Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Free to Be" -- 40 years on

For what I think will be my last post of the year, I wanted to reflect on something I heard about a couple of weeks ago -- the 40th anniversary of Free to Be... You and Me and the impact it had on a generation of kids.    Including me, who was born the year the record was first released.

To this day, it's unbelievable that a series of stories about encouraging kids to meet their own expectations rather than that of their caregivers or "society" at large would have angered so many people.   Maybe the fact it was sponsored by Ms. Magazine was a red flag in and of itself.   The topics that it raised (gender appropriate toys and sports, interracial marriages, who should do housework, etc.)  Or that Marlo Thomas got a whole cortège of celebrities to join her in the recording studio, every one of which were derided as liberals and therefore not in the so-called "silent majority" that supposedly opposed the values the book spoke of.

Who knows?   But the album and book did have a minor but still significant part in my life.   Here's my story.

Back in the winter of 1987, during my freshman year at high school, I was learning to play the clarinet, my third instrument after classical piano and church organ.   The teacher, surprised at my knowledge of music theory (I was, without being boastful, acing the theoretical tests) was even more surprised when she learned I knew the piano.

It turned out the music teacher was putting together a performance of Free to Be... You and Me using a lot of the material from the book -- and after hearing me play a few classical pieces off the cuff, tapped me for the musical accompaniment.   The TV special spawned about two years after the book was not available, but the cassette tape was, as was a book that had the sheet music.   Having a chance to go through a book I had so much fun reading back in elementary school (during my two years in special education) was fun, but listening to the tape for the first time gave me a fresh insight I could not have anticipated.   I knew who Marlo Thomas was of course -- daughter of Danny, wife of Phil Donahue  -- but I never expected to hear Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Rita Coolidge, Dionne Warwick and others (they didn't need to be introduced, I knew the voices, simple as that).

The acting group, across all levels of high school, was a great cast and I don't think I ever had so much fun in school up to that point.   The "work in progress" performance at school (actually two campuses since at the time the freshman and sophomore levels were in one cramped building, and the junior and senior levels at another larger but half-empty campus  -- eventually the two campuses were re-merged at the latter a couple of years later) got very favourable comments from the rest of the student body who too loved the album when they were younger.

Encouraged by that, we castmates then spent the next month rearranging the numbers into a coherent one act play and took it to a city-wide high school drama contest.   Actually we were in an "out of competition" section  because the rules stipulated an "in competition" play had to be completely original. 

There were only two plays "out of competition".   One was ours.   The other, performed first, was a two person play called Next -- the 1969 story written by Terrence McNally about a man mistakenly called to the draft board who wants out, and the female drill sergeant just as determined to sign him up   I can't remember which high school, unfortunately.    Of course, our cast watched their play from the audience -- I'm still not sure if most of us had even heard of Next before -- and to be honest the one hour battle of wits was so engaging it almost completely threw off our concentration for our performance ahead and we actually had to regroup for a few minutes before setting up the backdrop and furniture, and their cast watched ours.   Afterwards backstage all of us (including the other guys), as well as the contest's organizers,   commented at the shocking but very appropriate  juxtaposition between the two, and within the same general backdrop (the conflict in Vietnam).

It's funny in a way -- Thomas and McNally.    How two completely different stories with completely different geneses could actually compliment each other.

But that's my story about "Free to Be."    And how it reaffirmed my belief and those of my classmates in the importance of sticking to one's guns and holding your ground, whether through measured optimism or carefully directed cynicism.

If we only teach our kids or younger siblings those very simple values, then we will all be truly free.   I firmly believe that.

Happy New Year, folks ... try not to get too drunk.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Now we finally know the real price of milk, thanks to the teabags

We're all familiar with the concept of a loss leader -- a store will deliberately price key products to a price below cost, often way below cost.    This is to get people into the store to buy stuff that is overpriced.    A good example are razor handles and blades -- the sample pack is cheap, but the replacement refills are extortionist, even at club pack warehouses.    The same with food staples like milk and sugar.   We get upset when milk goes up even ten cents a 4 litre bag or jug but the price has been more or less steady the last seven or eight years and growth well below inflation.  But the price stores pay is still less than the real price of production.

But there's another a part to the problem.   Whether by marketing boards that set a cartel price (and guaranteed profit for producers) or by any of a number of farm subsidies (one kind of "corporate welfare") stores actually pay less than they otherwise would.   If they paid the true price of production, in other words break even for the farmers, food would get way more expensive than it otherwise could be.

We often think of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy for making food prices more than they should be.   But for some foods it could be way more and put many less well off consumers into greater hardship were the subsidies were not there.

But that could all change in the States as early as next Tuesday.   Among the many line items that will be affected if the US President and Congress can't agree on a fiscal plan by a week today are farm subsidies.  And if dairy producers in particular have their subsidies cut off, they'll have to either sell the milk on their own or go into a Canadian style marketing board to fix prices like OPEC does for oil, then stores will have to pay the full price.   Since stores buying the milk at the reset price would become so expensive that a loss leader price strategy would be fiscal suicide, they'll have no choice but to charge full price just to break even.

The average retail price of milk in the United States is $3.65 per US gallon (3.785 litres).   If the subsidies go, that price will skyrocket ... to eight bucks.    In other words, the real price.   (If the same applies to Canada, we're also paying only 40% of the true cost.)  To ensure a "stable" market, the Department of Agriculture would have to get into the business of buying milk -- by law, and this is a "poison pill" of sorts that was introduced in 1949 and never intended to be used -- just to try to backstop the carnage.   To stay afloat yoghurt, cheese and butter producers would have to import milk from other countries.   Including, say ... Canada?

As Yakov Smirnoff says, "What a country!!!"   The teabags -- or at least the true libertarians among them, not the fascists who want things to go back to the pre-civil rights era) are all about limiting government to the lowest level necessary.  But they don't have a problem with subsidizing the national forests, which are actually owned by the Department of Agriculture (not Interior as with National Parks or Fish and Wildlife areas, or other recreation areas owned by either Energy or Defense).   They don't have a problem with spending tons of money subsidizing the construction of toll roads that are privately owned and/or operated.   They also don't mind giving tax breaks to people who buy $100k + cars, but not to small businesses who want the ability to compete with the big guys.

So why do the TBs (yeah, really bad abbreviation) who backstop forest companies for cutting federal timber lands -- feel just fine with pissing off a major part of their base?

Actions, or the lack thereof, have consequences.    I've said it before and I'll say it again, America needs major austerity big time.   But if little people, upstream and downstream, are the victims -- then the GOP will rue the day they let the NRA buy them off because the gun nuts will get really and sorely tempted to turn their anger on the legislative, not the executive.

Fasten your seat belts.   If DC goes off the cliff next week, then the real fun begins.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

When will Scalia just shut up?

Antonin "Nino" Scalia, the current dean of the US Supreme Court and a very staunch conservative, has always had a way with words especially in the opinions he authors for the majority or in dissent.   There is no question he is a champion of free speech and expression -- he has often sided with liberals on such issues as flag burning and song parodies.

He has also been further to the right than even many in the right on issues such as airplane and maritime accidents -- his sentiment, which is carried by the Court as a whole, is that international treaties on shipping give passengers the same treatment as cargo and therefore mandatory payouts to families should be no different (in most cases, an accidental death of this nature results in reparations as little as $12,000 per head).

He has never made a secret of his opinion that homosexuals pose a grave threat to the so-called "morals" of America.   This has indeed been his long standing position over 25 years.

But just days after the Court agreed to hear and consolidate two appeals -- one, California's legal appeal of the Ninth Circuit striking down Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban (that is, a legal appeal in the sense that California is only asking for the court to uphold the law itself even though Governor Jerry Brown openly opposes it); and two, a gay couple challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act which denies spousal benefits to same sex couples even in states that allow gay marriage or recognize same sex common law partnerships -- Scalia got into an argument with a student at Princeton, in front of 800 others.

The student, a freshman named Duncan Hosie, is eighteen and openly gay -- asked if Scalia was at least willing to reconsider his on the court record harsh comments.   Said Hosie:
I think there is a fundamental difference between arguing the Constitution does not protect gay sex, which is a defensible and legitimate legal position I disagree with, and comparing gays to people who commit murder or engage in bestiality.  Do you have any regret or shame for drawing these comparisons you did in your dissents?
 Scalia remained unrepentant:
If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against these other things?  Of course we can. I don’t apologize for the things I raised. I’m not comparing homosexuality to murder. I’m comparing the principle that a society may not adopt moral sanctions, moral views, against certain conduct. I’m comparing that with respect to murder and that with respect to homosexuality.  It's an argument by way of reductio ad absurdim.  It’s a type of argument that I thought you would have known…. I’m surprised you aren’t persuaded.
Is this an issue about religion -- an apologist for the Vatican?   Hardly.   If that was the case, a lot of court decisions would have gone his way.   But the Catholics on the Court are as diverse as Catholics are -- indeed, any religious grouping is -- in America.

At the present time, the Court is composed of six Catholics and three Jews -- the first time ever that SCOTUS has no Protestants at the Marble Temple.  Besides Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito are almost certain to vote no on gay marriage.  I think the latter is a given, since he famously said at the appeals level in the Pennsylvania case 20 years ago that ultimately upheld abortion rights although also severely curtailed them -- that while he agreed with the majority the state had gone too far with mandatory spousal notification, the courts had no business in overturning laws even if they were patently stupid.

I also think it's pretty obvious that the three Jewish justices will vote for gay marriage.   Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan have consistent liberal records so that's a no brainer.

One of the other Catholics, Sonia Sotomayor, will almost certainly vote for gay marriage too.

So with the balance 4-3, once again, it comes down to the two swing votes.    Kennedy is a conservative on most criminal matters but on social issues has tended to lean left.    A yea vote would put it over the top.   But it is not at all clear how he'll vote on this issue.    Chief Justice Roberts has also proven to be a conservative -- but he voted to uphold "Obamacare" earlier this year, to the shock of just about everyone.

It's okay to have one's opinions.   But to express them so openly, outside of the courtroom, morally disqualifies Scalia from participating in consideration.    It can be tricky having an eight member bench, since in case of a tie the appeals court holding is what stands.   But if Roberts can be persuaded, then gay marriage would win whether it's 5-4 or 4-4.   Then anything Scalia has said, no matter how much he has a right to that opinion, won't matter at all.

And I think that's a good thing.   For as another conservative but very open minded former Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision that upheld Roe v. Wade, "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code."


UPDATE 7:20 PM EST, 0020 GMT Friday):  A couple of clarifying additions.  Also, the more I think about Scalia's comments, the more of a pinhead he is showing himself to be.   If Rush Limbaugh was labelled as such by no less than Bill O'Reilly then Scalia deserves at least as much derision.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Canada's F-35 -- the $46 billion dollar boondoggle

Later today, the Amsterdam based accounting firm Kynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG ™) will issue a report regarding the proposed procurement of 65 Lockheed-Martin F-35-A Lightning II fighter jets for the Canadian Air Force.   If media previews are to be believed, the program will be way higher than the $9 billion originally claimed by PMS and Co.   Higher than the $30 billion suggested some time ago by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.   (And who knows how much the Auditor General, Canada's top accountant, will say it is when he files his findings in an upcoming quarterly report).

KPMG will say that the actual cost of the jets, including maintenance over a projected 36 year life cycle will, in fact, be anywhere from $40 to $46 billion.   At an original sale price of $75,000,000 per pop, plus about $9 billion in maintenance costs the government originally claimed, we're looking at a boondoggle that is 3.5 to 4 times originally budgeted.    Worse, the Canadian share of maintenance contracts will be only $9 billion, most of the rest will likely go to the States.    Keep in mind the $75 mill was the original price -- current estimates are actually about $150,000,000 off the shelf; which jumps to about $250,000,000 with weapons systems attached plus adaptations for Canada's very harsh climate both winter and summer.

Military contracts gone out of control has been the bane of too many governments both left and right.   One thinks of relatively "minor" infractions over the years such as the feds providing infrastructure money for building overpasses for highways that were originally decades away from being built (the roads often later tolled despite commitments from the provinces not to do so, were later fast-tracked due to safety issues on arterial roads, inclement micro-climates, or both).

But this goes way beyond that.   The Air Force is our first line of military defence -- not just against hostile régimes such as North Korea (which finally has succeeded in launching a three stage rocket, putting the Canadian and American West Coasts firmly in the Kim dynasty's sights) -- but also against the current and equally ominous threat of terrorists who are fighting for some kind of "nation" but actually neither have a country nor can have something taken away from them that which they have already renounced.

Of course, this branch of the military, perhaps even more so than the other two (Army and Navy) needs to have the best possible equipment.    We as civilians should demand nothing less for our courageous men and women.

But as on the civilian side of all matters fiscal, we need to also insist not just on value for money (a single engine fighter jet is a cockamamie idea for the obvious reason) but also that midstream and back-ended costs are properly calculated and budgeted for.   In the present circumstance, it also requires the manufacturer warranty any unexpected repairs and for an extended period, for all or most of the anticipated life cycle.   If the plane is sold more or less as is, then it becomes a bill of goods.

The fact that the purchase decision for this particular plane was made almost totally untendered (by the previous Liberals who started the ball rolling, unfortunately) is bad enough.   But the Con government couldn't just blame things entirely on their predecessors    Despite growing evidence that the maintenance costs were much higher than claimed, indeed were getting more and more expensive as time went on, the executive kept sticking to the lower figure.

If the government misrepresented the truth in Parliament then they are in contempt of the national legislature.   In that case, Harper has to have the guts to say "I'm sorry."   Two simple words.    If Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods ™ could do so on tainted meat products, then the PM has a duty to do so on something far more grave than that -- nothing should be more important to the duties of our head of government than national security.    I'm not talking about going public the launch codes for our non-nuclear (which all of them are) missiles.   That of course, should be a closely guarded secret.   I'm talking about transparency of the kind that ensures we have the confidence that what we are buying for the military is the best equipment at the best price.

I'm not the only one who's suggested this but we need to start all over, albeit on a fast track process, and have bureaucrats from a non-military department go through the potential bidders and pick what is truly the best one -- just as we did for the Navy procurement program recently.

This is one hell of a Christmas present.   In this case, we get stuck with a huge lump of coal -- pretty much all the coal mines in the country's production for several years worth.   If no one's minding the store on this file, who knows what big surprise lies ahead next?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Immigration "reforms" actually regressive

We're starting to see the fallout from the Con government's proposed changes to immigration policy.   And while I agree that such policies need a reboot every now and then to meet current trends (and to a lesser extent, changes in social morés), what is shaping up to be what we'll be stuck with for at least the next twenty years is anything but promising.

For one thing, I see absolutely no evidence that the provinces were consulted.    This is a huge warning flag since immigration is supposed to be a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial governments.   In a world of extremely tight budgets, it is well and proper that the provinces should have the lead role in determining their respective needs for certain types of workers (Alberta, obviously, needs energy  and agricultural workers; while Ontario requires people in high tech and health care companies as well as for forests and mines).   This is because it's the high value and high paying jobs that generate the most revenues for the sub national governments.

There does appear to be some sense in reducing the weighting on proficiency in either English or French (although there should be some competency in one or both languages if not outright fluency).

But there appear to be no changes in the settlement monies to the provinces for regular class immigrants.   The amounts offered (about $5000 per capita in Québec and $3400 in the other provinces) don't even begin to cover the upfront costs.   The provinces have every right to demand a bigger slice of the pie and to increase their role in the selection process with agreements renegotiated more frequently (say, every five years or so instead of decades) and more transparently with legislative review.

As well there also doesn't appear (still) to be any fiscal arrangements to help legitimate refugees settle other than the "good offices" of local social groups as well as international NGOs such as the Red Cross-Red Crescent alliance and the Salvation Army.   And if that's not bad enough, the Cons are changing the list of what are considered "safe countries of origin" -- those where the receiving country believes that a "well founded fear of persecution" never or almost never exists.

These include, amongst others, the 27 European Union members, the US and Australia, among others.   But among the proposed list are some Central American countries which while nominally are democracies (finally) still have pretty bleak (and that is being mild) human rights records -- especially against women, Native North Americans and journalists.    Also are countries in Africa which have well known abuses against minorities and women even if they too have democratized.

And let's not forget, there are still many countries where the mere fact that one is LGBT is cause for persecution as well as prosecution.   True, there are many Canadians who have major personal moral qualms about alternative lifestyles but are at least willing to be tolerant of them.    What lies ahead possibly is a situation not unlike the "Voyage of the Damned" where this country indirectly participated in the Holocaust by sending a boatload of European Jews back to the other side of the pond because of widespread prejudice here at the time, including very prominently from "monarchist women's" groups.

Those on the so-called "safe list" will still get a Singh hearing but will not be able to appeal a negative decision to the Refugee Appeals Board; instead they will have to go directly to the Federal Court of Appeal (which normally handles such issues as claims for disability pensions denied by the CPP, patent and copyright disputes, and appeals for worker's comp for federal public servants).   Most lawyers will tell you that a "federal case" can be way more costly to prepare than a provincial civil trial and legal aid even more difficult to obtain than for the provincial courts or tribunals.    Most refugees therefore will just go home, or maybe even "forum shop" to another country that doesn't share "black lists" with Canada.

But lastly, it's not heartening to hear that the "investor" class is getting the short shaft.   While there have been some families who have "bought" citizenships as a matter of convenience in case things go really wrong in their home countries (think Mainland China, for instance, which keeps regressing on human rights) most have put their money here on good faith, creating jobs and on the presumption that they would get a fast track to naturalization.     Now, it seems, many of them are being forced to the back of the line to start over even though they have successfully resettled here.    If that's not acting in bad faith I'm not sure what is.

There's no way that we should ever go back to the "Whites First" policy we had for decades (and white supremacists -- ahem, "British Israelists" -- have long lobbied to have reinstated).

But I suspect many first and second generation Canadians would never have gotten over here if they had to qualify under the new proposed rules.   Canada is a better country because we have welcomed immigrants of all classes, all races and from all countries.   Most importantly, there may be an argument for "safe third countries" but the list has to be a lot narrower, otherwise Canada will lose a lot of potential migrants.    Even the  policies of the US and the Schengen bloc in Europe right now look way more enlightened.

Friday, November 30, 2012

"State" of Palestine? Where *and for what why)?

Yesterday, the UN General Assembly voted to grant Palestine the same status as the Vatican -- "non member observer state."   I have the feeling that if we in Canada had a Liberal or ND government, this country would have voted to abstain as more than 40 countries did.    That's the position we took in 1988 when the UNGA elected to temporarily adjourn from NYC to Geneva to hear a speech by Yasser Arafat of the PLO.   Of course, we have a conservative Conservative government and Harper directed our Ambassador there to vote No.   Odd we'd be in the same camp as the Democratic Obama albeit for very different reasons.   As you will read, I think that the way the UN did it yesterday was wrong-headed.   But not for the reasons that PMS had.

More than a year ago I wrote about this, that the concept of NMOS of Palestine, at least for now, was ill advised and for the same reason as now (in much more detail).   There is no clearly defined boundary of what would be a State of Palestine.   Officially, Canada takes the same position as most of the world -- that Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and most importantly East Jerusalem are not part of Israel and the occupations are illegal.   The existence of Israeli settlements which are operative exclaves of Israel are illegal.  (I have written numerous times here about legal exclaves -- just two of which include Alaska detached from the rest of the United States by Canada, and the gambling resort of Campione which is completely separated from Italy by Switzerland -- as opposed to these illegal territories and the real reason for their dubious existence.)

While I do support the concept of a country called Palestine, this really isn't the way to do it.  Not just because the borders have not been settled.   \This is not like Switzerland (which was originally an NMOS and evaded UN membership until 2002 even though it hosts the European headquarters at what used to be the League of Nations, and still maintains a policy of strict neutrality in world affairs although it does vote Yea or Nay at most of the General Assembly votes)    This is not like the Vatican which is still not a full member but a NMOS (the argument being that being a member would force it to take positions on world politics -- which is disingenuous, just read the diplomatic correspondence it does publish at its website !)

The precedents  show that a non member state ought to be neutral.   In the ball park that Palestine is in and given the history of occupation and being dispossessed one can hardly expect that this "country" such that it is would be neutral.   It has a very militant populace.   I suspect most Palestinians want peace with Israel but not on the West's terms.   And you can be sure that the legation from Ramallah (the current de facto capital) will use its status with which it can now get seats on any of a number of UN agencies to drag Israel into the World Court, the IAEA, and the International War Crimes Tribunal (all three of which Israel does not recognize).   And forget the Permanent Court of Arbitration, not connected with any world body but has often acted to solve disputes reasonably and peacefully.   What would be the point of having a dispute if one of the parties didn't even admit there was something to resolve?

These are all reasons to give one pause.   But PMS makes it even worse.   It is more than obvious he is in the back pocket of groups which either do not recognize there is even a Palestinian problem, or that there is no land other than Israel, or at the very least the illegal settlement should be made legal.   This has long been a problem in the States, especially at the Congressional level (although nearly all Presidents, and especially Carter and Clinton, have tried to get all sides together at least partially successful).   Harper is nowhere near as bad as the disgraced Tom Delay who defiantly showed up at the so called "pro-Israel" rallies and proclaimed his support for annexation (if not expulsion of Palestinians including those who actually live in Israel).

But maybe there's another reason.   It's not like the Israel new shekel (ILS) is considered to be a global currency -- think the buck, the yen, the euro or even the loonie for that.   But Israel is a very reliable place to park money in strip and coupon less bonds.   It's not easy for a country offering 6 percent interest to make all of its payments on time and at full value but it does.   It's only natural that in these tough times Canada would diversify its portfolio beyond just bonds from the States or Europe.   We don't directly provide foreign aid to a first world country (unlike the US does, inexplicably even just weeks away from the so-called fiscal cliff).

But are our holdings so large, or our non government foreign investments so great, that to even throw a bone of neutrality at Palestine (i.e. to abstain) would tick off the Israel government?   It's not like we're leaving Tel Aviv any time soon.

Money will always drive ideology.   I think that's what it's about -- not just appeasing the religious right across the country.

The vote of No was wrong.   We should have just abstained.   We need to do what we've always done -- say both sides have a point but also offer to be a negotiator in an attempt as feeble as it is that a final settlement can be found.    Harper could go down as one of the truly outstanding PMs if he just did that much.

Fat chance of course.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Maybe the United States NEEDS a fiscal cliff

The riots we've been seeing across the European Union -- not just the 17 countries inside Euroland but also the 10 that are not -- are the result of people being fed up with having the cradle to grave welfare state being clawed back or almost eliminated.   Here in Canada we haven't gotten quite there yet, indeed nowhere near, but at some point I think something's going to give.

And as far as the United States is concerned, here is the so-called "fiscal cliff", which came out of last year's failed budget talks when the Tea Party obstructed any effort to come up with a compromise because that's just the way they are.   If something doesn't happen by the end of the year, there will be a major dose of shock therapy.   This includes budget cuts of about $110 billion per year for ten years (half from the military) and about $400 billion every year in tax increases.

These cuts and increases would happen each and every year over ten years.   This would include a major hike in public pension and unemployment insurance premiums (maybe as much as $4000 per family) and many more families would fall into the "alternative minimum tax" which was supposed to be a forced income tax on the super rich.

Many in the States think this could force the States back into recession.   I don't think it's that bad.   In fact, I think shock therapy is exactly what America needs.   One only has to look around the world to see how two other countries pulled it off.

Back in 1986, New Zealand was facing bankruptcy.   Literally.   In an attempt to save itself, the country underwent a major fiscal shock.   Major budget cuts were made and a new focus on core priorities made.   The currency was devalued (by removing the long time peg to the US Dollar -- it's worth pointing out that Canada did the same back in 1962 when the more than century par with the greenback was ended).    As well income tax rates were cut (including cuts in subsides, i.e. corporate welfare) and a national sales tax implemented.      Did it work?   Sure.   But the more or less tracking the Kiwi had with the Aussie and the "Loonie" ended.   Before the three currencies were more or less at par, nowadays while the latter two are more or less tracking with the greenback, the NZ buck is usually about 10 to 15% less.

It got nowhere near that bad in Canada.   But when our federal debt to GDP ratio got to 70% the Wall Street Journal infamously warned that we were on the verge of becoming a "banana republic" in the sense that we might not even be able to make the interest payments on the debt at some certain point in the future it was widely ridiculed but it make the powers that be wake up.    What did we do?   The proposed elimination of the GST was tossed, which kept about $25 billion in revenues back in the system.    Some income tax cuts were deferred.  And yes, payroll taxes shot up, including a phased in doubling of premiums for the Canada Pension Plan and Régime des Rentes de Québec.

But perhaps most controversially but also courageously in my opinion, the feds cut spending discretionary by 20% including an equally proportionate slash in the size of the public service.   Transfer payments to the provinces and territories were bundled and slashed (call it a form of "unfunded mandate" for health, education and welfare).   Over time the debt-to-GDP ratio hit a low of about 35% compared to nearly triple that in the States where it is now.  We're back up to about 40% but we're in way better shape than many of our trading partners.

So what can the US do?   Well, maybe shock therapy is in order for a country which thought it had a God given right to a AAA credit rating which was rightfully stripped from it a couple of years ago.   But this is a broad outline of what I would do.

Firstly, I would revisit the entire tax code.   Get rid of the multiple upon multiple tax breaks and replace it with a higher personal exemption.   One can then cut tax rates but raise revenues quite substantially.  That's what was done in 1986.

Theoretically (although not practically at this time) a more or less flat income tax could eventually be implemented.   Seven states (Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Utah) have a flat tax.   It is also being seriously considered by the council of Washington DC.  Of course, Alberta has a flat tax with very generous exemptions so most people with low or moderate incomes don't pay any tax at all other than the health care premiums.

Second, and as unpopular as it sounds, America definitely needs a GST of some sort.   And it does have to be a  tax on goods and services as it is at the state level in many states.   There has to be some mechanism to make it partially refundable for less well off people as is the case in Canada -- but if the wealthy were forced to pay, say, an extra $8000 for every $100,000 on fancy cars perhaps finally they would shoulder the burden for the national defence.   That's what income taxes were originally designed for anyway -- a  levy for the rich, not a burden for the poor.

Third, the cap on the payroll tax needs to be raised, substantially.   Once you hit $113,000 in gross wages you no longer have to pay any social security taxes.  (It's about $45,000 here in Canada).   The premiums should be pegged to the entire gross, with the proviso that over a 10 year phase in the benefits paid out would reflect the premiums paid.

Fourth, there does indeed have to be massive spending cuts on the discretionary side.   I would however focus it on the military.   Instead of the pending 50-50 split between defence and "other", it should really be 80-20.   The American military will always be the most powerful.   They certainly have the resources to answer the call of duty anywhere, and after more than a century I think a lot of people in the country are sick and tired of fighting other people's wars.   They have dozens of units ready to move at just hours notice and cutbacks in military procurement (i.e. materiél) won't affect that.   Besides, a lot of money is wasted on unsafe equipment -- think the V-22 Osprey that the Marines finally gave up on, or the F-35 that Canada is still so hung up on but even the US Army is now clawing back by hundreds of units on after they lost a war game against the 1970s era Australian air force.   Yeah, Australia!

But leadership starts at the top.   And so finally any President who makes over a million a year should not collect any salary.  Same for the fat cats in the Senate and the House of Representatives.   The travel allowances ought to be cut back as well.   And no more rollover of campaign contributions to the next election.   Anything left over goes to pay the debt.

But maybe austerity is what's called for.   If it's good enough for Greece and Ireland, it sure as heck it's good enough for the States.  It's way past time the country claimed an exemption just because it's America.    Matter of fact, it's time for the IMF and the World Bank to bail out America.   That'll learn them.   Especially the Tea Party (i.e. neo-facists) who hates both of the main pillars of global  economic security.  I wonder how you translate "Special Drawing Rights" to ... um, how do I end this sentence?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gaza, the ethnic media, and PMS

There are two stories that have emerged the last few days.   They are totally unrelated but it does raise questions about a certain world leader, PMS.

The events of the last twenty four hours or so in Gaza and southwestern Israel have raised the stakes much further and higher than one might have imagined just a few days ago.   Not too surprisingly, PMS has said once again that his government absolutely supports the assassination of a Hamas leader and anything else Israel does.

Now of course we all should support the State of Israel and its right to exist.   Only a moron would not.   And anytime a terrorist is taken out, it`s a good thing.   It is not a good thing, however, when innocent civilians are killed.   A proactive move such as this one, no matter how necessary, also requires minimizing civilian casualties.   It may very well be true that Hamas may be using human shields, but that doesn`t allow the other side from abdicating its responsibilities.   Yet for some reason, Mr. Harper has not said a single word about the Palestinians caught in the crossfire.
Could it be that he supports the concept of collective guilt?   Remember that this was the stain that wrongly smeared Jews from the time of the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth until the Nazi death camps were liberated.   Almost 2000 years.   And it’s worth considering that the mostly peaceable Muslims were admired – however grudgingly – until the end of the same war.   Now the tables have been turned.   The opinions of a very vocal but tiny minority taint the rest.   Because of that, it’s quite okay to pick on Muslims – if not in the mindset of PMS himself, certainly among a large section of his base; again not the majority but the minority who contributes the most to the Conservative Party coffers. 

I am not really surprised, but this smacks of when the RCMP spied on Québec separatist factions and feminist activists in the 1970s which directly led to the creation of a specialist spy agency although the Mounties have acknowledged that they still engage in espionage activities.

Does Harper not realize that if you antagonize “enemies” even worse than before, sooner or later the very policies you have tried to push will end up not only repealed but rolled back to the benefit of those you have tried to crush?      The only thing that can stop him is the secret ballot … which must be held eventually no matter how many times he prorogues Parliament – and while Canada is technically at war (the so-called one on “terrorism”) he needs a 2/3 majority beyond the maximum 5 year term to keep things running for 12 month intervals at a time which he obviously will not have.


These two shows to me even more than before how much of a control freak Harper is.   And how so determined he is to control the agenda that he will resort to besmirching those who express concern for the vast majority of a people who want no part of any international argument whatsoever other than justice and recognition for their cause, or to monitor any communications in languages other than English or French.
It’s no wonder why some media groups in the major cities here have their radio transmitters in the United States, not only to get around CANCON rules but so they can promote their message without fear of reprisal – the rules for political commentary are way more lax in the States, after all, than they are in Canada.    Or why they have just gone to live streaming. 
Will the government continue on this track of having an enemies’ list?   Sure.   They’re going to go on no matter what anyone says on it.   But whether it’s promoting tax policies or its total lack of environmental protection policies or raping the forests to extract the tar sands or shale gas – or spying on ethnic  enemies – they should do so with Conservative party coffers, not the taxpayer’s public funds.   Not unless there truly is probable cause that illegal activities have happen or might, in which case it’s a matter for the police, not the PMO.    Last time I checked, we still have habeas corpus.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How are we honouring our veterans? We're not

 This is Remembrance Week.   The days up to and including November 11th were long ago set aside to remember the men and women in military uniform or law enforcement who made the supreme sacrifice --  in wars and police actions that were sometimes justified and most time not.    In the decades since the end of World War II, the ceremonies have taken an additional significance, honouring the living veterans who survived but still deal with physical trauma (amputees in many cases) or mental issues related to post traumatic stress disorder (what the military brass used to dismissively refer to as "shell shock").

Here`s my take on why I think we're not doing well by retired warriors.   Not even by a long shot.   And it certainly isn't enough to award a veterans' license plate as a thank you.  

A number of years back, a certain charity and lobby group who promote themselves mainly through a key chain return program (yes, the War Amps) had stated in some of their literature that they had registered the name "Canadian Amputees Foundation" that looked prospectively to the day when disabled veterans no longer existed.   Of course, that's now going to be at least another sixty or so years because of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the events leading to and after 9/11.   If the Parliamentary budget officer has it right, what was supposed to have been a $9 billion operation has cost about $24 billion (2.5 times more) because of disability payouts.

The principle here should be in a way similar to that of worker's compensation in the civilian world.   In this case, that one should be able to go towards an impartial agency to make his or her case as to why they are entitled to get a partial or total pension; that pension, when awarded, will be not a lump sum settlement but a monthly benefit that along with disability payments from the CPP or RRQ will give the person forced into permanent retirement or a modified service position for life a sense of dignity; that although he or she was injured he or she will feel they served their country for something); and that we the people will thank their service (provided of course it was not dishonourable) with such items as cut rate mortgages and the right of first refusal on the federal or provincial sale of public lands (actually, this is the law in Canada but governments both left and right have always ignored it) and government sponsored scholarships or forgivable loans to retrain for the civilian world.   Not to mention access to free or affordable health care to the best specialists.

If this sounds something like the GI bill in the States, I say hell yes.   But the principles I listed above have something else in mind too.   When we give those who have served overseas a chance to serve here, they set a good example for all of us.   By giving them a chance to return to civilian life as full citizens rather than commodities to be written off, they in turn help to ensure the security of our country.    The saying "We're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here" should instead be "We're fighting them over there, so that when we come home we can find something productive to do, to really help protect the country."

In other words, when veterans are valued they are less likely to fall into the pratfalls that come with surviving any life altering situation.

What we call honouring veterans right now, comes mainly in the form of a so-called "Veterans Bill of Rights" which mostly means lump sum payments, a hand shake and an eff off.   Sure, the process is more streamlined, but if we're just saying those who have served to get on with their lives, then we're not doing right by them.   And if we're treating them wrong, that means that everyone else is fair game to get shacked off.

I for the life of me cannot figure out why this is something we're not discussing.   Or why we're so afraid to find out the war stories from those who served.   Or why it's not prudent for the powers that be to just realize that how things are now is just not tenable.   Are we going to have to wait until a veteran goes postal?   It's happened in the States, it's just a matter of time before it happens in Canada.

I personally will always oppose the airbrushing of history.   Where Canada did wrong in the battlefield needs to be aired out, even when it comes to details that amount on one end to titillating gossip or at the other end amount to war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of civilians.

But I will also oppose the efforts of the current government to try to move things along in this way.   Photo ops do not suffice.    I support a strong military, but I also support a strong social support network for vets.    It's really a no brainer.

In the meantime, I will always salute a veteran.   And I will wear a poppy to honour the dead and the living -- and support the right of those who wear a white poppy or no poppy at all.   After all, that's what democracy demands.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

R*@#^d Ann, huh?

Maybe it's because I was, at least in the first six or seven years of my life on this planet, a "slow learner" and had to spend Grades One and Two in the remedial program (along with very intensive speech therapy).   Or maybe because it's just Ann Coulter.   I am not mentally challenged (although my parents initially thought I may have been) but I do know people who are, who make a go of it every day and contribute to society as much as they can.

But this time, Coulter really hit way below the belt when she used Twitter to call Barack Obama a "retard" -- not just once but twice.

I am really at a loss for words on this one.   I suspect even many conservative columnists may finally be fed up with her shenanigans or her searches for the totally inappropriate mot juste.

I will readily concede I have said things that are rather inappropriate.   And yes that does include the "N" word even if only in reference to how much I hate the word.

I would have to suppose though that Coulter's worst nightmare is if someone who meets the medial criteria for what constitutes "retardation" actually is elected President during her lifetime.   Maybe having a disabled person in the Oval Office might actually get America back on track.   Certainly if democracy means anything, it's being able to speak one's mind whatever it is or any time he or she wants.   What constitutes class, however, is saying it in a way that is meaningful and casts the person who says it in a respectful way even if one disagrees with it.

Especially when a writer is eager to write off 7 million people in the States, 2/3 of which are old enough to vote, she may have triggered a GOTV campaign from one of the most unlikeliest quarters.  Far as I am aware, none of the 50 States or Washington DC forbids anyone who is "challenged" from voting, and ticking off any identifiable group is bound to really backfire.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Billy Graham: Wrong about gay marriage

Billy Graham, who is into his eighth decade as a minister, is one of the very few people in the States who is so famous that the only address you need to write on an envelope is his or her name only, no box number, no state, no ZIP code -- in this case, Billy Graham USA.

In most respects he certainly does deserve that distinction.    Not just for his dynamic style of preaching, one that appeals to people of faith regardless of denomination.   Nor for his humble living (still residing in his Montreat, North Carolina cottage rather than the super manors most televangelists favour).

In the very early days of the civil rights struggle he was in the front lines against segregation.   Several times, he literally had to knock down rope lines in arenas that separated the "black" and "white" sections and told the organizers he would cancel the crusade if the service was not desegregated.    As he famously said in 1969 (to huge applause from both whites and blacks):    "Jesus isn't black or white.    He is a Palestinian.   He has brown skin, and He belongs to all of us!"    He never named names but this was almost certainly a shot at Jerry Falwell, who opposed racial integration (including for the longest time refusing to perform interracial marriages).

Graham has also been scrupulous in not openly favouring any candidate in particular for any level of office.   He is a registered Democrat, but always has a reserved seat at both the Dem and GOP conventions.   Not too many other preachers who have that honour -- one or the other, yes, but not both.

But in the last few years, indeed as he is now in the sunset of his life, he has become quite stubborn on the issue of faith in politics.  In particular gay marriage.   Earlier this year, he took out ads in North Carolina newspapers urging residents there to pass an anti-gay marriage initiative.   I doubt his comments swayed too many voters, the law was going to pass anyway.    The Tarheel State, while one of the most progressive in the South, is still deeply religious.   Many who are socially liberal on most issues draw the line at abortion and "the right to die."

That's fine.   People can have whatever opinions they want.

Dr Graham, however, has taken the unusual step of going nationwide with his advertorials.   In his words:

"As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last.  I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God."

That's all well and good.    Except for the fact that after Mitt Romney visited Graham earlier this week, Graham's ministry's website scrubbed a whole section that defined Mormonism as a cult.   Many apologetics would point out that the LDS church has beliefs that are totally outside of Protestantism -- in fact are outside the articles of faith that the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and the dozens of Protestant denominations agree on.   (Read:   the Nicene Creed.)

This is about as close to a full endorsement of a political candidate as Graham has ever come.    One might suppose that since there is clear firewall between himself personally and his ministry (again, something most other televangelists refuse to do) he has the law on his side.

But I do find it very troubling he has only spoken openly about gay marriage now.   True, it is a bridge too far for many people.   And yes, he has the right to have his opinions.  However, the idea that someone who is LGBT opposes the state of Israel or is automatically pro-choice or supports the strict division between church and state is silly.

As far as marriage is concerned, there is the principle that "God is love."    Jesus may have spoken of marriage as one man one woman.   But  that was 2000 years ago.   I would happen to think that if He was here today, he'd say, who cares as long as there is love.   While I am still personally troubled by the moral implications of same sex marriage, on a social level as well as a legal principle it is really none of my business who should or who should not get married or to whom.

So Dr Graham, respectfully, you have a right to your opinions, but the mindset of the free world is changing on this one.   America wasn't destroyed by desegregation, or women voting or being in the workplace, or by having a central bank instead of having banks print their own money.    I hardly think it or any other country will be destroyed by LGBT marriages.

Besides which, the vast majority of gay couples prefer to live common law, seeing marriage as an oppressive institution.   And that's not necessary a wrong opinion either.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Binders of women", Mitt?

There have been many foot in mouth moments in debates over the years.   Think Gerry Ford's comments in 1976 about how he would not allow the USSR to dominate Poland (of course, Poland had been a client state of Moscow since WW2).   Carter saying that his daughter and youngest child (by far), then 13 year old  Amy, told him that nuclear disarmament was the biggest issue of the 1980 campaign.   Bush 41 in 1992 saying that Jim Baker, not him, would be in charge of the budget process.  Same campaign, Ross Perot saying he was "all ears" -- then an actual pause for emphasis -- if anyone had better ideas to fix the economy than he did.   And on it goes.

But really -- "binders of women" that were provided by women's advocacy groups?   That's how Mitt Romney explained how he selected female members of his cabinet whilst Governor of Massachusetts.    Maybe it's because things register slower for me than most others, but it took a minute before I realized the unintended double entendre.   This during a discussion between Romney and President Obama about the principle of equal pay for women -- which really should be equal pay for work of equal value.

That and his accusal of Obama not calling the attack on the Bengazi consulate a terrorist attack for 10 days, when in fact the President did so the day after (as the moderator, Candy Crowley pointed out, transcript in hand), didn't do much to enhance Romney's credibility.   It may have worsened it.

Overall, the debate was definitely Obama's, as the town hall format suits his style more than Romney's.   And Ms Crowley definitely was in control unlike Jim Lehrer (uncharacteristically) two weeks ago.

But while a campaign should be about more substantive issues, particularly on both foreign and domestic policies, women still are a majority of people in the States, and they vote more as a percentage of the group than men do of theirs.   And this isn't something that will slip and slide like non-stick coating.   After all, they aren't just a page in a binder.   Every woman, and every man, has a story to tell, each of which would fill several filing cabinets.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Khadr: Back in the Great White North

Omar Khadr returned to Canada this past weekend to serve out the remainder of his sentence at Guantanamo Bay.   Unlike the "military commission" which gave Khadr no credit for time served on the eight year sentence he received for manslaughter, the "two for one" rule in effect in Canada at the time looks like it will be applied here which means he could be out of jail by next summer.    There is no excuse for what he did.   But the way he was treated violated most principles of international law.

Some Canadians have said that he should not be allowed to return here at all even if his sentence was served out in Cuba.    Also, says such people, his mother and sister should be kicked out of Canada for their radical views -- no the least of which included that Muslims who died on 9/11 deserved to die because their taxes supported what they (the mother and sister) consider the suppression of other Muslims in the Arab world.

Both arguments about exclusion and expulsion fall flat on their faces by law. First, Section 6 of the Charter which guarantees residency rights for Canadians and landed immigrants.   This right exists with very few exceptions, one being extradition (and even there one a sentence is served there would be a right of return).   And even if that constitutional right wasn't there I still wouldn't be so harsh as the anti-Khadr camp.

Second, the Section 2 rights of freedom of speech are near absolute but for the yelling fire principle.   There is a bit of a ring of truth to the West's support of dictatorships in the Middle East -- and now that there's a rapid move to democracy the push back should not come as much of a surprise.

Khadr should have been allowed to return to Canada much sooner than he was.  Three reasons.
  1. He was only 15 at the time, technically a child soldier which by itself is illegal under international law.
  2. While he did kill a US medic in the course of battle in Afghanistan, it's by no means clear whether the act was premeditated.
  3. The vast majority of offenders deserve a second chance.   It's not like Khadr is a pedophile.

I have to say that Khadr's return now is a bit of a surprise, given that PMS and Co seemed all too willing to let the guy rot.   What happened in the last few days, who knows.   But at least we can finally move on.

Well not quite -- even the now democratic but still very corrupt Afghanistan still refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist.   For both of these reasons, NATO's war looks like it was a mostly pointless exercise.   9/11 had to be responded to but the resulting reaction was overkill.   Khadr may never have been in the situation he got into if the war was limited to what absolutely needed to be done and no more.   That's as much a tragedy as what led to his arrest.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Justin runs for his father's old job

I really have only four words about Justin Trudeau making a run for the Liberal leadership ...

Just can't win Sussex.   Unless some kind of a miracle happens or PMS stumbles big time, Trudeau is easily beatable.   I suspect any of the registered candidates may well be too. 

I also think a merger between the Liberals and NDP and maybe even the Greens is all but inevitable.   Call it the "Liberal Democrats" if one will; and if Justin winds up the leader of such a merged party he'll have to make a lot of concessions to the socialist party that his father was once a member of, even if the NDP under the late Jack Layton made considerable strides to the centre.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Harper selling out to UK?

It's not necessarily a bad thing to be able to share consular services.    Canada and Australia have had such a sharing agreement for over 25 years -- Australia handles Canadian interests in parts of Asia-Pacific region and in turn we handle theirs in some countries in Latin America and Africa.    Similarly, a citizen of any EU country can use the services of any the other 26 if there's no mission of their home country.

But do we really want to have a protecting power relationship with Britain?   Our former colonial power, who we broke from in 1931 all because a British-appointed GG couldn't tell the difference between representing "Buckingham Palace" and 10 Downing?  This doesn't exactly bode well for an independent foreign policy.   I wouldn't go for a dual diplomatic relationship with the US -- the brief one in the 90s in Nigeria was required only because all Commonwealth states boycotted that country in a show of derision.   But surely there are other countries we can pair up with.   Say, Ireland or New Zealand perhaps?

When you consider all those propaganda ads showing how we "defeated" the States in the War of 1812 -- in reality it was a draw since no border changes resulted -- you'd think John Baird and PMS would want to "Stand Up for Canada ™".   This is anything but.

Friday, September 21, 2012

SCOC grants standing in sex-trade case

The Supreme Court of Canada has done the right thing by agreeing to consider the appeal regarding the prostitution laws in this country.    In a 53 page decision and on behalf of a unanimous court (PDF), Associate Justice Thomas A. Cromwell said that while the women who filed the class action lawsuit from Vancouver's Downtown East Side (DTES) may not represent an active criminal case at this moment in time (in the sense that none of the women leading the class are facing prosecution nor are victims who have filed charges against attackers); but the argument they present is clearly in the public interest and that there has to be certainty as to what the law in this matter should be.

Therefore, wrote Cromwell, the attempts by Team PMS to quash the litigation and have the laws kept as is without a hearing should be trashed -- and as a result the case has been remanded back to the BC courts for further hearing.

Frankly I think the SCC should have taken it further and instead actually had a full oral hearing now, consolidated with the parallel case from Ontario -- simply delaying that hearing only gives PMS even more time to demonize victims rather than helping them as he claims.    I do not as a rule like courts rewriting laws but if it is in the public interest to strike down patently unfair laws and Parliament or the majority in the legislature refuses to even consider the issue, then the courts should do so with due course.    This is clearly a case of the "cure being worse than the disease" and we need to address it ASAP.   Parliament should take the lead here but it's not going to happen with the so-called so-cons.

It is my hope that whatever the result is, a more practical and humane approach to the issue comes out.    We must absolutely put our foot down on the rape and torture of prostitutes, and have zero tolerance for anyone who enslaves someone under eighteen whether for sex or not, but the current status quo is untenable.

There should be laws that actually make sense -- that go after pimps and other predators -- and not go after sex trade workers or to make it a crime to report a sexual assault merely because one is in the trade himself or herself by choice or coercion.   In other words we should actually protect the rights of those who are voluntarily in the trade and helps the already victimized -- and not give the advantage to the bad guys, or make cowards out of the rest of us.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Canada: Sending a message to Iran, or giving up on it?

Following up on my previous post regarding Canada's sudden decision to completely sever ties with Iran, I have these extended thoughts on why this was way too fast and too sudden.   Five days after the announcement, there's still no indication on who Canada has in mind to be a protecting power.   If the Cons have no intention on seeking an intermediary state, then it must be presumed that Canada no longer recognizes Iran's right to exist anymore than most countries in the neighbourhood don't recognize Israel.

Iran certainly does need to have its wings clipped.     Certainly because of its nuclear program -- we now know the country ran computer models within the last three years to determine just how much enriched would be needed to have a viable warhead.   We know who is the intended target -- no state other than Israel.

An oil embargo would be useful, except that as a member of OPEC it pools its output with the rest of the 12 nation bloc -- only one of which, Nigeria, has what can properly be called a democracy or at least a plausible one (Ecuador and Venezuela have regressed big time).    Like a customs union, say the EU, revenues are pooled proportionally in exchange for an understanding one will neither diminish nor strengthen its output or pricing.

It goes without saying that any country that puts its military ambitions ahead of its people is one thing; to use oil royalties that properly belong to the people -- a well educated and relatively wealthy populace but heavily suppressed nonetheless -- to get Da Bomb in defiance of international obligations is unacceptable.

Also completely untenable is its continued sponsorship of state sponsored terrorists as well as states which get much of their armaments from fellow terror states -- in this case, Iran giving a helping hand to Syria.

Trade sanctions need to be applied, except they only work if the regime actually has (or believes it does) the best interests of the people in mind.  Travel sanctions as well are needed-- although they can be a joke if for no other reason than because the US, Switzerland and Austria must provide safe conduct for high officials to and from UN offices in the respective countries, even blacklisted ones -- and those officials are safe even if there is an international arrest warrant meaning the host country can't do a thing about it.    In the same vein, Italy must provide safe conduct to the Vatican -- and perhaps also San Marino.  (That's how the Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi had, and the very much living [unfortunately] Robert Mugabe and Omar Bashir have, remained free for so long.   Just do official UN or church business then go right back to home base.)

But in these cases, as others like it, there needs to be some sort of contact maintained.   We held our ground in Eastern Europe and Communism fell.    We stood our ground in South Africa, and apartheid ended.   And so on.

Cuba may not have relations with the United States or Israel but communication is maintained through a "protecting power" setup like I noted earlier in the week.   Canada has put its ties with North Korea on ice for the time being (due to its nuclear program and record of state sponsored terrorism as well) but is using the UK as a go between.

For banks to single-handedly close bank accounts because of a customer's ethnicity is outrageous but even more so if the government condones it on that basis.   But to leave when a number of our own is in jeopardy -- well, that's just plain nuts, especially if there is no one to pass messages along and back.

Bottom line, this is a case of the cart before the horse.   Recalling our ambassador for "consultations" (i.e. showing displeasure at the receiving state's actions) would be sufficient.   It would chill things further but it would send a message we're as mad as hell.    Expelling their diplomats posted here back to Tehran is bizarre unless Canada had proof that all of them were spies or laundering money.  There doesn't seem to be proof of either.

John Baird got his 15 minutes of international fame before things turned nasty in Bengazi and Cairo.    But he needs to keep in mind that wielding a sword for the sake of image can have problems of its own.    After all, it's one thing to stand up for Israel and democracy.   It's another thing to just pull up our stakes and say we've given up on democracy in Iran.   Democracies, after all, don't aim nuclear missiles -- or any missiles for that matter -- at each other.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In respect of 9/11/2001 ...

... this page is black today.    In memory of the 2977 men, women and children from nearly 60 countries who were slaughtered in this unthinkable act.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Who's protecting Canada now that we've left Iran?

There's no doubt sanctions need to be put on Iran.   And at first, I thought John Baird had a lot of guts going for the jugular like this.   But wasn't Canada suddenly cutting ties with Iran last Friday just a tad too rapid?    No skeletal staff to handle outstanding visa and immigration applications.    No warning this was going to happen.   And even more important, no protecting power -- which country will act as the go-between on Canada's behalf.    Only a warning that Canadians still in Iran get out as quickly as possible after contacting our embassy in Ankara, Turkey.  (After the so-called "Canadian Caper" in 1980, Canada suspended ties until 1988 with the Netherlands acting as our "go-to".)

If Canada is smart enough to be Israel's "protector" in Cuba, doesn't it stand to reason we should ask one of our allies to step up -- perhaps, Holland again?  Then again, with things changing so rapidly in that part of the world -- several NATO Allies, after all, have acting as protecting powers for the US or other countries in a few of the most volatile countries before they felt the need to leave and throw the hot potato to some other state --  we may need to rely on the good offices of Switzerland for stability's sake.   (Among other things, this would allow our embassy to reopen, as the "Canadian Interests Section" of the Embassy of "X".)

I'll have more on this later in the week ... I've had too much going on so I apologize for the absence.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dead (or dead)

Although pains were taken to hide the identity of the SEAL Team Six officer who took part in last year's raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, his true name was revealed today.    Regardless of the propriety of this or whether he should have written the account at all, the implication he makes -- that the goal of the raid was to kill Obama period, not to kill only if he resisted capture -- is worrisome.   That one can do whatever he or she wants to achieve a goal.

To be very brief:  I don't mind Osama being dead, to be honest.   But it would have been more satisfying to see him stand trial for the crimes he committed in Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Pakistan, as well as in the United States.   I believe no expense should be spared at rounding up the rest of the gang -- but it should be done with an aim to justice, not revenge.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Harper putting screws on Roma, and it's wrong

I would have thought detention centres for would-be refugees were a thing of the past.   But in the last few days we've actually heard the Cons say that if their refugee "reforms" don't move things fast enough they are prepared to round up the in-process Roma population and confine them until they have their hearings.   And that's not the only proverbial baby that Harper wants to throw out with the bathwater.

Detention camps should have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.   They existed during World War II in Canada for the Japanese, Italians and Ukrainians because of a perceived "threat" to Canadian values.   Forcing the Roma into internal exile now is no better than what we as a country did seventy years ago.

And it leads to another problem.    The law of unintended consequences.

Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week she wants to use her influence to finish up the negotiations on the proposed Canada - European Union trade, labour and copyright agreement by years' end -- our government may be actually prepared to put that into the trash can after four years of painstaking clause by clause drafting.    It is considering imposing visa restrictions on Hungary just as it has with the Czech Republic (since both are perceived as exit points for Roma refugee claimants).   Since most of the EU (as well as the four countries in EFTA all of which have adopted the Schengen rules -- and which we already have a trade agreement with) have mostly open borders and imposes no travel restrictions on visitors  who travel throughout the trade area (generally up to 90 days in a six month period for the area as a whole, not for each country), it would naturally insist on no travel restrictions on any EU country going the other way to Canada.   If there's one set of rules for 24 countries and another one for the other two, there's a big problem.

I have said before that while I think there are some fraudulent claimants among the Roma, that can be said for virtually any ethnicity.    I also think that prejudice no matter what ethnicity it's aimed at is reprehensible -- Antiziganism, as it's called in this case, is just as bad as Antisemitism.  But I have also said that since there exists the right of abode for those who have citizenship in one EU country to live in any other state in the bloc, that other countries in the bloc should be considered for residency before a claimant looks here.   
 While this may effectively create an "internally displaced persons" situation (i.e. refugees in one's own country or trade area) -- not unlike the United States which has about 700,000 IDPs escaping gang violence and which peaked at over 1.2 million in the recent past after the Katrina disaster -- finding a place to stay without having to go through the painstaking process of immigration is, I think, way simpler.   And it's not like there's no violence committed against Roma here because of course there is.

For a claim of this nature to work, one would have to say that there's a well founded fear of persecution that extends to all of Europe -- that no matter whether some moves to France, Germany, the UK or Sweden, there will be no safe home.    But it certainly begs the question -- isn't it easier to prove this out in the open rather than behind bars?

Frankly, not even the way some other countries do it -- letting the claimants out on unlimited day passes so they can work as long as they return before curfew -- isn't much better.   These are in way out places with no connection to the main country to which they want to live permanently.   Remember when Ezra Levant suggested we dump the Tamils on Haida Gwaii until they proved their case?

The thinking here for the Roma is exactly the same.   It's racist, prejudicial and unwarranted.   By all means, legal refugees and illegitimate immigrants should be documented so we know who's here and resources such as for health care and education can be deployed correctly.   But our mostly respected immigration policy will be shot to pieces if this goes through.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Since when was rape "legitimate"?

Just when we thought VP Joe Biden Jr had shot off his mouth yet again when he said that bank deregulation like what Mitt Romney is proposing would put Americans -- blacks in particular -- "in chains" (which would not be my choice of words) ...

... comes this moron, Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO 2), challenging Dem Senator Claire McCaskill, who actually had the temerity to say a woman's body can induce a miscarriage in case of a "legitimate rape."   He later clarified this to mean "forcible rape" but that made things worse.  Even the GOP is furious and has demanded he "do what's best for the country" (i.e. withdraw his candidacy) by 5 PM Central today (2200 GMT); or they will get the courts to strip him of his party's line on the ballot.   Akin has backtracked today only slightly, saying "I apologize."   We all know what that means.   Absolutely nothing.

McCaskill, the widow of Mel (and who took his Senate seat when he unexpectedly died before the 2000 election -- and "the dead guy won" over John Ashcroft who promptly got Dubya's AG slot) -- has been seen as "vulnerable" this time around due to Barack Obama's lackluster performance as President; but this snide remark by Akin is more than an unexpected lucky break.   It's a piñata filled with gold coins.

There are people on both sides of the aisle, both men and women, who have nothing but contempt for "the better half" but Akin's screed is more than just reprehensible.   It has no consciousness behind it whatsoever.

I know women who have been raped.   Most had an abortion.   The rest carried to term.   But none of them had the expectation they would be able to prevent a pregnancy by willing it.   Heck, even women who do have consensual sex with their male partner know that each act can plausibly result in pregnancy.

For my part and as a man I don't consider sexual assault, whether there's penetration or not, to be sex at all.   That's because it isn't; it's an act of violence.   Period.   Where there is no consent, whether spoken or implied, it is not a legitimate act.   And comments like Akin's or "retractions" that don't address the issue at hand are totally unacceptable.   Frankly I don't think saying "I'm sorry" would cut it now, it's way too late for that.

(I can only think of two recent examples where mistakes of huge magnitude resulted in an "I'm sorry" and only one of them was political -- Tony Blair's WMD faux pas. The other was the Maple Leaf ™ listeria scandal.)

If this is what passes for discourse these days in politics, those who are considering public office as a career choice would certainly have to stop to ask, why?   Either you say something totally off base and hope you can get away with it or you speak the truth and are shunned for it.   But on this one, there is a stark choice.   Left or right, either you say "No means no" or you don't believe that.   And if it's the latter, you'd better hope it doesn't happen to your wife, daughter or sister.   Or you.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Isn't it time to put an end to the Međugorje fraud?

Being someone who happens to be a kid born in Canada of parents from Croatia, this is bound to ruffle some feathers including some within my "ethnic group".    But it's way past time to put logic into the alleged three decades long non-stop apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Međugorje, Bosnia-Hercegovina (B and H) -- and say once and for all what a lot of people want to say:    The whole thing is a fraud.

The whole sordid thing started way back on June 24. 1981, the feast of St. John the Baptist.    (That's a red flag right there.)    It started with three "visionaries" and has since expanded to six.  It would be fine if there had been a limited number of "appearances".   But non stop for 31 years straight almost daily?   That's about 7,500 give or take.

Those who have flocked to this former weigh station claim to feel a "presence" that's there.   They believe it was the Virgin Mary that freed both Croatia and Slovenia from the "clutches" of Serbia (even though the Eastern Orthodox churches also have a high degree of devotion to the mother of Jesus); and as proof they point to, among other things, a mortar shell that plied upright into the ground near the local parish but  did not explode.   (Um, the Balkan War actually put an end to "duds"?)

But there are a few other problems.   It's not that the first wave of visions during the last half of 1981 started an extremely lengthy row between the Franciscan order and the cadre of priests employed directly by the relevant diocese and who controlled the particular parish in question here.    Nor is it the occasional "dancing of the sun" -- the same fraudulent phenomena that allegedly occurred at Fátima , Portugal, in 1917.   (I'll explain why I think it was a fake in a moment).

Consider too, some of the following outrageous prophecies made at Međugorje (Source: -- and keep in mind, these are just some of the whoppers -- and none of which happened:
  •  Then Pope John Paul II would be forced out in a putsch and exiled to Turkey, where maybe a third of one percent of the population are Catholics, most of them from the Eastern rites and perhaps a few thousand are part of the Western or Roman rite.
  • Germany and the US would both collapse.   There's still a US.  And East and West Germany along with the free city of West Berlin not only all reunited, but the fused country also agreed de facto to share its currency with any other state that wanted it, hence the Euro (which, bizarrely, B and H has adopted unilaterally as its own currency with protest but no sanctions from Frankfurt).
  • There would be a lasting peace in Yugoslavia.    Ha!   The country was torn apart in a bloody war.   B and H effectively operates as a confederation of two states with a shared capital -- not unlike Belgium although the latter uses fighting words instead of the sword.  Even the two republics that were majority Catholic, Croatia and Slovenia, wasn't quite that hunky-dory until very recently and the once open border was slammed shut when Slovenia got into the EU much earlier (2004) than Croatia (admission will be mid-2013).    Serbia is probably next (say, 2015) but it will be 2020 at the earliest before B and H qualifies.   Add in Macedonia -- and the country will be put back together, de facto, although as part of a semi-federal Europe stretching from Ireland and the UK to Finland and Estonia.   The peace will be one of economic necessity, not because of an "Ebony and Ivory" spirit.
Oh yeah, and there was the time when the "Virgin" appeared first as Satan, then suddenly transformed into the Virgin, saying something like, "Sorry, I made a mistake."   Protestants would agree she wouldn't make a mistake like that -- 2 Corinthians 11:14.   Even St. Bernadette Soubirous, who led a virtuous life but had a highly suspect series of visions in Lourdes, France (I think she was hallucinating), was quick to point this out to the Gendarmerie, the French national police.   When one of its officers suggested she was seeing Satan, Bernadette said, "The Devil is not as beautiful as she."    Precisely.

Back to the "dancing of the sun."   I don't know about Međugorje (which has taken it to ridiculous levels), but even what happened in Fátima is also highly suspicious and for this reason:   When Jesus was dared by the Pharisees to perform a sign from the sky, Jesus said the only sign they would see is the miracle of Jonah (three days in the Earth followed by a comeback) -- Matthew 12:39.   A reasonable person would point out that if Jesus refused to force a cosmic disturbance, why would his mother?   There's no doubt something happened that day -- too many eyewitnesses to suggest otherwise.   But it was Satan who did that -- not Mary or her Son.
A special commission by the current Pope, Benedict XVI, was formed two years ago.   Common sense dictates that this series of "apparitions" and "messages"should be called out for what they are -- a fraud.   There's simply no evidence of the supernatural (non constat de supernaturalitate), and there is evidence of no supernatural activity (constat de non supernaturalitate).

In short, the six are all con artists -- and the commission should recommend that they be kicked out of the Church.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Romney: Assuring defeat with Paul Ryan?

Do Vice Presidential choices matter?   For 97% of those who vote, no.  But veep picks can often set the tone for the success or failure of a campaign or administration.

There have been a few lackluster choices on the Democratic side.   But why is it that GOP Presidential nominees more often than not pick running mates that are losers?   I do say more often than not, but consider that the perceived "losers" often turn out be "winners" and vice versa.

Let's go through some of the more recent past choices:

1948:  Thomas Dewey chose Earl Warren.    This election was the very narrow "Dewey Defeats Truman" fiasco for the Republicans.    Warren, the Governor of California and the leader of the Republican's liberal wing, was eventually appointed by Dwight Eisenhower to be Chief Justice of the United State and would lead the Supreme Court to its many pro-civil rights decisions that changed race relations, and police procedures, forever.   (Of course, Warren also ensured much of the truth behind the JFK murder would remain classified for decades.)

1952 and 1956:  Eisenhower chose Richard Nixon.   After a near career ending media storm over the propriety of an expense allowance and how it was used, Nixon went on national TV to deliver the now (in)famous "Checkers Speech" that persuaded most people he was a straight talking guy and Ike got the win on reverse coattails.   Dick was a mostly competent Veep but suffered a setback when facing a solid South delegation in the Senate that refused to pass major civil rights reforms (that would have to wait for LBJ, a Democrat, in 1964).

1960:   Nixon chose the career diplomat Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.   Dick figured that a popular guy from Massachusetts would force JFK to spend more time in his home state.   Guess how that turned out.

1964:   Barry Goldwater chose William E. Miller, a veteran of World War II and one of the American prosecutors in the Nuremberg Trials.    A true honour, but through no fault of his own, he and Goldwater didn't stand a chance after the truly infamous "Daisy" ad appeared (just once).

1968 and 1972:   Nixon, getting a Mulligan, picks Spiro Agnew.     He was Dick's hatchet man -- or at the least the one not involved in the Watergate scandals -- and became the self-proclaimed voice of the so-called "Silent Majority."    Later forced to resign in 1973 over taking bribes while Governor of Maryland, although officially he pleaded nolo contendere to tax evasion.   (For what it was worth, his fellow lawyers in his home state disbarred him, and his official portrait as a former Governor of the state was removed and wasn't rehanged until twenty-three years later).

1976:   Until 1967, a vacancy in the Vice-Presidency remained vacant.   The 25th Amendment, passed in 1967, changed that -- permitting a President to nominate a replacement subject to approval by both the House and Senate (not just the latter as for other Executive appointments).   Nixon made a fine choice in Gerald R. Ford, the House Republican leader, who of course became President a few months later, when Nixon resigned after realizing impeachment by the House was a certainty and he would be stripped of office in the Senate (and the removal process was a true bi-partisan effort, not like the farces of Andrew Johnston in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998).

Ford's decision to pardon Nixon was hugely controversial at the time; but given how hot the Middle East was becoming politically and facing stepladder inflation, putting an end to the fiasco so the country could focus on more important things was the right thing to do.   Ford, in turn, chose Nelson Rockefeller as his own replacement -- which would have been fine overall, except for the infamous zero-tolerance drug laws passed while the latter served as Governor of New York State (and which were only rolled back in 2009).

When Ford got the nod to win a full term in office, after beating off a very close challenge from only one person, Ronald Reagan (the primary vote was nearly tied, and the choice went to the convention floor), Ford wanted to keep Rockefeller.   But largely bullied by Team Reagan who threatened to sit at home if Nelson stayed on the ticket, Ford caved in and picked -- believe it or not -- Bob Dole.    While Dole is nowhere near as doctrinaire as some might think (and is a decent man),  Ford lost by a very narrow margin to Jimmy Carter, and for the rest of his life Ford would regret caving in to the Christian Right.

1980 and 1984:    To appease the moderate wing of the GOP, and after Ford made clear he didn't want a "Co-Presidency", The Gipper chose the elder George Bush.   (The bad economy and the hostage crisis didn't help Carter and Walter Mondale either ... and the flying high economy slammed the door on Mondale when he ran as Prez in '84 too.)   Not much other comment here, Bush was definitely an outstanding choice even if he did flip-flop on the abortion issue (although his wife, the elder Barbara, never has).  

1988 and 1992:   Running as his own man, Bush 41 dispatched his opponents with ease despite an admitted lack of "The Vision Thing"; and it became even easier when Gary Hart got caught cheating -- right in the act -- and the last man left standing for the Dems was the competent but anemic, and even more uncharismatic than Bush, Michael Dukakis.    Of all the much more worthy possibilities, Bush choice Danforth Quayle.   He set the standard for W's "Bushisms".  Those of us young enough to remember Quayle couldn't get enough of foot-in-mouth moments.   Forget "You're no Jack Kennedy" -- my personal favourite is when he mangled the United Negro College Fund's "A mind is a terrible thing to waste ™"  into:  "What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is."    To be far to Dan, he is a classy guy overall and was also competent as Veep, but his foibles were just one of several drags on the elder Bush (the far larger one, of course, was the economy at that time.)    His biggest post executive legacy is his founding the Museum of Vice Presidents.   I'm not kidding.

1996:   Bob Dole was not fooling anyone when he resigned from the Senate in an "all or nothing" gamble, and renamed his campaign jet "Citizen Ship" from "Leader Ship", then unsuccessfully made fun of (and misinterpreted) Hilary Clinton's "It Takes A Village" when he said "It takes a family to raise a family".   (As now Secretary of State Clinton pointed out in reply to Dole:" [I]t takes a family. It takes teachers. It takes clergy. It takes business people. It takes community leaders. It takes those who protect our health and safety. It takes all of us. Yes, it takes a village.")

Be that as it may, a lot of people did take notice when Dole chose Jack Kemp, a true "progressive conservative" if there ever has been one in the States.   A former Buffalo Bills player, Kemp was very strong on the right to privacy.    As Bush 41's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Kemp was forced to clean up a huge mess of an agency left to rot by Reagan and Kemp's immediate predecessor and eventually had to call in federal prosecutors to investigate clear evidence of influence peddling.   Incredibly, Kemp turned around HUD into a real success story in just four years.  Kemp was stymied in his efforts, however, to help poor people living in better maintained housing projects to convert units into condominiums and purchase them (the Democratic Congress only allocated a tenth of the $4 billion he asked for).    However, in the wake of the 1992 LA riots, Kemp had the guts to stand up to his boss.    While Bush 41 called the rioters a "mob", Kemp declared  that the Rodney King case was just the spark that lit up long-held resentments including the remit he dealt with, the lack of low-income housing.

So why didn't the Kemp choice work?   The economy was not just flying high but burning.    Bill Clinton and Al Gore won in a landslide.    If it had been a choice on merits rather than the voter's gut instinct, I think Dole-Kemp would have had about even odds.   It would have been a real election for once.

2000 and 2004:    It says a lot about a search committee when it's a committee of one, and that one picks himself to be the veep choice.   That's how Dick Cheney ended up as George W Bush's tag team partner.   If Al Gore (along with his choice of Joe Lieberman) had won Gore's home state of Tennessee, the Florida debacle would have been irrelevant.    And there are still questions about how much Bush actually won by in Ohio in 2004 (not to mention how John Kerry and John Edwards got "Swift Boated").

In the last forty years, the Vice-Presidential office has become more and more powerful, but under Cheney's watch virtually all of the Executive Departments became footstools.   That has been rolled back under Obama and Joe Biden and the Secretaries and other Cabinet rank offices do have a fair amount of independence again, but the conscience of the Oval Office is now the Veep, not the Secretary of State.   The damage has been done.

2008:   John McCain, a hero if there ever was one, could have picked any Republican other than the one he chose -- Sarah Palin.   Need I say any more?

And so here we are in 2012.    Paul Ryan has not been as well known in circles outside of Washington, but he actually does have some smart ideas.   He proposes cutting income taxes across the board, with a top rate of 25% (down from about 35%) for those who line item deductions -- or if one doesn't itemize, two flat bands of 10% up to $100,000 and 25% on anything about that); and mostly making up the difference with a GST of 8.5%.   (Smart that is -- really, the States needs a VAT of some sort to put it on a level field with many other exporting countries; but it will never be accepted by lower classes even with refundable credits.)

But Ryan also wants to substantially reduce access to Medicaid (health care for welfare recipients and the "working poor" -- the threshold would be set to a point where maybe half would be cut off), and replace it with a system of vouchers that will not -- repeat, not -- index with inflation or with rising system costs.    It would also replace fee-for-service (or piecework, if you prefer to call it that) with straight salaries or lump sum payments to Medicaid accepting health care practitioners.    This may be fine with those in the radical right who believe that good health should be a privilege and bad health a punishment from God, but it does nothing to help those who need help.   Cut the payments, fewer doctors will accept the vouchers -- and the vicious cycle of poverty will worsen even more.

The Obama reforms, as faulty as they are, are a start in the proper direction.   And kicking the hornet's nest will not help anyone.

Does the choice made last weekend provide the right amount of shadow (yang) to Mitt Romney's light (ying)?   Perhaps.   But as moderate as he may be on many policy issues, Romney cannot escape his actions as a hedge fund manager and corporate raider and all the victims that caused.   There are many raiders who are much more ethical, and many corporate scions who ensure the laid off or terminated get some kind of decency in a leaving package.   Romney's not that kind of guy.

And it wouldn't have mattered who he chose, it's always about the economy. Unless the dollar devalues by 50% between now and November, or the price of oil skyrockets to $200+, Obama and Biden are safe -- but they won't win a landslide either.

UPDATE (11:06 AM EDT, 1506 GMT, August 14, 2012):   Some minor corrections.   Also, I saw on CNBC this morning Rick Santelli saying that the Ryan pick gives Americans a real choice -- government is the solution or government is the problem.    Sorry, Ricky, but it's not that simple.   People, given the choice, want help when they need it and to be left alone when they don't.   That's how most free world countries operate and why their people are healthier overall.    Cancelling Obamacare with Romneycare (a difference of degrees) would be one thing.    Getting rid of Medicaid for working people making barely more than minimum is really revolting.