burgeoned throughout that region.

How do they do it? How do they accommodate all this development, support all this humanity, in the midst of inhospitable desert? By mining the groundwater, pumping what they demand from their aquifers.

Groundwater taken from aquifers is fine when it's limited to its "recharge rate," the rate at which surface precipitation finds its way down into the aquifer. But the water is being drawn out at many, many times the recharge rate which is emptying the aquifers. If the recharge rate is X and you've created a society that has become dependent on 10X of water from the aquifer, you will find your way to the bottom and then face the problem of a water supply one-tenth of your needs.

America's breadbasket, California, has a magnificent agricultural base utterly dependent on irrigation. It too is coming under strains from water shortages. In order to grow its agricultural base the state allotted water quotas to farmers. Now some of those farmers find it's better to give up farming their land altogether and simply sell their water quotas to nearby cities.

If American can run into deficit on something as fundamental to life as freshwater, how can we expect poorer, more vulnerable and more hard hit nations to cope? If they can't cope, what are the consequences and what are the spillover effects for the rest of us?

It's not just weak and powerless little African nations that stand to be hit by freshwater crises. Just last week Indian scientists reported that the Himalayan glaciers could be gone by 2035. That's barely more than a single generation. To put this in perspective, melt water from those glaciers feeds both India's and China's major agricultural rivers - the Yellow River and the Ganges among them. It's been predicted that the Ganges could become a seasonal river, full only during the Monsoon when farmers don't need it for irrigation.

Freshwater supplies to both countries, nuclear powers with rapidly expanding militaries, are already under pressure, are already in tangible decline. What happens when they are drawn into squabbles about entitlement to melt waters?

Around the world and particularly in the coastal waters of the Third World fish stocks are collapsing. In many of the poorer nations the population relies on fish as their main source of protein. Along the west coast of Africa, European overfishing has already triggered population migrations northward.

Deforestation, desertification proceed apace, each triggering a host of associated problems.

How can we combat these problems? A good way to begin is to look for the common thread that runs through each and every one of them. They're all man made. They all result from too many people wanting too much of our finite resources.

When you balance a budget the first step is to accurately inventory your financial resources. You balance a budget by not spending more than you take in. That's a simple proposition. Ideally you should try to spend less than your takings to ensure yourself a cushion and to leave something for your children but, when you're in chronic overdraft, the first step is to simply limit your expenditures to your takings.

Environmentally, we've been in chronic overdraft since the 70's. That marked the first time in the history of mankind that our demands for renewable resources equalled the earth's production of them. How can we possibly balance that budget?

In 1970, global population was 3.7-billion. Today it's gone past 6.5-billion. 90% of that growth happened in developing regions. Today there's not only a lot more of us but we've compounded that by becoming more voracious of the earth's resources. For example, since 1970, consumption of fresh and salt-water fish stocks has increased one and a half times the rate of population growth. That's how we've managed to empty the oceans in so many parts of the planet.

In our own North America, we've become obsessed with standard of living. We drive bigger (albeit more fuel efficient) cars and plenty more of them, we live in bigger houses, our appetite for more and bigger and better has been insatiable. And we're not alone. With their emerging industrialization, Indians and the Chinese are steadily increasing their resource consumption. It's estimated that global demand for oil products may have quadrupled since 1970.

Most of us are creatures of the post-WWII era. That era has essentially defined our world and shaped our expectations. Within that context we created our institutions, modelled our way of life. Perhaps because it's not in mankind's nature to look for such things we failed to see the flaws and vulnerabilities that came with the bounty and lay in wait for us, growing by the year.

Put simply, there are way too many of us, each of us wanting way too much and, in the result, creating an enormous and unsustainable environmental deficit.

This situation is self-correcting. We have to understand that undeniable reality. It is self-correcting. Solution A. We have the option of influencing how that occurs so as to ameliorate the short and long term consequences. Solution B. We also have the option of influencing how that occurs in ways that will make those consequences far worse, more widespread and destructive than nature could ever inflict. Solution C. The least likely option is for us to simply let nature take its course but we're far too powerful and destructive for that to happen.

So we have to chose between Option A and Option B.

We're going to have to think hard on this question, sooner rather than later. Option A probably won't be open to us too far into the future which could leave us stuck with B by default. In reality, B is pretty much the default option. A requires enormous goodwill, trust, sharing and sacrifice, all of them on a global scale. It would possibly entail strong measures to conserve, protect and reallocate resources. We can't have it all forever. They won't tolerate it nor do we have any reason to demand that they should.

If we can't or won't adopt Option A with a genuine determination to make it work, we had better be open and honest with ourselves about Option B. We can't grow the planet and we can't grow its resources so we'll have to shrink the population. This may sound terribly apocalyptic. I wonder if someone reading this twenty years from now would have that same impression.