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.