Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bring Poverty to the Debate

With all this talk of the handful of Canadian combatants fighting ISIL and the domestic politics of terrorism/charter of rights, one could be forgiven for forgetting that we do have real, serious and pressing issues that affect a number greater than a rounding error in the general population.  You might not know it right now, but chances are you have never seen a murder, never seen a terrorist attack and will never be injured or personally affected by a turban, a niqab or a winter toque.  But, there is a very good chance that you will be affected by predatory lending, job uncertainty and the stress of trying to navigate through uncertain times.

Just this winter a man was found dead in a van in Toronto (pictured left).  He was a person and he died trying to keep himself warm.  Now, the Toronto Sun may have a valid argument that such deaths are difficult to prevent, but it's not really, as they say "as simple" as a mere choice.  If they think it is simple, it's because they are simple.
Poverty is a multifaceted and a difficult issue.  According to much economic thinking, there will always be relative poverty.  Meaning that one person will always have less than another person and will therefore be poorer.  Fine.  But, what most of us think of as poverty looks like something much more physical, real and observable.  Homeless people freezing on the street, First Nations which look more like a Soviet gulag than a community, children who come to school shaking from hunger, parents who have to let their own teeth rot out of their heads because they would rather struggle to make sure their children have a half decent pair of shoes to start the school year.

Canada has real problems and for so many of us, poverty is just a pay check away.  Is there an easy, fix all solution?  No, but there are real, practical solutions which are obtainable.  The problem is that there is no national desire to fix these problems.  The millennium goal to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000 is long gone and since then no political party seems to even talk about this issue.  And, it is a real and pressing issue.

According to UNICEF (yes, they are a pack of commies, but they have more data than Stats Can) nearly 15% of Canadians meet their definition of "low income" and 13% of Canadian children are living in poverty whilst the average for developed nations is 11%.   The OECD also says that poverty has been steadily rising in Canada since the 1980's.  Food Banks Canada reports that about 900,000 Canadians were using food banks as of 2013 and the number is likely rising.

A family in the First Nations community of Pikangikum in northwestern Ontario. 

The situation for the First Nations is far bleaker.  In 2013, the CCPA estimated that 50% of First Nations are living in poverty with that number rising to 60% in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.  Food Banks Canada reports that  11% of First Nations people rely upon food banks, but these numbers do not include numbers from private groups and churches which provide relief.

And, as I've mentioned a lot of people who aren't really poor are very close to it.  Personal debts are rising, unemployment is rising and the economy has taken a big hit.  Millions of Canadians are living on the edge and horrifyingly, many are choosing suicide as their way out.

Poverty is bad for the economy and the people who make up the economy.  More poor means higher costs for front line medical services and it means less money going into the economy.  Now, what this means in practical terms is not, by any means a settled issue with no consensus among economists, but most agree that there are real steps that can be taken and these steps should be taken.
 All parties have compassionate people of good will and they may have differing approaches and not all even agree that the government has the ability to lead on this file, but the debate still belongs on the front pages. All Canadians need to take a step back and realize that a lot of people are living in bread and butter land.  The identity politics is interesting, and the terrorism news is serious, but let's not forget that we have pressing issues at home.

Friday, March 13, 2015

In 2015, the debate is the debate

I hope that all three of my regular readers are happy to have my analysis back for the upcoming election.  I don't think that this will be a long one, but I just wanted to offer some initial analysis of what directions we could be heading in.

 As all three of you know, I don't go riding by riding and have no interest in doing so. In fact, I hardly blog about Canada at all as I'm much more interested in the social construction and narrative than the blunt facts. For this election, it might sound pretty obvious to simply say that voters haven't made up their minds.  For one, they aren't even paying attention.  At least that's what the research and common wisdom says.  The narrative at play here not get too deep, not unified.  There are several stories all going on at once.  There is a view of the clash of civilizations very much playing out, and a view where human rights and freedoms trumps all else. There are different media versions and different worldviews contributing to this political confusion.

Where Harper says "Islamic Fundamentalism" others simply refer to "terrorism".  Similarly, whether it's "reasonable accommodation" or "being soft on terror" is also a symptom of the break-down in the once, unified view as portrayed by the media.

Something interesting is also occurring.  McLuhan's "media is the message" seems like pure description when one reads articles like what Andrew Coyne noted today , he said that context and language do matter when politicians speak to Canadians.  I couldn't agree more.  I also agree that they do have a moral duty to calm people down and not to needlessly frighten them.  But, what I want to note here is that the debate has gone from one of the issues to one of the narrative itself.  How we frame issues, the language we use, the stories we tell via the news and other media is, itself a big part of the news.  The media is the message indeed.  

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Syrian Forces" vs. "Rebels" : A dangerous simplification of a complex problem.

I believe the west is marching in a dangerous direction on Syria. A dangerously simplistic construction of an 'Assad vs. Rebels' scenario has been created and the public calls for the U.S and allies to 'do something' is being heard.  But, what can be done and what the results of that action will be are far from clear cut.  

"Anyone watching the Syrian Civil War right now through the eyes of Western media is like some  guy who figures he knows what WWII was all about because he just watched Inglourious Basterds." (Wartard)

President Obama has long set the United States on the road toward intervention in Syria by setting the use of chemical weapons as a 'red line' or a 'game changer'.  When news of chemical attacks first began to surface, many analysts cautioned that it was still unclear who was using doing the attacking.  On BBC and Deutsche Welle, reports seemed to indicate that at least some of the chemical attacks were being carried out by some of the rebel groups.  

Of course we don't know exactly what the Obama administration or any other government knows, but it seems to me that there is at least some reason to be suspicious regarding who is doing the chemical attacks.  Part of it is just through logical reasoning.  Some of the reported attacks occurred after the U.S said that chemical attacks would draw them into the conflict and some of the attacks were done in civilian areas which would serve no purpose for the Ba'ath party, President Bashar al-Assad or the Syrian armed forces.  But, evidence of chemical attacks would strengthen the calls for international intervention on behalf of the rebels.  

Of course chemical attacks might be carried out by a desperate Syrian military hoping to turn the tides of a losing war, but there is no evidence that they are losing.  In fact, over the last six months or so it has seemed that Assad's forces have been clearly winning the conflict.  Perhaps that is party because of the alleged use of chemical weapons, but considering that they have proper military equipment and air superiority, it just doesn't seem to me that they would really need to resort to the use of chemical weapons which would attract unwanted attention.  

(for a really good image of current battle zones and past battles, click here)

While I haven't seen any clear evidence that some of the rebel groups are using chemical weapons, they certainly have more incentive to do so than the Syrian government has.  I'm aware that several reports from media people have surfaced stating that the government has carried out chemical attacks, but I just don't think we are getting all the information here.  Considering that some of the rebel groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra, the largest of the jihadist groups are believed to have launched some 50 suicide attacks in Syria since 2011 and are classified as terrorist organizations by many countries (including Syria, Canada, the U.S, Turkey and Britain), I wouldn't put chemical attacks on civilians past them.  Would they intentionally draw the U.S in to the conflict for their own purposes?  If they are desperate enough, they might.  

 If that is the case, it would appear that their mission has been successful.  In the past 24 hours, the Obama administration has stated that the U.S will begin arming the rebels.  Though they might be specifically providing arms to counter Syrian heavy equipment and air power, this could very well turn the tides of the war.  Also, if it doesn't appear to be working, my guess would be that the U.S and other potential allies could take even more direct action.  John McCain has been calling on the U.S Air force to begin limited and targeted air strikes.  He may get his wish very soon.

It's not that I think Assad is a good leader or that he shouldn't be removed nor is it that I think it would be beyond him to use chemical attacks in addition to the massacres which he has already ordered.  But, I remain extremely skeptical regarding the wisdom of the U.S, Britain, Canada or anyone else from getting involved.  

Consider who the rebels are:  I mentioned Jabhat al-Nusra but there are also a host of other radical foreign fighters sponsored by all sorts of organizations and militias which are not exactly looking for a pluralist and free society.  But, apart from them the main combatants are the Syrian Free Army and the Syrian Liberation Front.  The former has been estimated to have about 50,000 fighters including lots of former Syrian forces personnel, and the later has been estimated to have about 40,000 soldiers.  Additionally, the Syrian Islamic front has about 14,000 fighters and then the Kurdish Democratic Union may have as many as 10,000 fighters.  That's all in addition to another half dozen groups with thousands of fighters each.  

Syria Kurds Popular Protection Units (YPG) are fighting for an independent Kurdish state
So, if the Ba'ath party falls from power, who is going to take over?  Many of these groups are ethnic and regional in their make-up and power base and don't agree with the other groups on anything other than bringing down the Syrian government. But, what is going to happen the day after Assad falls?  How long will the west need to be involved and won't some of these jihadist groups then turn their weapons on pro-western groups, Kurdish groups, Christian groups (about 15% of the country is made up of various Christian ethnic groups) and other Islamic groups.  How well are the Sunni's and the Alawite's (Assad's own ethnic group) going to get along after the fall?

As Hannah Batatu observed in 1981,“Working for cohesion at the present juncture is the strong fear among Alawis of every rank that dire consequences for all Alawis could ensue from an overthrow of the existing regime.”  Could they be the next victims of ethnic cleansing once they are no longer protected by a powerful government?  

Now, on the government side, forget about the thousands of Hezbollah allies and the Iranian security "advisers", and let's just look at the security forces themselves.  Even within the so called "government forces" there are so many groups with only marginally overlapping interests.  Every province in Syria maintains its own security establishment which fall under the overall, but not direct, command of the Syrian government.  Many of these provinces are different ethnic groups in this widely diverse country.  Many of them operate somewhat independently from the central government and are widely popular in their own territory.  Some of them have already defected to the rebel side, but even those on the government side are necessarily going to all go the same way if the Assad regime falls.  

The so called Shabiha, or regional paramilitary groups may be pro-regime, but they have their own command structures and have been accused for years of terrorizing local residents in their own territory almost entirely free of central oversight.  

Even within the formal Syrian army, the conscripts are primarily Sunni, but the career soldiers and some 90% of the officers are Alawite.  If the command structure breaks down following a fall in the Ba'ath party, can we really expect this arrangement to hold or will it fall apart?  

At any rate, the situation is not clear cut.  The dichotomous media construction of an Assad vs. Rebel scenario is simplistic.  I get that they are trying to make the situation comprehensible, but the thought that we can simply "arm the rebels" cause the "Assad government" to fall and then stop all the violence and turmoil is a fantasy.
I have no solutions, but I highly doubt that western involvement is going to solve anything.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wiretapping is a dangerous extra-legal precedent.

So, I get that the police do need to sometimes be able to tap into private communication.  That's nothing new.  But the idea that the American NSA, department of Homeland Security and others are frequently tapping phones and email is simply indefensible if you believe at all in a free society.

It might start under circumstances that seem to deserve extraordinary measures, but once a precedent of this sort is set, further intrusions become much easier. Even if they are only monitoring the private conversation of likely criminals and terrorists, it does not take that many more steps for government to then be using their technology for all kinds of other purposes.  Of course, they may already be using spy-tech on people for other purposes.  But, even if they are not the precedent has been set and the next step is much easier to achieve for the Obama administration or for any future administration.

In fact, the fact that the Bush administration wire-tapped phones may have softened the impact that the current phone-tapping scandal is having.  If the public comes to think of this as normal then what comes next?  We already have a touch of that in Canada where the government frequently uses government information and equipment for partisan purposes.  The Prime Minister's own plane has just been repainted with what looks an awful lot like the official Conservative Party colours.  And, don't forget that this was the same government that once renamed the Government of Canada to Canada's New Government.

So, who's to say that those with access to private communications won't just throw those numbers into a program that can isolate likely voters?  And that's just the least scary possibility.

I think it's time that everyone reflects on why it is that we have the concept of a separate judiciary in the first place.  In the U.S, the powers are supposed to be very separate, but even in Canada where the Executive and the Legislative blends so frequently,  it is still the courts that have the ability to check government actions.

Executive agencies which are able to by-pass the legal system should give us all cause for concern.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Import Duties on Solar Panels is bad public policy

While I understand that the E.U may have legitimate concerns with how China does business:  after all, much of China's economy is directed by the central government, but when it comes to solar panel production it is hard to have much sympathy for the European case.

In the last few years, Chinese production of solar panels has surged.  China is now the number one producer and user of solar panels in the world.  And they aren't just producing them for domestic use, they are exporting them and doing so at a price point that consumers seem to like.  According to the Europeans, they can't compete against the Chinese imports not because the Chinese can legitimately produce them cheaply, but because because the Chinese government directly supports this industry.

  But, let's not forget that Europe and other developed countries have had systems in place to protect their own industries against outside competition for decades.  They have had control of international institutions, along with the United States and others, such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which have enforced the "Washington Consensus".  They have had import tariffs, heavy subsidies and reams of regulation to ensure that developing nation's are stuck in resource production but can't break in to value added production.

Well, the Chinese don't want to play by these rules, and haven't for a long time.  Can you blame them for doing the exact same kinds of things that the west has been doing?

In response, the E.U has imposed import duties on solar panels.  China immediately (well, today)  responded by announcing a study (likely the first step in imposing a tariff) on unfair European imports of wine to China.  E.U (mostly French) imports to China are estimated to be valued at $1.3 billion U.S dollars a year.  So, any tariff on these products could seriously impact E.U producers.

So, trying to punish them for doing the same thing that the west has done is problematic and likely to bring out a response, but there is another issue here too.  Do we not want cheap and good solar panels available around the world?

Should we not be taxing out things that have a social or environmental cost and encouraging those things which provide a net benefit?  If so, then how can the E.U not encourage strong competition in solar panels?

It's awfully hard to be upset at the Chinese for providing affordable renewable energy sources around the world.