Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Nasty Truth About Living Within the Big Lie

Today, living within the big lie requires that one consents to the belief in free markets, representative democracy, and sustainable development, regardless of the gaping flaws in each of the concepts. Taken together they represent the so-called noble lie that provides the social cohesion that allows for our society to function. Dissent is for the most part fruitless since there exits an implicit consensus within the society to ignore or quickly forget any speech or gesture that calls into question the truthfulness about the foundation concepts. Nevertheless, having been the recipient of a quality public education, I feel obliged to expose the myths for what they are and hope that by gaining a better understanding of how they function others will be better able to lead more authentic lives.

Upon close analysis, each one of the cultural myths underlying the big lie puts forward a belief that is contrary to what the myth attempts to conceal.

For example, the belief that markets function better when left to themselves is political propaganda at best. First, in order for markets to function at all, they need to be enabled by a legal system that respects contractual obligations and offers dispute resolution. Governments provide this much needed feature at public expense. Second, favorable market intervention from government offers corporations sizable competitive advantage, so much so that it is more profitable to invest billions of dollars in lobbying and political donations than to reinvest the said amounts into improving the quality of existing goods and services in hopes of gaining a greater share of the market. Third, markets, financial markets in particular, are prone to systemic failure if not properly regulated. Indeed, failure to regulate the financial markets brought about a global economic recession that made necessary huge injections of public funds so to avoid a full scale collapse and possible depression. Profits remained profit and risk was socialized.

One might argue that a democratic response from the electorate would supply the appropriate corrective. However, it should be noted that representative democracy in North America provides for popular elections, but this in itself does not render the political institutions democratic. Hardly. At the most fundamental level, democracy entails that the majority of the citizens hold and exercise political power. This is not the case in North America. In fact, a combination of electoral practices, the influence of money and a voting method that discards the majority of votes, thwarts the demos from exercising its political will and power is effectively held and exercised by a monied elite. The advent of universal suffrage has done little to change electoral dynamics except to heighten the property requirements to become a member of the ruling class.

Finally, to overcome any misgivings that might arise among the population upon reflection about the consequences of ever-increasing levels of consumption, the term "sustainable development" has been appropriated to mean something far different from its original meaning. No longer used to signify economic development that sustains a healthy social sphere and maintains a healthy environment, the term is widely used as a means to greenwash the continued unsustainable consumption of nonrenewable resources. By framing economic activity as being part of sustainable development the inconvenient fact that nonrenewable resources are finite is conveniently ignored and the much-needed development of the large scale use of renewable energy sources is further delayed.

In short, the virtuous connotations surrounding the concept of sustainability are linked to economic development in a similar manner that the virtuous connotations surrounding the concept of democracy are linked to representation. In neither case are the virtues to be found in practice and the much sought legitimacy is just a front.

And this brings me to the nasty truth about living within the big lie. As the renowned playwright Vaclev Havel once wrote, "the individual, declares his loyalty . . . in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game. In doing so, however, he has himself become a player in the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place."

Compliance allows the game to continue. So, in 2011 don't be compliant. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life. Be authentic and choose to live within the truth.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Contesting the Democratic Legitimacy and the Political Authority of the Quebec and Federal Governments

Two recent events cast serious doubts about the democratic legitimacy of our political institutions and call into question the nature of the political authority they wield.

In Quebec, the Charest government refuses to hold a public inquiry against the wishes of the vast majority of the population into the corruption within the construction industry and its ties to the financing of Quebec's political parties. At the federal level, the unelected Canadian Senate voted down the comprehensive climate change legislation passed by the majority of members of the elected lower house.

Indeed, this turn of events in Quebec demonstrates that the majority of citizens do not hold and exercise political power in Quebec and that the same can be said of the majority of the elected representatives in Parliament.

What does this say about our political institutions?

At a fundamental level, Canada's constitutional monarchy is undemocratic and its political authority is derived from a show of force rather than from the will of the majority of its citizens. Popular elections are held, but they do not yield electoral results that reflect the popular will. On the contrary, the electoral system is designed to usurp the power of the majority and transfer it to a minority. In between elections, there is little that can be done to change this state of affairs.

How does this come about?

In short, our electoral system uses the single member plurality (SMP) voting method that brings about a system of governance in which the most powerful political minority rules as if were a majority.

As could be expected, this electoral system was conceived during the Middle Ages, an epoch that privileged those who exerted territorial control and little attention was paid to those who lived and toiled upon the land. Essentially, the SMP method reproduces this feudal relationship with regard to political power.

For instance, in the Middle Ages military force established who gained control over disputed territory, and to the winner went the spoils of victory. Similarly, in our electoral system, the spoils of victory, effective representation, go to the winner of the electoral campaign in a winner-take-all manner.

It doesn't matter if the majority of citizens/serfs in the territory/electoral district voted against the the candidate who garnered the most votes. Their voices do not matter and all their votes are discarded as if they were not cast at all. Regardless of the total lack of democratic legitimacy in the process, the newly elected deputy takes his or her place as the territorial representative in Parliament.

The primacy of territorial control is then leveraged to form a ruling government. Again, the formation of the government is not bound by the manner in which the citizens/serfs actually voted. The vast majority of Deputies in the House of Commons do not have the support of the majority of their constituents. All that matters is to identify the political party that acquired the most territory as expressed by the number of electoral districts captured in the electoral campaign. To the winner goes the right to rule the land.

As you could imagine, using an electoral method that actually discards what is most often the majority of votes cast by the citizens/serfs compromises the democratic legitimacy of the government that is duly formed. Beyond the recurrent over and under representation of the different political parties in Parliament, there exists a fundamental flaw: the formation of what is misleadingly referred to as a majority government does not require the support of the majority of the electorate. In fact, it is rare that a majority government even has the support of the majority of the citizens that cast their votes, let alone those who are eligible to vote.

Needless to say, this becomes problematic, especially in terms of how political authority is exercised. In a democracy, as a matter of principle the citizenry is bound to accept the will of the majority as long as fundamental human rights are respected. What is the guarantor of respect for political authority if it does not stem from directly from the people but instead is obtained from a democratically flawed process? Tradition? Coercion?

Personally, I find it unacceptable that such a state of affairs is allowed to continue under the guise of democracy. So much so, in collaboration with three of my colleagues, we decided to challenge the democratic legitimacy of the electoral system that brings forward in our eyes a system of government that can only be described as rule of the few over the many.

What allows for this challenge is the adoption in 1982 of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In particular, section 3 of the Charter guarantees the right to vote. As defined by the Supreme Court of Canada, this right goes beyond simply the right to place a ballot into a box and includes the right of each citizen to effective representation and the right of each citizen to participate meaningfully in the electoral process and that these rights are not subject to the political preferences of the majority.

Perhaps, the majority of Canadians prefer to maintain the present system, but this preference does not give them the right to deny effective representation to a significant minority of voters. For example, in the last federal election approximately a million people voted for the Green Party, yet these electors have no effective voice in Parliament. How can this be squared with the right of each citizen to have effective representation? It cannot.

Similarly, where is the substantive equality in an electoral process that confers effective representation only on those electors whose votes establish a candidate's plurality at the expense of all other electors? This means that the system gives strong institutional incentives to people to vote for political parties that are in a position to potentially form a government at the expense of those parties that are not. Consequently, many electors who would otherwise vote for a smaller party if there vote would be used to establish representation don't vote at all or choose to vote strategically by substituting their authentic choice for a strategic vote. In either case, this situation systemically reduces the number of votes a candidate from a small party would otherwise receive, a situation already judged to be antithetical by the Supreme Court of Canada to the values informing a free and democratic society.

At the heart of the issue is whether the electoral system that we inherited from our colonial past conforms to the values of a free and democratic society. Even the British have their doubts as demonstrated by the holding of a nation-wide referendum in the UK on the continued use of their archaic first-past-the-post voting method in May, 2011.

At the very least, both at the provincial and federal, electoral systems must incorporate some mechanism that enables each citizen's vote or preferences to be aggregated so each vote is used in the formula that determines representation and no votes are simply discarded. This would restore democratic legitimacy to our system of governance.

On February 8, 2011, at the Quebec Court of Appeal in Montreal, arguments will be heard to overturn the decision at the lower court that did not support the motion to have our present voting method rendered null and void. With lawyers of the stature of Julius Grey and Peter Rosenthal, both having successfully obtained seminal decisions on democratic rights issues from the Supreme Court of Canada, this promises to be a historic confrontation between the desire to maintain our colonial past and the desire to evolve into a modern democratic society.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sometimes You Have to Say, "Fuck the Economy"

Mighty harsh words, but then again these are mighty harsh times.

It appears to me that on a regular basis regular folks hear proposals and arguments destined to advance the economic interests of the super rich under the guise that this would be good for the economy.

However, if you are aware that your economic interests are not aligned with the proposed course of action, you are perfectly within your rights and you should say, "Fuck the Economy."

Once said, you have moved the discussion out of an abstract, second order debate concerning dubious social theory and the selective use of data sets into what economic debate is really about, the zero-sum struggle to capture a greater share of the available material wealth.

Keep in mind that there is no such thing as THE economy. In fact, what is referred to when we use the term is nothing more, nothing less than the reification of an imagined order the advances or impedes one's economic interests.

In other words, there is no singular, objective economy. Instead, there are data sets that point to the existence of multiple economies, ready to constructed or deconstructed according to the desires of those engaged in the flight of the imagination.

So, don't be fooled by the numbers. For example, some would say on the basis of a highly abstract set of calculations that does not differentiate between the costs of socially positive and socially negative monetary transactions (breaking or repairing a window) that the recession is over as demonstrated by the renewed growth in the gross domestic product (GDP).

Yet, those who are part of the twenty some million in the US who can't find full-time employment might not agree, especially if they find themselves living in a community where there are a large number of people in similar circumstances.

Local reality is often at odds with the official picture emerging from the fraudulent use of economic statistics.

For instance, when calculating the official unemployment rate those who exhaust their unemployment benefits but are unable to find a job simply disappear from the jobless numbers, which means that by using such an obviously flawed statistical measurement, governments knowingly mislead the population by propagating economic propaganda.

Ah yes, but this is a jobless recovery, usually said by a person whose economic interests are aligned with those whose fortunes are no longer adversely affected by the noticeable downturn in economic activity.

In a similar vein, we are told that if were to implement measures to prevent climate change that this would harm the economy. Again, I think the appropriate response is to say, "Well then, Fuck the economy", because living in that reality represents a death wish, which from the proponents of THE Economy Uber Alles isn't such a bad thing since they fervently believe that upon death they will be rewarded with a material upgrade to their present lot in life.

Christmas is coming. Extended families will gather and chances are you'll hear someone talk about THE economy. Give it a try. See if you can get a rise out of old Uncle Ernie, the cheap bastard.

So to everyone who made it this far, I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, and lest I forget, Fuck the economy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Obama Betrays Those Who Put Him in the White House

In almost every enterprise, the plutocracy has enjoyed opportunities for private gain at public expense. Government nurtures private capital accumulation through a process of subsidies, supports, and deficit spending and an increasingly inequitable tax system.(Michael Parenti)

It so happens that at the moment I'm reading Parenti's classic book, Democracy For The Few, which puts forward the thesis that America since its inception has been a plutocracy, rule for and by the rich. Needless to say, I was prepared to learn of Obama's capitulation with regard to extending tax breaks for the rich that would add to America's staggering deficit.

From the perspective of a progressive, outrage seems appropriate at Obama's lack of resolve to resist the Republicans's attempt to use those who are close to exhausting their unemployment benefits as hostages in order to get the tax breaks for the wealthy.

So much for the slogan: "change we can believe in."

The notion that the extension is just for a period of two years is complete nonsense. Does Obama really believe that the segment of the population that votes infrequently but came out in record numbers to support his presidential bid will cast their ballots for him in 2012? Fat chance.

However, if you look at the turn of events from the perspective that the US is a plutocracy, there is no reason to be alarmed. This is the way the political system in America works.

Some may object that even for a plutocracy that tries to pass itself off for a democracy, this stretches the quaint assertion that America has a government of, by, and for the people beyond what is credible.

But what is the average American to do? The electoral system gives a virtual lock on political power to the monied class. Apart from the hollow rhetoric that distinguishes Democrats from Republicans, both parties are wholly dependent on financing from wealthy Americans. So, at the end of the day, aside from some political gesturing, the political process produces the same economic results regardless of who is the White House and who rules Congress.

God bless America. A nation where corporations enjoy record profits while millions of Americans are without jobs and homes and where the rich stick it to the poor any chance they get.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Long Live the Order of Egoism and God Save the Planet

The exercise of sovereign power by a part of the nation over the whole is an inevitable consequence of the inequality consecrated by the Order of Egoism.

Some two hundred years ago, the Italian ex-patriot, Philippe Buonarroti writing about the French Revolution, characterized the struggle as one between the Order of Equality and the Order of Egoism. Despite the lofty rhetoric invoked by those who advocated fundamental equality to be found in Robespierre's Declaration of the Rights of Man, and of the Citizen, the Aristocrats have won the day.

They have done so by circumventing the desire for equality by appealing to the mass's own desire to become members of the privileged elite. Hereditary and lineage are things of the past. Today, what confers status is money and the things that it can buy.

Moreover, the acquisition of great wealth is no longer confined to landownership and the return on investments obtained from industrial ventures. Today's aristocrats earn billions exploiting currency exchange and financial derivatives. Lower down are the CEOs of publicly traded companies who earn hundreds of millions, followed by sports and entertainment stars who earn millions.

As the old adage goes, it takes money to make money and what we have seen over the last thirty years is a net transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the very upper class, more precisely the top one percent of revenue earners.

What has also changed is that the lower classes have lost the ability to effectively mobilize in order to improve their lot. It's as if the ideology of egoism normally associated with the monied class has worked its way down so that those with significantly less aspire to become celebrities rather than self organize to challenge for a greater piece of the economic pie.

Indeed, YouTube has become the opiate of the masses. If only my video goes viral can I escape the banality of being a member of the precariously employed working class. If that doesn't pan out, I can pretend to be important by amassing a significant number of followers on Twitter, and if I really get lucky, I can get my 15 minutes of fame by appearing on a reality based television program.

The only people that I come across who reject the Order of Egoism outright are the deep greens who reject conspicuous consumption altogether in favor of voluntary simplicity that smacks of the desire to live in an egalitarian society. But their numbers are far too small. They don't comprise a critical mass that could actually contest the nature of the economic order.

So, I guess I'm saying that corporate capitalism has triumphed. Representative democracy is as good as it gets with its illusion that political legitimacy is derived from the people. In reality, it's the super rich that rule and they are hellbent on amassing as much wealth as they possibly can since their egos know no bounds. The vast majority, try as they may, attempt to follow in their footsteps, and if they're lucky, they might make enough to enjoy life in the realm of affordable luxury.

In the meantime, those of us who can lift our heads above the crass accumulation of material possessions can only watch and wait. Eventually, the non-renewable resources that sustain global economic growth will run out and then and only then will all hell break loose.

Will it happen in my lifetime? In the lifetime of my children? I don't know. Only in my dreams -- there probably exists a video game -- can I grab a rocket launcher and blow those egotistical bastards away.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Plutocracy Is Alive and Well in Quebec

Plutocracy is rule by the wealthy or power provided by wealth and let me tell you it's thriving here in Quebec. The name of the game is who do you know who's got the dough, and it don't matter how they got it whether it's the mafia, the construction unions, the Hells Angels or the Quebec Liberal Party.

In reality Quebec can be divided into two classes, the plutocrats who seem to be somewhat uncomfortable these days with all the accusations about money-stuffed envelopes being exchanged for favors, and the chumps whose tax dollars go to support the lifestyles of those who have direct access to the public purse.

Yesterday, the scene in the Quebec National Assembly was priceless. After surviving a non-confidence vote because Quebec retains a medieval electoral system that allows a political party to form a majority government with the support of less than 25% of the electorate, the members of Quebec Liberal Party stood up and gave Premier Jean Charest, who leads what is arguably the most corrupt provincial government in Canada, a standing ovation.

Way to go Jean! We get to keep our jobs and you get to fly off to Paris to see your buddy Sarkozy at taxpayers's expense.

Meanwhile, Quebecers continue to buy the newspapers that tell them that 3 out 4 people think the province is corrupt and that 8 out of 10 people have little or no confidence that Jean Charest will adequately address the problem of corruption.

Hey, if this state of affairs really pisses you off, you can go to the National Assembly website and sign a petition demanding that Charest resign and join the other 230,000 some odd chumps who think that somehow this futile gesture would have an effect.

In the end, don't worry, be happy. The chumps are apparently very happy with their lot.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

It's Ridiculous to Define Canadian Democracy as Rule by the People

Democracy comes from the Greek language and refers to a set of political relations in Athens some 2500 years ago. It existed then and has appeared rarely within small groupings but has never taken hold in modern state.

We can say that a nation is democratic if the majority of its citizens hold and exercise power. This is certainly not the case in any modern state so why do we get our shit into a knot when we discover another instance of a government acting in an undemocratic fashion?

On one hand, we can speak of it as an ideal, something to be strived for, and when we fall short of the ideal in practice, it could bring about a response. On the other, it should be recognized that when most people, especially politicians, refer to democracy they are not referring to government of, by, and for the people, but a process of authorization in which by holding popular elections (in our case, far from being democratic) an electorate transfers its political power to an oligarchy headed by professional politicians. The subsequent use of that power is then deemed to be legitimate by those who have obtained power and their supporters since it results from holding a popular election. Importantly, the traditional conception of democracy as rule by the majority is reduced to simply the sporadic authorization of hopefully a majority of citizens participating in the electoral process.

As could be expected, the so called democratic legitimacy gained by the authorization process varies considerably relative to the quality of the electoral process in use. Those countries using a proportional voting method come closer to a form of representative democracy in which political power is at least held and exercised by the elected officials that represent the majority of voters.

This is not the case in countries such as our own where the government rarely has the support of the majority of voters. For example, today in Canada and in Quebec the ruling party wields the power of a majority with the support of less than 25% of the electorate.

As a result, people should be extremely wary when politicians or political pundits start making appeals to democratic principles in advancing their positions. In reality, our system of governance is a form of contested authoritarian rule where two or more political parties compete to win a popular election that legitimizes the domination and control of the political party that gains the most electoral districts during a general election. This process is much closer by nature to medieval feudalism than to Athenian democracy.

Hence, I find it ridiculous when the supporters of the Climate Change Accountability Act (legislation that I strongly support) bemoan the fact that the Bill was killed by an unelected Senate and that Stephen Harper was making a mockery of democracy.

Hello there, wake up and smell the coffee!

Since when did Canada become a democratic state? The Conservatives like the Liberals before them use the political power that is afforded to them by the political institutions that are in place. Private Member Bills from opposition parties that don't have the balls to defeat the government, force an election, and then go on to form a governing coalition that would empower them to both adopt the legislation in the House of Commons and to control the nomination of Senators are completely useless. Such actions sidestep the much more important issue of the distribution of power. Until we have a semblance of democracy in Canada, effective climate change legislation remains something to be wished for, and frankly I don't have the time to engage in magical thinking.

In a similar vein, it is even more ridiculous when Jean Charest tries to normalize his rapidly growing unpopularity in Quebec as a result of his refusal to hold a public inquiry into the ever growing scandals in the construction industry by saying that we live in a democracy and it's normal for people to disagree.

In fact, Jean, you couldn't be more wrong. In this instance, the vast majority of Quebecers are extremely pissed off that you are not giving the people what they want. We want a public inquiry and you insist on a police investigation. So, the real point of contention is that the majority of Quebecers realize that their desires trump your authorization process. Somewhere in the collective memory that has become part of the national character there is a sufficient belief in a future that carries with it the hope of living in a democracy and the people are not fooled by what you are trying to pass off as the real thing.

Hopefully, this collective realization that we need not bow to a form of authoritarian control will not be fleeting and that real substantive change will come about so that we no longer deal with the symptoms of the problem but get to the root cause, the undemocratic nature of our political institutions.

Let's not replace one elected dictator with another.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Canada's Growing Empathy Deficit

When I was a young man growing up in the prairies I was under the impression that I lived in the kinder, gentler part of the Americas. We had a quiet, subdued sense of pride that led us to stitch on red maple leafs on our backpacks before we went off to see the world.

Now, I'm not so sure. It's as if Canada has become Uncle Sam's mini-me, a smaller version of a set of qualities we once thought were exclusive to our neighbors to the south.

At the heart of my disappointment is the realization that Canadians at a fundamental level no longer give a shit about people outside their immediate family. Call it what you will, but for me it arises out of a lack of empathy for others, especially those on the fringe of our society.

In my opinion, the real test for empathy arises in our ability to share the feelings and emotions of those who are much different from ourselves. It's much easier to be empathetic to those who share our core beliefs and conform to our expectations of personal conduct.

Warning, the following paragraphs are intended to make you feel uncomfortable.

If you are a parent or can imagine yourself some day becoming one, a healthy dose of mirror neurons would make you cringe when thinking about the plight of Omar Kkadr. In his story we find two of a parent's worst fears: your child is led astray and then once his misdeeds are revealed, there is no compassion shown and the powers that be decide to make an example of him. Forget that he was a child soldier brainwashed by his terrorist father. Forget that the Supreme Court of Canada found that his rights had been violated and forget that he was tortured in order to extract a confession in the hell hole of Guantanamo Bay. All that love that you poured out of your soul into your child doesn't matter. Your child is a terrorist and that's the end of it.

Sure there were many Canadians who could not allow for this injustice to go unnoticed, but they were a tiny minority. The majority of Canadians were wholly indifferent and were untouched or turned away when they saw the boy in a captured video take off his shirt to show that he had been beaten and that he cried for his mother. No big deal, we'll do a plea bargain.

Then there's the recent push back from the Ontario Superior Court's decision to strike down the Canadian laws surrounding prostitution, an act which is not illegal. Again, imagine your little girl or little boy being led astray and ending up in the sex trade. Not something anyone would want for their child, and can you imagine that your child would then be brutally murdered and have his or her body fed to the pigs that the murderer kept on his farm a la Robert Pickton, who claimed he wanted to kill one more woman to make it an even fifty.
What's more important protecting sex trade workers from horrific acts of violence or clinging onto the outdated belief that our laws surrounding prostitution are effective deterrents? Seems that holding up the moral order of things is more important, and if bad things happened to those people, well, they deserved to be punished.

Finally, for my last example that makes me shake my head in disbelief, let's move from the fringe into the heart of Canadian society to see how cold a heart that wears the maple leaf can become. Yes, I'm talking about the former Commander of Canada's largest military base, Colonel Russell Williams.

In his case, we find a sociopathic lack of empathy. This is a man who thought up and starred in his home-made snuff videos. This is a man who was thought to be a upstanding member of the community, but in reality was a monster. This was the guy next door.

Of the many things that I find shocking in the Williams case is how is it that no one was aware of what was going on? I don't believe for an instant that he hadn't given himself away before he was arrested. In his murder of Cpl. Marie-France Commeau he used his position as Base Commander to find out about Cpl. Commeau whereabouts. Nothing of this kind of behavior ever appeared previously? This smacks of complicity, but we'll never know; he pleaded guilty to his horrific crimes and will most likely spend the rest of his days in prison.

In closing, I think we need to drop the pretense that we are morally superior to the Americans. Over the last thirty years, we've lost the ability to plumb the depths of human despair and take notice so that we act in a compassionate manner. In case if you hadn't noticed we have dropped from first on the United Nations Human Development Index to eighth, largely as a result of the growing disparities amongst the people who call Canada home.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Godfather of Quebec and the Omerta Binding the Liberal Party

Another bizarre week in Quebec. First, the alleged godfather of the Rizzuto family which is said to control criminal activity in Montreal is gunned down in his home by a professional hit man. A few days later, an investigation by Radio Canada reveals collusion between the mafia, a number of construction companies, and one of the province's certified unions in the construction and resale of a condo unit.

The week before, the book, Mafia Inc., was released alleging that a consortium of fourteen companies in Montreal colluded to control the bidding process for public projects and that the member companies would pay a fee of 5% of the value of the contracts obtained to the Rizzuto clan. As well, two mayors of large municipalities were forced to step down concerning affairs where blatant conflict of interest came to light and a third is under investigation.

Yet, the Charest government remains steadfast in it's refusal to hold a public inquiry into the construction industry despite the accumulation of glaring irregularities that continue to pile up. Furthermore, all the while things get progressively worst in what Macleans magazine labelled the most corrupt province in Canada -- funny how the collective indignation that Macleans magazine brought about is long gone -- we are supposed to sit tight and wait for the results of Quebec's provincial police inquiry ridiculously referred to as Operation Hammer.

Give me a fricken break, how can I have confidence in a process where the political personnel in charge opt for a label out of a seventies cop show that overwhelming invites derision? How stupid do they think we are? Stupid enough to have elected them to a third term?

As could be expected, the continued refusal to hold the public inquiry incited Charest's political foes to make the connection between him and the mafia. During the week, a member of the PQ taunted Charest in the National Assembly by saying that Charest's refusal to act made him complicit to the collusion. On the weekend, the leader of the ADQ, Gerard Deltell, accused Charest of being the godfather of Quebec's Liberal Party, a charge that Charest tried to turn to his advantage by saying that he had become a victim of a personal attack.

What I found telling was how the mafia's code of silence, the omertà, had taken hold of the Liberals during the Party's national congress. One of the Party's militants actually went up to the microphone during a plenary session to move that the Liberals hold a public inquiry into the construction industry. The president of the assembly asked if there was anyone to second the motion, and despite the fact that 75% of the population wants the inquiry to be held, there was deathly silence in the hall holding more than 500 people and no one seconded the motion.

Talk about unwavering loyalty and blind obedience to authority. It was as if the Liberals were out to show the mafia how the omertà should be applied within a political party.

My only question is how long are the Liberals going to obey the dead man walking Premier? Isn't there anyone within the Party with the cajones to take on Charest?

For the rest of us, we'll have to make due with a petition posted on the Quebec National Assembly's website demanding that Charest resign as the Premier of Quebec. To sign the petition visit the site at:

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Rule of the Professional Politician

Democracy means that the people hold power and exercise rule, but as Joseph Schumpeter maintained, electoral democracy as practiced in Western nations, in particular Canada, is in reality the rule of the politician.

This week brought home to me how far we are from being a democratic state on two fronts. The first is the extension of the mission in Afghanistan without the approval of Parliament, and the second is the continued refusal of the Charest government to hold a public inquiry into the construction industry in Quebec.

In both instances, professional politicians make the decision on behalf of the population, and in both instances those making the decisions have the support of approximately 25% of the electorate.

What I also observe is that the majority of Canadians, including Quebecers, are more than OK with allowing professional politicians to make the major decisions, regardless of the lack of democratic legitimacy in the process.

In fact, the population is only called upon sporadically (once every four years) to lend some semblance of democratic legitimacy to our system of governance, but looking at the plummeting participation rates during general elections, it appears that in the near future the majority of Canadians couldn't even be bothered to show up to the polls in order to decide who will govern.

It has occurred to me that I'm living in a land largely populated by drones. By this I mean that life for most Canadians consists of, for the most part, fulfilling some occupational function which affords them some low grade honey that makes life bearable. Sure, there are some bumble bees in the land that are able to take flight into the realm of ideas, make discoveries, get excited and return to the hum drum of the hive only to find that not only are the drones profoundly uninterested but that given the choice of being a drone or a bumble bee, almost all the drones are quite content with their lot and would spurn the offer of becoming a thinker bumble bee.

Professional politicians are like beekeepers. Their job is to keep the hive happy and productive, and they do this by making sure that the bumble bees never get the rest of the hive buzzing with excitement with the thought that the bees could swarm and effectively move the hive elsewhere.

They know all to well that the only dangerous mob is a hungry mob and that we are amongst the fattest on the earth.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Have the Conservatives Gone Bi?

I have a confession to make. Politically speaking, I'm bi, that is to say biconceptual, and I have suspicions that the Conservative Party of Canada also has some bi tendencies that for the longest time have been kept in the closet.

In his brilliant book, The Political Mind, neuroscientist George Lakoff demonstrates that culturally dominant metaphors become hardwired into the brain at the level of the synapses. For Lakoff, the conceptualization of the nation is divided into different metaphors of the family, the authoritarian strict father represented by the conservatives, and the empathetic, nurturing parents represented by the progressives. He observes that the political spectrum is not a left/right continuum, but a continuum of progressives on one end, conservatives at the other, and in the middle those that are biconceptual, meaning that in some contexts these people will have their progressive cognitive frames activated and in other contexts it will be their conservative cognitive frames that dominate.

As a evidence-based democrat, I find myself wavering between the two frames depending on the context. Most of the time, I am a progressive, but there are times when the conservative networks in my brain get activated. For example, here in Quebec, we run a program called Act Differently, which is designed to reduce the incidence of high school drop outs. Unfortunately, research shows that after a number of years and $40 million later, the program has had no effect on bringing about its intended change. When I see this type of intervention into the social sphere, I become fiscally conservative within this particular context. I don't, however, generalize and transfer my conservative cognitive frame to other social contexts.

During the last week, we have had two significant political decisions made by a Conservative government that demonstrate that they too, within certain contexts, can be progressive. In refusing to let the Prosperity Gold and Copper Mine go forward in British Columbia and to intervene so to prevent Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan from being taken over by an Australian based company, BHP Billiton, they appeared to be acting in a manner more becoming of a progressive, social democratic party like the NDP.

Since it appears that a single party majority government in Canada is something of the past, perhaps in our political future bi is the only way to fly if we want to have good government.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Take the Time to Read This To the End

As the late Tony Judt told us oh so well, fear is re-emerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one's daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.

Yes, we are fearful. Speed kills. It kills our relationship to the world around us. It kills our perceptions of who we are and the knowledge of how did we get here.

The world moves so fast, propelled by ever-increasing volumes of information, that we tend not to see the past any more as guide to the present and the future or see the future as the effects of acts having been taken in the past. We simply have less time to devote to anything else but the task at hand.

The effect is that we are not only less reflective, but also less critical. To be less critical, to be less able to critique an issue or the society in which we live makes us less politically powerful. In our efforts to keep on top of things, in the know, abreast of the latest trends and developments, we are drained of the energy and the ability to connect the dots, to see the big picture.

If we allow it, life moves so fast that it causes us to lose touch with any deeper connections to the world and to the reality of the economic, political, and technological processes that drive us.

Time's up. Crunch time. Deadlines. Get it done yesterday. Time to separate the men from the boys. No time to loose. Overtime. Won't give me the time of day. A waste of time. Time is money. No sense of time.

But wait. Time out. Down time. Quality time. Time to catch my breath. Time well spent with friends. Family time. A time for all seasons. Timeless. Endless Summer. These were the best of times.

Now, turn off your computing devise and be kind to yourself: take a walk, and think about your very short time here on the earth.


Friday, October 29, 2010

The Dance of the Despot

I have to say that things just keep getting weirder in Quebec every day, especially if you are a democrat.

Yesterday, Premier Jean Charest announced that he was scrapping the electoral map drawn up by the independent Director General of Elections and effectively suspending the electoral laws in Quebec until he can figure out exactly what he wants.

The process of how the electoral map is to be drawn up, how the public is to be consulted, and how the new map is to be ratified in Quebec's National Assembly is clearly spelled out in the electoral law. It's just that Charest doesn't like or appreciate that the Director General of Elections, Marcel Blanchet, goes about doing his business in a law abiding fashion, which includes respecting the constitutional limits upheld by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms with regard to the equality guarantees in the manner electoral systems advance and maintain each citizen's right to vote.

In short, Charest doesn't like the way the law and the jurisprudence surrounding the right to vote is written, so he unilaterally decided to scrap Quebec's electoral law, which in my opinion is a despotic act. It demonstrates a fundamental contempt for democracy and a belief that the state, c'est moi.

This farce has been going on ever since he took office. Leading up to the 2003 Quebec General Election, he promised to introduce elements of proportionality into the voting system. He led us to believe that change was in the works: draft legislation was introduced and a special commission was convened to consult the population. The only problem was that no one supported the proposed the model. So, to save face he asked Mr. Blanchet to prepare a report detailing how the model could be improved. However, he didn't like the findings of the Director General's report so it was released three days before Christmas and then properly buried.

Still required by law to produce a new electoral map -- in passing, approximately one in four ridings didn't conform to the electoral laws limits on the number of electors per riding when Charest decided to call a snap election in 2008 -- Mr. Blanchet set out to draw up a new map that would respect the constitutional limits of the number of electors per riding. Given the demographic shift away from the outlying regions towards the regions surrounding Montreal, the new map eliminated three ridings in the peripheral regions and added three to the more populous regions. Sounds fair to me even though I am dead set against the use of the present voting system.

But once again, Charest didn't want what the law prescribes, so he introduced legislation that would in effect create rotten boroughs in the outlying regions in which the weight of a vote cast in one of these ridings would be three to four times greater than a vote cast in a large suburban riding.

Fortunately, the opposition parties would have none of it and neither would Mr. Blanchet, who on a matter of principle resigned rather than bow down to the desires of the despot. Bravo Mr. Blanchet!

Yesterday, in a truly pathetic gesture Charest calls a press conference in which he paraded the members of a committee from the outlying regions in order to announce that he is temporarily suspending the present electoral law and will introduce a new one by March 15, 2011, taking advantage of the fact that Mr. Blanchet is out of the country and unavailable for comment.

Very well orchestrated, and the dance of the despot goes on.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

We Need More Than Two Hands on the Wheel

Almost two years ago, Jean Charest the leader of a minority government in Quebec decided to call a general election to take advantage of a significant drop in the polls of the official opposition, the Action Democratic of Quebec. Our dysfunctional electoral system is unforgiving for political parties whose support is a mile wide but an inch deep. A 15 point drop in the popular vote reduced the number of ADQ seats in the National Assembly from 41 to 7. As a result, the Charest-led Liberals formed a majority government with the support of only 23% of the electorate.

During the campaign, which was launched at the onset of the Great Recession, Charest's slogan was that in troubled times, Quebec needed to have just two hands on the wheel. Two years later is there anyone -- other than die hard Quebec Liberal Party supporters -- that believes that Quebec is better off now that we have a false majority government rather than a minority government that depended on the support of another party to maintain a government.

Essentially, the incontestable control and political power Charest now enjoys means that he can effectively tell the rest of the population to go to hell with regard to holding a public inquiry into the link between the construction industry and the financing of political parties in Quebec. This would not be the case if we had a minority government or a majority coalition.

We thought that things had come to a head with the publication of an edition of Macleans magazine that claimed Quebec was the most corrupt province in Canada. The claim seemed to be dismissed in the media as another instance of Quebec bashing.

Well, a few weeks later we learn that a vast majority of appointees to the Boards of Directors to Quebec's crown corporations made financial donations to the Quebec Liberal Party. In the case of the most important, Hydro Quebec, 85% of the Board had contributed to the Liberals. No surprise that they would approve the award of approximately $800 million in contracts to the family businesses of Franco Fava, one of the Liberal Party's principle fundraisers.

Worse yet, new revelations have come to light. According to Montreal journalists, André Noël and André Cédilot, more than 600 businesses pay Mafia protection money in Montreal alone, handing organized crime leaders an unprecedented degree of control of Quebec's economy.

When questioned in the National Assembly, Charest made another pathetic reference to
his laughable Operation Hammer, and allowing the police squad, Quebec's answer to the Keystone cops, to do its job.

Without question, Quebec has come full circle to find itself exactly where it was 50 years ago. Charest has undone the work of Jean Lesage,and we have returned to the dark days of Duplesis.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Voting out the Liberals will only treat the symptoms and not the cause of the problem. What underlies the manifestation of corruption and influence peddling is a political system that in effect places the control of the province's political machinery in the hands of the Premier.

From time to time, one of those hands slips into the public purse to provide support for one of his friends.

Therefore, what needs to be done is to bring more hands to the helm in order to share political power and the place to start is the electoral system. The abuse of power begins with the abuse of each voter whose vote is simply discarded and not used to determine who will seize power in Quebec, Canada, and all other countries which use a plurality voting system.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

America's Collective Memory Lapse

Approaching the mid-term elections in the United States, it appears that the American electorate is having difficulty remembering what actually happened during the Bush years. As a result, Americans risk making an electoral choice that, given recent circumstances, could be very detrimental to the population at large.

Just two short years ago, the electorate turned its back on what could be described as the worst period in American politics during the last fifty years and elected a Democrat for President and at the same time gave control of the US Congress to the Democrats.

Yet, two years later, the same electorate is prepared to give back effective control of the Congress to the Republicans, which will effectively undo what was accomplished in the 2008 election.

Within this context, the question that needs to be asked is: “how is it that Americans can change their minds so quickly”?

The answer is that going into the mid-term elections America is experiencing a collective memory lapse.

As you know, a memory lapse is the inability to recall information when we want or need to. For example, it’s normal to forget the name of someone who we haven’t seen for a while, as well for a phone number that we don’t call often. When this happens, it may cause a minor inconvenience, but the consequences of this type of memory failure aren’t serious.

However, this is not true if we forget where we parked the car, or worse yet, where do we live. In either case, such a memory loss could have dire consequences, especially if we had to respond to an emergency at home.

In a similar vein, the inability to recall what happened during the Bush years could also have dire consequences for Americans, because by giving back control of the Congress to the Republicans, the US risks creating a situation where no meaningful response to America’s considerable economic woes can emerge for at least another two years.

What I find extremely interesting is how this collective memory block has been created socially.

The first element leading to the creation of this memory lapse involves the acceleration of time that occurs as a result of being constantly bombarded by information. Keeping up with all of this messaging requires more and more of our attention. Our brains are continually focusing on processing new information so that we have little time or energy to remember the past, especially when it’s not immediate and it contains elements of complexity.

In a sense, we become prisoners of our compulsion to constantly be in the now.

Second, a block can occur when we become focused on what has happened in the recent past so that we can’t recall what happened previously in the mid and long term. In the context of the American mid-term elections, many people are emotionally blocked over the disappointment that Obama hasn’t lived up to the impossible task of meeting the projected hopes that significant change in America could come quickly. Having been engaged in a type of magical thinking, these Americans have had their bubble burst and in the aftershock they are unable to move beyond their feelings of disappointment in order to, for example, reconnect with their previous feelings of anger of having been lied to by the Bush administration.

Finally, from a communications perspective, the right wing in the US has mounted a hugely successful campaign to erase from the collective memory any wrong doings that could be attributed to the Bush years. Essentially, the rise of the Tea Party movement diverts the collective memory of the American people away from its recent past of Republican rule and brings to mind the ideological conflict of the distant past, all the while evoking the patriotic feelings associated with the founding fathers.

In doing so, the short-term narrative of the Democrats trying to fix the serious problems left behind by the Republicans is replaced by the long running narrative centered on the perpetual dispute in the US over the size and role of the federal government. Within this narrative frame, the Democrats become the culprits since they are the ones trying to impose big government solutions upon problems that were caused by big government in the first place.

What is lost in the recollection -- and this is exactly the point of the exercise -- is that the Republicans are as much a political party that embraces big government as the Democrats. They just do it differently. In other words, the right wing has largely succeeded in reframing the political debate in the present so to change to their advantage how the past is to be remembered.

And where is the American electorate in all of this?

I would say between a rock and a hard place. Unable to recall its recent past, it will stumble forward like a drunk with a bad hangover, knowing that something significant happened last night, but not being able to remember the important details.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

False Hopes for the New Messiah: Get Over It

Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008 and he had some pretty big shoes to fill.

Repeatedly during his presidential campaign, Obama and his followers invoked the Judeo-Christian narrative of the messiah. Under the Bush years America had fallen. Washington and Wall Street were the modern day equivalents of Sodom and Gomorrah. What was needed was someone who could offer redemption, someone who could restore hope and faith in the American dream and Obama fit the bill.

There was a fervor that gripped the land. People realized that they were participating in a historical narrative. They would be electing a black man to the highest office of a nation that once embraced slavery. Many wept tears of joy when he was declared the winner of the presidential election.

Pretty powerful stuff.

Yet, within Judaism there is also a counter narrative. On many occasions there have similar hopes that the anointed one has finally arrived only to give way to the disillusionment that the person in question alas is only human. Messianic hopes give way to bitter disappointment.

This is the narrative many Americans now find themselves living. Many are tired of defending Obama. The fervor has given way to reality. America's problems cannot be solved by any one man.

So, America. Get over it. It's time to move on. Projecting one's hopes on anyone rarely does any good.

Yeah, you got yourself a whole lot of problems. You've been lied to. You've been played for a sucker. Millions have lost jobs. Millions have lost homes. So, what are you going to do?

Are you going to go back to those who got you into this mess in the first place? Are you going to stay home and mope and feel sorry for yourself instead of going out to vote?

Yeah, the hole that you have dug for yourselves is mighty deep, but you got to go with the guy who, despite his short comings, actually cares about you. Staying home on election day will only let those who are fine and well with keeping you in that god damn hole take back the power that you ripped out of their hands.

What you need to do is to remember what it was like before Obama. Now is not the time to have a collective memory lapse.

Monday, October 18, 2010

End Private Funding of Political Parties

Money talks in politics, so much so it tends to drown out all other voices. To say that it has an undue influence on electoral results is an understatement. For example, in more than nine times out of ten the candidate who spends the most money wins the seat in the US Congress. Similar trends exist in Canada.

It should be obvious that any political system that blatantly favors the interests of those with the economic means to make a significant financial contribution to a political party at the expense of the rest of the electorate will run into problems concerning its democratic legitimacy.

Essentially, the ever widening gap with regard to income inequality in North America can be attributed to the power of money to influence electoral results. In short, those who give generously, in effect, buy votes for the desired slate of candidates who in return adopt policies and intervene into the market on behalf of their favored donors. In other words, politics precedes policy formation.

In Canada, there has been significant evolution of electoral laws to limit the power of money has over elections. For instance, donations from corporations and unions to political parties are banned, limits are placed are third party spending during a federal election, and donations are limited to $1000 per donor.

Nevertheless, controversy over financing laws is considerable. For example, threats to end the federal subsidy for each vote cast almost caused the defeat of the Conservative government, which had to prorogue Parliament in order to avoid a non-confidence vote.

Likewise, in Quebec the refusal to hold a public enquiry into the link between the construction industry and the financing of Quebec's political parties, despite ample evidence suggesting that such an enquiry should be called, has led to a huge drop in the polls for the Quebec Liberal Party and in all likelihood will lead to the end of a Liberal government.

I believe that given the human propensity to pursue advantage whenever possible, most often at the expense of the common good, there are significant democratic dividends to be gained by eliminating the private funding of political parties altogether.

By leveling the playing field we would reduce significantly the political pandering to monied interests and increase the state's capacity to advance the common good. Indeed, as recent events leading up to the onset of the Great Recession demonstrate, it is guiding hand of government and not the invisible hand of the market that protects the material well-being of the population. As a result, fiscal policy should be determined by its effect on the real economy instead of adhering to the voodoo economic theories propagated by minions of the rich, their think tanks and in turn by the political parties which receive their support.

The minions of the rich, however, would have us believe that the ability of political parties to raise money not only demonstrates their democratic legitimacy but also their intrinsic worth. This is a self-serving political myth. Democracy is based on the principle of one person, one vote. We do not accept in principle at the level of society the notion of the super vote, which grants multiple votes per favored shareholder as a means of establishing and maintaining control over a company during the initial public offering of its shares. Government is not another instance of corporate rule.

Second, when the minions assert that the cost of exclusive public funding for political parties would be prohibitive, they are extremely selective in the cost benefit analysis. Let's not forget that donations to political parties are tax deductible. The amount the federal government forgoes in lost revenue to grant the tax deduction to donors dwarfs the amount which is given in the per vote subsidy.

As well, the cost of government doing business rises when it has to factor in the price of political patronage when conducting it's affairs. Granting government contracts without tender and selective interventions into the market that result in disproportionate gains for individuals that surpass the supposed benefits of the intervention are the two principle means that the practice of private funding for political parties extracts or extorts money from the public purse.

Indeed, the practice is maintained because of its exorbitant rate of return on the investment. Take the same amount used for political donations and subsequent lobbying efforts and try to obtain the same level of return in a truly completive market. Fat chance. So, instead of continuing the practice, let's conserve the resources we now have and be more socially effective and efficient in the use of the public purse.

A simple but effective proposal is to give all political parties that are able to meet a two percent threshold of the popular vote a lump sum to maintain basic operating requirements for a national party. Moreover, maintain the per vote subsidy, but increase the subsidy to give more incentive for people to actually cast their votes.

Voter apathy is widespread and threatens the vitality of our political institutions. Let's make it worthwhile for people to participate in the political process other than opening up their wallets in order to buy votes.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Welcome to the Disunited Shareholders of America

The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy. (Alex Carey)

It's a bit trite to say that money rules in the United States.

For example, during the 2008 elections for the American Congress in slightly more than nine times out of ten the candidate that spent the most money during the campaign was elected.

Moreover, the net worth of members of the House of Representatives averages around $5 million whereas the net worth of the members of the Senate averages around $16 million.

Also, despite recessionary woes, lobbyist spending jumped upwards 5% in 2009 to attain $3.47 billion. According to Sheila Krumholz of the Centre for Responsive Politics, "lobbying appears recession proof." She added that "even when companies are scaling back other operations, many view lobbying as the critical tool in protecting their future interests, particularly when Congress is preparing to take action on issues that could seriously affect their bottom lines."

Finally, the US November elections are on track to be costliest ever. The Centre puts the price tag for this election cycle at about $3.4 billion and rising, compared to $1.6 billion for the mid-terms in 1998.

Given the strong correlation between campaign expenditures and electoral results, elections in the United States have become little more than corporate campaigns for proxy voters. During the presidential election that occurs once every four years, the financial contributions of the average citizen do come into play, but when it comes to electing members of Congress, big money rules the day. As a result, the role of the citizenry in the US is to elect the corporate Board of Directors to which the American President will have to answer to.

That being said, I'm not suggesting that in America the plutocratic shareholders have gained complete control over the United States of America. They are opposed somewhat by Institutional investors that manage union workers pension funds. There is a divergence of interest in that the plutocrats have no reservations whatsoever in maximizing profits even when doing so would harm the economy. Institutional investors managing public pension plans, on the other hand, are less apt to do so since they must answer to the representatives of the pension fund contributors.

Notwithstanding, once we factor in the recent US Supreme Court ruling that struck down any limits on corporate spending during American elections, the real battleground in American politics has shifted from the televised spectacle of Congressional elections to the battle of who gets on the ballot when it's time for corporations to elect their Board of Directors.

After the Enron debacle, the US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) had to act to bring some order to the nature of corporate governance. In short, even plutocrats can't trust other plutocrats when it comes to managing the affairs of a corporation. Small cliques form often enough within corporate boards in which the said directors make off with corporate assets by engaging in fraudulent practices.

The SEC response was to allow shareholders or groups of shareholders with as little as 3% of the company's equity to be able to put their preferred candidates on the ballot to elect a publicly traded corporation's Board of Directors. This measure would make it possible for Institutional investors to find themselves represented on corporate boards from which they had been previously excluded. In a small way, corporate power could be subject to some democratic restraint.

Yet, the plutocrats would not even let even this small measure pass. The American Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable filed a law suit to suspend the SEC's plans for implementation.

The federal court will decide, but by that time a new Board of Directors will be in place in Congress, one that will be even less apt than the present Congress to enact any law or support any administrative decision that impedes the pursuit of corporate profits.

In other words, business as usual in America, and there is precious little that Obama can do about it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Canadian Corporations Meddle in American Politics

I find the story published by ThinkProgress about donations from foreign corporations to the American Chamber of Commerce, which is engaged in a large scale third-party political campaign in the US mid-term elections to be unsettling, especially since some of the corporations identified are Canadian, for example, Sun Life Financial and SNC Lavalin.

Let's not forget that in Canada corporations cannot make donations to political parties. As well, unlike the US, there are limits to what third parties can spend during federal electoral campaigns. As a result, we should be asking the question: "what are Canadian corporations doing making contributions to third party organizations like the American Chamber of Commerce that are heavily involved in trying to influence the results of an American election?"

This should give cause for concern. Although American law allows for American subsidiaries of foreign owned corporations to make donations to politically active third party organizations, it is conceivable that corporate interest might not align well with the national interest. For instance, it might be in the best interest for a Canadian corporation to invest heavily in an American political campaign and thereafter engage in a lobbying effort to persuade Congress to adopt measures that advance its corporate interest and that interest might be diametrically opposed to position maintained and defended by the Canadian government.

Imagine a Canadian Investment Fund obtaining an American interventionist measure that would negatively impact the price of a Canadian produced commodity like wheat, softwood lumber or pork bellies after the Fund in question has shorted the targeted commodity. In this case, sizable financial gain could be had at the expense of Canadian producers and for government revenues.

It's funny how Canadians get this information from foreign sources. For example, we became aware of those Canadians with "hidden" Swiss bank accounts from the release of the names to other foreign countries that made this type of request to Swiss banking authorities.

These recent developments point out once again the need to totally revise and revamp our archaic access to information laws. Statutes that predate the rise of Information Technology and the globalization of commerce and communications are wholly inadequate to meet the present and future needs of Canadians to have timely access to information.

In the 21st century, nations that embrace open and transparent government and seek to empower their citizens by providing easy access to information that matters will prosper. Those that lag behind will pay the consequences.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Collective Memory Dysfunction

At the level of the individual memory, we are aware that memory impairment can occur. We all have experienced the inability to recall a phone number, a date, someone's name, and so on. This is a normal occurrence. Memories fade over time.

However, memory loss can become dysfunctional when the information that can't be recalled is essential to the well-being of the individual. Not being able to remember your own name, where you live, and the nature of your relationship to family members, for example, would impact significantly on your ability to lead an autonomous life.

Most often this type of memory loss is caused by a traumatic head injury or the progression of a degenerative disease, and for the affected individual, the loss is catastrophic. Indeed, those in close relation to the individual will say that her or she is no longer the same person.

Consequently, we have come to realize that an individual's well-being is dependent on having a healthy, functional memory, which means the ability to retain and recall what is important and to forget that which is not.

Although the dynamics of a society's collective memory are more complex and subject to the concerted efforts of groups to influence its content, how it is to be interpreted, and what is to be forgotten, the ability of society to remember its past has a huge impact on the quality of life for groups within the society and for the population at large.

At the group level, it is interesting to note how a society can remember certain sequences of events but not recall others. Indeed, the collective memory can be quite selective, depending on the moral consequences and their impact on societal choices to be taken in the present. Social injustice towards minority groups, like the North American Indigenous Peoples, will often be maintained because their historical narratives cannot gain any traction within the society's collective memory.

Unfortunately, it appears that North Americans are now engaged in a process of selective memory repression. The sequence of events in question is the inability of the political class and its economic worldview to predict the collapse of financial markets and the onset of the Great Recession.

A monumental intellectual failure of this scale must be remembered, but alas with yesterday's announcement of this year's recipient of the Nobel prize for economics, it appears that our society is continuing with its business as usual.

To draw an analogy, I would take this state of affairs back down to the individual level. It's as if our society is acting like an individual whose spouse has been unfaithful and chooses not to react. Without question, the infidelity should impact on the quality of the relationship. However, in some instances, usually when comfortable lifestyles could be jeopardized, the inconvenient truth is actively repressed and life goes on like before.

As we head into the midterm US elections in November and most likely a Canadian federal election in the new year, economic prognostications are being made by politicians as if nothing has happened recently that would call into question the ability of making any useful macroeconomic predictions whatsoever.

For instance, the Canadian Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty, recently claimed that the election of a ruling coalition formed by the opposition parties would lead to economic catastrophe for the Canadian economy. To be fair to the Conservatives similar economic hyperbole is forthcoming from the Liberals, the NDP, and the Bloc.

What the mainstream media in Canada totally missed is the opportunity to call into question the validity of the entire exercise. Only two years ago elected officials were denying that we were heading into a recession, which proved to be totally false and we recorded the highest federal budgetary deficit in Canadian history.

So, given recent past record, it would appear to me that the appropriate question that should have been asked to Mr. Flaherty and should be asked in the future to politicians who make macroeconomic predictions is as follows, "if we got it so wrong about the economy in the past, what makes you think that you got it right today with regard to your predictions, what's changed?"

I know that I'm asking too much from the mainstream media. After all, they are in the infotainment industry. That's why the blogosphere is growing and gaining importance. We bloggers provide the analysis for free and we assume the responsibility of drawing people's attention to what the mainstream media would sooner have us forget.

Blog on!

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Demise of the English Invader Nations

When I was a school boy growing up in the Prairies, I would stare at the map of the world, provided by Nielsen Chocolates, in which the countries that comprised the British Empire were all in pink. More pink land mass than anything else. Something a school boy could be proud of.

As well, we would start each day with a slightly off key singing of the Canadian National Anthem and end the day with a less than enthusiastic rendition of God Save the Queen. Regardless, I would trudge home feeling content that I was part of the Dominion of Canada, the biggest jewel in the British Empire.

Now that I am older and a little bit wiser I can't help but think that there is no such thing as an English-speaking nation in the former colonies often referred to as the English Settler States (the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) which I prefer to call the English Invader Nations. The frame around the word "settler" is far too cozy, and for me the notion of invasion best captures the inherent violence and subsequent rape of the land that comes with conquest and exploitation.

Today I realize that there is no imagined community, the nation, to which I belong. Instead, I am positioned in a process of wealth extraction, a global market, in which I have nothing in common with those who dominate the process other than a command of the English language, a precursor to the real lingua franca of the world, HTML.

Years ago, I read a collection of essays penned by Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy that changed the way I thought about the society I lived in. Fifteen years later, his depiction of the ruling classes throughout the English Invader Nations is more poignant than ever.

The book's title is a take-off on Jose Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, a reactionary work published in 1930 that ascribed the crisis of Western culture to the "political domination of the masses." Ortega believed that the rise of the masses threatened democracy by undermining the ideals of civic virtue that characterized the old ruling elites. But in twenty-first century America it is not the masses so much as an emerging elite of professional and managerial types who constitute the greatest threat to democracy.

The new cognitive elite is made up of what Robert Reich called "symbolic analysts" — lawyers, academics, journalists, systems analysts, brokers, bankers, etc. These professionals traffic in information and manipulate words and numbers for a living. They live in an abstract world in which information and expertise are the most valuable commodities. Since the market for these assets is international, the privileged class is more concerned with the global system than with regional, national, or local communities. In fact, members of the new elite tend to be estranged from their communities and their fellow citizens. "They send their children to private schools, insure themselves against medical emergencies ... and hire private security guards to protect themselves against the mounting violence against them," Lasch writes. "In effect, they have removed themselves from the common life."

Let's face it. The orchestrated collapse of the world's financial markets and the Great Recession that ensued was an Inside Job. They might look like us, they might talk like us, but they have absolutely no remorse of having caused so much harm to their fellow citizens. Take a peek at the award winning documentary's trailer.

Some might respond that the US is an isolated case, but in reality the same trend of rising income inequality and the accompanying social problems of increased child poverty, incarceration rates, and mental health problems, to mention just a few, can be found throughout English Invader Nations as well as in the UK.

No wonder how "we" do at the Olympics has become a national obsession. After all, nationalism is the opiate of the masses.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Amusing Ourselves to Death

This week in Quebec we were treated to an extraordinary performance of political theatre and the media's role of reducing politics to spectacle.

This week, the parade of the witnesses in front of a national audience watching the televised proceedings of the Bastarache Commission investigating allegations of political meddling and influence peddling in the nomination of judges in Quebec could not have been better.

First off was the statesman like grandfatherly figure of a former member of Quebec's National Assembly and Deputy Minister corroborating the nature of the allegations of influence peddling against the current Quebec government, followed by the testimony of the two principal Liberal fundraisers, and then an extremely rare event, the testimony of the current Premier of Quebec.

The week began as expected. The principal actors performed well. The critics were satisfied and we were all looking for the dramatic showdown between the Premier and the lawyer charged with grilling the Premier with a pointed counter-interrogation that would surely force the presiding judge to intervene repeatedly to bring order to what promised to be a series of heated exchanges.

Then the unexpected happened. The fireworks fizzled. The fiery exchange never materialized. Instead, the horror, the two men actually engaged in a relatively polite debate on a substantive matter concerning the role of the Premier in the process of nominating judges as prescribed by the law and the norms surrounding the process of political appointments.

What a let down. We can't end the week that way after all the hype we pumped.

Fortunately, in a brilliant scoop, Maclean's magazine came out with a provocative cover for its extremely well-timed weekly publication that stole the show and shifted the entire narrative that had been built up and then lost into something much more entertaining and potentially cathartic for a population in the process of realizing how pathetic its democratic institutions had become, the emotionally laden topic of Quebec bashing.

I couldn't believe it. The Maclean's cover actually bumped the Premier's testimony. On both Radio Canada's and TVA's nightly newscasts, the two leading televised newscasts in Quebec, the top story featured the Maclean's cover that said Quebec was the most corrupt province in Canada and appropriated the Quebec Carnaval's mascot for the visual image

I was flabbergasted. As someone who works in strategic communications, I had predicted that the lawyer leading the counter-interrogation would purposely push the presiding judge to shut him down, and then he would walk out and make a public statement lambasting the Commission for being blatantly partisan.

The intervention from Maclean's was totally unexpected and it made for great political theatre.

As could be expected there was little if any sympathy in the media being directed towards the Premier, despite his stalwart performance on the witness stand, with regard to the possibility that he might have been wrongly accused. Instead, the strongest emotional statements came from the Carnival of Quebec, who were outraged that their mascot had been defiled.

Intrigued, I set out early this morning to buy a copy of Maclean's magazine at Gatineau's largest newsstand, but to no avail. They were sold out. Undeterred, I crossed the river into Ottawa to buy and read the latest edition.

Having read the article, I found it to be pretty even-handed, not at all the Quebec bashing that Quebec politicians made out to be. However, the real power and the absolute brilliance of this edition, aside from the masterful timing of its publication, emerge from the headline and artful use of an iconic image on the magazine's cover.

To come out and actually say that Quebec is the most corrupt province in Canada took the prevailing political discourse out of its analytical approach of trying to tie credibility with performance on the witness stand and placed it squarely in the emotional minefield of Canada/Quebec relations. In short, this simple, bold assertion was like a kick in the crotch to Quebec's collective psyche, forcing it to attend to a disturbing state of affairs at an emotional level instead of trying to determine rationally which of the two political rivals is telling the truth.

Second, and more importantly, the image of the mascot holding the valise overflowing with cash symbolizes to me what is the real political malaise in Quebec.

In my opinion, the situation at hand is not a result of the obsession with sovereignty or the excessive growth of the state.

Political pundit Pierre Foglia correctly identified the nature of the problem in his column Saturday by noting that despite an intense week on the political front, the revelations of the Bastarache Commission and the Quebec government's u-turn on the question of charging user fees for health services, the story that was getting the most mileage in Quebec during the week was the lastest performance of the Montreal Canadiens goaltender, Carry Price.

Without question after two referendums on independence, Quebecers have become weary of politics. Participation rates during elections have plummeted.

Unfortunately, we are no longer paying much attention to politics and we certainly are not as politically engaged as we once were. As a result, given the amazing success of our cultural industries, we have replaced the passion of politics with the pleasure of being entertained. To use Neil Postman's method of analysis, we are amusing ourselves to death.

In other words, having failed to asserted our collective identity through political means, we have chosen to do so through our support and participation in cultural activities that strengthen our bonds to a linguistic community. On a daily basis, those bonds are reinforced whether following les Canadiens, watching our favorite television programs, listening to music on the radio, laughing with our comics, going to the movies to see the latest Quebecois film, flocking to the salon des livres, attending festival after festival. The list goes on.

In some ways, we have become political victims of our own cultural success. While we are being busily entertained, there are those who make off with more than their fair share of our common wealth and this has serious consequences.

It means that we let things pass that we shouldn't let pass. It means that we remain passive spectators when we should be active participants. It means that we settle for second rate education and second rate healthcare. It means that we are going to pass on an unmanageable debt to our children and our grandchildren.

If anything the image of Bonhomme Carnaval walking off with the cash tells us that we need to manage our affairs better. It's time to re-engage in the political sphere. Indeed, we need to let go of our previous terms of political reference and redefine the nature of our political community so that we are up to meeting the challenges of our common future.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Economic Apartheid Runs Rife in America

Last week's release of the US Census Bureau's report: Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009 caused quite a stir. The emerging image is quite bleak.

In summary, nearly 44 million people were living in poverty last year, which is 14% of the population, one in seven adults, one in five children. That is in an increase of 4 million people over the previous year, the highest percentage in 15 years, and the highest number in more than a half-century of record keeping.

Median Incomes were 5 percent lower in 2009 than they were a decade earlier, and as Harvard University economist, Lawrence Katz points out, "this is the first time in memory that an entire decade has produced essentially no economic growth for the typical American household."

Race continues to play a huge factor in poverty and income inequality. Median per capita income for non-Hispanic whites was $30,941, down 0.8 percent from a year earlier. Among blacks, median per capita income was not quite two-thirds that, at $18,135.

When looking at household income, the widest racial gap is between black and Asian households. Black-led households make less than half the median income that Asian households do.

In some ways, these figures are not all that surprising given that the United States is a nation founded on the genocide of its indigenous peoples, who by the way aren't considered important enough to make it into the official statistical portrait, and the enslavement of African Americans. It is doubtful that these types of historic income disparities can ever be erased.

Yet, the greatest income disparities exist within the white population where we find an almost complete decoupling of economic trajectories between the superrich and the rest of white America.

Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great Depression, according to a recently updated paper by University of California, Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. The paper, which covers data through 2007, points to a staggering, unprecedented disparity in American incomes.

Though income inequality has been growing for some time, the paper paints a stark, disturbing portrait of wealth distribution in America. Saez calculates that in 2007 the top .01 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000.

As of 2007, the top decile of American earners, Saez writes, pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that's "higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of stock market bubble in the 'roaring' 1920s."

Beginning in the economic expansion of the early 1990s, Saez argues, the economy began to favor the top tiers American earners, but much of the country missed was left behind. "The top 1 percent incomes captured half of the overall economic growth over the period 1993-2007," Saez writes.

So how does less than one percent of the population maintain its privileged status in a nation that prides itself on having free and fair democratic elections? The answer: it engages in populist politics and plays the race card.

First, it should be remembered that the superrich don't give a shit about the well being of the average American regardless of the color of his or her skin. Therefore, the trick to be turned is to tie together a political package that includes preferential policies that benefit the rich with emotionally laden social issues that appeal to an the increasingly disenfranchised white population.

It's as if as long as the political agenda contains the familiar political rhetoric: anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-gun control, lower taxes, smaller government, and increased military spending, it doesn't matter that economic policies are tilted to favor the rich at the expense of the average American.

Moreover, the presence of colored people allows the rich to use them as scapegoats in order to fend off any claims that might be made against them. For example, if unemployment is a problem it isn't because the middle class jobs have been transferred off shore, it's because those damn immigrants are taking your jobs.

Playing to xenophobic fears is at the foundation of a divide-and-rule strategy. It is very effective and it is at the heart of the Republican strategy of regaining control of the US congress in 2010.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dark Days for Evidence-Based Democracy

As we know all too well, politics can get bogged down in ideological mud slinging. Each side, prisoner of its own political discourse, slings mud at the opposing side. One way out of this impasse is to look at what the evidence tells us about the issue at hand. That way, we can examine the veracity of the claims made in the presentation of arguments proposing a particular plan of action.

Here in Canada, and particularly in Quebec, we see concerted efforts to reduce the capacity of citizens to engage in informed political debate by either reducing the capacity of government organizations to collect, analyze, and report on pertinent data, or, in the case of Quebec, set ridiculously short time lines for the tabling of an environmental report, thereby preventing valuable studies from interfering with what appears to be the Quebec government's premature decision to go ahead with the exploitation of the province's immense shale gas reserves.

At the federal level, much ink has been spilt in protest of the government's decision to shelve the long form census, a move that triggered the resignation of Statistic Canada's chief statistician. As well, it was revealed that head of the Parliamentary Budget Office, Kevin Page, will not seek to renew his mandate, which is most assuredly related to the fact that his agency's paltry budget has been significantly reduced.

In both instances, these decisions will probably reduce the availability of timely information that could inform the citizenry, but as we would expect having an informed citizenry would actually reduce the capacity of a political/financial elite to impose its political agenda upon the nation. Like many, I find this state affairs unacceptable, but hey my vote never counts for anything other than awarding a pittance to the party I voted for during a federal election, and perhaps even this last remaining incentive for me to go out to vote will disappear.

In Quebec, given the Charest government's pathetic low level of support and its minimal chances of surviving another general election, it appears that the Quebec government has thrown caution to the wind and is proceeding at warp speed to put in place a perfunctory regulatory framework that would allow fortunes to be made at the expense of the health of the population before its term runs out.

Even the most rudimentary environmental scan on the subject of the safety hydraulic fracturing should raise grave concerns. In fact, to date no peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrates that the process does not create substantial health hazards. To learn more, consult a recent report of an 18 month Propublica investigation.

What I find truly deceitful is the behavior of Quebec's Vice-Premier, Natahlie Normandeau, who is now making regular public appearances saying that moving ahead with confidence is just a matter of communicating the facts. As someone who works in the communications field, I can't help asking myself, "what facts is she referring to?". She makes it sound as if there exists a consensus in the scientific community that fracking is safe. This impression that she is so desperately trying to give is unmitigated bullshit.

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has been given more than two million dollars to investigate the safety of the fracking process through its entire lifecycle and has until 2012 to complete its report. In Quebec, the Office for Public Audiences on the Protection of the Environment gets chump change and a four month deadline report.

I guess as a citizen it is moments like this that makes me realize that living through a fin de regime the quality of governance often sinks to the level of the banana republic.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Have the Quebec Liberals Lost the Moral Authority to Govern?

The Westminster parliamentary system is often called a crown-in-parliament system of governance. In effect, the powers of the monarch are transferred to the Prime Minister of the confederation and to the Premier of each province. So, what happens when the population of a province no longer trusts its Premier? As well, if a breach of trust has occurred between the Premier and his citizens, does the ruling party have the moral authority to continue governing with the said Premier in office? These are the questions that Quebecers should be asking themselves.

Needless to say, when approximately 70% of those surveyed believe the version of events put forward by former Quebec Minister of Justice, Marc Bellemare, as opposed to the meagre 12% who believe the Quebec Premier's Jean Charest version, there exists a crisis of confidence and credibility, and it is not as if that the crisis is going to disappear when the Bastarache commission files it report concerning Mr. Bellemare's accusations.

In some sense, this crisis has been in the making for years. In short, many if not the majority of Quebecers have the distinct feeling that they have been repeatedly lied to.

Beginning in 2003 with the electoral promise to lower taxes by one billion per year during five years that was never kept, claiming that healthcare was the Liberals number one priority when no significant progress was made with regard to wait times and access to a family physician, calling a general election during the height of the Great Recession and then maintaining that there was no prior knowledge of the 40 billion dollar annual loss in the state-managed pension fund, and refusing to hold a public inquiry into the link between the construction industry and the financing of Quebec's political parties despite a series of revelations and public opinion that indicate that such an enquiry is badly needed, it should not come as a surprise that the majority of Quebecers no longer have confidence in Premier Charest and want him to step down.

So, where do we go from here?

Already, another controversy has emerged in the way the Liberal government is handling the exploration and the potential exploitation of Quebec's huge deposits of shale gas. There are some very serious and well-documented concerns with the safety of the extraction process, hydraulic fracturing, the most serious is that this process will contaminate the ground water in the surrounding areas around the gas wells. Moreover, given the importance of the publicly-owned Quebec Hydro, the largest producer of hydro electricity inn North America, it is odd that within the context of Quebec politics, a public debate has not occurred with regard to the ownership of this extremely important natural resource. In fact, it has been just revealed that a number of individuals with close ties to the Quebec Liberal Party have recently moved on to take on key positions in the gas and oil industry.

Having imposed a ridiculously short time period for the province's environmental review agency to produce a report (4 months) on complex issue where the intergenerational stakes are extremely high in order to quickly adopt a law which will establish the parameters for the oil and gas industry, the Charest-led Liberal government gives the distinct impression that the fix is on, leaving ordinary Quebecers that they are once again victims of an abuse of political power.

Indeed, in response to the population's desire to have a public enquiry into the endemic problem of influence peddling, we get the Bastarache Commission looking only at the question of the nomination of judges. In a similar vein, instead of getting a thorough environmental review of the proposed extraction of shale gas, the population receives a half-assed, short and speedy assessment of something that cries out for a slow a prudent process of examination.

So, the question arises can the Charest-led Quebec Liberal government be trusted to manage the affairs of the state in a fashion that protects and promotes the interest of the population at large. In my opinion, the answer is an overwhelming "No!"

Unfortunately, the Quebec Liberals have a mandate to govern Quebec for at least another three years. This does not bode well for a population that has already lost confidence in its democratic institutions. We are like the proverbial lobsters caught in the trap of a dysfunctional political system without the wherewithal to escape.

The only ones that can presently rectify the situation are the members of the Quebec Liberal Party. To continue on with Mr. Charest at the helm until the end of the present mandate is to risk having the same misfortune fall upon the party as that as their federal Liberal cousins, to have the Liberal name become a toxic brand for a least a generation to come. Hopefully, the plans for Jean Charest's graceful exit from the office of the Premier are already in the works.