Can You Imagine? Toppling the Fossil Fuel Empire

 

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

 

As the world struggles with how to deal with the slow motion apocalypse of global climate change it becomes more and more apparent that we are trapped in “the kind of thinking” that got us here. While I don’t want to wear out Einstein’s quotability his other little piece of wisdom that we need to keep top of mind is this:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Our failure of imagination regarding the ever-increasing production and use of fossil fuels will, over time, kill billions of us and irreversibly change all life on the planet. It is a failure of imagination not at a policy level but at level of civilization. It’s not a lack of knowledge – we have a staggering amount of information and analysis, a frightening compendium of what we are doing to ourselves and every other species on the planet. We keep piling it on, study after study, dire warning after dire warning, irrefutable science, actual evidence of melting ice-caps, the virtually unprecedented level of agreement on the part of science about where we are headed. Additional information is already hitting up against the principle of diminishing returns.

We have seen especially alarming predictions in the past few months. Two studies released almost simultaneously  claim with a high degree of certainty that the glaciers in the western Antarctic are irreversibly melting. The first, by NASA and the University of California-Irvine, examined a group of large glaciers that collectively contain the equivalent of four feet of sea level rise. They are in “continuous and rapid retreat and there is “no [major] obstacle that would prevent the glaciers from further retreat.” They have “have passed the point of no return.”

Another study by the University of Washington came to the same conclusion and suggested the Melting of the Thwaites glacier could undermine the rest of the Antarctic ice shield holding ten to thirteen feet of sea level rise. None of this will happen soon and the maximum rise could take centuries, yet Greenland expert and glaciologist Stephen Box we have already set in motion 69 feet of sea level rise.

While some of these changes will unfold over decades and centuries a report from the US National Research Council warns of the distinct possibility of tipping points: “… the scientific community has been paying increasing attention to the possibility that at least some changes will be abrupt, perhaps crossing a threshold or ‘tipping point’ to change so quickly that there will be little time to react.” Another study examining the speed of species extinction says the extinction rate is 1000 time faster than it should be according to historical rates.

One of the major political factors preventing serious consideration of major and rapid policy changes is the sheer power of the fossil fuel industry. Unimaginable wealth translates into unimaginable power world-wide. To imagine bringing the industry to heel in a serious effort to slow climate change we have to imagine treating the industry like we eventually treated the tobacco industry: as an existential threat to human health. For decades the tobacco giants exerted so much political influence they were virtually untouchable. To the extent that this changed (it is obviously still a health scourge especially in the developing world) it changed because the notion of corporate “rights” was successfully challenged.

Multiply the impact of the tobacco industry by 1000 and you have some idea of how difficult it will be to escape the political and social conventional thinking that protects the oil “industry” from rational policy. Indeed part of that conventional thinking is seeing the giant corporations involved as just another industry. This actually serves to protect this sociopathic monster because we have rules governing industries and the individual companies that make them up. Companies are “citizens” with rights (thanks to our Charter) and they live forever. They have literally unlimited money to lobby governments for continued subsidies ($2 billion yearly from Ottawa), and tax breaks and against subsidies for renewables which could save the planet. Even though 97% of climate scientists agree about climate change, these corporations have the power trash science and sew doubts about global warming.

The energy giants are protected by rogue governments like those in Alberta and Ottawa. They are permitted to take us much of the stuff out of the ground as fast as they can ship it and sell it regardless of the global consequences. Like no other sector of the economy (except perhaps nuclear power) they are allowed to externalize hundreds of billions – possibly trillions – in costs they should be paying: air and water pollution costs; health costs; the costs associated with distorting the rest of the economy; the cost of new roads and bridges and freeways and paved-over farm land. We refuse to tax it to cover those costs and that means ridiculously low prices and little incentive to wean ourselves from its pernicious and deadly effects.

The mega-corporations that peddle fossil fuels and effectively sponsor climate change and the melting of the ice caps are not an “industry.” They are a plague. And indeed their impact is already tantamount to a plague – the fastest rate of species extinction since the end of the dinosaurs – and will over the next hundred years kill exponentially more people than all the plagues in world history combined. Speaking of dinosaurs, perhaps if we mobilized to confront the criminal negligence of the fossil fuel empire in the same way we would mobilize to divert a collision-course comet, we might achieve a realistic sense of the scale of the coming catastrophe and what needs to be done to avoid it.

And it would require us to listen to Einstein’s observation about the need to use a different kind of thinking to solve our problem. No, I mean a really different kind of thinking, the kind of big idea thinking I have referred to in earlier columns. The sooner we begin to think of the fossil fuel empire as a criminal conspiracy and not just another industrial sector, the sooner we will actually get to the point where it is not just acceptable to nationalize and control fossil fuels but necessary for the survival of all life on the planet.

How could this actually happen? What would such a course of action look like? I have no idea. That’s why imagination is more important than knowledge – and why if we don’t begin trying to imagine controlling the private fossil fuel empire it will never happen. And if I doesn’t happen we condemn our grandchildren and their grandchildren to an unimaginable dystopia. Perhaps a sign that things are moving in the right direction will be when a group of young people make a mock citizens’ arrest of the CEO of an oil company on a charge of species murder. I can hardly wait.

 

 

Wynne’s Win, and the Agony of Right-Wing Pundits

While I realize it is churlish to take so much pleasure in the whining and wingeing of the usually arrogant right-wing pundits, I just can`t help myself. This gaggle of ideological nut bars rarely get angry at the fact that most governments in this country have been doing their duty in dismantling the democratic, activist state for 25 years. They really thought that it was impossible — due in part to their own pernicious influence — that the idea of government actually working for people could rise from the ashes.

But when Kathleen Wynne put together a budget and a campaign platform that looked like it came from the NDP in 1975 and then actually won a majority on it? Well that`s not just heresy, it`s apostasy. The Liberals, after all, are still supposed to be a Bay Street party, doing capital`s bidding — as defined so often by these same pundits

The pundits, all nominally in favour of democracy so long as it produces anti-democratic governments, will be twisting themselves out of shape for some time to come. Here`s  Kelly McParland of the National Post (headline: “Ontario election result makes perfect sense in an irrational world”), truly rendered incoherent by the unexpected results:

“Who won is, in a big way, immaterial. Oh, the result matters to the participants, of course, and in terms of the dismal message it sends about how tolerant the Ontario voter is of Liberal abuse and mismanagement. But in the big picture, who is premier or what party won the most seats wasn’t the real issue.”

Really? Then just what is the point of elections? I wonder why McParland bothers to write his columns. But he quickly returns to suggesting maybe it did matter — and trashing Ontarians who didn`t vote for communal suicide by voting for Tim Hudak: “Ontarians seem able to hate their government, while simultaneously wanting more of it.  Is this some sort of new public mania, masochism by democracy?”

So blotto is Mr McParland from drinking his ideological Kool-Aid, it is simply impossible for him to imagine that people might actually be attracted to the idea of a party that runs on a platform of making things better for ordinary people. Only someone living in that batty libertarian universe could see an enhanced pension plan as masochism.

The National Post`s John Ivison attacked Wynne for a cynical campaign of “fear and anger” but then criticized the Conservative leader because he “did not make enough people angry enough at the Liberals for them to ignore their misgivings about Mr. Hudak.”

No mention, however, of the cynicism demonstrated by Hudak who travelled to the U.S. to consult with some genuinely certifiable Tea Partiers about how to win the hearts and minds of Ontarians by trashing their government programs and firing those who deliver them.

And then there was the Sun chain`s Christina Blizzard addicted, apparently, to hyperbole:

“This province is morally and financially bankrupt. Yet, we’ve patted the perpetrators on the back and sent them to Queen’s Park with a licence to spend and plunder. They will be insufferable. Watch for a festival of smug triumphalism from the Liberals….voters had no appetite for honesty in politics.…This is a stunning Friday the 13th horror story.”

The Toronto Sun is a newspaper devoted to the Conservatives like a mother to her children. With Wynne’s “’safe hands’ in charge of this province, we’re closer to Greece or Detroit than the witless in this city ever want to think,” wrote Sue-Anne Levy. “Wynne cares about one thing only: Clinging to power and keeping her Liberal friends happily rolling in largesse.” And Anthony Furey, another Sun columnist chastised voters with the headline “Shame on you, Ontarians.”

And then there was the National Post`s Robyn Urbach who boldly declared: “Liberals shouldn’t mistake their majority with voter support for their mandate.”  I would love to see what Urbach wrote about Stephen Harper`s mandate with virtually the same percentage of the vote for his majority.  And given that NDP voters almost certainly supported virtually all of the Liberal budget and platform that does translate into a big majority: 62.4 per cent.

Amongst the right wing commentators it seems only Andrew Coyne could bear to tell it straight up:

“This election was very much a referendum on fiscal conservatism, and the fiscal conservatives lost. [T]he central issue in this campaign, unambiguously, was fiscal policy — the Liberals ran on their budget, and the Tories ran on theirs, the Million Jobs Plan. Everyone agreed this election presented the voters with a clear choice, perhaps the clearest in 20 years. And they made their choice, just as clearly.”

Amen.

While the right’s hard liners may be lighting their hair on fire, citizens on the other hand may actually get to see what governments used to be like. There is, of course, still a possibility that Wynne will renege on these pledges as Liberals have done historically. But just imagine if she does deliver with the most progressive budget in Canada in 20 years. It could have huge implications for politics at all levels.

Ever since the so-called `free-trade` deal with the U.S. Canadians have been sold a bill of goods by the economic and political elites about there “being no alternative” to small, mean, punitive and arrogant government. With the NDP`s apparent abandonment of principle in favour of crass opportunism and consumer populism, it seemed activist government was well and truly buried.

If Wynne wants to have a really extraordinary legacy she has a golden opportunity — and a powerful personal mandate.  Progressive politicians can pitch good policies until the cows come home but the impact of actually seeing them work could be enormous: an executed plan is worth a thousand pledges.

Wynn`s $15 billion mass transit plan is huge in terms of reducing Ontario`s climate foot print.

Providing retirees with greater income security is something almost every government knows is critically necessary.

Her pledge to raise the pay of the lowest paid health and child care workers directly addresses the issue of inequality. The rest of the platform was pretty interesting, too.

I can think of three positive outcomes of Wynne carrying out her pledges (besides her actual program).

Most important is demonstrating to voters across the country that governments can do things that make their lives better — that voting can make a difference. When the punditry puzzle over how the Liberals could have won despite a litany of corruption charges and large deficits consider this possibility: the tired mantra about deficits and debt (and the scary bond-raters) suddenly takes its rightful place in the political firmament when it has to compete with real public goods and higher taxes on the undeserving rich.

Secondly, if this does start a trend towards more rational and less ideological politics (like actually addressing the $160 billion infrastructure deficit across Canada) the NDP might once again find the courage to run campaigns and engage the public on social democratic principles. After all, if they are going to mimic the Liberals to get to the centre, better they mimic Wynne, who is moving the centre to the left. NDPers everywhere would thank her (notwithstanding the irony that it took a Liberal to push the fiscal boundary — sort of like Nixon recognizing China).

Lastly, though there may not be time for this to play out, a government representing over a third of the country`s population actually pursuing an activist agenda could make things very difficult for Stephen Harper`s continued assault on democratic governance.  The 905 area surrounding Toronto went solidly Liberal in this election and it is these voters that Harper must have to win even a minority in 2015. If they are happy with Wynne`s performance, Harper could be in serious trouble.

Who Needs $80 Billion? Starve Us Some More!

For years Stephen Harper often seemed at war with his own government, so consistently critical were reviews by its various independent oversight agencies. It seems that at least one “independent” body, the Parliamentary Budget Office, is now a little more PMO-friendly. A recent report from the PBO’s new chief Jean-Denis Fréchette declared that thanks to the incredible generosity of the federal government, “Canadians” have an extra $30 billion in their pockets — money “saved” due to Conservative tax cuts. The figure includes reductions in personal income tax of $17.1 billion and the federal share of revenue loss GST/HST of $13.3 billion.

That’s almost $1,000 per person.

Isn’t that nice.

Except that the “average” is meaningless. According to Canadians for Tax Fairness (disclosure: I am on the board) “the top 20 per cent of income earners got $10.9 billion, or 36 per cent of the total, while the bottom 20 per cent got $1.9 billion, or only six per cent… What this means is that while the lowest 20 per cent of income earners have gained less than $500 in tax reductions, the top 20 per cent have seen their taxes go down by almost $2,000 a year.”

There was no suggestion that the $30 billion could also be seen as lost revenue and lost services. No debate about whether the poorest 20 per cent are better off with an extra $500 to spend or whether they might actually be better off with affordable child care, Pharmacare, low tuition fees for their kids or affordable housing.

The PBO report again raises the question of how we will ever get an adult conversation about taxes in this country?

There was no critical comment from any of the national political parties.

For so many years now the conversation was like one hand clapping. Anti-government voices like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the National Post, the Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe Institute and the editorial writers in virtually every newspaper in the country repeat the mantra that tax cuts are good to the point where there is apparently no level of government impoverishment that is unacceptable.

I wonder if Canadians would be so sanguine about the “savings” they receive if they were announced as options forgone. So, instead of announcing the upcoming income splitting scheme (slated for the 2015 budget) as savings for taxpayers the government news release would state: “Today the Harper government announced that it was taking new tax measures that will ensure that Canadians will never get a national child care program. ‘Our government is acutely aware of the fact that we still have too much revenue — revenue that Canadians would expect us to spend if they knew we had it,’ said Finance Minister Joe Oliver. ‘So we are going to continue to implement our revenue reduction plan to ensure that no one gets attached to the idea of affordable child. Our income splitting measure will eliminate the $3 billion it would cost to start such a program.'”

Or perhaps they could announce it with a somewhat different spin. “The Conservative government in Ottawa announced today a continuation of its long term commitment to making rich people richer. ‘Our government is not going to stand idly by and watch rich people in other countries get richer than our own wealthy citizens. Not on my watch,’ said Finance Minister Joe Oliver. Oliver announced that the Conservative will be implementing an income-splitting measure in 2015 that will put loads more cash into the pockets of those who can’t figure out how to spend the money they already have.

“‘The spending side of it is their problem,’ said Oliver. ‘Our job is to give them more money.’ He pointed out that 86 per cent of all families would gain no benefit whatsoever from income splitting. The richest five per cent of families would see more benefit than the bottom 60 per cent of families combined. The bottom 60 per cent of families would receive, on average, $50 while the wealthiest five per cent would receive an average benefit of $1,100. ‘No one should doubt our commitment to taking from everyone else and giving to the rich. It’s what we do.'”

Of course the $30 billion figure doesn’t even take account of the enormous cuts that Paul Martin made in 2000 (larger than anything Flaherty implemented) and it also doesn’t count cuts to corporate taxes implemented by the Conservatives. The hand over of community revenue to the largest corporations in the country means we are nearly $20 billion short every year. That’s $50 billion we would have had if taxes had been left the way they were starting in 2005. If you add in Paul Martin’s gratuitous gifts to the undeserving rich and their corporate co-conspirators the number is closer to $80 billion. To put that in perspective, we now have about $230 billion in federal revenue — rather than $310 billion we should have.

It might be a useful exercise for Canadians to sit down and produce a couple of columns. One, called “taxpayers” would list what we could spend our savings on. The other, called “citizens” would tally what we could, collectively, as a national community, accomplish if we somehow went back to the year 2000 or even 2005 tax levels.

For the vast majority of us the first column would be pretty short. But the other list could get quite long for the simple reason that when we all throw a bit of money into the pot, the pot gets pretty big.

The folks at Press Progress did some of the work on such a list allocating $43 billion in additional revenue annually.

Balance the budget: $2.9 billion
Pay down debt: $10 billion
Urban infrastructure and public transit: $9.5 billion
National childcare program: $2 billion
National pharmacare program: $3.8 billion
Reduce university tuition to 1992 levels: $3 billion
Invest in affordable housing: $1.5 billion
Invest in First Nations communities, water supply and education: $2.2 billion
Invest in long-term health care for seniors: $5.6 billion

And, say the authors, we would have enough leftover to buy a Welsh pony for every child under the age of nine (cost: $2.5 billion).

Of course the anti-government propagandists frame this in their own special way: taking money out of people’s pockets, killing growth, attacking private investment. For them it’s all cost, no benefit.

But the facts tell a different story. Having the lowest corporate tax rates in the G7 has done exactly nothing for investment in Canada. Every dollar we give these carpetbaggers is just added to the huge pile of idle capital (some $600 billion) sitting in corporate bank accounts. These folks aren’t stupid — they’re not going to invest unless there is a demand for what they produce. You only worry about income tax if you’re making an income. Taxes historically rank about number five or six on the list of factors going into an investment decision.

How might we create demand so that corporations would invest? Well, how about spending $50 billion on things that actually employ people (day care workers, health care workers, teachers), spend money in the private sector (housing and infrastructure, transit, and water systems and schools on reserves) and educate more people for high-paying jobs?

Despite how obvious this should be it appears that no national party has any intention of proposing a return to the days when we actually funded government generously — when we understood that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.

The Liberals and the Conservatives are responsible for destroying our national revenue. The Green Party has a “revenue neutral” pledge that will raise carbon taxes but reduce other taxes by the same amount. That leaves the NDP. But that leaves us nowhere. In the fall of 2013, Thomas Mulcair made it clear enough: “…that is never going to be part of my policies, going after more individual taxes. Period. Full stop.”

An insider told me Mulcair regretted being so strong in an off-the-cuff remark. But on May 15 he reiterated: “We’re saying that personal taxes will not be touched. That’s a firm undertaking. That’s a contract with the Canadian voting public on our behalf.”

A contract that includes, apparently, the super-rich, the one per cent.

Mulcair is not avoiding tax increases because he is afraid of the media response. He is committed to the status quo because he actually believes that taxes should not be raised. That is the inescapable conclusion a lot of people were hoping wasn’t true.

Which means, if progressives in this country are serious about political change at the federal level they need to take action to convince the NDP to change its position. No one should give a dime to this party until in indicates it is committed to finding the necessary revenue to fund what Canadians say they want. I received a fund-raising letter from the NDP last week and I returned it saying: “Not a dime until you pledge to increase taxes.”

I sent the same message to Thomas Mulcair (thomas.mulcair@parl.gc.ca). I suggest you do the same. It may be the only message that gets through.

Stephen Harper’s ‘Strategic’ Path to Ruin

The federal government, that is Stephen Harper, is expected to announce its long anticipated decision on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline sometime in June. The decision could well determine whether or not the Conservatives can win the 2015 election.

The momentum of opposition to the pipeline — and perhaps more importantly to the hundreds of supertankers that would move tar sands bitumen to Asia — is clearly growing in both B.C. and the rest of Canada. This makes Harper’s absolute dedication to the oil industry, and his dogged commitment to the pipeline in particular, tantamount to a suicide pact. This is a pipeline that will never be built. It is already dead. But don’t assume Harper sees that. His decision, as many of them are, will be a war between his highly touted strategic genius and his narcissistic impulses — revealed by a pattern of rejecting defeat until reality can no longer be denied.

Harper’s advantage over his political opponents is also his disadvantage. He is far bolder than any opponent he has ever faced. He is a huge risk taker. But risk taking is not in itself a virtue. Indeed, some of the biggest risk takers are psychopaths, and you certainly wouldn’t want one of those running your country. A recent study out of Vanderbilt University “shows that people with psychopathic tendencies (like aggression, lack of empathy, lack of fear) are more prone to take excessive risk without considering the consequences,” reports Business Insider, “It’s not just that they don’t appreciate the potential threat, but that the anticipation or motivation for reward overwhelms those concerns.”

What motivates Stephen Harper’s risk taking? The rewards for some of Harper’s most excessive actions would seem as much personal as political. Consider the long list of attacks on high profile, credible government and agency figures. As Susan Delacourt helpfully documents in the Toronto Star, these include “Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, vilified for getting in the way of Fair Elections Act and former auditor-general Sheila Fraser, for the same offence. Then there’s the former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page; former chief statistician Munir Sheikh; former nuclear safety commissioner Linda Keen; former RCMP public complaints commissioner Paul Kennedy; former veterans’ ombudsman Pat Stogran; as well as Marty Cheliak, ex-head of the gun registry; Remy Beauregard, the late head of Rights and Democracy; Adrian Measner, former head of the Canadian Wheat Board; and Richard Colvin, the former Canadian diplomat who spoke out on Afghan detainees.”

Many of these vicious attacks may have had some anticipated political reward but the biggest motivator would appear to be simple revenge — the consequences be damned (or unimagined). And these were before Harper decided to take on two institutions even higher up the institutional and political ladder: war veterans and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. As Delacourt argues, Harper seems not even to be seeking advice anymore. He has concluded that he’s not just the smartest guy in the room. He’s the only guy in the room.

As for the oil industry and two pipelines critical to tar sands expansion, even here, where Harper has made a political life or death commitment, his actions have seemed oddly irrational if not totally reckless. Harper is so contemptuous of Barack Obama — the man with his hand on the Keystone XL guillotine — he cannot even bring himself to act in such a way as to make it easier for Obama to say yes. The mouse telling the elephant that a decision is a “no-brainer,” then trumping himself with “we won’t take no for an answer” calls into question whether Harper’s assumed strategic genius is really hostage to his emotions. Meanwhile, Harper refuses to do anything at all about emissions from the tar sands, something the White House (and the EU) have been seeking in order get the dirty oil flowing.

On virtually every aspect of the pipeline file, specifically Northern Gateway, Harper seems to believe he can will the result he wants. Until very recently he has treated First Nations with disdain and slandered environmental groups — his two most powerful and intractable opponents. Given the geographic distribution of votes in this country, B.C. voters will most likely determine the outcome of the next election. And where does Harper decide to have an unwinnable showdown? Well, B.C., of course. And if you think the pipeline and tanker issues are hot now this is just early spring on the issue. Once Harper gives the go ahead the very long and very hot summer will begin in earnest and will last until election day.

In a last desperate effort to imitate rational policy before he makes the inevitable decision, Harper has tossed out a couple of crumbs to those concerned about the environmental impact of the pipeline and resource development. But the efforts are so transparent and inadequate that they simply draw attention to his appalling record. Harper just announced a $252-million, five year plan to “strengthen the conservation and restoration of ecologically sensitive land and waters throughout Canada.” This after unapologetically gutting environmental protection of over 95 per cent of Canadian waterways.

The government is also increased the maximum liability oil tanker companies will face for oil spills from $161 million to $400 million — ignoring the main recommendation of a tanker safety expert panel that “the oil cargo industry should be responsible for the full costs of spills … with no limit per incident.”

There is also a plan to establish a $1.61 billion fund from levies imposed on tanker companies. The $400 million limit (and the $1.61 billion fund) are laughable when the you examine the Exxon Valdez disaster, the closest existing example of what a spill clean-up would cost. Exxon paid $3.8 billion in cleaning up the spill of 250,000 barrels of oil. And those were 1989 dollars. The VLCC class super tankers that would transport tar sands crude from Kitimat would be carrying 2,000,000 barrels in the most dangerous waters on the planet. A 2012 UBC study estimated the cost of a clean-up off B.C.’s northern coast at $9.6 billion.

Harper’s dogged commitment to protecting some of the largest and most profitable corporations in the world from liability for their own misdeeds is in itself irrational. He likes to describe Canada as an energy super power but all the other energy superpowers are nation states which have long ago nationalized their oil. That’s what gives them power. Canada is a superchump, given that the only energy superpower here is the oil and gas industry itself. Canada and its government have ceded all power to the industry. The cost to Canada and its economy is huge and for Harper, whose only source of credibility is now the economy, that is dangerous.

As The Tyee’s Mitch Anderson reported, a recent IMF report reveals that the after tax subsidies to the oil and gas industry in this country is a staggering $34 billion a year. Most of this is “the externalized costs of burning transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel — about $19.4 billion in 2011. These externalized costs include impacts like traffic accidents, carbon emissions, air pollution and road congestion.”

Many of these costs could be recovered by taxing the industry as is done in the EU, and by committing to mass transit.

According to Anderson, “Canada provides more subsidies to petroleum as a proportion of government revenue than any developed nation on Earth besides the United States and Luxembourg.” It is not only individual citizens who pay those subsidies, it is all the other business sectors in the country — the ones who depend on a viable infrastructure, high educational standards and healthy workers.

As a result, Harper’s claim to be the master of the economy is starting to fall apart. His obsession with the oil sands and his neglect of the rest of the economy is coming back to haunt him. The Bank of Canada just released a report revealing that Canada’s job recovery has been seriously overstated by the government. Polls show that the interminable “Canada Action Plan” ads are now just annoying people.

The government’s one rational economic effort, its $14 billion infrastructure program, is in such disarray that a whole construction season may well be lost due to confusion amongst municipalities regarding how to access it.

The Temporary Foreign Workers Program is a disaster for many reasons. One is that the promised (and politically critical) reforms to the program are being cited as a major stumbling block to trade deals with Europe and India. Both include generous provisions for European and Indian companies to import their own nationals to work in businesses they establish here. Cuts to the TFWP are generating complaints.

To add to the government’s woes the latest Statscan jobs report for April showed a net loss of 29,000 jobs. And it was the composition of those losses that should have the Harperium sweating. All of the job losses were concentrated in full time employment. An increase in low paying jobs actually made the situation look better than it was. Losses in the highest paid sectors were serious, with “finance, insurance and real estate (down 19,000), professional, scientific and technical services (down 10,000), natural resources (down 7,000) and utilities (down 5,000) …”

If Stephen Harper was really a strategic genius he would have either done a much better job of selling the Northern Gateway pipeline or he would have found an exit strategy. But his genius, as always, has a nasty little virus attacking it. Harper’s outsized self-regard, contempt for his adversaries and his inability to appreciate the consequences of excessive risk are slowly creating a perfect election storm — a failure to achieve tar sands expansion and a crumbling economic recovery.

Stephen Harper hates losing, maybe even more than he likes winning. If that’s the case he may well resign rather than face the humiliation of defeat on his single most important commitment.

Putin, Petrorubles and Our PM’s Bad Posture

Stephen Harper’s embarrassing behaviour regarding the crisis in Ukraine — demonizing Vladimir Putin and upping the rhetoric — must be welcomed in the U.S. which created the crisis in the first place and apparently believes it still has something to gain by isolating Russia. But it is not clear that Harper even realizes — or cares — what the larger game is.

And that game may include a Russia-driven shift in global currency allegiance that could devastate the economies of the U.S. and Canada.

The generals surrounding Harper in the ridiculous war-room setting where he announced Canada was sending six fighter jets to bolster NATO’s military buildup in eastern Europe looked very uncomfortable. Who likes being used as a prop for a faltering politician? The setting was a bad case of over-acting — as if we were joining the Allies in another world war rather than engaging in what one expert called “incremental posturing.”

Is Harper just a useful idiot to the U.S. — ranting and raving about Russian expansionism and imperialism so that the U.S. position looks more reasonable by comparison? He declared:

“When a major power acts in a way that is so clearly aggressive, militaristic and imperialistic, this represents a significant threat to the peace and stability of the world, and it’s time we all recognized the depth and the seriousness of that threat.”

It is difficult to know what is going on in the fevered imagination of the prime minister, but this time one has to really wonder if he has become genuinely unhinged — always a possibility with someone both paranoid and narcissistic. While it is clear that genuine foreign policy execution always plays a distant second role to micro-managing the electorate, it is still possible that Harper’s domestic framing of foreign policy vis-a-vis Ukraine could inadvertently play a role that he didn’t intend.

It is interesting that Harper virtually never talks about what is actually happening in Ukraine. The notion that Russia wants to occupy Ukraine or even invade it to protect ethnic Russians is far from the mark. The last thing Russia wants is responsibility for one of the worst basket cases in all of Europe. Ukraine is a nearly-failed state, all of its politicians are corrupt to a greater or lesser degree, it is bankrupt, has no effective police force and is held down by crumbling infrastructure, a decrepit industrial base, massive unemployment and a dysfunctional legal system. Putin is likely delighted to see the whole mess dumped into the lap of the U.S. and EU to try to sort out — a process that will take a decade and tens of billions of dollars just to tread water.

In its current state Ukraine will never be invited to join the EU because then the EU would be directly responsible for bailing it out. And trying now to bring Ukraine into NATO would be seen everywhere as madness — a provocation to which Russia would reply by cutting off gas to western Europe. So Putin will watch with the comfort of an oligarch as the IMF puts the fiscal boots to a country already on its knees. And, of course, he can play mischief with gas prices any time he wants. The IMF prescription of drastic cuts to government programs could well cause widespread social unrest — and play into the hands of the fascist parties given new prominence by the U.S.-inspired coup. It could also turn many ethnic Ukrainians against the West, making its task of establishing stability that much more difficult.

It is extremely unlikely that Putin will intervene to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, either, unless there is virtual bloodbath. He will calculate that even a few hundred deaths of Russian separatists will simply reinforce his public relations victory over the West — confirming his framing of the issue as the ineptness and brutality of an illegal Kyiv government that hates Russia and Russians. It makes far more sense for him to let the U.S. and EU deal with such a crisis and damage what’s left of NATO’s shaky credibility than it is to be the bad guy and intervene militarily.

In the meantime, the demonization of Putin and Russia is having a major influence on an issue that has barely been mentioned in the media: Putin’s plan to create the petroruble and decouple Russia’s energy exports from the dollar.

It is arguable that push for the petroruble is a global issue many times more important to the U.S. than anything that happens in the Ukraine, but American efforts to isolate Russia is actually accelerating the process. It is also driving Russia to look to the east instead of Europe for its future prosperity — aligning with China as both a market for its gas and a partner in undermining the petrodollar. China is already headed there. Its yuan is the second most used currency, ahead of the euro, in international trade settlements. China recently “opened two centers to process yuan-denominated trade flows, one in London and one in Frankfurt.”

The emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are grouped under the acronym BRICS. According to journalist Peter Koenig: “Other countries, especially the BRICS and BRICS-associates (BRICSA), may soon follow suit and join forces with Russia, abandoning the ‘petrodollar’ as trading unit for oil and gas. This could amount to tens of trillions in loss for demand of petrodollars per year.” In which case, “leaving an important dent in the U.S. economy would be an understatement,” says Koenig. “Along with the new BRICS(A) currency will come a new international payment settlement system, replacing the SWIFT and IBAN exchanges, thereby breaking the hegemony of… the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basle.”

The prospect of the U.S. dollar losing its status as the world’s trading currency is far and away the greatest threat to U.S. hegemony in the world as it would turn the country’s $17-trillion (not counting unfunded liabilities) virtual debt problem into a real one. Until now, the huge external demand for U.S. dollars has allowed it to accumulate enormous debts without defaulting. With Russia, China and the rest of the BRICS countries moving in this direction, the U.S is panic-stricken. It used to be said that the U.S. dollar was backed by the Pentagon. Indeed, plans to decouple from the dollar was a common feature of three countries that experienced the wrath of U.S. foreign policy and military intervention. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi was planning a gold-standard currency for all of Africa; Iraq was planning to quit using the dollar for its oil exports, as was Iran. Sanctions against the latter had as much to do with this plan as any other issue.

But Russia, China, Brazil and India are countries of a whole different order and out of reach of the Pentagon’s threats. There is virtually nothing the U.S. can do to stop this movement, provoked in part by the massive printing of money in repeated “quantitative easings” and accelerated by NATO’s adventurism.

If that were not a big enough headache for the U.S., Russia is well placed to detach Germany from the EU and U.S. efforts to isolate Russia. While Russia will suffer economically in the short term from sanctions, the longer term looks brighter. At the same time that BRICSA is planning its new international payment system, China and Germany are negotiating another initiative that guarantees Russia a prominent role in one of the world’s most ambitious economic development schemes: the New Silk Road linking China and Europe. This initiative is intended to provide enormous impetus for development of western China and everything from there to Germany.

Says Koenig: “Germany, the economic driver of Europe — the world’s fourth largest economy (US$ 3.6 trillion GDP) — on the western end of the new trading axis, will be like a giant magnet, attracting other European trading partners of Germany’s to the New Silk Road. What looks like a future gain for Russia and China, also bringing about security and stability, would be a lethal loss for Washington.”

So the Russian president, at record highs in public approval and now fully justified in facing east after being provoked by the West, doesn’t have to act. Everything is in motion for advantage Russia. And our war mongering prime minister will continue to aid Mr. Putin by demonizing him and justifying his eastern “pivot.”

Harper’s (Un)Fair Elections Act Could Spark Voter Surge

The Harper government seems intent on proving to its detractors that things can always get worse. They’ve one-upped themselves with the farce called the Fair Elections Act.

It has been described as a direct threat to the right to vote and an assault on democracy by the very people our democracy assigns to examine these things. But as is the pattern with this government, it seems likely it will ram it through no matter what critics say.

If that is the case then true democrats passionately opposed to Bill C-23 should plan the second phase of their campaign soon — that is, use the opportunity hidden in the crisis to turn the bill into a massive voter legitimization campaign focused on those groups Harper and his point man Pierre Poilievre want to disenfranchise. But more on that later.

Everything about this smacks of American-style voter suppression. It’s not just the actual provisions of the bill which are so transparently aimed at denying voting rights. It is the delivery of this bill by the most arrogant and contemptuous of all of Stephen Harper’s trained attack dogs. Just having to observe this sorry excuse for an elected representative is enough to suppress democracy. The ideological rejection of science and evidence is also on full display here as if political debate itself has been banned from the House of Commons.

This goes beyond even hyper-partisanship. It’s more like feudalism and the divine right of kings — which asserts that “a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm [such as science]… “

There is not much need to go into great detail on the outrages of this legislation as even the normally complacent mainstream media has been piling on this one. The media had adapted to the new normal of the Harper regime’s approach: never answer a question, never acknowledge an argument from the other side, never talk to the national media and always keep a straight face when you lie, cheat, bully, slander and break every rule that doesn’t actually get you arrested. That level of contempt for democracy is now so commonplace it isn’t even news anymore.

But the Fair Elections Act was a step too far and has had the effect of waking the media. Outrage has been dragged from its long slumber.

The broad political system seems to have responded as if all the Conservatives needed was a lesson in political ethics. A few high profile, respected experts stating the obvious would work its magic. No? Well let’s add a few more — like former federal chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley. Nope. How about a dozen academics and some provincial chief electoral officers? No response. All of this science-based stuff just seems to reinforce the faith-based government and its choir boy Poilievre. The more criticism and indeed the more respected it was, the more enthusiastic the government became. After all of this — and virtually no one backing the bill’s targeted features — the bill was declared by Poilievre as not just fair but “terrific.” Till then the sanctimonious (this must now be seen as a compliment in the royal court) minister had replied to questions with nearly identical talking points.

Of course at the crudest level of hardball politics this contempt for all criticism works because there is no way to force anyone to actually answer a question. Nonetheless the approach leaves all of the severe criticisms of Bill C-23 out there on the table — unsullied by any serious attempt at rebuttal. The claim by experts that upwards of 500,000 voters could be denied their constitutional right to vote isn’t even acknowledged yet alone refuted. The overwhelming evidence that there simply is no voting fraud in Canada (except by the Conservatives) sits unchallenged. Eliminating vouching (where eligible voters without the correct ID can be vouched for by someone who has ID) and the use of the government’s own voter registration cards are universally condemned as disenfranchising young people (especially mobile students), First Nations members, the homeless and many elderly voters.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has challenged the 2007 federal voter ID laws and won partial victories. According to the BCCLA, “Both courts found that the voter ID laws are a prima facie violation of section 3 of the Charter.” [my emphasis] But despite this, the courts also found that “the law constitutes a reasonable limit on those rights and is justifiable.” One of the reasons the court found this to be the case was that it included the practice of vouching — which ameliorated somewhat the threat of disenfranchisement implied in the requirement for ID. The removal of vouching therefore suggests that the requirement for voter ID is no longer a “reasonable limit.” Last week the BCCLA made application to Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) for leave to appeal the B.C. Court of Appeal decision.

Ironically, the courts these days seem to hold the most promise for those seeking to defend democracy against capricious and authoritarian attacks by elected governments. And the SCC has shown it can move quickly when the democratic stakes are high.

But whatever the outcome, perhaps the best possible response of democracy activists would be to treat this loathsome piece of legislation as a useful crisis. This is exactly what leaders of the African-American and Latino communities have done in their fight against the blatant voter suppression efforts in the U.S. — where individual states determine voting procedures for federal elections. “A Center for Social Inclusion report entitled “Citizens Denied: The Impact of Photo ID Laws on Senior Citizens of Color” warned that nearly half of black voters over age 65 and one in three Latino senior voters would have a more difficult time registering and voting on election day due to photo ID laws passed in some 33 states.”

In at least some cases efforts at voter suppression in the U.S. have backfired because the attack on black and Latino communities has galvanized them to get out the vote. The government of Florida reduced the early voting period which prompted black churches “to conduct a two-day ‘souls to the polls’ marathon. And even as election day turned into a late election night, and with the race in Ohio, and thus for the 270 votes needed to win the presidency, called by 11 p.m., black voters remained in line in Miami-Dade and Broward, two heavily Democrat counties in Florida, where black voters broke turnout records even compared to 2008.”

Efforts to suppress the vote in civic elections in North Carolina and Texas also backfired, resulting in record turn-outs of the people targeted by Republican party controlled board of elections.

With young people, the homeless and First Nations voters at the low end of the turn-out numbers, the Harper government’s crude effort to suppress their votes even more can and should be used to galvanize the vote from those communities.

Student organizations, anti-poverty groups, the Idle No More movement and senior’s groups are well placed to take up the challenge, with help from groups like Democracy Watch and perhaps the NDP.

While many in those communities have found little reason to go to the polls given the slim likelihood of any change in their lives, no one likes to be told what they can and can’t do — especially when it comes to rights. For the people targeted by Harper for disenfranchisement, the 2015 election could be purely about democracy itself.

When it Comes to Political Ideas, How Big is ‘Big’?

In search of the party of Big Ideas

The notion of ‘big ideas’ periodically raises its head in Canadian politics and I recently criticized the NDP for taking a good idea – a national day of action – and wasting it in on, well, small ideas. Specifically I suggested that the party’s focus on excessive interest rates and other charges effectively redefined citizens as consumers, something that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have been doing for eight years.

In response to the criticism the party’s deputy leader Megan Leslie wrote claiming that the NDP had big ideas “in spades” and that she was proud of them. It is unusual for the NDP to engage its critics on the left outside the party and it is a positive sign – just as the days of actions and national town halls are. Engaging people outside the four week period of elections is critical to the NDP’s future success.

But, as my philosophy prof would have said, it’s necessary but not sufficient for a party claiming a progressive mantel. If you want to get people engaged as citizens you have to challenge them as citizens to engage with you about their future. And people know, even if they are often in denial, that the future looks bleak. In the context of rapid climate change (and the social upheaval it will cause), increasing inequality, international conflicts, the coming conflicts over water, the dangerous growth of the security state, the threat of another global economic meltdown, and the limits to growth, the need to commit to big ideas is even greater.

Regrettably, in the context of conventional Canadian politics, the likelihood that any truly big idea will be put on the table, or become part of a national day of action or town hall is remote. Our political system’s greatest flaw is not the first-past-the-post voting system. It is the fact that it is gravely ill-equipped to deal with crises with which it has no experience. We have muddled through for decades tinkering with the perversity of capitalism. But capitalism has long since entered the cancer stage, as Canadian philosopher John McMurtry so prophetically described in his 1999 book (now updated)It is no longer capable of recognizing the crisis its faces and like a cancer attacks its own body.

The politics of incrementalism and issue-parsing is simply incapable of dealing with the issues we face and that means that at both the civil society level but especially at the political party and parliamentary level, there is almost no one is addressing the catastrophes we face and no one is seriously challenging the citizenry to take off its blinkers.

Our political system operates as if nothing has changed because fear prevents any political leader strategizing to win an election from going outside the window of acceptable ideas. Yet it is precisely the currently acceptable ideas that are leading us inexorably over a cliff.

Megan Leslie lists a number of NDP policies which she describes as “bold” but with all due respect most are defensive, involve resisting Stephen Harper’s anti-democratic agenda or are long-standing policies that have also been supported by the Liberals – such as child care. Returning to the pre-Harper corporate tax levels is a start – but Thomas Mulcair’s absolute refusal to consider increasing personal income taxes even on the wealthy shows timidity, not boldness. And without reclaiming lost revenue promises of child care and a national housing program ring hollow.

Leading “…the charge against Stephen Harper’s attempt to import voter suppression tactics” is what any opposition party should be doing and opposing the outrageous subsidies given to oil companies is good policy but hardly a “big idea.”

Ms Leslie’s listing of Medicare as a big idea gets to the core of what I am talking about. Big ideas take a long time to be seen by the broad public as first acceptable and then sensible. There is a well developed theory on this process referred to as the Overton Window, named for the man who developed it. The “window” is the current set of widely accepted public policies which typically determines what political parties run on.

The theory suggests that if you want to see a big, bold idea accepted as government policy you have to expand that window to include the new idea. Overton described the evolution to broad public acceptance as a process that develops by degrees: “Unthinkable; Radical; Acceptable; Sensible; Popular; Policy.” The right used this model and stuck with it for thirty years to achieve its current dominance. Ideas like slashing UI and welfare, privatizing crown corporations, gutting taxes on the wealthy, huge cuts to social programs and signing “trade” deals that give corporations more power were all, in the beginning, “unthinkable” or “radical.” But after thirty years of relentless promotion and the courting of politicians all of these ideas are now public policy.

The advent of Medicare in Saskatchewan followed precisely this road to fruition. And any party wishing to actually deal with the crises we face will need to accept that it will take time to make the necessarily bold policies sensible and popular. But so long as the NDP clings to the fantasy of winning a majority it will avoid big ideas for this reason. Contrast that with the NDP in the 1960s when it took the big idea of Medicare to the national stage and forced the Liberal government to implement it. That is the NDP’s historic role in progressive social policy: not winning elections but promoting bold ideas until they become popular.

The dramatic shift in strategy – seriously going for a majority – has been disastrous for the NDP. It led them to opportunistically defeat the Liberal government and give power to Stephen Harper. Inexorably, the NDP is becoming another liberal party in order to be competitive. Federally, they’re badly trailing a Liberal Party with a pretty face and no policies. The tragic irony in this is, of course, that even if the NDP did win it would have a mandate limited to liberal policies.

Social democracy in the developed world has already suffered the same fate – as it has provincially in Canada. In Europe, New Zealand and Australia it is virtually indistinguishable from neo-liberal parties and is in decline. In Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and BC NDP caution has been rewarded by voter rejection.

The root of the crisis for social democracy is its philosophical relationship with capitalism: accommodation rather than transformation. For decades that accommodation seemed to work – it gave us greater equality, Medicare, low tuition fees, genuine environmental protection, fair taxes, labour standards, vibrant cities. But the problem with social democracy is that because of its accommodation with capitalism it has no core principles that it won’t moderate or abandon. As capitalism gets worse, social democracy has to adjust. Its operating political principle becomes the process of accommodation.

But today accommodation with capitalism amounts to complicity with a system that has become so destructive and immune to reform that it threatens all life on the planet. The cancer stage of capitalism says McMurtry, is guided by “economic thought [which] is in principle incapable of recognizing what has gone wrong” and is controlled by transnational corporations which exercise sovereignty over nations through global trade agreements (one of Mr Mulcair’s most egregious accommodations).

If the pathologically destructive nature of finance capitalism is to be addressed there needs to be a political party that can do so by expanding the window of acceptable policies. And that means promoting bold ideas that directly challenge the policies that are creating the crises. Some examples: Make advertising to children illegal and begin to address the obesity epidemic; instead of capping credit card fees, establish a public national bank to compete directly with the private banks; get out of NAFTA; use the Bank of Canada’s mandated power to lend to governments at near-zero interest rates and pay down the debt; challenge the outrageous behaviour of pharmaceutical companies by establishing a public company actually dedicated to people’s health and not shareholder profit, and ban the use of antibiotics in animal feed before they become useless and people start dying again from a scraped knee.

Now there’s a party that would have me skipping to the polls.

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