Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Is a Military Coup the Only Answer for Afghanistan?

A couple of years back a US Senate foreign affairs committee staffer explained that there has never been a truly successful Muslim government that first didn't overcome the divisive scourges of warlordism and tribalism. Why do we expect Afghanistan to be any different? Does our presence there alter this dynamic? Have we somehow birthed a state that can be a true nation and yet accommodate warlordism and tribalism? Of course not and that's why, nine years later, Afghanistan remains an unresolved civil war on hiatus.

Afghanistan's tribes - Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara plus a few smaller groups - reflect two thousand years of regular conquest and trade through the region. It's why there's such a diverse ethnicity. Some are south Asian, some are Persian, some are Oriental, some are people of the Caucasus, central Asian. They've never really melded into one people. There is no true majority tribe. The Pashtun are merely the largest which is why they have traditionally ruled the place.

Afghans did have a relatively stable country under their former monarch but even their king only ruled thanks to a loosely but heavily devolved power structure. No one, it seems, has ever managed to consolidate power in a central government as that concept is understood in the West. So why, after nine years of treading water, are we still trying to hammer that round peg into that decidedly undersized square hole?

When countries are divided or stratified, trying to forge a cohesive nation is a truly Herculean chore. It can't be done without overcoming the vested interests that sustain the existing dysfunctional system. What first must be created is some sort of genuinely national institution and, in the main, that means a national army.

Decades of experience in South America taught us a lot about military power, the drawbacks and benefits to an emerging nation. Much as we have stereotyped South American military juntas as corrupt, anti-democratic, brutal regimes, they have played an instrumental role in the evolution of democracy throughout that region.

In post-colonial South America power in all forms was stratified. Political, economic, military and social power was held by the landed aristrocracy, the latifundia, who had a powerfully vested interest in keeping the peasantry poor and weak. It was through these aristocracies that the local superpower to the north established its influence. But there was always enough conflict among these nations that each required a viable military.

The military instilled something that an autocracy rejected - meritocracy. The military tended to become the sole vehicle in which a peasant could advance through his country's power structure. A private could become a lieutenant, perhaps a colonel, maybe even a general. Some of those who travelled this path recalled where they had come from, the injustice of birth and realized that military strength was the only force of change. It was a bumpy road but in a continent that worships Simon Bolivar, the overthrow of the post-colonial regimes was probably inevitable.

Afghanistan remains under the corrupt hand of the forces of status quo. If the warlords are to be unseated, if tribalism is to be overcome, it will take a truly national institution more powerful than the collective strength of the warlords. As no such institution exists, either one must be created or we'll have to accept the status quo and consign Afghanistan back to civil war.

To date we have approached the creation of an Afhgan National Army from the context of a force capable of preventing a Taliban takeover of the country. We've been a dismal failure at even that timid goal. McClatchey Newspapers reported yesterday that a recent US government audit of the Afghan forces found there isn't one, not even one, unit of today's Afghan army capable of operating independently of Western forces.

But if a national army, a multi-ethnic meritocracy, is the key to a viable, functional future government for Afghanistan, then it's going to have to be vastly stronger - able to not only take on the Taliban but to suppress that other internal threat to stability, the warlords, and to deter external threats. Just look at the place. Iran on one side, Pakistan at the other. Beyond Pakistan, India. To the north lie Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the gateway to the Caspian Basin gas fields, Turkmenistan. North of them, China and Russia. To the south the rebellious Pakistani state of Balochistan and the route to the Arabian Sea. Talk about sleeping in a nest of vipers!

What drug-crazed delusion were we under when we convinced ourselves we could drop in for a few years and leave a grateful, happy Afghan people with a viable, secular, democratic central government? Yet, nine years later we're still chasing that mirage only we've lowered our expectations considerably.

Hamid Karzai is a corrupt bastard, rotten to the core, and in league with even more corrupt, brutal and volatile bastards who prop him up - until a better deal next comes along (and it will). Karzai may be a reprobate but he's also a clever realist. He knows the limits of his power and he knows that his allies, domestic and Western are feckless at best, dangerously duplicitous at worst. He lives in a world of treachery in which his power is mainly titular. Yet he also knows that the Talibs are but one force in play that he will have to reckon with. Is it any wonder that, after whoring for India for years, Karzai is now turning to Pakistan as his country's benefactor?

Karzai knows he needs a deal with the Taliban and, as far as the resurgent Talib's are concerned, it's a seller's market. He needs someone to broker the deal, someone powerful enough to deter his Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara rivals from restarting the civil war in the meantime. Karzai doesn't trust us and why should he? So what does that leave? Karzai's default option is Pakistan and he knows it. Pakistan will be open to pretty much any deal that excludes India from Afghanistan. That much Karzai can deliver and we're talking about a guy who doesn't have a lot of chips left on the table.

Is Afghanistan to become Pakistan's proxy, Islamabad's satellite state? Would Russia or China or both back that arrangement? Would a south Asia/central Asia deal mark the end to our own (or at least America's) geo-political interests in the region? We had better figure this out, and soon, for it's apparent that our influence on Afghanistan's future isn't much stronger than Karzai's and may fade out entirely before long.

Like it or not, Afghanistan is in need of a Marshall Plan scale intervention. The focus on that would have to be building a truly national, multi-ethnic, meritocratic Afghan army to be able to fill the power vacuum that would follow dissolving the existing feudal power structure. Afghanistan could not begin to afford that so the question becomes whether the West is willing or able to make the commitment and carry the enormous costs of doing this and, so far, we haven't shown that. Make no mistake, every player in the region has carefully watched our every move in that country since we arrived and there's no fooling them any longer.

Is such an undertaking even worthwhile? Ah, now we get into weighing various geo-political interests. Here we can no longer take the Western forces as an amorphous entity. Canada, for example, really has very little geo-political interest in south Asia. We have not set up a rivallry there between Canada and China or Russia, India or Iran. We simply went to Afghanistan to achieve goals that are no longer attainable. Our raison d'etre ended long ago although we have watered it down to keep the pretence going. The United States and Western Europe, however, have much stronger geo-political agendas, some interests common, some not. Keeping the Caspian Basin fossil fuel resources out of Russian control is a very compelling mutual interest.

Around the world, America's unipolar superpowerdom is being challenged but perhaps nowhere more so than in south and central Asia. Its key rival, China, is immensely resource hungry and intently focused on this resource-rich part of the world. China has already locked up Afghanistan's vast copper field in the north. China would like nothing better than direct access to the Caspian Basin resources as well as a pipeline directly from Iran through the Baloch territory and onward through northern Pakistan.

In short there is ample reason for Washington to take the economic and political gamble of creating a military regime to govern Afghanistan in a pro-Western way. But that is something that must be left to the Americans, perhaps with Western European support. That said, it's by no means clear that the U.S. still has the means or the political will to basically start all over in Afghanistan. The American public is weary of this war and could easily turn on any politician looking to re-ignite the Afghan adventure.

The Iraq and Afghan wars have given rise to an alternative to protracted, large-scale American involvement in Afghanistan. Think Halliburton, think Blackwater. There are already far more "contractors" in Afghanistan than American forces and Blackwater seems able to field mercenary forces large enough to meet the job. Halliburton, meanwhile, is not only skilled at providing non-combat military services but has been after the TAP pipeline franchise back when it was courting the Taliban government. I'll bet the mega-contractors would be far more successful than the inevitably restrained Western forces at building an Afghan army of the sort needed to run that country. We probably wouldn't like the look of it when they were done but it might be the generational price Afghanistan would have to pay to forge a genuine nation.

If we've learned anything from our years in Afghanistan, perhaps it ought to be that the place simply isn't ready for Western-style, secular democracy. Maybe in twenty years, maybe forty, but not now. The array of internal and external forces at play are more than anyone can expect a fledgling government in Kabul to manage. If America wants to stay and play that's fine but it needs a new script.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

West Africa's Drought-Stricken Cattle Too Weak to Survive Rain

It's been widely known that the cattle herds on which the people of West Africa's Sahel region depend have been hit hard by global warming-driven drought. Now the United Nations Humanitarian Affairs office reports that the impacts of that drought have left a lot of the cattle unable to survive the rains that have recently arrived.

Sudden temperature change, the physiological demands on the digestive system of changing from a fodder to a grass diet, and water-borne diseases are always taxing for the cattle. “Since the animals are already extremely weak, many are expected to die with the first rains,” said NGO Action Against Hunger’s (ACF) West Africa regional representative Patricia Hoorelbeke.

Cattle were hit by last year’s drought, which left the country with limited grazing land and caused the price of animal feed to soar, making it unaffordable for subsistence farmers.

Hoorelbeke said the most at-risk animals - cows and sheep - were also the Sahel’s most common. Camels and goats are generally more resilient and more likely to survive the first rains.

Sea Level Rise Forecasts to Go Up, Way Up

It will be another four years before the IPCC releases its next landmark report but the word is already out that it will contain a big increase in sea level rise forecasts for this century. The last IPCC assessment warned of possible sea level rise of up to a couple of feet before this century is out. Like virtually every other assessment by this highly conservative group, subsequent data is showing that was seriously understated. From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Panel members, including [IPCC vce-chairman] Dr van Ypersele, met in Kuala Lumpur last week to discuss the consideration of the new Greenland and Antarctic data for the next report. Analysis of the reduction of the two major ice sheets will be a main focus of the next report.

''The reason there was a workshop in KL is that the IPCC knows very well this is an area that needs particular attention and where a lot of progress has been made,'' Dr van Ypersele said.

''There are a lot of satellite data that was not available for the fourth assessment report that will be available for [report] five … which are starting to show, but are quite convincing I must say, that both the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheet are losing net mass, not on the margins, but as an ice sheet [as a whole].''

Every time I read one of these reports I wonder when Canada's political class is going to take global warming seriously - make that "responsibly" - and at least begin the planning necessary to help our people adapt to what's coming. With two committed Oilheads camped out in the government's two, rent-free leaders' accomodations, it's probably not worth while to expect them to take any meaningful action to decarbonize Canada's economy and our society but at least those tools could start preparing us to meet what's coming.

Why Gagging the Public Service Works for Harper

It's not your public service. You merely get to pay for it. It's Steve Harper's public service, at least that's how this petty tyrant sees it, and he'll decide what you hear from it and when. has an interesting lament on how pathetic the G20 summit was when it came to the fight against global warming and it laid the blame for that squarely on Harper:

...Truth to tell, it’s just the latest salvo in Harper’s overall strategy to lock North America into a fossil fuel economy. And that’s because his tentative hold on power in Canadian politics requires him to serve the needs of his home province of Alberta and its Tar Sands.

As politicians go, Harper — who doesn’t believe in the science of climate change — is crafty. He’s managing to delay and derail international climate change policy on a grand scale even as he convinces Canadians that our country remains environmentally progressive.


A recently leaked document from a source at Environment Canada (EC) shows that media stories on global warming are down by 80% in the Great White North since the Conservative government instituted rules in 2007 that curtail the ability of government scientists to speak with the reporters. The scientists must receive permission from government mandarins before giving interviews, and the approval process is often measured in days, if it comes at all. As a result, the country’s high-profile media, often facing quick deadlines, have stopped calling EC scientists.

Senior scientists in Canada are frustrated by the muzzles, and feel that Canadians are being kept in the dark about one of the most important issues facing the country. They have voiced their displeasure to the government communication officials, which appears to have resulted in an increasingly frosty relationship. As a result, four experts who were quoted in 99 major articles during a nine month period in in 2007 were only quoted in 12 articles during the same period in 2008.

“It’s definitely a scandal,” said Graham Saul, Executive Director of Climate Action Network Canada. He added that the government was “muzzling scientists; they’re putting climate deniers in key oversight positions over research, and they’re reducing funding in key areas [...] It’s almost as though they’re making a conscious attempt to bury the truth.”

Now a shout out to all you Liberal faithful. Your own leader too is an avowed Tar Sander, a greasy Fossil Fueler through and through. He's got his nose so far up Harper's ass that they look like one hybrid creature. It's Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party of Canada who are empowering Harper, enabling him to govern as though he had a majority. It's because of your Leader and his feckless caucus that Harper can muzzle the civil service and the armed forces. You're making this miserable farce today's reality.

Okay, the G20's Over. It Didn't Matter.

I really don't give a dam about the G20 fiasco. If anything it was boring street theatre and pretty lame at that. It was a mix of pedestrian protests, a smattering of pointless property damage, the predictable police over-reaction, and a gaggle of politicians who blissfully were untouched by the whole thing.

So what was the point? As far as I can tell, nothing. What was achieved? As far as I can tell, ditto, squat, SFA.

I would rather there had been no protests, no mini-riots, no vandalism. That would have had an effect. It would have transformed Harper's billion-dollar security party into an inarguable farce. Now, at least, he can - and will - claim the security was necessary to protect the G20 leaders from the angry mob.

So fixate on it as much as you like but you've achieved fuck all. You haven't bolstered your credibility, you've undermined it. You haven't advanced your cause, your agenda, one iota. When the public thinks of the protesters it'll be black clad thugs that will come to mind.

I'm no stranger to protests. I experienced the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground, the Panthers while I studied in the states. On my campus, the Weathermen blew up/burned down the ROTC building. Protesters trashed the main library a week before exam time. People did any manner of things and they made a difference.

But showing up to howl at the moon at a G20 summit is little more than a circle jerk. Here today, gone tomorrow, who cares?

Travers Outs Harper's Ideological Myopia

At times L'il Stevie Harper can be wilfully blind to reality, especially when it contradicts his doctrinaire mentality. The Toronto Star's Jim Travers takes a peek inside the creature we have running our country:

Not much frustrates official Ottawa more than the Prime Minister’s dim view of experts. On one memorable occasion Harper advised party loyalists to dismiss statistics measuring falling crime rates. Instead they should trust their instincts in supporting his law-and-order agenda. Intuition is a priceless sense. But knowledge and science, facts and figures, still warrant preferential consideration when public policies are being designed.

That’s not normal practice in Harper’s capital. More often than not, Conservatives begin with a conclusion and end with a campaign slogan.

Keeping more criminals in jails longer is a case in point. There’s no proof that long sentences improve public safety. There is overwhelming evidence that it will cost taxpayer a fortune.
Kevin Page, the federal budget officer, forecast last week that changing just that single piece of legislation would add some $5 billion to annual prisons costs.

Conservatives say Page is wrong. After originally forecasting relatively modest increases, the Harper government now admits that longer sentences will add about $2 billion to public spending.

...Other examples are in ready supply. Canada’s climate change foot-dragging owes more to regional economics and national politics than to accepted research. Ottawa is refusing to fund safe abortions as part of the maternal health initiative in developing countries not because they aren’t desperately and demonstrably needed but because they offend Conservative sensibilities.

That same dumbed-downed pattern is replicated across this government. Charities that constructively criticize government policies feel a financial pinch. Social programs thrive or die on ideology, not merit or performance.

What Travers omits is that this type of irrational behaviour - operating on instinct in defiance of fact - makes perfect sense in a theocrat like our Born Again Furious Leader. If you can actually believe the world is 6,000 years old there's no amount of crap you can't willingly swallow if it coincides with your social and religious delusions.

Is Harper an Economist? McClatchey Doesn't See It That Way

According to McClatchey Newspapers, there was one economist among the G20 leaders (or did they really mean one economist worth hearing). No, they weren't referring to our exalted Furious Leader. It was Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who drew the news service's attention:

"The economist among the world leaders, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, joined President Barack Obama in warning against scaling back too quickly, though. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman on Monday called the summit's goals a mistake and warned that policy blunders could plunge the world into a depression.

... India's Singh was among those who wanted the emphasis on growth, not cutting deficits.
"The purpose of G20 should be to ensure that the momentum of recovery is sustained and enhanced in the years to come," he said at the onset of the summit.

"Right now, the danger of deflation in the global economy is, in my view, much greater than the danger of inflation."

Deflation is the decline in prices across the economy. It's pernicious because it leads consumers and businesses to withhold spending amid expectations that prices will decline further. Japan suffered through this in the 1990s, and the trend is arguably visible in parts of the U.S. housing market.

Maybe McClatchey was simply too polite to point out that, as an economist, Steve Harper's track record is that of a complete dud, a fiscal Wrong Way Corrigan.

The Ugly Face of Corporatism in the US Congress

Corporatism. Benito Mussolini described it as the very core of fascism. Reagan ushered it into America's political mainstream as none before had.

You see its ugly face on the floor of the House and Senate when "bought and paid for" legislators routinely put corporate interests ahead of the public interest - think Big Pharma, think Big Oil, think Big Coal, think Big Tobacco. Every outfit from the insurance industry to the healthcare barons to Wall Street line up to buy what's readily up for sale.

Another sign of corporate power over America's Congress is found in the sorry state of the country's National Labor Relations Board. The Guardian's Michael Paarlberg writes that the NLRB is so near death, it ought to be put down:

"...A quasi-judicial federal agency established in 1934 to investigate and mediate collective disputes between workers and employers, the NLRB was, for a time, the cornerstone of national labour policy. Its de jure mandate to assist workers seeking to form a union has since evolved to a de facto role of neutral arbiter, hearing charges of unfair labour practices brought against companies and unions alike.

Yet the agency has fast been fading into obscurity. Its budget is periodically slashed with changing administrations and, sometimes, unpopular rulings: in 1995, the Union Pacific corporation lobbied Congress
to cut the NLRB's budget by 30% after it did not rule in the company's favour in a case brought by the Teamsters. Its staff in 2008 was just half its size in 1980. Cases are backlogged for years, rendering injunctions – eg that companies rehire workers who were wrongfully fired – meaningless for those who have long since found new work. Former NLRB Chairman William Gould called his own agency "irrelevant," estimating it is currently handling about 20% of the caseload as it did in the 1990s.

For the past two years, the board itself has been running on a skeleton crew. With only two of its five seats filled, it still managed to issue some 600 rulings on labour disputes.

This month, however, the supreme court threw them all out. The bipartisan decision declared that the NLRB did not have the legal authority to act with fewer than three members. Justice Stevens called the board's structure a "Rube Goldberg-style delegation mechanism"
which may be less a condemnation and more a tribute to the agency's ingenuity in continuing to function, if barely.

The vacancies result from Congressional holds that have been blocking Obama's appointees at several agencies."

When will the American people wake up? When will they stop allowing themselves to be herded into ideologically dead-end movements like the Tea Party?

Oh Shit. Genetically Altered Salmon!

As if our wild salmon stocks didn't have enough problems from fish farming. Now there's a company seeking FDA approval to sell a Frankenfish salmon. From The New York Times:

"The salmon was developed by a company called AquaBounty Technologies and would be raised in fish farms. It is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon as well as a genetic on-switch from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon.

Normally, salmon do not make growth hormone in cold weather. But the pout’s on-switch keeps production of the hormone going year round. The result is salmon that can grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of three years, though the company says the modified salmon will not end up any bigger than a conventional fish.

“You don’t get salmon the size of the Hindenburg,” said Ronald L. Stotish, the chief executive of AquaBounty. “You can get to those target weights in a shorter time.”

The article omits any mention of the real danger of these fish. What happens to wild stocks when they escape their netted enclosures (as they inevitably do) and breed in competition to the native varieties? It's bad enough that we have Atlantic salmon swimming loose in BC waters but Frankenfish take that problem to an entirely new level. I really don't care what sort of garbage fish people from Alberta to Ontario are willing to eat. I just don't want the damned things loose and breeding wild in our coastal waters.

Is the West Fated to Follow Ireland?

The deal is done, maybe. Harper got his way as host of the G8/G20 summits when the member states pledged to halve their deficits by 2013. Let the slashing begin. So, what lies in store for the developed world plunged into this new, collective austerity? Ireland may show what's coming and, according to The New York Times, it's an awful lot of very long-term pain:

"...Nearly two years ago, an economic collapse forced Ireland to cut public spending and raise taxes, the type of austerity measures that financial markets are now pressing on most advanced industrial nations.

...Rather than being rewarded for its actions, though, Ireland is being penalized. Its downturn has certainly been sharper than if the government had spent more to keep people working. Lacking stimulus money, the Irish economy shrank 7.1 percent last year and remains in recession.

Joblessness in this country of 4.5 million is above 13 percent, and the ranks of the long-term unemployed — those out of work for a year or more — have more than doubled, to 5.3 percent. Now, the Irish are being warned of more pain to come.

... Despite its strenuous efforts, Ireland has been thrust into the same ignominious category as Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. It now pays a hefty three percentage points more than Germany on its benchmark bonds, in part because investors fear that the austerity program, by retarding growth and so far failing to reduce borrowing, will make it harder for Dublin to pay its bills rather than easier.

...The budget went from surpluses in 2006 and 2007 to a staggering deficit of 14.3 percent of gross domestic product last year — worse than Greece. It continues to deteriorate. Drained of cash after an American-style housing boom went bust, Ireland has had to borrow billions; its once ultralow debt could rise to 77 percent of G.D.P. this year.

“Everybody’s feeling quite sick at what happened because things were going so well for Ireland,” said Patrick Honohan, the Irish central bank governor. “But we don’t have the flexibility to do a spending stimulus now. There’s no one who is even arguing for it.”

Mr. Honohan predicts growth could revive to a rate of about 3 percent by 2012. But that may be optimistic: Ireland, as one of the 16 nations in Europe that has adopted the euro
as its common currency, is trying to shrink the deficit to 3 percent of G.D.P. by 2014, a commitment that could weaken its hopes for recovery.

Textbook austerity measures have failed Ireland and the markets are punishing the Irish for it. The best and brightest who flocked to Ireland during its halcyon "Celtic Tiger" days are packing their bags and leaving. Investor confidence in the country has plummeted in response to the austerity policy. Where the Irish government gambled that raising taxes and slashing government spending and programmes would restore investor confidence, it has actually backfired and the Irish people will be paying for that failed bet for years to come.

If this is where the West is heading, a "lost decade" perhaps, don't count on the status quo returning when its over. We may not bounce back, not entirely, not ever. When this finally ends the playing field may look much different than it ever has in our lifetimes. New dominant powers may emerge that dissolve the unipolar superpower world, America's, that has brought us all to the edge of this abyss.

It's going to take more than budget cuts to sort this out. If we're really coming back, we're going to have to give up our addictions. FIRE (finance,insurance,real estate) driven economies don't recover very well from recession/depressions. They're uniquely vulnerable to these collapses because they are, after all, mainly pushing paper. A car has a utilitarian value, a piece of paper has but the notional value assigned to it at any given time. Our addiction to notional wealth and bubble economics got the West into this mess and will not help us get out.

We're going to have to give up the culture of consumption inculcated during the Reagan era and return to what made the West both great and economically stable, a culture of production. Maybe that will mean the end or at least reining in of globalization and the reclaiming of trade sovereignty from the multinational corporate sector by the developed world. That will not be without its own pain, at least temporarily, but the long-term benefits more than justify it.

Some Americans in high places have become acutely aware of the fundamental damage that has been inflicted on their nation's economy by the demise of its manufacturing sector and the attendant devastation of America's middle class. What they have found, however, is that manufacturing, once lost through trade deals, won't come back on its own. You don't catch a lot of fish with an empty hook. You have to bait it. The bait has to be access to markets controlled through the exercise of sovereign tariff powers and other domestic supports. The very idea will send shudders through the ranks of globalized, free traders - the rentier class - but we've tried it their way and it has landed us where we are today.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Mystery - Methane

Scientists testing the waters in the vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon well have found massive amounts of sea life-killing methane. From Reuters:

Texas A&M University oceanography professor John Kessler, just back from a 10-day research expedition near the BP Plc oil spill in the gulf, says methane gas levels in some areas are "astonishingly high."

Kessler's crew took measurements of both surface and deep water within a 5-mile (8 kilometer) radius of BP's broken wellhead.

"There is an incredible amount of methane in there," Kessler told reporters in a telephone briefing.

In some areas, the crew of 12 scientists found concentrations that were 100,000 times higher than normal.

"We saw them approach a million times above background concentrations" in some areas, Kessler said.

Methane can fuel microbe growth that strips the water of oxygen, giving rise to "dead zones."

A Solar Farm the Size of Wales

Harnessing just one third of one percent of the sunlight that strikes the Sahara and Middle Eastern deserts would meet all of Europe's energy needs. That, however, would require a solar farm the size of Wales in area. The cost would be staggering, a few trillion dollars at least. The benefits would be even greater. And, as reported in The Guardian, the Euros are doing what would be heresy to the Fossil Fuelers who run our country - investing in a new, renewable energy electricity grid:

Several groups have come up with plans to harness the sun in Africa to make electricity, which could then be exported to Europe, or use it to turn desert into forests by using the power to desalinate sea water. And how far is this from a reality? In a recent interview, European energy commissioner G√ľnther Oettinger said that Europe will be importing hundreds of megawatts of solar-generated electricity from north Africa within five years. The EU is committed to sourcing 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Most advanced in the planning is the German-led Desertec Industrial Initiative, which aims to provide 15% of Europe's electricity by 2050 or earlier, via power lines stretching across the desert and the Mediterranean. Its $400bn plan is supported by some of Germany's biggest companies, including Siemens, E.On and Deutsche Bank.
And there is a precedent. Nine EU governments – including the UK – are already planning to build an advanced high-voltage, direct current network within the next decade. Europe's first electricity grid dedicated to renewable power took a step forward earlier this year when nine countries began to formalise plans to link their clean energy projects around the North Sea. These could join up the wind-lashed north coast of Scotland with Germany's vast array of solar panels and Norway's hydro-electric dams.

As well as providing more power, a transnational renewable electricity grid would help sort out the intermittencies associated with natural energy sources. With such a grid, electricity can be supplied across the continent from wherever the wind is blowing, the sun is shining or the waves are crashing.

As anyone in eastern Canada knows, our country is in desperate need for a modern, advanced technology electrical grid, the very sort of project that would have been an obvious winner to a politician with vision trying to forge a stimulus/recovery budget a couple of years back. That, however, didn't occur to the Oilheads, Harper and Ignatieff, who instead foisted on us their "Pinata Budget" which ensures no long-term recovery for the taxpayers who'll eventually be handed the bill for their stupid largesse.

Water Wars Coming to the Nile?

Has there ever been a river so famous in history as the Nile? It made the land of the Pharoahs possible. Ancient Egypt thrived on the bounty yielded by the Nile in its annual flood. It made the delta fertile and rich.

Today the Nile is important not so much for immense bounty as for national survival. Egypt and Sudan are dangerously dependent on the Nile's waters and it's putting them at odds with the nations of the Nile headwaters, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya.

The sticking point between the two groups is a question going back to colonial times: who owns the Nile's water? Kitra's answer – "It is for all of us" – might seem obvious. But Egypt and Sudan claim to have the law on their side. Treaties in 1929 and 1959, when Britain controlled much of the region, granted the two states "full utilisation of the Nile waters" – and the power to veto any water development projects in the catchment area in east Africa. The upstream states, including Ethiopia, source of the Blue Nile, which merges with the White Nile at Khartoum, and supplies 86% of the river's eventual flow, were allocated nothing.

...Opposition by the upstream states to the colonial treaties is not new. Ethiopia was never colonised, and rejected the 1959 bilateral agreement that gave Egypt three-quarters of the Nile's annual flow (55.5bn cubic metres) and Sudan a quarter, even before it was signed. Most of the east African states also refused to recognise it, and earlier Nile treaties agreed by Britain on their behalf, when they became independent in the 1960s.

Population growth among the upper and lower Nile countries is expected to be enormous and to place even greater pressures on the Nile waters for irrigation and power. Egypt and Sudan see the reasonable expectations of the upper Nile states to be an infringement of their entitlement to all of the Nile water. What compounds Egypt's dilemma is the steady salination of the Nile delta caused by rising Mediterranean sea levels and the potential decline of Nile river flows. Egypt is literally between a rock and a hard place.

Once again we're running headlong into an unbearable problem with no easy solutions. Welcome to the 21st century.

Krugman Heralds the Arrival of the "Third Depression"

Steve Harper hosted the G8/G20 chinwag intent on pushing one policy - a pledge of halving member deficits by 2013. And he got his way.

However a real economist (Princeton professor, New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner) Paul Krugman believes what we watched over the past three days was the launch of the "Third Depression."

"...As far as I can tell, there were only two eras in economic history that were widely described as “depressions” at the time: the years of deflation and instability that followed the Panic of 1873 and the years of mass unemployment that followed the financial crisis of 1929-31.

...We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense.

And this third depression will be primarily a failure of policy. Around the world — most recently at last weekend’s deeply discouraging G-20 meeting — governments are obsessing about inflation when the real threat is deflation, preaching the need for belt-tightening when the real problem is inadequate spending.

...Unlike governments of the past, which tried to balance budgets in the face of a plunging economy, today’s governments allowed deficits to rise. And better policies helped the world avoid complete collapse: the recession brought on by the financial crisis arguably ended last summer.

But future historians will tell us that this wasn’t the end of the third depression, just as the business upturn that began in 1933 wasn’t the end of the Great Depression. After all, unemployment — especially long-term unemployment — remains at levels that would have been considered catastrophic not long ago, and shows no sign of coming down rapidly. And both the United States and Europe are well on their way toward Japan-style deflationary traps.

In the face of this grim picture, you might have expected policy makers to realize that they haven’t yet done enough to promote recovery. But no: over the last few months there has been a stunning resurgence of hard-money and balanced-budget orthodoxy.

...It’s almost as if the financial markets understand what policy makers seemingly don’t: that while long-term fiscal responsibility is important, slashing spending in the midst of a depression, which deepens that depression and paves the way for deflation, is actually self-defeating.

Krugman concludes with this scathing indictment of Harper's deficit slashing policy:

So I don’t think this is really about Greece, or indeed about any realistic appreciation of the tradeoffs between deficits and jobs. It is, instead, the victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis, whose main tenet is that imposing suffering on other people is how you show leadership in tough times.

And who will pay the price for this triumph of orthodoxy? The answer is, tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again."

Karzai's Pashtun Gambit

Afghanistan may be short of many things but its awash in agendas. Everyone has an agenda. The Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara have theirs. Each warlord has his own. The drug barons have theirs. The Karzai family have their agenda or maybe a few and the Talibs obviously have their agenda to boot.

Political power has never been consolidated in Afghanistan. There is nothing approaching a genuinely supreme national government. The central government in Kabul has failed to extend its reach in several critical parts of the country's territory. In other regions it has ceded control to ethnic warlords. This patchwork of power devolution is further weakened by the stresses of tribalism that continually wrack this most tribal of countries. Add to that the malignancy of corruption and criminality and you wind up with a nation that cannot carry its own weight and is in constant danger of collapse.

We in the West do the only thing we can. We look the other way although we do periodically mumble something about cleaning up the corruption. We instead focus on fighting the Taliban whose war long ago evolved from a mere insurgency into today's classical civil war. Even that we don't acknowledge. As for warlordism and tribalism, the very cornerstones of failure in this desperately failed state, we accept them even though they render our objectives unattainable.

We have thrown all of our effort into fighting the fire in the kitchen, oblivious as the flames consume the rest of the house.

And what of Hamid Karzai and what of the Taliban? Reports over the past couple of days in The New York Times and The Guardian, indicate that Karzai is seeking an accord with the very forces we're struggling to hold at bay. Karzai, it seems, is looking for a political accommodation, some sort of power-sharing arrangement with our mortal foes. From the Guardian:

Western officials say Pakistan's ISI spy agency has offered to negotiate with Sirajuddin Haqqani – an al-Qaida linked commander – as part of a broader initiative to find a find a settlement to the conflict.

Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the head of the ISI, Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha, are due to arrive in Kabul tomorrow for their third meeting with Karzai in recent months.

Frosty relations between the two sides have thawed in recent months; about 10 days ago reports emerged from Pakistan that the ISI was offering to "deliver" the Haqqani network, which is based in North Waziristan in the tribal belt.

Karzai, it seems, has weighed his options and decided that he's better off accepting some Taliban muscle even if it fractures his fragile alliance with the Tajks, Uzbeks and Hazara.

"None of the players believe in the current strategy," opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah told the Guardian. "Karzai is going down the drain and taking the international community with him.

"If he thinks he can give [the Taliban] a few ministries and a few provinces, they will simply take those provinces and then force him out."

This puts the West in an awful position. We may have to choose sides - either a supposedly elected Pashtun president backed by the Talibs or the alienated minority tribes.

Three weeks ago Karzai's intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, and his interior minister, Hanif Atmar, quit in protest at the new Pakistan policy. Both men are Tajiks; Saleh was previously a leading member of the Northern Alliance that helped topple the Taliban in 2001.

Michael Semple, a regional expert, said he was alarmed at the speed with which the political class was fissuring.

"Sane people, who've been part of this process all along, are now saying the country won't survive till the end of the year," he said.

The paper claims that Western leaders are stunned at the way Pakistan and Karzai are negotiating without them, seeking their own deal without Western consent. I guess they figured we were far too busy in the kitchen to notice.

To the West it appears that Karzai is betraying us, doing an end run with Pakistan and the Taliban. That's because we've long since stopped looking at Afghanistan realistically because that would mean acknowledging the intractable problems we cannot solve. Karzai, however, has to be realistic. He has to be pragmatic. He knows the ISAF/NATO force begins to dissolve next year. Washington wants to draw down its forces beginning in 2011. The Brits have announced they'll be gone by 2015. We can leave, he can't and the Afghanistan we'll leave behind is no place for the weak.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Harper's Deficit Cutting Stage Show

When a guy has just shelled out a billion bucks for a chin wag the guests can at least be courteous. And that's pretty much what the G20 leaders (if "leaders" isn't too strong a word) did in endorsing Harper's resolution that they cut their deficits in half by 2013.

World leaders have become pretty adept these past many years at making hollow promises. Think carbon emissions. The easiest thing in the world is to sign a non-binding pledge that a stooge like Harper can then wave around as though it meant something.

The fact is that each nation will have to seek its own path to fiscal salvation. We're all sinners but we haven't all committed the very same sins and there is no one-size-fits-all formula for redemption. Harper knows this. Obama and every one of the other leaders knows it full well too. Not every nation had a prudent Paul Martin who kept them from plunging headlong into the abyss.

There is no homogeneous "G20 economy." The countries are quite diverse economically - from Argentina to Korea, Saudi Arabia to Australia and Mexico. A couple of economies are primarily agrarian, others are industrial, others yet are resource driven. What lies in store for each of those economies in the next two years may vary significantly. There's no uniformity in debtload as a function of GDP nor in balance of payments or balance of trade.

But as pure political theatre the 2013 pledge probably works for Harper. It's about as much as he could hope to extract. Then again, it's not much for a billion dollars.

The History of the Afghan War

The history of wars is mainly written by the victors. The winners usually consider it their "spoils of war" to define just what the war was fought over and how they came to prevail. The bigger the war, the better the reading.

This historical recasting of war can go on for decades, sometimes centuries. There are still people writing about medieval wars and bookstore shelves have not been graced with the final tomes on any of the 19th and 20th century wars either - not by a long shot.

But what of wars that don't turn out all that well? What of Vietnam? What lies in store as historians poke through the ashes of Afghanistan?

Nobody seems to be writing much on Vietnam any more. The reading public's appetite for that seems to have collapsed with the arrival of the new wars, notably Iraq and Afghanistan. There really hasn't been that much written about Iraq but, then again, the real historical milestones of Iraq will occur after the American armies have departed.

What will be written about the Afghan war? How long before the Keegans and Dyers weigh in? Is Afghanistan the stuff from which great books are spawned? Don't count on it.

Even Vietnam had some pretty big battles. The struggles in the Ia Drang valley, the invasion of Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh trail, Tet 67, Khe Sanh, the airwar over the North, the final rout. There's been nothing remotely like that in the Afghan war, or at least in our limited part of it.

You see, we really don't have a narrative to tell. Ours is but a chapter in a war chronicle that begins decades before we arrived and will end, if it ends at all, long after we've left. Just as the godless Soviets have their chapter so will the Christian crusaders have theirs. There'll be endless comparisons between those two adventures but neither will cast the storyline of the Afghan war because neither was or will be decisive of the key issues. What we have done, in essence, is but to babysit an unresolved civil war. Even Churchill couldn't have found a book in that.

We're not going to be able even to maintain the myth that we drove out the Taliban. We didn't. The Northern Alliance warlords, mainly Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, defeated the Taliban. We provided combat support, principally air power, that broke the deadlock that prevailed before we showed up. That's hardly defeating anyone. We didn't control the Northern Alliance. In fact they alarmed us when, despite our urging that they slow down, they ignored us and proceeded to simply overrrun Taliban strongholds like Kandahar.

There won't be any epic films about Afghanistan. There's nothing particularly stirring in images of an infantry patrol getting whacked by a buried explosive device. Even the enemy isn't dramatically compelling. Farm boys with Korean war vintage small arms scurrying about through irrigation canals don't really have that John Wayne thing.

No, sorry, but making anything out of this thin gruel is simply too arduous. Even catchy titles don't spring to mind. I think this forlorn little conflict is destined to go down the memory hole. The saddest part is that I believe there is a book that needs to be written about Afghanistan. It would be the story of what can happen when hubris latches on to incompetence in political leadership and when expedience subverts sacrifice in the field. It is the story of war waged on lies and manipulation. It is the story of criminals in high places who escape unpunished, leaving nothing standing.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Housework Helps Women Avoid Cancer

I knew it all along. Doing housework helps women avoid breast cancer. Now please, for your own sake, go mop my floor. According to BBC News, women need to start thinking of household chores as exercise, cancer fighting exercise, instead of drudgery:

Women who exercise by doing the housework can reduce their risk of breast cancer, a study suggests.

The research on more than 200,000 women from nine European countries found doing household chores was far more cancer protective than playing sport.

Dusting, mopping and vacuuming was also better than having a physical job.

The women in the Cancer Research UK-funded study spent an average of 16 to 17 hours a week cooking, cleaning and doing the washing.

... Out of all of the activities, only housework significantly reduced the risk of both pre- and post-menopausal women getting the disease.

Housework cut breast cancer risk by 30% among the pre-menopausal women and 20% among the post-menopausal women.

I don't suppose when you're finished vacuuming you'd have time to fix me a sandwich?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Obama's Pre-Emptive Strike?

Stan McChrystal is out, relieved of command, sacked, given his marching orders. David Petraeus is in, handed direct command in Afghanistan, dropped squarely in "put up or shut up" territory. It just might have been Barack Obama's pre-emptive strike on his adversaries in uniform.

The insubordinate McChrystal is benched. He embarrassed Obama into sending an extra 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan by leaking his strategy to the media before his Commander in Chief could make his call. Then he showed in the less than stellar Marja campaign (that McChrystal himself recently called a "bleeding ulcer") that his strategy to send the Taliban reeling in Kandahar was iffy at best. Then, of course, McChrystal and his aides shot their mouths off about key administration officials to a Rolling Stone reporter. That's strike three and Stan was sent straight to the dugout.

But the brilliant part is to toss the job to David Petraeus, McChrystal's former direct superior. The Republicans have been weighing the prospect of having the general take on Obama for the White House in 2012. Petraeus has been decidedly unconvincing in denying any interest in running. What better way to eliminate this rival than to tie Afghanistan round his neck?

It would take a miracle for Petraeus to do any better than the mediocre performance McChrystal displayed in Afghanistan. It's simply not in the cards to send the Taliban running any longer. This has gone so far beyond a military solution that Petraeus can't hope to emerge as a heroic victor. He pulled off that sleight of hand trick in Iraq where his "surge" was credited with accomplishing all manner of things it never really achieved. He won't get away with that conjuring act again.

In fact, the war that David Petraeus is charged with winning offends just about every precept of counterinsurgency warfare prescribed in the military field manual (FM3-24) Petraeus himself crafted before he came running to Bush's rescue. Here are some of the cardinal rules that lie shattered in pieces on the floor of General David's tent:

Go big or go home.

Before he got the command gig in Iraq, Petraeus explained to the press that battling against an insurgency is the most labour-intensive form of warfare of them all. That's because the government side has to secure the population throughout the country. FM3-24 prescribes a ratio of foot soldiers to civilians ranging between 1:25 and 1:50. By that calculation, America ought to have gone into Afghanistan with a combat force of about 350,000 even on the low end of the scale. Instead they never got more than a third of the minimum in the field in Afghanistan. Oopsie!

Win Fast or Lose

Way back when, Petraeus pointed out to enthralled reporters that counterinsurgency warfare is very time sensitive. He pointed out that counterinsurgent forces, especially foreign troops, have a very limited shelf life before they transition, in the eyes of the locals, from liberator/defenders to occupier/oppressors. In other words, you simply cannot afford to piss away nine years indecisively. Oopsie!

It Really Is a War for Hearts and Minds

Petraeus has always known that counterinsurgency is political warfare, not military warfare. Conventional forces cannot win by military force of arms. In a military war context, the insurgents win simply by surviving. Heavy firepower, that understrength forces have to rely on, causes civilian casualties that infuriate the populace and drive support to the insurgents. Winning the political war means flooding the countryside with a lot of soldiers who mainly stand about without firing a shot. They guard the civilians, keep them secure from the guerrillas and allow the central government to consolidate its power over the countryside.

In short, the Americans have never had the tools to win the political war that will decide the issue in Afghanistan. At home in America there's no longer the political or public will to send an extra two hundred thousand troops to Afghanistan even if, at this late stage, they could make a telling difference. That's the second political war, the one at home. Once the public and their political masters lose their will to wage never ending war without result, it's over.

Obama's move puts Petraeus in the hot seat. The Afghan war is now his to lose and, by his own rules, it's unwinnable. The American people love a winner but losing generals have never done very well at the ballot box.

BP Ditches "Top Hat" - Deepwater Horizon Gushes Freely Again

For the past few days BP has been beaming at having succeeded in capturing up to 27,000 barrels a day in oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. Most of that came from a device called a "top hat" that gathered escaping oil from the seabed and conveyed it, via a pipe, to a ship where it could be collected.

Today BP surprised everyone by removing the "top hat" and allowing the escaping oil to gush freely again. It seems methane gas was entering the ship via the pipeline creating a risk of explosion. The operation was pumping warm water into the top hat to prevent hydrate crystals from blocking the pipe. As the crystals melted (there's a reason they're called "methane calthrate"), highly explosive methane gas was released to flow up the pipe into the ship.

BP is currently suggesting it's all the result of a malfunction but that's anything but clear. If they have to melt the hydrate crystals to keep oil flowing, isn't methane release inevitable?

Coming Soon to a Water Tap Near You?

I've been reading about this for some time now, natural gas contaminating groundwater supplies. It seems to be a common problem for people who rely on wellwater after gas companies fracture nearby shale formations to release natural gas. Not only does explosive gas start coming from the tap but also a brew of toxic chemicals used in conjunction with the fracturing process. William Marsden chronicles this problem spreading through southern Alberta in his book Stupid to the Last Drop. It's a widespread problem in the U.S. also now documented in the movie, Gasland.

For more information on the spreading peril posed by gas fracking, go here.

Defending the Defamer

It isn't surprising that an Alberta government scientist would deliberately lie to defame two Tar Sands critics. It really isn't surprising that the head of tar sands research for the Alberta Environment ministry would stoop so low. It isn't even surprising that his government masters would subsequently rally to his defence.

As William Marsden chronicles in his book Stupid to the Last Drop, Alberta has a rich history of resorting to the underhanded and unscrupulous to get back at legitimate, honest critics of the tar sands. Marsden relates how Ralph Klein even went after world-class University of Alberta hydrologist, Dr. David Schindler. According to Marsden, Klein was so angry with Schindler speaking truth to power that he tried to have him sacked.

Which brings us to the head of Alberta's tar sands research, Peter MacEachern, and the slime job he tried to pull on Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch and independent biologist Kevin Timoney. In March, MacEachern told an audience at the University of Alberta that Lee and Timoney lied and used doctored statistics.

To make a disgustingly long story short, Lee and Timoney hire a lawyer and MacEachern promptly folds, apologizing with this mea culpa: "The statements in my presentation that you did these things were false and I regret very much that I made these statements. ...You did not lie. You did not choose to remove data from your study ... I undertake to refrain from making any allegations in the future that your lied in your 2009 study."

So, was the Alberta Environment ministry furious that MacEachern had besmirched his and their credibility? Hardly. From CTV:

Alberta Environment spokesman Chris Bourdeau defended McEachern. "He was very apologetic," Bourdeau said. "He realizes how he framed his viewpoint was not the best approach."

MacEachern got called out and took one for the team. As far as the government of Alberta is concerned, liar or no, MacEachern is their sort of guy.

Has China Infiltrated the BC Government? Has the CSIS Director Lost His Marbles?

This sounds like something out of the 60's. CSIS has dropped a bombshell, claiming that several Canadian politicians, including two provincial cabinet ministers, are "under the control" of a foreign power.

CSIS director Richard Fadden went public with the allegations on CBC News last night.

The real story may be what the oddball CSIS director was doing taking this info to the national media at all. This sort of stuff, dealing with covert actions by foreign states, is supposed to be kept secret - for our own purposes. These secrets aren't Fadden's property, they're not his to release unless he was acting on orders from Chairman Joe hisself.

Then again, why would Harper want to spill the beans on national TV? It makes him look inept at best, unable to control highly sensitive information.

I still come back to Fadden. I've thought he was operating far past his pay grade ever since he was tossed the CSIS bone. Then again, could Gordo Campbell be a Chinese stooge? Is he British Columbia's very own Manchurian Candidate? Eek, shiver, shiver! Could Rush Limbaugh be Stephen Harper's controller? Now I think we're getting closer.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the... Well, You Know

Guess I'm having a Strangelove moment.

Do you ever get the feeling that life has become a routine of standing by, stuck in the mud and watching a succession of unstoppable train wrecks, one by one by one, because no one has the guts to just stop the runaway locomotives?

Look at the rolling stock carnage that's building at our feet - the global meltdown and imminent "double dip" recession/depression; the FUBAR we call Afghanistan; global warming; the rapidly growing, global freshwater crisis; the worldwide collapse of fish stocks; deforestation; the loss of irreplaceable farmland to desertification; overpopulation; nuclear proliferation; resource depletion; air, water and soil contamination; salination of once fertile coastal plains; disease and species migration, the list goes on (it actually does).

And just who is doing what about these things? What Herculean world leaders are coming forward to even mankind's keel? Nobody, that's who. Europe, contrary to the express warnings from the best and the brightest economic minds, is blindly panicking into austerity mode when it ought to be staying with its stimulus/recovery efforts. This European affliction could soon jump the pond to North America and beyond.

Global warming? We're pretty close to certain now that a 2 degree Celsius limit is the key to the survival of our civilization yet we're steering toward a 5 degree or more increase by the end of this century. Around the planet our "Green Revolution" is teetering on collapse, fueled by our wholly unsustainable dependence on limited groundwater stocks. Two out of three of our fellow humans don't even have access to a toilet.

Nuclear proliferation? Smoke'em if you got'em.

A lot of our woes, at least in part, result from the growing power and empowerment of corporatism. Here are the first two entries from this month's Harper's Index:

- Estimated cost of the environmental damaged caused each year by the world's 3,000 largest companies - $2,200,000,000,000.
- Portion of the companies' total profits that represents: 1/3.

If 3,000 corporations can wreak $2.2 trillion in environmental damage each and every year and, in fact, must do that to rake in a full third of their profits, then corporatist power is out of control.

But the cast of villains is huge and, in our own ways, we're all sinners. That said, the real villains may be our elected leaders who turn a blind eye to these problems. To them, they're still feasting on the entree and, after all, who even wants to see the bill until after dessert and coffee?

Our leaders have long since stopped working for this country. They're working for themselves, every last one of them. That's why they refuse to expend political capital without an assured return, something that is anything but assured in costly proactive initiatives to prevent problems that won't set in for a decade or two at the soonest. The hens may be coming home to roost right now but why bother if nobody will realize it for another generation?

Just look at the infantile pronouncements of our most intelligent leader, Michael Ignatieff. Everybody, including Iggy, knows that the fate of our civilization depends on decarbonizing our economy and our society and yet he proclaims that the future of our country for the duration of this century is tied to the world's filthiest fossil fuel. There's a guy kicking the political can down the road while pretending he's fit to lead the country.

At this point it's probably best to gaze over this smorgasbord of economic, political, environmental and security calamities and try to guess which of them will become the straw that finally breaks the camel's back. It's bound to be one of them and which one will decide the order in which the others follow. Wait, I know! Why don't we set up a trading desk for something like credit default swaps only we'll call them "calamity swaps" and get Goldman Sachs and the rest of Wall Street to sell us these under-the-table insurance policies. That way, if you can figure out which catastrophes will arrive first, you can cash in and make a bundle, billions even. How cool would that be? After all, would you sooner bet on one or more of these calamities arriving or our political leaders intervening first? I think I'll leave my chips on the red.

Hey McChrystal - Loose Lips Sink Ships Dummy

US General Stan McChrystal's supposedly decisive summer campaign to rout the Taliban may not be proceeding as advertised but the Taliban may be the least of General Stan's problems.

McChrystal got the hook, pulled back to Washington over a gaggle of stupid remarks he and his aides made in a Rolling Stone interview. From McClatchey Newspapers:

In the article, in the forthcoming issue of Rolling Stone magazine, an aide ridicules Vice President Joe Biden — who had opposed the troop surge for Afghanistan — while another aide described U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ricahrd Holbrooke as a “wounded animal.” McChrystal is quoted saying that the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, who also opposed the extra troops, “covers his flank for the history books.” An aide calls national security adviser James Jones, a retired general, a “clown." Only Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gets good reviews from McChrystal’s staff.

“It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard,” McChrystal said in a statement.

McChrystal last night individually called all those disparaged in the article to apologize. "He spoke to everyone but the president," one military official said.

McChrystal’s strategy to stabilize Afghanistan is already shaky, with mixed results from his first major operation, in Helmand province, and questions being asked over the upcoming offensive in Kandahar.

Another McClatchey article details how private security contractors paid to defend US supply convoys are handing over millions of dollars in protection money each week to - why, the Taliban, of course.

The payments, which are reimbursed by the U.S. government, help fund the very enemy the U.S. is attempting to defeat and renew questions about the U.S. dependence on private contractors, who outnumber American troops in Afghanistan, 130,000 to 93,000.

The report's author called the findings of the six-month investigation "sobering and shocking."
"This arrangement has fueled a vast protection racket run by shadowy network of warlords, strongmen, commanders, corrupt Afghan officials, and perhaps others," wrote Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., the chairman of the House subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs.

...Concerns over whether U.S. contracting is fueling Afghanistan's rampant corruption have existed for years, but only earlier this month did Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, established a task force in Afghanistan to investigate the effects.

...Nearly every company listed in the report is associated with senior Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, the minister of defense, a provincial governor and a senior Afghan army official.

...The truckers pay as much as $1,500 a truck to "nearly every Afghan governor, police chief and local military unit whose territory the company passed," en route to a U.S. base, according to the 79-page report.

... The report alleges that neither the contactors nor the military know specifically how the trucks arrive safely at bases when many of the country's roads are regular targets of Taliban attacks."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mr. Ignatieff, Meet AFRAMAX

It's the class of oil supertanker that could soon be making regular runs through Vancouver's inner harbour, past the treacherous Second Narrows and into Burrard Inlet to haul the world's filthiest oil to Asia.

Most Canadians, and I'm sure that goes for Ignatieff, have no idea about the shoals and vicious currents that the Second Narrows is known for, at least to locals. But a 120,000 metric ton behemoth with a 32 metre beam behemoth poses no end of risks running the passage beneath the Second Narrows (Ironworkers Memorial) bridge. Ships that big transiting a narrows that challenging are a formula for disaster.

It's not that an Aframax supertanker can't get through on the high slack tide, it can. It's what happens if anything goes wrong - a rudder failure, missing the channel and running aground, hitting the damned bridge (it has happened). A ship that size getting caught in the vicious current of a five metre tide change could be dead meat, ripped apart. The spill from a ruptured, fully loaded Aframax could be several times that of the Exxon Valdez.

The devastation would be enormous. It would likely close Canada's major West Coast seaport. Booms would be useless in those tidal currents. Tourism would be hammered. The Port of Vancouver would see its freight and cruise ship business head to Seattle and other U.S. ports, permanently.

Those who advocate the Burrard Inlet tanker port correctly note that oil tankers have plied that route for 50-years without a single, major incident. True enough. But that was a limited volume of much smaller ships. That experience is meaningless when it comes to a high volume of Aframax tankers running that challenging, even dangerous route.

Here's what Ignatieff has to understand very, very soon. The core of Liberal support in the West lies in the zone that will be imperilled by the Burrard Inlet/Aframax oil route. There aren't a lot of genuinely "safe" Liberal seats in the Lower Mainland and by forcing Tar Sand oil tankers to put this region at risk, he stands to lose an awful lot more votes in those Liberal ridings than he could ever hope to gain, seats the Libs cannot afford to shed.

Iggy's Tanker Port Moratorium

Finally, a policy that seems to make sense... if only in part.

Michael Ignatieff's Liberals would kill a proposed north coast sea port to ship Tar Sands oil to China. Iggy has promised to formalize a moratorium on oil tanker shipping through northern BC coastal waters.

I hope he's thought this through. Killing the Enbridge oil port isn't likely to earn the IgLibs any points in Alberta's oil patch. Worse yet, if Iggy's policy means large volume oil tanker traffic through Vancouver's Burrard Inlet instead, it could cost the Libs its lower mainland support and the few seats it now holds in British Columbia. NIMBY Iggy, NIMBY.

Sorry but before giving Iggy kudos for promising to spare Kitimat and the north coast, he'd better spell out - clearly - just what he has in mind for the south coast. People are already becoming furious about the recent increase of oil tanker traffic through Vancouver's inner harbour and that's peanuts compared to the shipping volume necessary to transport the world's filthiest oil to Asia.

Doing the right thing in the north is meaningless if it means doing the wrong thing in the south.

Living With the Crazies

Bill Maher put it best when, describing the Ron Paul/Rand Paul dynasty, he noted, "the shit never falls far from the bat." The same could be fairly said of America's ascendant radical right exemplified in the Tea Party ("TP") movement's infiltration of congressional and state Republican politics.

For the record, these people are crazy, batshit crazy. If you doubt that, take a look at Arizona, a state that has plunged headlong into insolvency in pursuit of TP policies. If you thought California was in dire straits (and it surely is), Arizona is far, far worse off thanks to a mentality that holds when government becomes broke, the answer is to cut taxes again and again and again. In the July edition of Harper's magazine, Ken Silverstein has an eyeopener entitled, "Tea Party in The Sonora, For the future of GOP Governance, Look to Arizona."

"The general unsightliness of the [state] capitol makes it a fitting home for today's Arizona legislature, which is composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists and cranks. Collectively they have bankrupted the state through a combination of ideological fanaticism on the Republican right and acquiescence and timidity on the part of GOP moderates and Democrats. ...A horrific budget deficit has been papered over with massive borrowing and accounting gimmickry, and the state may yet have to issue IOUs to employees and vendors."

Silverstein points out that the Arizona legislature gutted its revenue department budget, saving $25-million but at the cost of firing hundreds of state auditors and tax collectors that will cost the state an estimated $174-million a year in lost revenues. That's a 7-1 exercise in madness. It's what crazy people might do but only those wildly divorced from reality.

Arizonans approved a one cent on the dollar sales tax increase but the legislature first went ahead with further tax cuts that will quickly lose far more than the take from Arizona cash registers.

" raise cash the legislature pursued a series of wild sell-offs and budget cuts. It privatized the capitol building and leased it back from its new owner, an arrangement that brought in substantial revenue but over time will cost Arizona far more. The legislature ...has put up future lottery revenues as collateral on a $450-million loan. Meanwhile, Arizona removed more than 300,000 adults from state health coverage and terminated one healthcare program for 47,000 poor children. Funding was slashed at the agency that deals with reports of child abuse and neglect, and also at Children's Rehabilitative Services, so that parents of children with cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and a number of other conditions are now required to pay 100 per cent of treatment costs."

"...the deficit for 2011 is already projected to be at least $1-billion and possibly double that, on a total budget of only $9-billion. The situation will only worsen from there, as federal stimulus money dries up and the state runs out of short-term sources of cash.

Silverstein writes that Arizona legislators have little appetite for dealing with their state's insolvency, preferring instead, " focus on matters that have little to do with the crisis. Lawmakers have turned racial profiling into official policy, through a new law that requires police to stop suspected illegal immigrants ...anyone not carrying acceptable proof of citizenship can be arrested for trespassing and thrown in jail for up to six months. ...Another new law bans the funding of any ethnic-studies programs in the public schools, while a third prohibits 'intentionally or knowingly creating a human-animal hybrid.'

"In January, Senator Jack Harper, an immaculately combed zealot who speaks in the patter of an infomercial voiceover, submitted a bill that would allow faculty members to carry guns on university campuses, saying it was 'one very small step in trying to eliminate gun-free zones, where there's absolutely no one would could defend themselves if a terrorist incident happened.' The house passed a measure that would force President Barack Obama to show his birth certificate to state officials if he runs for re-election, as well as a bill that bars Arizona from entering into any program to regulate greenhouse gases without approval from the legislature. 'There are only two ways to vote on this,' said Representative Ray Barnes of the latter initiative. 'Yes, or face the east in the morning and worship the EPA because they own you.'"

These are but a few examples of the madness running large in Arizona. Despite tax revenues running at about two-thirds of the state budget, 38 of 90 legislators joined the governor in signing the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" of Grover Norquist's group Americans for Tax Reform, a pledge that they will never vote for a tax increase."

Silverstein warns that the nihilistic state of government in Arizona provides a glimpse of what could well come to Washington if the Republicans recover control of Congress. Imagine the most powerful nation on the planet governed by a gang of lunatics who simply ignore facts to operate in an alternative, delusional "reality" of their own making?

Will 2011 be the year that Canadians grasp that we really are living with the crazies?

The Story of Stuff, Revisited

Here's Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff. You may have watched it already, it's been out since 2007, but we all need to watch it again

The Starvation Trade, a Crime Against Humanity

Looking for the next "crime against humanity"? Why not make it food commodity speculation? Why? Because it's mass murder, that's why. The usual suspects (can you say "gold-man-sachs"?) are gaming global grain productionl. It's a dandy source of speculation wealth. After all, everyone needs to eat, even if they can't afford to eat. This year in drought-stricken West Africa there are upwards of 10-million facing starvation as they look on a shelves stocked with food they cannot afford to buy. From The Guardian:

Starving people in drought-stricken west Africa are being forced to eat leaves and collect grain from ant hills, say aid agencies, warning that 10 million people face starvation across the region.

With food prices soaring and malnourished livestock dying, villagers were turning to any sources of food to stay alive, said Charles Bambara, Oxfam officer for the west African region.
"People are eating wild fruit and leaves, and building ant hills just to capture the tiny amount of grain that the ants collect inside."

..."Niger is at crisis point now and we need to act quickly before this crisis becomes a full-blown humanitarian disaster," said Caroline Gluck, an Oxfam representative in the country.
With food prices spiralling, people are being forced to slaughter malnourished livestock, traditionally the only form of income.

"When you walk through the markets, you can see that there is food here. The problem is that the ability to buy it has disappeared. People here depend on livestock to support themselves, but animals are being killed on the edge of exhaustion, and that means they are being sold for far less money. And on top of that, the cost of food basics has risen," explained Gluck.

Compounding the crisis, thousands of animals have starved to death as villagers use animal fodder to feed themselves.

The early onset of mass famine has aid workers fearing this year will be similar to the 1984 Ethiopia famine where a million died. If you want to learn more about the devastating effects of grain speculation, read The Food Bubbles, How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away With It by Frederick Kaufman in the July edition of Harper's magazine.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Iggy Meltdown - Isn't It Time He Finally Left?

"The" Scott Ross can be controversial at times. Lord knows I don't always agree with him. But his account of Michael Ignatieff's attempt to cow Liberal dissent in Vancouver needs to be heard. It's time to send this charlatan packing. There's nothing for the Liberal Party of Canada to be had in following Michael Ignatieff into this ditch.

Who does this joker think he is?

Count Dizzy Strikes Again

Michael Ignatieff can't help himself. The smell of bitumen is simply irresistible to the man. He's so drawn to it he can't bring himself to say a bad word about the ecological catastrophe the world knows as the Athabasca Tar Sands. To the contrary, Iggy is Big Oil's man in the Liberal Party of Canada and they know in Iggy they've got a winner even if he's a dead loss for liberalism.

Yesterday His Igness put in an appearance at the University of Alberta trolling the empty Wild Rose Sea for Liberal votes. Perhaps sensing that the good folk of Alberta are possibly even less wild about him than progressives, he's reported to have encouraged supporters to go door-to-door, chanting, "Iggy ain't such a bad guy." He said that, he really, truly, did. He wants his supporters to go bleating that at strangers' doors. Cue the clown car.

Sticking with his theme that Alberta is the "driving heart" (or at least the lower alimentary canal) of the Canadian economy, the LPC's in-house gravedigger chimed, "We're going to be in a hydrocarbon future for a long time." He followed that up with the same, conditional bullshit. "The key thing is to make it sustainable -- to create an industry that has great working conditions for the people in it, that drives down excessive use of water and that gets CO2 under control." Perhaps while he's at it he can come up with the key to turning lead into gold.

Iggy admonished his supporters to stop considering Liberals the natural governing party. "We're now the official opposition. We can't go to the country and say, 'The timeout's over, give me the keys." Don't worry Iggy, they won't. Then again, given the utterly pathetic job you've done as leader of the official opposition, who would?

The Myth of American Prosperity

The CBC's Don Newman has written a lament about how badly Canada trails the United States in prosperity.

But neither Stephen Harper, nor any Canadian political leader for that matter, is discussing the little acknowledged reality that Canada has been steadily falling behind the U.S. — not only our closest neighbour, but our biggest trading partner — for the past 30 years.

No one wants to talk about the data that everyone should be studying, except perhaps for the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, whose recent study —"Beyond the Recovery" — should be required reading.

So not only is much of our Canadian self-congratulation misplaced when it comes to the recession, our continued back-patting obscures the main point of the institute's report, which is that Americans are still, on average, much richer than Canadians.

And except for the occasional exception, they have been getting richer by the year, which is something we have been very good at ignoring.

The Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, which is attached to the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto, reports that, at the end of 2009, the prosperity gap between the average Canadian and the average American was $9,300 in America's favour.

I like Don Newman but sometimes he can be pretty obtuse. This is one of those times. It's a "figures don't lie but liars figure" sort of thing. Let's start with the "average" American making $9,300 more than the average Canadian. That suggests the prosperity advantage is spread more or less equally among all Americans whereas, as we know, the growth in American wealth during the Reagan "Age of Ruin" has been obscenely concentrated in the richest of the rich. The middle class, or what remains of it, has been battered senseless and working class wages have stagnated for decades even as worker productivity has sharply increased. Per unit of work the incomes of blue collar Americans have declined. So this notion of the "average" American is genuinely warped. Newman ought to know better.

And what does prosperity mean without looking at the other side of the balance sheet - debt and unfunded liabilities. How does the extra cash in your pay packet compare with the IOU you've had to sign to get it? While you're counting your extra 9,300 greenbacks, who is pledging your credit, mortgaging your future (and your kids' future) and for how much?

Even before the collapse/bailout, America's former Comptroller General was telling anyone who would listen that the average American family's share of their federal government's debt and "unfunded obligations" stood at $480,000 USD. As he put it, it's like having a big mortgage only without getting a house. So let's work that out. 9,300 into 480,000 is what? That's about 50-years worth of prosperity advantage right there. And that doesn't include dime one of the stimulus bailouts or the projected mega deficits for years to come, as far as the eye can see. But wait, there's more!

It isn't just America's federal government that's broke. So are most American states, an awful lot of municipalities, a good segment of American business and, of course, an alarming number of ordinary Americans too.

Take California - please. In Friday's Report on Business there's a story, "California, on verge of system failure." That's right, the Golden State, 7th largest economy in the world, is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and turning to an already skint Washington for a bailout.

It’s a story that’s being repeated all across California – and throughout the United States – as cash-strapped state and local governments grapple with collapsed tax revenues and swelling budget gaps. Mass layoffs, slashed health and welfare services, closed parks, crumbling superhighways and ever-larger public school class sizes are all part of the new normal.

California’s fiscal hole is now so large that the state would have to liberate 168,000 prison inmates and permanently shutter 240 university and community college campuses to balance its budget in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Think of California as Greece on the Pacific: bankrupt and desperately needing a bailout.

“We are on the verge of system failure,” warned Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, an independent think tank based in Sacramento.

None of this would matter much to anyone outside the not-so-Golden State except that California’s budget crisis is a harbinger of a grim dilemma that all Americans will soon confront. The country has built an elaborate and costly government machine, tied to a regressive tax system that can’t generate enough revenue to pay for it all.

After unveiling a grim budget last month that scraps a popular welfare program for a million children and slashes countless other programs for the poor and elderly, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger complained that the state’s broken budget process has left him facing a “Sophie’s Choice.” That’s a reference to the story of the Polish Jew forced by the Nazis to choose between saving her son or her daughter from the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Experts say the U.S. government will inevitably have to come to the rescue, using its borrowing clout to save the state from near-bankruptcy or devastating service cuts. Do nothing, and the entire U.S. economy could be put at risk. California, like the country’s banks, may be too big to fail.

So, do you still feel dejected about being $9,300 a year behind your American cousins in prosperity? It sounds like Don Newman gorged himself on a super-sized portion of rightwing bullcrap.