Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Sunny Ways

In the Aesop's fable of The Wind and the Sun, the wind and sun argue over which was stronger. A traveller then appears on the road, and to settle their dispute the wind and sun decide to see which can get the traveller to remove his coat first. So the wind blows. And blows. And blows, and the traveller wraps his coat ever more tightly around himself, until the wind gives up and the sun takes a turn. Beating down, all hot and warm and cozy and nice, so that eventually the traveller discards the cloak.

Here in Canada, as a result of the last federal election, we have moved from the dark and stormy ways of the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who spewed forth fire and brimstone, casting the world as a dangerous place where evil lurks in each and every corner, to the sunny ways of the newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who shines before us with a much more positive view of the world, a place in which compassion and generosity are allowed once again to emerge in the politics of the nation.

For the majority of Canadians, it feels as though a huge weight has been lifted from our shoulders.  No longer do we need to bow our heads to the moral certainty of those who worship the angry, vindictive God of the old testament.  Yes, let there be light, the light that shines from scientific research that dares to contradict the received vision of those who wield power and the statistical evidence that sheds light on the actual living conditions in which Canadians find themselves.  Some how, some way, the attempt to tell the truth openly and without recrimination became frowned upon in Harperland.  I'm so glad we no longer live there.

Yet, let us not fool ourselves.  The angry white men have not gone away.  For the moment, they are beside themselves.  "How did we let power slip from our grasp?" "We own the media!"  This very thought is too much for them to bear.

As a result, we know what lies ahead.  Throughout the upcoming year, those who own the traditional media will attack the newly formed government without respite.  As well, they will do their best to cast gloom and doom upon the society.  In short, they will try to extinguish the light and replace it with the foreboding of a gathering storm, the back drop from which the soon-to-be-anointed leader of the dark forces will be cast as the only one who can save us from the impending peril.

Sounds like a script from Star Wars to me.  Unfortunately, it works all too well.

As for me, I won't be tuning in.  I no longer watch television; haven't bought a newspaper in more than five years; listen to satellite radio while in my car; and get my news from my Facebook and my personal, algorithm-driven newsfeeds.

I suggest you do the same.  We need to take the same care in how we feed our minds as we should do when we feed our bodies. Without the shrieks of those who have us believe the sky is falling, the lightness of sunny ways is a pleasure to behold.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Hear My Voice, "Democracy First!"

Having been a political activist trying to get the antiquated first-past-the-post voting system changed for many years, I am delighted to see that the Trudeau-led Liberals have committed themselves in The Speech from the Throne to change the voting system.

Never thought I would see the day that a government in Canada would take such a bold step and declare that the last general election would be the last using first-past-the-post.  Moreover, the intention to do so has clearly been signaled before the newly elected Members of Parliament have even taken their seats in Parliament.

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As militants, we have never been in this position before.  Previously, at the provincial level, governments went as far as holding a referendum to change the voting system, but retained the first-past-the-post option on the ballot -- better the devil we know.  As well, provincial governments in both British Columbia (BC) and Ontario placed a supra majority requirement (60%) in order to make the change.  All three referendums (two in BC) failed to reach this summit.  In Prince Edward Island, a referendum was held with little or any effort to inform the citizens about the choice they were to make.  Finally, in Quebec a preliminary piece of legislation was tabled to lead the public through a process of consultation, but to no avail since the Charest-led Liberals never even attempted to enact legislation that would have actually changed the system.

So, despite the setbacks, all our work over the years finally has led to something substantive.  As the late Canadian cultural icon, Doris Anderson, once said at Fair Vote Canada Annual General Meeting, "your moment will come and you will have to seize it."  Amen.

I think as we head into this new campaign that we need to realize that the context is much different.  First, the burden of the proof to demonstrate the recurrent limitations of first-past-the-post no longer rests with us.  The Trudeau-led Liberals get it, and, most importantly, they have a majority of seats in Parliament (we all know how they got that majority) and can simply enact legislation to make the change.  Second, the burden of proposing the alternative to the present system has not been transferred away from the government.  It is the government's responsibility.  In both Ontario and BC, the task was given to a citizens assembly, which although from first glance appears to be a laudable democratic practice, it allowed governments in both provinces to avoid taking ownership of the model that emerged from each assembly.  In other words, it is no longer up to the citizens to get it right.  This time around it will be the government's task.

Consequently, we need not get bogged down arguing the benefits of the Single Transferable Vote as opposed to the Mixed Member Proportional system.  At the end of the public consultation process, it will be the government, for better or worse, that will be putting forward their preferred model and the vote will be limited to members of Parliament.

In this scenario, the mechanics of the voting method used for general elections, whatever is decided upon, must above all conform to the fundamental principles of democracy.  For example, each and every vote must count and carry equal weight, and the composition of Parliament must conform to the manner Canadians actually voted.  Anything else, no matter how you slice it and dice it, is unacceptable.

Early on in the consultation process, before any model is actually put on the table, Canadians must be clear to communicate that Democracy comes first and constitutes a priority over all other considerations, especially the desire to maintain a close link between the elected official and his or her constituents, a secondary feature of an electoral system that should not be adhered to so that the new voting method brings about undemocratic representation.

On this point, we must be extremely vigilant.  Democracy should not be postponed to the indeterminate future.  We want a democratic electoral process and we want it now!!!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Follow the Yellow Brick Road Even Though There Is No Final Destination

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."    (Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz)

Ain't it the truth Dorthy.  Ain't it the truth.

In one of my all time favorite films, The Wizard of Oz, we are treated to a wonderful morality tale that cuts to the quick of what it's like to live early into the twenty-first century.  In short, the life scripts provided for Dorothy don't really pan out, and although the film has a Hollywood ending in which Dorothy is magically returned to the home she was trying to escape and everything seems fine, a close reading of the film reveals that it is where life deviates from the scripted narrative that the real magic is found.

In case you have forgotten, a synopsis of the plot goes like this.

Essentially, the film tells the story of a series of failed scripts.  It begins with the depiction of the orphaned Dorothy who lives with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry.  Faced with a court order to have Dorothy's dog put down, the elderly couple offers no resistance and allows the spinster, Miss Gulch, to make off with Toto.  Having no one to take up her cause, Dorothy runs away from a situation in which she has been left defenseless.  In the bigger picture, a family is supposed to take care and to protect its members, but in this case Dorothy must fend for herself if she wants her dog alive.  The adults on the farm are powerless, unable to live up to their societal roles as buffers to the societal injustice at large.

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Once transported to the magical realm of Oz, Dorothy follows the advice of the munchkins who tell her that if she wants to get back home, she will need to seek out the aid of the Wizard in Emerald City, and to get there she must follow the yellow brick road.  With this in mind, she embarks on a path which leads her on an incredible journey filled with disappointment of what was supposed to happen, wonderfully offset by the spirit of camaraderie and the joy of self discovery.

Despite the hokey ending, the Wizard of Oz is the quintessential "it's not the destination, but the journey" film.  Above all, the yellow brick road is a path of the heart, a journey revealing the nature of the "somewhere over the rainbow" experience of the soul, casting doubt on the supposed gains that result from attaining a specific goal.

All in all, the narratives Dorothy follows end badly.  She follows the yellow brick road to Emerald City only to be put off by the Wizard; she leaves on her quest to return with the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West only to discover that the Wizard is all smoke and mirrors with no magical powers at all; finally, just as she is to leave for Kansas in the Wizard's hot air balloon, it takes off suddenly leaving Dorothy behind.  So much for the extrinsic rewards for accomplishing a task.

Nevertheless, the film is a classic because we witness the friendship and self-discovery that emerges between her and her three companions, the scare crow, the tin man, and the cowardly lion, along with some very catchy show tunes.  As it turns out, the scare crow does have a brain, the tin man a heart and the cowardly lion is courageous, and it is their journey together with its trials and tribulations that gives evidence of the fact and not the bogus awards that the Wizard bestows, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, upon Dorothy's three friends near the end of the film.

Indeed, the magical return to Kansas that Dorothy brings about by clicking her heels together and reciting the trite cliché, "there's no place like home" rings false, like the end of a fairy tale in which we are told that everyone lives happily ever after, but in reality is the same as it ever was, with all the problems that motivated Dorothy to leave in the first place.

More and more, our own yellow brick roads leading us towards the supposed rewards suggested by our societal scripts are also not panning out.  Blue collar workers struggle to find gainful employment as manufacturing has been transferred off shore, leaving them with little hope of realizing the American dream.  University graduates live with their parents unable to make it on their own while paying off their student loans.  Today, children are less and less likely to live with their biological parents as the traditional family has morphed into a series of temporary living arrangements.  The post-war script that guided a whole generation of boomers: go to university, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, and save for retirement no longer offers a path that most people can or perhaps even want to follow.

What are we to do?

That's simple: follow the yellow brick road!

Like Dorothy, we never know what fate will bring our way.  We may never get to see Emerald City, but that's OK.  Life still can be lived in an authentic manner.  We still can be true to our friends, our loved ones and to ourselves.  We just need to realize is that the yellow brick road never ends.  It is a road to be travelled to the end of our days, and we should take carry to journey down this road in a soulful manner, regardless of whom we might meet along the way.

If we bring forward our intelligence, tempered by empathy for each other, and bolstered by the courage of our convictions, we'll do just fine no matter where the road may lead and what surprizes lay in wait, as long as we stick together.

Monday, October 26, 2015

In Opening Up the Pandora's Box of Electoral Reform, Canada Should Look Down Under

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable -- the art of the next best.  (Otto von Bismarck)

I never thought that I would see this day come.  We have a newly elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who stated publically that this election would be last using the first-past-the-post voting system, which is quite something considering he now governs Canada with a majority government although the Liberal Party only garnered 39% of the vote.

Scrapping the present voting system and putting another one in place, especially since it hasn't been decided what that new system will be for the next election, is a monumental task.  It would involve public consultations, adopting legislation, and retooling Elections Canada within the constitutional requirements of section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms  which protects the voting rights of Canadians.

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We also need to keep in mind that in our system of governance Parliament is bicameral, comprised of the lower, elected House of Commons and the upper, unelected Senate.  For any law to be enacted, it needs the assent of both chambers.  As a result, it would be unwise to radically reform the lower chamber with a proportional voting system of which there is great debate with regard to which to choose from and to leave the upper chamber untouched.  Imagine having an unelected Senate ruling over the House of Commons that can no longer effectively control how Senators vote.  Not a good idea!

Fortunately, the Senate as it is now functions is in disrepute and the idea of having an elected Senate has been discussed extensively but never enacted.  So, it would not be a great leap for Canada to change the voting system in the lower house and to introduce one into the upper chamber.

What we must realize is the scale of the institutional change Canadians are now thinking of making.  We simply cannot abandon our present system of governance under the rule of law and start over from scratch.  We would be much better off to take an incremental approach and to look to another member of the Commonwealth, Australia, a nation that has already evolved a political system much more democratic than its predecessor, the Westminster system that we both inherited from Great Britain.

In short, both the upper and lower houses are elected in Australia.  The lower house is elected using a preferential voting system in which electors rank the candidates, and the first candidate that receives fifty percent of the vote after the lower finishing candidates have their ballots redistributed on the basis of their electors other preferences.  The upper house is elected using a single district proportional voting method in which the percentage of the vote obtained by each political party in each state and territory determines who gets elected.

Importantly, this system is transferrable to Canada. 

For the next election in 2019, it would be feasible to transfer in a preferential voting system.  We could use the existing electoral map.  Moreover, this system has the advantage of requiring that each elected representative have the support of at least the majority of the electors that vote in his or her riding.  What it doesn't do is to correct for the distortion of the representation on the basis of the first choice, which, after all, is the most important choice a voter can make on this type of ballot.

Herein lies the brilliance of the Australian voting method.  It is in casting the second vote for the Senate where each vote counts and has equal weight.  The method is proportional, which allows for smaller political parties like the Greens to gain representation, and reflects, in the distribution of seats, how the electors actually voted.  Essentially, the Aussies made their political system more democratic without throwing out the existing system altogether, something I think the vast majority of Canadians would agree to be an important principle to follow.

Presently, Canadians are thwarted in making qualitative change to their dysfunctional Senate because of the Constitutional requirement to have unanimous consent of the provinces.  However, simply changing how Senators are chosen, moving to election instead of appointment, without changing the number of seats each province receives is entirely within the prerogative of Parliament.  Most assuredly, this would be challenged in the courts, which is why the present government must seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the matter, preferably within the first year of its mandate.  Thereafter, Elections Canada, with the new minted proportional voting method in hand, could then go about educating Canadians on how to vote in the subsequent election in 2023.

There you have it, turning the world upside down by transferring the Australian electoral system into Canada.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Once Again Huge Distortions of the Popular Vote Mire Canadian Election Results

Four years ago I wrote a similar blog about how the voting system distorts the popular vote and produces a government that the people did not vote for.  As is quite often the case with the first-past-the-post method, 40% of the vote produces 60% of the seats in Parliament, thereby giving 100% of the political power to a political party that does not have the support of the majority of those who voted, and no where near the majority of registered electors of which 40% did not bother to vote. 

The only thing that really changed in the 2015 general election is that the distortion shifted from favoring the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party.

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In 2011, the Conservative formed a majority government largely due to the extra 27 seats they were awarded in Ontario because of the vagaries of the winner-take-all representation that plurality voting entails. 

In Canada, as in other countries that use the first-past-the-post method, how the vote is distributed is as equally important as how many votes are won since representation is awarded to the candidate who garners the most votes in a single relatively small electoral district.  This is not the case in a proportional voting systems that employ relatively large electoral districts and where the number of seats awarded to each political party is proportional to the percentage of the popular vote obtained.  In other words, 20% of the vote allocates 20% of the available seats, 30% of the votes allocates 30% of the seats, 40% of the votes allocates 40% of the seats, and so on.

What is truly remarkable about the 2015 electoral results is what happened in the Maritimes region in Eastern Canada.  This time around 60% of the popular vote that the Liberals obtained gave them 100% or 32 of the 32 available seats in the region.  In fact, although 40% of the electors voted for the other parties, they have no representation whatsoever in Parliament.  In doing the electoral math, the Liberals received an extra 13 seats over and above what they would have received if the seats were allocated on the basis of the popular vote in the region.

This trend continues in Quebec where the Liberals received an additional 13 seats over and above a popular vote allocation and even more so in Ontario where they received an additional 26 seats due to the voting system distortion.

Simple addition tells us that in Eastern Canada, the Liberals received 52 bonus seats, two more than the national distortion of having 50 extra seats than what would have been awarded according to the popular vote across Canada.  So, the headlines could as easily read: "voting system produces yet another false majority" instead of lauding the Liberals victory.

During the electoral campaign Canada's newly elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, declared that if elected this would be the last general election in Canada using the first-past-the-post method.  What remains to be seen is what will be the new voting system.  Will it be a preferential voting system that uses a different method to add up the votes but produces similar distortions or a truly proportional system that gives Canadians the government that they voted for?

The devil is in the details.  Only time will tell, but don't hold your breath.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Reason I'm Not Voting In Today's Election Is That Canada Does A Poor Job Of Protecting Voting Rights

OK Canada, you win.  Keep your outdated voting system.  Continue to outsource the nation's governance function to one person and his inner circle.  Carry on with this democratic farce called the general election.  I'll have none of it.

I used to believe that it is worth the effort to engage in politics in Canada, but no longer.  I know that in the desire to transfer the sovereignty of the nation's citizens to the winner of an electoral contest, the political party that wins the most of 338 simultaneously held elections across the land, my Charter Right to vote gets flushed down the toilet.
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The reason?  My vote will not count.  It is completely ineffective because if I vote according to my heart, to my values, in other words, for the Green Party of Canada, I know in advance that voting for the Green Party candidate is a total waste of time in this joke of an electoral system that dates from the medieval ages.

According to the Supreme Court, Section 3 of the Charter guarantees the right to vote, meaning the right to participate meaningfully in the electoral process.  Well then, how meaningfully is it to participate in an electoral process in which your vote does not count?

There is no way around it.  The practice of ensuring that millions of votes cast across Canada are totally ineffective does not jive with the values that inform the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the values of a free and DEMOCRATIC society.  First-Past-The-Post is profoundly undemocratic.

And it would be so simple to rectify the problem.  Simply put into place a proportional voting system.  This was the recommendation of the Law Commission of Canada, the former federally funded organization that examined the societal ramifications of Canada's legal system until it had its funding cut by the present government.

At this point, you might think that this is a matter for the Courts to decide.  Been there, done that.  We took this question to the Supreme Court of Canada, which simply refused to hear the case, leaving me totally flabbergasted since the entire case was based on the jurisprudence coming from the Supreme Court.  I find it completely unsettling and shattered my confidence in the justice system when the highest court in the land that takes the time and effort to define what is meant by the right to vote in a previous case dealing with the right of candidates to have their political party affiliation on the ballot (an impairment that affected less than one tenth of one percent of all votes cast) and then not to apply the same said principles in the much more important institutional practice that translates votes into seats in Parliament (a process that affects all the votes cast).

WTF?  Where am I living?  The Dominion of Canada?

In my present situation, the electoral system adds insult to injury.  Not only will my vote be wasted, I have to cast it in an electoral riding that has had it boundaries redrawn to maintain the constitutional requirement determined by the Supreme Court that all of the ridings need to have a relatively equal number of electors.  In my case, I happen to live in a section of the former city of Hull in Quebec that has been transferred to the rural riding of the Pontiac during the 2012 electoral redistribution. 

Sorry, as a resident of an urban centre, my concerns are very much different from the concerns of the farming communities in Western Quebec.  So, why am I being lumped in with them?  Because it's a constitutional requirement?  You mean the same constitution that doesn't guarantee that my vote will be an effective one?  Get out of town.

In other words, to save some semblance of legitimacy for this out-dated electoral system, those who have been entrusted in drawing up the electoral boundaries have to engage in a process of gerrymandering the electoral map in order to comply with Section 3 of the Charter as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada, the same Court that could easily declared First-Past-The-Post null and void and avoided this entire mess but instead refused to even hear the case.

I find it extremely odd that I live in a country where, due to the intervention of the Supreme Court,  I could marry another man if I were so inclined, legally procure marijuana from a federal government approved provider if I have the necessary medical condition, and even end my days with the assistance of a doctor if I so chose, but I can't get my preferred voting intention to count.

Go figure.

In the end, I won't cast my vote today to protest the injustice of the electoral system, but I will watch the results as they come in.  Who knows, the New Democratic Party has promised to introduce a proportional voting system if they form the government.

No wonder they are trailing in the polls.  Canadians prefer to live in the Dominion of Canada than in a modern nation-state.   

Friday, October 16, 2015

You Were Right Kim, An Election Is No Time To Discuss Serious Issues

Back in the 1993 Canadian General Election the then Prime Minister of Canada, Kim Campbell, in a moment of candor declared that "an election in no time to discuss serious issues," and judging by the manner in which the 2015 Canadian General Election has unfolded, she was right, at least with regard to how the traditional media has covered what has been an excruciatingly long electoral campaign.

For those who are serious about their politics, it is possible to visit each of the political party's websites and download each platform to see where the parties stand on various issues.  Moreover, an elector can seek out the candidates in their riding to seek out further information, but that's not how the vast majority of Canadians exercise their obligations as citizens to be well-informed.  In fact, most Canadians rely on the sound bytes and video clips proffered by the traditional media to determine how they will vote.  Consequently, complex issues are dumbed-down and image replaces substance during the campaign.

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Don't get me wrong.  There are some very serious concerns that need to be discussed like how Canadians can position themselves in the fast-changing global economy, the sustainability of the health care system, and, of course, what to do about climate change, but that's not where the media focuses the electorate's attention.

For example, the Canadian Government has agreed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), a trade agreement between twelve Pacific Rim countries that are responsible for 40% of global trade concerning a variety of economic policies and trade practices.  Problem is that no text has been released, so, as a result, Canadians are being kept in the dark about the details other than knowing that the federal government is already prepared to come to the rescue of dairy producers at a cost of four billion dollars and another one billion dollars for the auto sector.  Seeing a tight-fisted government throwing money at what have already identified as adversely-affected sectors gives me reason to think that people should be able to know the details of the agreement before they vote in a general election.


Discussing the details of the TTP won't sell newspapers and won't get people to watch television commercials or click on Google ads. So, what do we get, a cheap mash up of various images strewn together in a maudlin five act play.  In Act I, we saw images of the participants of the Senator Mike Duffy criminal proceedings.  What did the Prime Minister know and when?  In Act II, the body of a small Syrian boy washed up on a beach started us to question if maybe the government had a part to play in the refugee crisis happening in Europe.  However, in Act III, we were shown the barbarians at the gate in the guise of a Muslim woman who had the audacity of wanting to wear the niqab during a citizenship ceremony to become a Canadian citizen.  Tensions were rising, racial slurs were being tossed, so fortunately during Act IV, attention was focused ever so briefly on the TTP, giving the entire electorate the opportunity to cool down and watch the Toronto Blue Jays play baseball in their quest to win the World Series.  This much needed break gave way to the final Act, which is essentially the call of the first-past-the-post electoral race: the Liberals have broken away from the pack, the NDP are fading, and Stephen Harper's Conservatives are whipping their old horse of tired, worn out ideas as hard as they can, but to no avail, they can't keep up with the guy with the nice hair.

That's it.  That's the 2015 Canadian General Election in a nutshell.  Like I said before, when it comes to politics nobody does boring better than Canada.

Now, how about them Blue Jays!!!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Desperate Times Require Desperate Measures: Canada's Old Stock Political Parties Fan the Flames of Prejudice With Canada's Old Stock Voters

Pretty pathetic if you ask me.  During the longest campaign in living memory, suddenly the question of a Muslim woman wearing the niqab (a partial veil that covers the face but not the eyes) is front and center during the 2015 Canadian General Election.  WTF?

Recently, a Canadian tribunal overturned the requirement that a woman could not wear the niqab during a ceremony when new Canadians become citizens.  The court ruled that it was sufficient that the woman showed her face to the judge in private before the public ceremony and then could participate in the ceremony while wearing her niqab.

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Now, the Conservative Party of Canada swears it will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, and if elected will pass a law in parliament banning the wearing of the niqab during the citizenship ceremony during the first 100 days of a new mandate.  Likewise, the Bloc Quebecois is running television ads in Quebec demonizing the front-leading New Democratic Party with a graphic of black oil oozing out of a container and pooling into the shape of a niqab.  Enough to drive a separatist to shout out "Hostie, Tabarnac" (swear words in Quebec referring to sacraments of the Catholic mass).

Yet, as Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, so eloquently pointed out during the leaders debate in French, "what does a woman wearing the niqab have to do with the economy, climate change, or health care"?  Well Elizabeth, if you would permit me to respond to your rhetorical question: nothing, zero, zip, nada, sweet fuck all!!!

Really what it comes down to is two political parties that are trying to avoid a disaster and are appealing to their voting base of old stock Canadians of either English or French heritage, you know the two founding peoples, that just happen to be mildly to overwhelmingly xenophobic.

Their chains are being yanked to bring them to the polls because as it stands now, if many of the party faithful decide to stay home on election day, the Conservatives will not only lose their majority government but will register their worst share of the popular vote since Confederation, and the Bloc stands to be wiped off altogether from the electoral map.

Fortunately, such fear mongering doesn't work with the vast majority of Canadians that have come to accept that Canada is a multicultural nation that respects the rights of each of its citizens regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their age, their sexual orientation, and yes, their religious beliefs.

Oh Canada, I stand on guard for thee!!!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Hey Canada, Step Into the 21st Century: Stop Outsourcing Governance of the Nation

I get the Empire Loyalist thing.  The way we go about running our society is firmly anchored in our colonial past.  Canada is a proud member of the British Empire.  Well, the world has changed a lot since the demise of our historical progenitor.  The UK is no longer a world power.  It no longer matters what Britain thinks or does within the existing global order.

As a result, we are on are own.  We have to be making on our own decisions and we should do so with a decision making process that is made in Canada, a Canada that exists and preferably thrives in the twenty-first century.

 As a former colony we should know a thing or two about wealth extraction, particularly our natural resources, a process carried on principally for the benefit of those who do not reside here.  Sure, some of the wealth does trickle down, but for the most part, the most important economic activity centered on the depletion of our natural resources (oil, minerals, and forestry products) creates wealth disproportionately for the directors of foreign corporate entities.  In other words, the lion's share of the profits are funneled offshore.  It's been that way since the Hudson Bay Company and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company planted their corporate banners on Canadian soil and opened the land up for business.

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In order to keep the natives from getting restless (I'm talking about the millions of people who came here as economic refugees and their descendants and not the First Nations Peoples since they were taken care of by all together different and by far more cruel means) they are allowed to participate marginally in the electoral process that installs another corporate entity, otherwise known as a political party, that administers the affairs of the Dominion.

Importantly, it must be kept in mind that this process has never been democratic.  Canada is not a democracy.  How could it be democratic if it inherited its political institutions from the UK, which still to this day has a hereditary monarchy, no written constitution, and a bicameral parliament in which the upper house is still called, get this, THE HOUSE OF LORDS!  Rule Britannia.

In keeping with corporate rule, a political party is most definitely a corporate entity.  Its leader is the chief executive officer: he signs the papers of all those who would be candidates; if he forms a government, he chooses who will be his cabinet ministers; he appoints people to the Senate; he names judges to the Supreme Court; hell, he can unilaterally declare war if he wants to.  With such concentration of political power in his hands, small wonder that in reality the federal government in Canada is run out of the Prime Minister's Office.

At first glance, it may appear that Canadians are electing those people who will represent them in Parliament.  In reality, however, since all those who are elected to Parliament vote as they are told to vote by the party almost all of the time, what they are really doing is participating in the process which will see the governance function vested with the citizenry transferred to the Prime Minister, who for the most part becomes Canada's elected monarch, assuming the Crown's Royal Prerogative while governing the land.

As a result, a general election in Canada is in fact a contest to see which of the political parties will win "the contract" to administer the state.  Thereafter, having effectively transferred their sovereignty until whenever the Prime Minister calls the next election, (yes there is a law that stipulates that general elections are supposed to take place every four years, but because of the Prime Minister's Royal Prerogative, he is not obliged to abide by it) Canadians then stand on the sidelines and watch how power is wielded by the man to which the contract was awarded.  

Importantly, since the object of the exercise is to outsource the governance function and not to  democratically elect the people's representatives, it matters little that the political party that wins the contract rarely has the support of the majority of the electorate.  Most often, only forty percent of the votes cast is sufficient to award the contract to a single political party.  Yes, that does mean with a participation rate of about 60% (the eligible voters that actually cast a ballot) in a general election, the political party that has been chosen to run the country in reality does so with the support of less than 25% of those who are eligible to vote.

As you can imagine, such institutional practices have democrats in Canada wringing their hands and tearing out their hair in disgust.  Yet, Canadians seem to be quite content with the how the voting system performs its function: all four referendums that were held to change the first-past-the-post method at the provincial level did not gain sufficient support to go ahead and make the change.

I do not believe that is the unwavering respect for the Westminster parliamentary system that prevents Canadians from abandoning what is truly an outdated political institution.  Instead, I think the majority of Canadians prefer to be called upon only once every three to five years to make a political decision.  Let someone else sweat it out while we concentrate our efforts on our individual concerns.  If things get really bad, we can simply award the governance contract to another competitor.  That way we really don't have to keep on top of things like concerned citizens in other countries that enjoy democratic rule.  Who's got the time?

That being said, regardless of the Canadian desire to cede the political decision making to someone else, the present political landscape no longer lends itself to false-majority rule (plurality of seats won in Parliament).  Five out the six Parliaments have resulted in minority governments.  Moreover, it now appears that each of the three contenders for the crown have more or less the same support, perhaps two or three percentage points more for the leading party than the third party in the contest, well within the margin of error.  Finally, it could easily happen that the party that receives less of the popular vote than one of the others will form the next government because of the vagaries of the first-past-the-post voting system.

Perhaps, it is time Canada modernized its political institutions, beginning with the voting system.  Unlike Senate reform, it is entirely doable, no constitutional amendment needed.  Indeed, both the Liberals and the New Democrats have stated that if elected, this general election will be the last to be held under first-past-the-post. 

What remains to be seen is what type of voting system will replace the present one.  The New Democrats propose a proportional system that would make each and every vote an effective vote.  In such a system Canada would be moving to a more consensual form of government.  The Liberals, on the other hand, favor the alternative vote, which will keep Canada in a majoritarian/authoritarian system of government, much like Australia, which uses the alternative vote for its lower house, but elects its upper house with a form of proportional representation.

Could this be the last Canadian general election held under first-past-the-post? 

I bloody well hope so!!!



Tuesday, September 8, 2015

It Took A Photo of a Child Washed Up on a Beach To Get Canada's Political Class To Shut the Fuck Up About the Economy

Last week's electoral campaign in Canada took a turn from the banal to matters of importance. 

Early in the week, we learned that the Canadian economy had contracted for two consecutive quarters, and, as a result, the Canadian economy is by definition in a recession, albeit a mild one. 

Because the official status of a recession was pronounced during an electoral campaign, which up until last week was the most boring on record, the leaders of the political parties tried desperately to spin the latest statistics in their direction.  The opposition leaders claimed this was further proof of the government's mismanagement of the economy, while the Prime Minister responded that only the oil and gas sector was in recession and that the rest of the economy was doing fine.  As well, he said that last month's figures showed that "we had turned the corner."  Was this going to be the topic of debate for the next eight weeks?

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Then, something completely unexpected changed the focus of Canadians entirely.

The image of a drowned 3-year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach appeared on our screens and upon those around the world.  As we were to learn, his family was trying to emigrate to Canada and were unable to navigate the bureaucratic process that refugees must go through to make it to our shores, in spite of the fact that a member of the family was already living here.

That cut deep, to the very core of what it is to be Canadians.  We are the "UnAmericans."  Yes, in many ways we lead similar lives, but there are important differences.  Universal health care is one.  Decent public education is another.  We like to think of ourselves as the kinder, gentler America.

Yet, this image throws our long-held beliefs about ourselves into doubt.  Where was the compassion?  What have we become?  How did we fail so miserably to take in this family so desperately in need?

It is all fine and well to talk from time to time about interest rates, taxes, budgets, and trade, but not at the exclusion of everything else and especially not at the expense of things that really matter, those things that make us human, that make life worth living.

Sadly, the Canada in which I grew up in no longer exists. Over the years, we have become far too focused on the material aspect of life, hence the popularity of trying to reduce politics to little more than debates of economic policy.

Nations at their very core are imagined communities, meaning that we must imagine ourselves as part of a very large community and how we relate to others who are not members of our immediate family.  This is largely an act that carries with it feelings of belonging and of compassion for those who are less fortunate than we are.

Imagining ourselves solely as producers and consumers in an economy diminishes who we are, but that's exactly how the corporate sector and the media that it owns would have us believe are the most important aspects of life here in Canada.

But that image reached out and touched us.  It let us know that there is something seriously amiss with the way we lead our lives.

So, it will be interesting to see how the campaign unfolds from here.  Will we just forget that this tragedy ever happened and return to the well-worn script of talking economic shop, or will something different emerge, like a vision of another way to structure our society?

I can only hope that we can rediscover the compassion that was once part of this nation's fabric.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The 2015 Ballot Box Question: Who Can I Trust To Do The Right Thing?

The first couple of weeks of the Canadian 2015 General Election are mercifully over and the ballot box question has emerged, largely due to what has happened in the courtroom during the Mike Duffy trial and not by what has been said by the leaders during the campaign.  During the trial, it has become apparent that there was wrong doing by the members of the Prime Minister's staff, an attempted cover up, and the denial by the Prime Minister that he knew what his staff was up to.  Whose version of how the events that unfolded do you believe?

Well, that depends on whether you are a fervent supporter of one of the major political parties.  True blue Conservatives will believe the Prime Minister's version, while the supporters of the Liberals, Greens, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) will decode the received testimony of yet further evidence of the moral vacuum that has been guiding this country for the last ten years.

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But what about those who are not bonded to anyone of the major parties and can vote freely on election day?

I believe that it comes down to: who can you trust to do the right thing?  This operates in two different ways.  On one level, it involves an evaluation of what courses of actions are being proposed by each of the parties, in particular, what actions are being proposed to bring about what results in the fiscal and social spheres.  On an other level, it involves a judgement concerning how each of the parties would govern, which include issues of fairness, respect for all Canadians, transparency, and accountability.

With regard to the policy side, it really comes to what people believe about the role of government.  The Conservatives run on the idea of minimal intervention into the lives of Canadians, small government and low taxes.  The other parties would have a more activist approach, paying for their proposed interventions by increasing taxes on some segment of the society, either the corporate sector or for those who can afford to pay more or both.

Of course, a person's conception of what constitutes the good society and not the appeal of the leaders' hairstyles -- although Justin Trudeau does have the nicest hair -- will sway the vote towards one of the parties.

But where it gets tricky is the question of trust with regard to how the government is run.  Both the long standing ruling parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, have been plagued with scandals.  The Liberals lost their majority government due to the fallout of the Sponsorship scandal in 2004 and it now appears that the Conservatives will do the same in this general election with the fallout of the Senator Mike Duffy trial: their support is holding at less than 30% in the polls.

Which brings us to the NDP.

They don't have a tainted past in federal politics because they have never governed.  A similar situation existed earlier this year when Albertans, in what we thought was the most conservative province in Canada, voted in the provincial NDP to a majority government, ending  44 years of Progressive Conservative rule.  Looking at the polls, it looks like the NDP could form a minority government since the fear factor of electing an NDP government federally has diminished considerably.

The one thing that could change the existing dynamic is if the financial markets go into a free fall as was the case during the 2008 federal election.  It could happen that Canadians might not want to risk handing the reigns of power to an untried political party to lead the country through the tumultuous economic aftermath of a second financial crisis.  Better the devil you know than the one you don't.

In any case, only time will tell, and this campaign is dragging along at a snail's pace, leaving plenty of time for something exciting to happen. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Canada Embraces Its Watergate Moment And The People Will Decide, Maybe.

We could call the latest scandal in Canadian politics Duffygate, our version of the Watergate scandal that rocked America during the 1970s.  There are of course differences (tape recorded conversations vs. emails) but there are a lot of similarities in the unfolding of the two scandals.  In both instances, an unpopular leader of the country had to deal with the bungling of his underlings: in the US it was a bungled burglary attempt, in Canada it was a bungled Senate nomination.  In both instances there was a cover-up and the public was lied to.  In both instances, it was perceived that a breach of trust had occurred by the person occupying the highest and most important position in the country: in the case of Richard Nixon, he decided to resign rather than face an impeachment process; in the case of Stephen Harper, his fate will be decided by a grumpy Canadian electorate in the present general election.

Perhaps the most unsettling feature of both scandals is the contemptuous attitude that non-elected officials displayed towards the population at large, calling into question whether the two leaders shared this inclination and that the actions of the underlings were simply a manifestation of the culture created and maintained by the two men chosen to lead their respective countries.

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It could be argued that the unethical behavior is nothing more than the consequence of maintaining a political system in which political power is an all or nothing proposition.  To wield power the consent of the electorate must be won, and in the tradition of the political blood sport of electoral politics in North America, "winning isn't everything; it is the only thing."  Hence, the deception and manipulation are simply the means to a greater end.

However cynical this approach to politics might appear and whether the realpolitik in both Canada and the US actually functions in this manner, it fails to take into consideration the cornerstone of representative democracy: the trust that the electorate must have in transferring its sovereign power to an elected government.  Importantly, it is not required that everyone is in agreement with the government's programs and activities -- the electorate determines who possesses the legitimacy to act on behalf of the citizens, and if the people are not in agreement, those who are entrusted with that legitimacy can be voted out of office -- but while holding office those elected to act on behalf of the people must be trusted to act in the best interests of the citizens and to be truthful in their communication.  Failure to do so on either count constitutes a breach of trust and undermines the capacity of the political system to function.  After all, regardless of the power of mass communication in the information age, it still comes down to each individual citizen to evaluate the performance of an elected government and this cannot be done properly if the electorate has been deceived.

As a result, the result of the Canadian 2015 General Election will not be determined by the ideas and proposals from each of the political parties concerning the economy, social programs, the environment, and national security.  It will unfold as a morality play in painfully slow motion. 

Essentially, to re-elect the Stephen Harper led Conservatives, Canadians must decide if Mr. Harper is a man that can be trusted.  If they decide yes he can be trusted, a return to a minority Conservative government is by no means out of the question.  If they decide no, then the result of the general election is really a crap shoot, coming down to whether dissatisfied supporters of the Conservative Party decide to opt for the Liberals as the lesser of two evils, decide that the leader of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau, is like the Tory ads say, not ready for the job and vote for the New Democrats, or stay at home and not vote at all.

If you like a horse race, as the first-past-the-post voting system implies, this one is too close to call.  It will go down to the wire, and without question the vagaries of the voting method will influence the final result. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

When It Comes To Boring Nobody Does It Better Than Canada

A Group of Canadians Watching the Leaders Debate
Same as it ever was . . .
Same as it ever was . . . 
(Once In A Lifetime, The Talking Heads)

It's a moody Manitoba mornin'
Nothing's really happening, it never does (Moody Manitoba Morning, The Bells)

Having lived all my life in Canada, I am struck by the boring sameness of life in the Great White North.  Yes, there are some interesting places to visit and some interesting people to get to know, but, all in all, living here is like watching the snow melt.

I think it has something to do with the geography.  In a travel brochure you might see some appealing photos of Quebec City, Peggy's Cove, Niagara Falls and the Rocky Mountains, but what the brochures fail to mention is the vast distances separating our sights of interest and how excruciatingly boring it is to traverse those spaces of the big empty.

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Canada's Lamentable Lack of Imagination
Canada's Greatest Cultural Achievement: The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

I know.  I come from the prairies.  Living in Winnipeg was cool, but ask anyone what it is like to drive in or out of Winnipeg on the Trans Canada Highway.  The greatest danger comes from the fact that the land is incredibly flat and the road is incredibly straight.  It is so boring that people fall asleep at the wheel while driving, leading, of course, to tragic consequences.

A couple of years ago, I decided to drive from Ottawa to Winnipeg and traversed our largest province, Ontario.  Let me tell you, the Canadian Shield is interesting for about fifteen minutes of the two full days of seeing nothing but rocks and lakes and trees and the occasional Tim Horton's, Canada's favorite coffee and doughnut shop.  So boring that my two sons sucked me into an argument when leaving Thunder Bay about whether Terry Fox is a Canadian hero just to yank my chain in order to break up the monotony.

I can also attest that driving from Winnipeg northward to Thompson, Manitoba, and along Quebec's Lower North Shore are as boring if not more so than driving across Ontario.  Some would argue that the most boring drive is from Montreal to Toronto.  It's difficult to decide.  To do so would involve an extremely boring conversation I would rather avoid.

Regardless, if people are to survive and prosper, they need to be genetically endowed to be able endure long periods of time where nothing much happens and to fill those days, weeks, months, and years, with mind-numbing routines in order to pass the time.  Life in Canada is about exciting as paying down a 25 year mortgage.

My father, on the other hand, lived through some remarkable times.  He grew up during the Depression; went off to fight in the Second World War; played professional football; brought up two kids that saw a man walking on the moon.

Not me.

The only iconic moment that comes to mind thinking about the last fifty years in Canada was Paul Henderson scoring the winning goal with the time running out in the final game of the Canada-Russia Summit Series in 1972.  Not a lot has happened since.  Like what?  The Charter, NAFTA, Justin Bieber?  That's about it.  History is what happens outside of Canada.

Which brings me to Canada's current General Election, which will go down in history as one of the longest and most boring electoral campaigns ever held, as about exciting as driving across Ontario. 

In fact, Canada's present social contract has been in place for more than 40 years.  All we do is tinker at the periphery.  Raise or lower taxes slightly.  Add on an additional social program here and there.  Nothing that would rock the boat.  Steady as she goes.

It appears that we are either incapable or not really wanting to make any institutional changes.  We have a hereditary monarch as our head of state; an appointed corrupt upper house that cannot be reformed in any meaningful way; and an antiquated voting method that distorts electoral results.  Yeah, but life is good, especially if you happen to be from British or French stock.

Case in point.  Holding what will most likely the only televised debate between the leaders of Canada's major political parties more than two months before the day of the election.  Not that many people watched it, and most of those who did will forget about it.

Apparently, the biggest event that will mark the campaign is when Statistics Canada publishes the latest data concerning Canada's economic growth.  After five straight months of miniscule contractions of the GDP, one more makes it official: we are in a RECESSION.  Oh my god!  Run for the hills! 

Unless you work in the oil and gas sector, you won't feel a thing except paying less for gasoline when you fill up.  For those who do work in the oil and gas producing provinces, you could vote against the governing party, but then again we all know that the Conservatives do not control the price of a barrel of oil, and eventually either the Americans or the Saudis or both will come to their senses and curtail their production levels in order for the price of oil to rise, and with it Canada's GDP.

All in all, it comes down to which leader can do the least harm.  Four more years of the same, or four years of someone brand new that is trying to convince us that there are no big plans in the works?  These are the choices?

In any case, whoever forms the next government will probably not have a majority of seats in Parliament.  Nothing new there, four out of the last five governments have had less than 50% of the seats. 

Stay tuned.  Given how the first-past-the-post voting system does not work very well with multi-party elections, I am sure that the results will be something of a surprise, but nothing that would motivate Canadians to make any significant changes to our political system

After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  Let's keep on chugging along with what we got, and thank God we are not living in Greece or Afghanistan or in Central America, places where you can't sit patiently and watch the snow melt.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Big Bumble: The 2015 Canadian General Election

Sometimes, I think Canada should change it's name to Bumbleslavia, a land in which people bumble along and where bumbles are common and appreciated by the people: "Did you see the latest bumble?  Yeah, that was a good one. It will be hard to beat."

The latest Big Bumble -- methinks it will be in the running for the Grand Prize in the Bumble of the Year Awards -- is the Prime Minister calling a general election in the middle of the summer while most people are away on vacation, eleven weeks before the day of the election.

Why on earth would he do that?

Well, as could be expected, our government bumbled big time when drawing up the so-called, Fair Elections Act (ha ha ha, calling elections fair in Bumbleslavia always gets a laugh).  The Minister responsible for drawing up the law did not foresee that groups who do not support the ruling party would start spending large amounts of money to air television commercials critical of the government in anticipation of the upcoming election. 

Oops!  Easy to understand since Bumbleslavia is running its first election where the date of the election was fixed by law, not that the Prime Minister is always bound to respect the laws his government draws up, the last general election was held before the fixed date!

But as we like to say in Bumbleslavia, one good bumble deserves another.

In this case, there just happens to be a clause written into the Fair Elections Act (tee hee, sorry I couldn't help myself) that increases the amount of money political parties can spend during the election if the campaign is longer than the prescribed 37 days.  This election will be the longest in living memory and will double the spending limit.  Oh, I guess you should know that only the ruling party has enough money to do so, and taxpayers will be picking up half of the bill.  Oops!

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According to the former Director of Elections, this move on the part of the Prime Minister is gaming the system, running contrary to the notion of having fixed election dates and having fair elections (big chuckle).  In the Bumbleslavian way of thinking, the Prime Minister saw an opportunity to expose a bumble in the law and did so and should be applauded.

I think the former Director is just feeling grumpy because he no longer presides over the Bamboozling Bumble that goes by the name of the Canadian General Election.  What makes it really interesting is that governments are formed on the basis of the first-past-the-post voting method. 

Get this!  Governments are formed in Canada not on the basis of the popular vote, but on the basis of the number of electoral districts won by each party.  To win an electoral district, a candidate doesn't need a majority of the votes.  He or she just needs to get more votes than the other candidates.

Wow! That means that in a close three-way race, more people could vote for the two losing candidates combined than for the winning candidate.  Get out of town!

Wait, it gets better.  Counting up all the electoral districts, a party could form what in Bumbleslavia is referred to a majority government (guffaw) by winning half of the electoral seats that are up for grabs.  Doesn't that mean that the so-called majority government could get elected with substantially less than fifty percent of the vote?  Absolutely!  In other words, more people could have voted against the ruling party than who voted for it.  And you call that "Democracy"?
Oops, but only in Bumbleslavia.  You see, in Canada we take the Big Bumbles all in stride.  Don't worry.  Be happy.  Why fret about what we are really good at.

I love you Canada.

Bumble on and bumble strong in the Great White North!!!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Greece Has Been Shat Upon With the Dung of the Devil

Over the last few weeks, I could not but help notice the parallel narratives unrolling with the Pope on tour in South America condemning the moral bankruptcy of our present economic system and the arduous negotiations surrounding yet another bailout of the Greek government.  In short, the Pope repeatedly exposed the absence of morality within capitalism and linked it to the exploitation of the poor and the rising environmental crisis encircling the globe.  As Pope Francis points out -- I still find it strange that I would be quoting the Pope, but hey, he tells like it is -- capitalism today is the dung of the devil:

An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind.  Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.

Sounds like a pretty accurate description on what is happening in Europe.  For instance, we have witnessed the usurping of Greek sovereignty over its territory, Greece having been reduced to the status of a debtor colony by the German led European Union, which has become little more than an extension of European banking system, that above all protects the interests of the French, Swiss, and German banks.
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The Greek people, on the other hand, are being sacrificed on the altar of maintaining a common currency.  The so called structural adjustments imposed upon the Greeks have just made matters worse: the economy has shrunk by 25%, and young Greeks are leaving the country to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and why wouldn’t they, facing the bleak prospect of trying to find a job in a country where the unemployment rate for the young top 50%.  As well, child poverty is rampant and the suicide rate has skyrocketed.  So much for being a member of the European Union. 

To make matters worse, officials from the European Commission will be in place to make sure that the Greeks continue to liquidate whatever remaining public assets that can be sold off at fire sale prices, the proceeds going to cover a portion of the potential, or should I say inevitable, losses that the European banks stand to incur.

Eventually, there will be a day of reckoning.  Indeed, the Washington based International Monetary Fund has indicated in one its reports that given the present state of the Greek economy, Greece will not be able to meet its debt obligations: “Greece’s debts can only be sustainable with debt relief measures going far beyond what the Eurozone has offered so far.”

In fact, Greece’s accumulated debt has reached 200% of its GDP while its economy continues to shrink.  In other words, the economic activities within the Greek economy do not and, most likely, will not generate sufficient revenue so that the Greek government can pay off its debt.

The former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, makes the point succinctly when speaking to the BBC. He said that the program that Greece was subjected to “will go down in history as the greatest disaster of macroeconomic management ever.”
Say what you will about the Greek penchant of not paying their taxes, awarding themselves overly generous pension plans, and defrauding the social system, the million dollar question (pardon the pun) is the following: given the present state of the Greek economy why continue to extend credit, three massive bailouts in five years, and continue to pretend that the structural adjustments that to date have utterly failed will somehow miraculously resuscitate and bring the moribund Greek economy back to life? 

Where the dung of the devil seems to be pretty thick is with the German-led banking system.  If there is any nation on this planet that should be aware of the effects of debt relief, it is definitely the Germans, having been crushed by the reparations imposed by the victors of the First World War in the Treaty of Versaille, which many believe that created the conditions that brought about the Second World War, and having been forgiven for their debts during the reconstruction years of the Marshall Plan.  Indeed, the Germans were the beneficiaries of an overwhelmingly forgive and forget attitude on the part of the allies who could have sought their "pound of flesh", which given the scale of the harm the Germans inflicted upon humanity, they could still be paying today and would do so for the next thousand years.

So, where's the love?

It's not as if the German banks were lending the Greeks a portion of the hard gained savings of the German population.  The money that was lent was created out of thin air in writing up the IOU to the Greek government which then reciprocated with one of their own to the consortium of European banks.  Moreover, potential losses due to non-performing loans can be easily removed off the balance sheets by the act of quantitative easing in which the European Central Bank also creates money from thin air and transfers the bad debt away from those banks that were foolish enough to lend funds to the Greek government in the first place, a practice that the American Federal Reserve employed to prop up to the too big to fail banks in the US following the collapse of the financial markets in 2008-09. 

Simply put, the European banks do not want the contagion to spread.  The default of a small member country like Greece would not imperil the solvency of the European Union.  However, other countries like Portugal, Spain, and Italy would do considerable harm to the continued viability of the EU if they too were to default on their debt obligations.  By teaching the Greeks a lesson they will never forget, the aforementioned nations take notice and fall into line with the dictates of the European Central Bank.

The other thing to consider is the exposure that the banks holding the Greek debt have with regard to the derivatives markets.  A default could trigger a chain of massive payments that could freeze the liquidity of the entire European banking system, and, as a result, the entire European economy. 

Perhaps, this is the scenario that needs to be avoided at all costs.  In such a situation, the Greek government's default must be avoided for the time being, and if that means extending credit to a debtor that cannot repay the debt in order to keep the debtor nation on life support for an indefinite period of time, so be it.  In the meantime, the significant extraction of wealth from the Greek economy can be used to hedge against the repercussions of a possible default, even make money if it indeed comes about.

As you can imagine, the Greeks find themselves in an extremely shitty situation.  Regardless of the financial strategies, the desire to make money from money amongst the creditors trumps the productive use of capital in Greece's real economy.  Without access to sufficient lines of credit from its domestic banks, businesses cannot finance their day-to-day operations.  As a result, many of them will simply close their doors, laying off employees in the process, while they contemplate moving their operations elsewhere.  By doing so, the economy continues to shrink as do the revenues of the state and the capacity to service the existing debt.  Caught in a vicious circle, it should not come as a surprise if the pain caused by the imposition of draconian fiscal measures upon the society lead to social unrest and violence.  In the worse case scenario, one the Germans know all too well, the drowning man will clutch upon a dragon and those from the far right will take control of the state. 

What we have been witness to in Europe is the machinations of an amoral political agenda, which organizes the global community into becoming the means to the end of maximizing profit at the expense of the human condition and the health of the planet.  Breaking free from this institutional order cannot be done by simply changing the positions of the economic levers.  It can only be achieved by changing the moral code at the base of our society.

In such a context, what Pope Francis has been saying over the last couple of weeks needs to be taken seriously and acted upon, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.      

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Pope Francis Captures the Moral High Ground Much to the Dismay of His Detractors

Way to go Frank!  You really knocked that one out of the park.  I never thought that I'd be writing about an encyclical from you, but what you had to say about climate change and how it is connected to the economy and our relationship with the planet and the rest of humanity pretty well sums up what I and a host of other progressive bloggers have been writing about for the last few years. 

Coming from you, however, carries a moral authority that has the potential to counterbalance the amoral neoliberal garbage that is spewed upon us by the traditional media, captured, for the most part, by a money-grubbing, Mammon-worshiping, financial elite and their minions.

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There are many memorable quotes to be found in this encyclical.  Perhaps the most direct, no holds barred observation is "the Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth." 

Tell it like it is Frank.  Don't pull any punches.

It's refreshing to hear a message that doesn't buy into the economy uber alles bullshit we hear everyday.  If you can read between the lines, it goes something like this:

Through put.  It's all about through put.  The more of the earth's natural resources we can extract and put to use, the better it is for all of us.  Don't worry about the toxic waste.  If you make enough cash, you can live far away from the garbage dumps.  Climate change?  Who gives a fuck about climate change when you and me will be long dead before the worst of it arrives?  Greed is good, I tell ya.  It's all about making as much cash as you can, and don't let anybody stand in you way, least of all those tree-hugging, bike-peddling, granola-munching, solar panel freaks that will be forcing us all to drive Priuses if we let them.

Ok, I had my fun, but, on the serious side, Pope Francis goes for the jugular when he exposes the irrational belief in the market's "invisible hand", the economists blind leap of faith which will make everything just right:

Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention.

You got that right Frank. The quality of life doesn't come down to the bottom line. 

Life is a mystery. Nevertheless, we just happen to live on an incredibly beautiful planet.  For the most part, what's been missing from the climate change debate is a sense of morality, and who better than the Pope to capture the essence of the moral question we face.  In his words:

When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity.

Powerful words that we need to return to from time to time regardless of one's religious beliefs.  Yes, these words are indeed addressed to everyone on the planet.

In closing, I take great pleasure in thinking that Pope Francis will now use the considerable means that he has at his disposal to get his message out to his more than a billion followers, and there is nothing that the traditional media can do about it except watch.

Thanks Frank.  Your sense of timing is impeccable, or should I say infallible.  ;-)