Wednesday, January 28, 2009

WTO, IMF and others: Instruments of control?

Hello, sorry for the long delay in posting. Unfortunately that delay will continue into the next few weeks as I simply do not have enough time to work, study and blog everyday. So, I very much do want to find more time for blogging but for the moment I'm going to only try to blog ever few days or so and make it of some degree of quality if possible.

The only thing on my mind that is vaguely relevant that is not to do with Thai health care or HIV coverage (or about my grade 1, 2 and 3 students) is international monetary organizations such as the WTO, IMF, the World Bank and others. Question came up in my class last Sunday about whether or not these organizations are used to keep the developing world under the thumbs of the developed world. As the name of this blog came from a song written on the IMF, I thought it appropriate that I do comment on it, at least once.

It is my belief that these organizations are aware of the role that they play in keeping the poor poor. It is my opinion that these organizations and the world leaders who support them do so out of a power politics, realist desire to ensure the dominance of the Washington Consensus and to prevent other, dangerous systems or a change in the domination/sub ordinance world structure. China presents a real danger to the Washington consensus hegemoney because normally countries are too afraid of sanctions and having cash lines frozen to ignore the IMF and friends, but China doesn't rely upon western capital.

Okay, brief, rambling and full of errors, but that's all the time I've got now.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

President Obama's First Day

President (it's so nice to say that without putting "elect" in front of it) Barack Obama certainly waisted no time in changing the direction of the U.S federal administration. In contrast to the former president, President Obama today instructed the Washington bureaucracy to be more open to requests for information. He also included himself by stating that any requests for information that the President does not wish to release will be referred to the attorney-general and to the White House legal counsel who will determine whether or not the President is permitted to keep the requested information private.

President Bush and Vice-President Cheney (can we please use the prenomial ex, just this one time?) routinely invoked executive privilege when faced with requests from Congress, from the media or from agencies. Not so under President Obama (at least not today). In one of the many memoranda to come out of his office today, one stated "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails"(Time). The President (I can't believe how much I suddenly like that word, I'm not even American) stated that "“Let me say it as simply as I can. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency..." (The Globe and Mail). Contrast this to when Dick (Vader) Cheney once said that he "alone may determine what constitutes vice-presidential records or personal records" (Ibid.)

Well, hold my coat and give me a rock. The President is going to follow the law! Not as some loophole allows him to, but as it was actually intended to be! Imagine if Barack Obama actually lives up to what he set out today just on that matter alone. So, less secretive, that's one thing that President Obama got up to today.

The President's office was "was flooded" with calls from world leaders offering "best wishes" (L.A Times). The President also made a number of calls around the world. One of which, the very first call to come from the new president "stunned Palestinians and Israelis alike". '“We were not expecting such a quick call from President Obama, but we knew how serious he is about the Palestinian problem,' said a very excited Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior adviser to Mr. Abbas." (Globe and Mail, in a different article).

According to that article there is a great deal of excitement among Muslim nations that the U.S will begin moving in a new direction. Also excitement from the Christian world as Pope Benedict XVI told Obama to be "the promoter of peace and cooperation between nations"(IranVNC).

It's also expected that the President will close Guantanamo Bay prison soon. Some news sources are reporting that the order has already come, others are saying it is expected in a week or so.

So, I'd say that this day marks a promising beginning. That call to Palestine was exactly the right thing for him to do at that moment and his executive orders instantly signal a change in direction without actually having to do anything. The more substantive matters will certainly have to follow, but for a first day I give him an A+.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Polygamy is a very different matter

An article appearing in the online version of The Globe and Mail talks about gay marriage being used as a legal defence in the BC polygamy trial.

The basics are that a religious cult person by the name of Winston Blackmore is accused of having 19 wives. None of them are minors, but the point is more about whether or not these women really made a choice to be with him in marriage or not. So, in terms of law he broke the Parliament's current version of marriage which is a union between two people whether they be one man and one man, one man and one woman, or between two women, or even between two people with alternative genders. Gender doesn't matter so much now, but the number of people does matter.

Anyway, the Globe article states that experts on both sides of the "gay marriage" debate have anticipated that this could be used as a defence of polygamy. The article cites a political scientist who says that he doesn't think the argument will work as the legal view is that there is a restriction on the number of people who can be married to each other.

I don't really want to defend polygamy but I would like to separate this kind of polygamy from other sorts, just to be fair. Some time ago I watched some program (I think on Oprah) that had several polygamous families speaking about their lives (couldn't find the link, but did find this) The woman and men that Oprah brought on gave a very different impression of what polygamy can be. One of the women said that the current laws were written (in the U.S in this case) to prevent abuse of woman. She argued that the laws are not relevant to the happy union that she has with her husband and with his other wife. She claims it makes all sorts of personal and financial sense as they can share expenses and raise the children together. Also, she said that when she is tired, it's nice to be able to get the other wife to cook and look after their husband.

I don't want to come across as someone trying to push the marriage debate to extremes, but I can see the validity of the argument that these people are making. I can also see that this case in BC is nothing of the sort. What is happening among these extreme religious groups is, in my opinion abusive and I don't think that it should necessarily be put into the same category as what some of the guests on the Oprah show were talking about.

That leaves open the question of how to stop polygamy that is abusive if polygamy itself is legalized. That would be difficult, I think. Perhaps it is better to just leave it illegal but focus police efforts on cases that are believed to be abusive while ignoring situations that show no signs of abuse. Also, there is really nothing stopping three or more people from living together outside of legal marriage.

That argument could also be used against "equal marriage". One could say that "there is nothing stopping two men from living together and living like they are married without actually getting married". My answer to that would be that as a society we give men and women equal legal standing. As such, we have created a legal system where gender does not have much relevance. Therefore, if gender does not have legal relevance than there is no justification for not allowing two people of the same sex to enjoy all of the same legal protections, benefits and duties as those of opposite genders. Society does not view men and woman as being the same, and biologically speaking men and women are clearly different in many ways (not only anatomy), though most of these differences could likely be attributed to environment, some appear to be deeply ingrained (perhaps at the chromosomal level). Those factors though are not very relevant to law, and marriage is a legal matter. Of course there is a religious aspect to marriage, and marriage began as a religious matter (as did science and education), but marriage has long since entered into the world of legal contracts and as such, in our system, it should not be based on gender.

In conclusion, I think we shouldn't adjust polygamy laws unless we can find a way to ensure that we have the tools to deal with abusive religious cults. Also, I think that the "slippery slope" argument is flawed because our legal system doesn't recognize gender differences as being valid reason for discrimination, but does allow discrimination based on other factors. For example, I cannot practice medicine, not because of my sexual preferences, race, religion, language et cetera, but because I am not a medical doctor. I did not go to medical school therefore the state discriminates between myself and someone who is a doctor. The quantity and quality of education is a factor in employment and is entirely legal. I know this sounds so elementary, but I'm trying to get to my point which is that quantity and quality (that is to say the nature of something) are legally relevant. Who a person is is not as relevant as what a person can do. Likewise, contracts between two entities to the exclusion of others are a basic legal concept. Contracts between parties that I am not associated with, by necessity exclude me.

Two put it more simply; two is not one. Two people cannot be re-interpreted as three people. There is no slippery slope toward polygamy. To allow polygamy would be an entirely separate discussion from the one that already occurred (in Canada) regarding "gay/equal marriage". Perhaps that debate will happen at some point, but that in and of itself would require many years of a very different social and legal paradigm from the one that we have now. In our current paradigm, the differences between numbers of parties to a contract are significant...certainly more significant. Not that we do not allow for some personal discrimination based on some matters (such as legal age). I hope that some of this is making sense and that the careful reader can distill (through this very unorganized blog entry) what it is that I'm trying to say.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How much change can Obama really bring?

It's been well noted that one of the biggest problems soon to be (in only a matter of hours now) President Barack Obama will face is the incredibly high expectations that people have for him. That being said, I think it is also easy to go the other way and to think that nothing will really change. Personally, I'm optimistic that he'll be able to get some good things done but I also realize that some of the expectations that people have are not entirely realistic.

The United States certainly has some very big problems that are not soon to go away. The U.S federal debt is one of those factors and in the current economic problems, it is not likely that major spending cuts or tax increases will happen anytime soon.

Another problem is that the President just doesn't have the power to do some of the things that need to be done. Congress needs to do what it is responsible for and many other problems occur within various agencies and within states. An example of that would be the problems in California. Years and years of ballot measures have tied the hands of the state's legislature and the governator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) himself has been struggling to get action to take on that state's approaching bankruptcy.

The U.S has not been well governed for some time time. I don't think it was really well governed during the Clinton years (though again some of the blame should be placed on Congress and State governments) and under Bush it was much worse.

The one area (and a very important area at that) where we are likely to see significant change is in the U.S foreign policy. The President has much more control over that and a new U.S approach will go a long way in winning over the hearts and minds of the world's people. Under Clinton, the U.S disengaged from much of the world (clearly evident here in Asia) and when the U.S did reengage under Bush, it was through invasion and coercion.

China has benefited greatly from what Joshua Kurlantzick refers to as a decline in U.S soft power in the region. China's system of government and corporatism allows it to make rapid decisions and take rapid actions that the U.S system simply doesn't allow for. Everyone knows that the U.S moves much more slowly than China, but many in Asia also fear a Chinese hegemony. A think a lot of people would start to warm back up to the U.S if the U.S actually dropped the "war on terror" bit. Think of it, if you are a government official in Cambodia and every meeting that you have with the U.S results in a request for your country to participate in some way, in some 'war on terror" that is nearly irrelevant to your country's problems, meanwhile there is a professional Chinese diplomat just down the hall who is ready to make trade deals and offer aid, who do you think you'd rather talk to? Add on top of that the fact that Chinese officials seem to know their jobs more than their American counterparts, and it's no mystery why China's image is far more positive than the U.S image in so many Asian countries.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that the U.S has become irrelevant. It most certainly has not, but it really has fallen far in just a decade and a half. Lots of Pew research that backs that up, but I'm too lazy to dig it up right now.

So, in the foreign policy realm I think we should expect a major change with Barack Obama. But, on the domestic side there will be a great deal of resistance from some quarters and we should think more of this being the beginning of a long road rather than the destination.

Monday, January 19, 2009

So, this is what deflation feels like.

I thought it was just my imagination, but I really think it's true. No one has any money! All of my friends are poorer now than they used to be. Some have lost jobs due to cutbacks resulting from the airports being seized by the PAD mobs, others have lost savings and investments on the stock markets. Than there are those, like this writer who have simply picked a bad time to change jobs. The feeling seems to be there on the street though. Everyone seems reluctant to buy. Prices seem to be dropping. Actually, some have dropped. The price of public transportation has recently gone back down to where it was a year ago or so. My university tuition has dropped considerably (and it's retroactive) and the going rate for private tuition also seems to be much lower than what it was a year ago.

So, this is what it is like to live in a period of deflation. I save on transportation costs, and tuition so in that way it's good for me. Also, a while back I bought some clothes...real name-brand stuff from a department store for cheaper than the fake stuff on the street! They were unsold items from the U.S. I don't think I've ever seen that before. Yes, the sales can be good at times but name brand stuff in obvious U.S sizes are not that easy to find at such a huge discount. I'm not a fan of American Eagle particularly, but I'm fairly sure that $5 for on of their shirts is a good deal And, the material is better than the usual $5 shirt so it will probably last me more than a month. I think I might be benefiting from the breakdown in the financial system.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thai Navy accused of sending asylum seekers out to sea.

Front page of today's Bangkok paper, The Nation reported today that the Thai Navy is being accused of sending hundred's of ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims from Burma out to sea to die. India has been finding boatloads of half dead or dead people washing up on islands who claim that the Thai Navy stuck them on boats with only two days worth of food and water. It took these people two weeks to wash up on an island. Many died. Some reported that some were attacked by sharks.
"They said they were taken to an island off the Thai coast and beaten up before being forced into boats and pushed into the high seas," said Ranjit Narayan, a police official on India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Indian coast guard commander S.P. Sharma told AFP news that " We fear several hundred are still missing," coast guard commander S.P. Sharma told AFP. He said India had rescued 446 refugees from four boats since the end of December.

The Hong Kong Morning Post reports that 538 people are dead or reported missing. According to Sharma: "Some survivors also said their boat was towed out to sea by the Thai navy and given two sacks of boiled rice and two gallons of water before being abandoned in the middle of the sea," he said.

The Bangkok Post paper today reported some accounts of survivors
"We were tied up and put into a boat without an engine... we were then towed into the high seas by a motor boat and set adrift," a man named as Zaw Min said.

The BBC reported that amidst these allegations, the Thai Navy has detained more refugees. Thai military officials privately indicated to the BBC that they are worried of a "security risk".
Navy chief Khamthon Phumhiran denied the allegations, as reported by The Bangkok Post in this online article.
These allegations appear to be true, judging from the variety of sources reporting and the very clear pictures from reliable sources. My professor asked an important question today, which I will paraphrase. What was the purpose of sending them out on the ocean to die? From a public policy perspective, how does it make any sense? What were they thinking?
I hope that the Prime Minister, now in the South to meet Human rights groups, will properly deal with this.
It also makes me wonder if Thailand is purposely sabotaging it's image. I know that the government doesn't have a lot of control over some aspects of the country, but every item of news that comes out of Thailand these days seems to be painting a very negative picture. In this blog I've spoken of the Human Zoo, that being 18 refugees that have been accepted to move to New Zealand whom Thailand will not release because the tourists like to look at them. I've also talked about the lack of fire safely.
The big question mark really is the new Prime Minister. So far, I'm feeling very positive that he'll be able to clean up some of these human rights violations. At least he seems willing to hear about these problems whereas the previous "red shirts" generally dismissed them.

Updated numbers on HIV infection in Thailand

According to this article in The Bangkok Post, 1.2 million Thais contracted HIV between 1984 and September 2008. Of those 92,111 have already died. Included in the numbers of the infected include 10,728 government officers. 90% of the total number contracted HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, through sexual intercourse.

As I wrote earlier, the HIV infection rate in Thailand presents great challenges to the current government and a great deal of attention needs to be paid regarding how to provide anti-retroviral medications to all of these people, as Thailand currently does.

A topic of much debate (at least at my university) is regarding the overall health care system in Thailand. The government of Thaksin Shinawatra created a 30Baht (.90 cents U.S) universal health scheme. Many middle class Thais feel that they already pay way too much tax to a government that redistributes it disproportionately to the poor. I tend to disagree and personally am happy to pay tax here knowing that it is going to helping people who really have nothing.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Canadian Federal Budget 2009, Nationalization and Economic Nationalism

This is certainly a federal budget that is gaining a great deal of attention. Reason being that Canada's economy is suffering the effects of the world-wide economic breakdown and that the government of Stephen Harper is on very shakey ground. Since taking over the Liberal party leadership, Michael Ignatieff has been able to recover much of the Liberals lost territory and it now appears that they have a slight lead on the governing Conservatives. So, any response in this budget that is seen to be inadequate might be enough for the Liberals to justify taking Harper's government down. We'll have to see the budget first.

The Globe and Mail's Andrew Steele wrote an excellent entry on his suggestions for Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty. Steele states that the Canadian consensus that simply fixing old infrastructure will help is flawed. He states that it might even take more of the banks cash thus making them even more "tight-fisted" than what they are now. According to Steele, this will take even more cash away from cash starved Canadian business.

He suggests that Flaherty calls the head of the chartered banks (yes, there are only 5) into his office and tell them that he is going to create a $5 billion dollar loan guarantee fund. The government will secure 25% of it. If the banks don't hand out that cash by a fixed date than Flaherty should tell them that he will nationalize the banks and hand out the money himself. According to Steele "That will inject some money into the economy faster a speeding bullet. "

He's right. The Canadian banks were not allowed to take the risks that the U.S banks did and are now actually all profitable. Their desire for caution is good, but we are not going to get out of these problems by allowing the money supply to dry-up. If anything, I would argue that now is the time for the banks to extend themselves.

I would like to add to Steele's argument, though I'm sure he wouldn't agree with my next point. I think we should use the Canadian banks (threaten them with nationalization even) to promote Canadian economic interests. Think of how much we could end up owning that we didn't own before if the Canadian banks were to adopt some sort of Canadian business first policy. This could help Canadian companies to buy up pieces of foreign business operating in Canada at a discounted rate. Problem with this is though that that could anger our foreign partners and cause them to do similar things to our industries. Another question that would need to be addressed is how much do we actually still own and what is the number of Canadian companies that are operating abroad.

There might be an advantage, from a national perspective to having stable banks with money reserves backed up by the federal government at a time when many other banks are not so stable.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Rant on the economy

I've got this illness. I suppose it is called optimism. I tend to be optimistic to the point of being naive. So, when I look at the world-wide economic crisis I do see opportunity. Not that I think Harper should have said that this presents good buying opportunities for Canadians (even though he's actually right) but in that I think something really good is going to come out of all of this.

I think it is possible that we could develop a much nicer way of doing things in the future. The way things have been is not always an indicator of how things will become. I mean that though we have certain expectations and understandings of how economics run we have those ideas based only upon what we have seen in our short lives and not upon any other sort of higher power. We really have no idea what the future will hold and we are too frequently limiting what we expect is possible. Someone said that the difference between fiction and fact is that fiction has to be credible, or something along those lines. Who said that, anyone know?

Anyway, I think there is a chance that a new economic system could arise. That economic system could be more just than the one we have now. I think people are really angry at the simple fact that those who caused the economic problems are not suffering but the average person is. I think people are upset by this whole "privatize profits and subsidize losses" thing that we have been going with. I think the Washington consensus is quickly becoming part of history and that something new is going to take shape.

I don't think it's going to look anything like what the old Socialist systems looked like, but I think it might be a bit closer to what Marx prescribed than what Locke did. I can see the basic outline beginning to take shape and I think I would like to do some in depth research on this once things begin to settle a bit.

There is never any reason to think things are going to always stay the same and I think people should be aware that this economic situation could, and likely will have some benefits. It's hard to think like that when you can't pay the bills...I for one had a rough couple of months partly over the economic problems in Thailand and it seems to me that no one has any money here now, but this needed to happen. We've all been living in this sort of economic bubble and it had to break. There are interesting historical parallels that take into account the wealth of the average person and the overall strength of the economy.

One book I'd like to read soon is what Margaret Atwood recently wrote on debt. She is by no means an economist, but why should economics be only the realm of economists? Perhaps we need more art in economics.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thailand's battle to provide for HIV patients

Sometimes good things happen under military appointed regimes. Take the case of Dr. Mongkol Na Songkhla (a minor royal here in Thailand). After the 2006 coup that took out the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai coup leaders installed a civilian government. No one really expected Dr. Mongkol to make many waves. He was, after all about as "establishment" as they come. He was a retired civil servant, a royal and was appointed as Minister of Health in a regime full of old time royalists and bureaucrats dubbed by the Thai media as the "Old Ginger" cabinet for it's "seasoned, staunchly conservative members, many of them unschooled in modern politics" (Simon Montlake: Thailand's IP Gamble).

A seat-warmer Dr. Mongkol would soon prove to not be. Not only did he preserve Thaksin's 30 baht (about a dollar) healthcare system for the poor, but he actually made it entirely free. Not ony did he do that, but he also fought for more funding for the program (though some of it was later removed). And, not only did he do those things but he also did something far more controversial.

Dr. Mongkol in November of 2006 ( I think) sent a letter to the Thai branch of Merck & Co. to tell them that their HIV drug, Efavirenz is "highly effective" but costs too much for Thailand to afford, so Thailand would break the patent and begin buying generic varieties produced in India. With this one letter, Dr. Mongkol began "war over the use of compulsory licenses" (Montlake).

According to the WTO, only 28% of the world's 7.1 million (as of 2006) HIV infected people in low and middle income countries are able to get the antiretroviral drugs that they so desperately need. Thailand is unusual in that everyone who needs them, gets them...for free. The number of Thais on antiretroviral medication was at 100,000 in 2006 (sorry that I don't have any more recent numbers...I'll look around in the next few days to see if I can find some figures for last year) and the number is expected to increase as more people become ill from HIV.

The problem that Dr. Mongkol took on was that the bill for these drugs was so high that at some point it might have become impossible to provide all of the medication required by the infected. first-line antiretrovirals such as Efavirenz are expensive but as time passes HIV infected patients may require second-line (and highly expensive) medications such as Kaletra. The latter, sold by Abbott's negotiated a deal to provide a year's worth of medication for Thai patients at the discounted price of $1,000 per year.

According to Simon Montlakes article, The World Bank has already concluded that Thailand's provision of antiretrovirals has had a positive economic impact as breadwinners are able to keep providing for their families for much, much longer while doing so more productively.
Importance of treatment

Without treatment, 9 out of 10 infected people survive for 10-15 years. With optimal treatment, that number balloons to 32 years. So, yes HIV research has had amazing results and it is realistic to expect a cure. It is also clearly important, economically speaking, to provide these antiretrovirals.

Going beyond what is simply economic, we should also think about the human side of this. The suffering that HIV infected people endure is high. They are often socially isolated, depressed and too sick to look after their families. The progression to full blown AIDS can sometimes happen very quickly (without proper treatment) and, well you only have to do a quick web search to see how these people live.

Those with HIV here in Thailand should be thankful that Dr. Mongkol Na Songkta didn't think of himself as just an interim Minister, but instead took action that will help ensure that everyone who needs these pills is able to get them.

For me, this is personal. I have a number of friends who are HIV positive and at least they know that they can get the medication that they need. For just a moment, try to imagine going for a test and finding out you are HIV positive. Just picture yourself suddenly finding that out. Think of your families, think of your friends, think of the people you've had sex with. Now imagine finding this out and also knowing that you have absolutely no financial means and that you have a family that will starve if you can't go out and earn money. Imagine that you have no means to buy these pills that will keep your family from starving and that you might only have a few years before you can no longer work. What do you do? Where do you go? Who do you turn to? In many countries, you have no one to turn to. You have no help. So, for countries that do provide this help, they are indeed doing something really admirable.

Sometimes good things do happen from military appointed regimes.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Role of the CBC

After reading a comment on an earlier entry regarding the CBC and it's role as a public broadcaster I decided to make my comment response into an entry because there are some things I'd like to say. First, I do understand those who are saying and (I partially agree)that Heather Malick or anyone else shouldn't be funded by the tax payer to give an ideological perspective. Well, I'm not sure if I agree, in fact I guess I don't. But, I do think there should be some balance. A right wing nut-jobber like Anne Coulter would definitely have some effect.
I wonder about what role the public broadcaster really should serve and is CBC serving that? How is it serving it? Okay, Canadian content is great and I support regulating broadcasting. I think we have to make it easier for Canadians to watch Canadian tv, but I don't like regulations on what is considered "Canadian" and what is not. Years ago I remember the band Sloan (from Halifax) was considered "uncanadian" by the CRTC because they never sang about hockey, beer or moose. But, as Oprah once said "how could I be anything else"? She was responding to those who were saying she is not black enough. Well, for anyone who is Canadian, how could they be anything but Canadian? We are a pluralistic society; comment is free.

That still leaves the question of the CBC. I think it should change. I have trouble seeing how it is useful. It could work to export Canadian values to the world. Why not. Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news service presents itself as just another wire service (like AP, CP or Reuters) but it is an agent of the Chinese government. So, why should the CBC not just be an agent of Canadian propaganda world wide? The CBC is kept at arms length from the government but it does not represent the Canadian "establishment" and does not represent the majority of Canadians or the government of Canada. Who does it represent? It represents itself. That's how I see it anyway.

So, as the age old question goes: what is to be done? Scrap it? Make it free market? My personal belief is that it should be put into the hands of the people. The citizens of the country should have more say about what sort of image it presents. Consensus might not be possible, but I think that there are some core Canadian values that most people in Canada share. Why not take the CBC out of the hands of the elite and make it speak for the country the way that it really is? How often is Alberta's view ever represented on the CBC? Like it or not, they are a big part of the country and you know, their values aren't all that different from the values of the average Montrealer. Why can't CBC present something that everyone is comfortable with and that puts the country in a positive light.

Personally, I think the Canadian government should ask the Chinese to teach them on how to make friends and influence ngo's.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Publicly funded racist programming?

Here is something interesting. An article in the Globe and Mail (can you tell who I get much of my news from?) reports that a Radio-Canada (Canadian French language public broadcaster in Quebec) show has sparked the ire of many people over what many consider to be satire "bordering on bad taste".

Topics of the popular and "iconic" Quebec comedy show Bye Bye included the "assassination of U.S. president-elect Barack Obama, prison rape, a battered wife, black criminality and anglo inbreeding" (source). According to the Globe, one actor on the show was so offended by this year's content that he's refusing to appear on the show again.

Quebec tends to be rather tolerant of those types of humour but Quebec has certainly spoken out hard on some of the content on the show.

Here is what was in the paper today:

“It will be practical. Black on white, it will make it easier to shoot him,” Mr. Mercier said.
The laughs didn't stop there. During the pretend interview, another actor playing TV host Denis Lévesque mistook Mr. Obama for Quebec singer Gregory Charles. He apologizes, saying “all blacks look alike.”
He then suggested the viewing audience might want to hide their purses.
“It's a joke, he can't rob you at home, he's in your television,” the host said. “Of course, he might walk away with it.”

Other choice comments were “Don't give up, my inbred gang from English Canada, continue to re-elect your lobotomy on two feet, Stephen Harper,” Mr. Mercier said. “In a couple years, when your frigid wife no longer has the right to vote and it's legal to beat your children for smoking pot, you'll be knocking on Quebec's door saying, ‘Harper has passed a law to cook all of our immigrants and now we have no convenience stores. Can we come to Quebec?'”

Okay, so yes it is all a bit funny but this is on Radio Canada, the French language version of the CBC. It's paid for by the tax payer and is a Crown Corporation (owned by the Dominion government). Is calling the 25% of Canadians who voted for Harper "inbred" really appropriate? Oh wait, maybe the number was closer to 30%, but that's not my point. Is it appropriate to be making racist jokes on the public broadcaster? Is it the point of the public broadcaster to be as close to the edge as possible?

You know, I used to always watch the CBC, always read for the news and always trusted their views but in the last few years I find CTV and the Globe and Mail to be far more balanced. Now, this is not about Heather Mallick...I really only check the CBC to read her comments, but it's an overall thing. They try to be edgy and cool but at the same time only represent the views of those of us on the left. I only like propaganda when I know that it is coming from someone who is supposed to be biased. The public broadcaster shouldn't be biased and they shouldn't be my opinion.

I'd personally like to see the CBC become more like the American PBS. Taxpayer funding is fine but there has to be some sort of purpose for it. The CBC right now just competes with the commercial networks and I have trouble seeing that it is worth as much as we pay for it. I like it, I don't wanted it privatized but I would like to see it commercial free and full of family friendly open-minded, positive values kinds of stuff rather than regionalism, racism and xenophobia.

Regulator sets 2010 deadline to upgrade 911 system

Today's Globe and Mail reports that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has ordered Canada's mobile phone providers to upgrade their 911 systems by 2010. The reports states that Canada has fallen behind other nations such as the United States.

So, as I stated before there really weren't all that many people who died but as the problem is likely to get worse and people should be able to trust 911 I'm happy to see this action. I especially like when regulators and government force private companies to do things.

Monday, January 5, 2009

911, Weber and Utopia

I was just reading about the death of Matt Armstrong, an 18 year old who was found dead ten hours after placing a call to 911.

The Globe and Mail reports that last year there were four fatal or near fatal incidents where the callers had some trouble getting through to 911 on cell phone or internet phones. That number really isn't very high at all but it will likely only get worse unless the 911 systems are updated.

This gets me thinking about how we are governed. One of the first things a student of Public Administration would hear about is the idea that there are always demands in excess of resources regardless of how many resources are had. Can we, as a country afford to keep 911 technology up to date when technology is changing so quickly?

When the 911 emergency system was first brought in, cell-phones were rather rare. People used them in their cars and that was about it. I think we actually called them car phones in those days. One little aside, if I may: recently I was digging through some old boxes and found several roles of film. I don't know about you, dear Roger...umm reader but I haven't seen a roll of film in at least a few years. I certainly haven't though about how to develop one. Do they even develop film these days?

So, getting back to my original point, can we ever keep up with all of need that exists? Can we ever make a Utopian paradise? I think of mine own self when I ask that question. At times I feel completely at peace with everything and can picture everyone being able to get along. But, then I get angry and do something that causes another person harm (not physically usually, but some sort of harm) I think we harm each other all the time, even when we think we aren't. We all do something that is a little greedy for our own benefit that doesn't help those around us and often hurts those around us. To reach paradise wouldn't we need to evolve past these tendencies?

What interests me in the old Soviet Union was that it purported to be paradise. It tried to be paradise. Karl Marx predicted that the state itself would "whither away" in a truly Communist state. Rather than whither, it grew into nearly exactly what Max Weber (writing in 1922, I think) had predicted when he said that the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union would eventually expand to the point where it would remove all real humanity and leave only a legal-rational society that would trap people in an "iron cage" or rule based and rational control. Weber believed the Soviet Union would create a "Polar night of icy darkness". This is very far from what Marx and others thought would happen.

I often wonder if the Soviet Union could have worked if it occurred in the right stages, under Marx and Engel's theories. The rise of the Soviet Union did not happen in an advanced capitalist state, as Marx said it should, rather Russia was one of the least developed countries in Europe at the time. So, perhaps if Russia had have been further along in industrialization (perhaps where the U.S and friends are now) it might have worked. Also, perhaps there is the possibility that a state run economy can be efficient. I tend to think though that it would only be possible in very small states with little diversity of opinion.

Anyway, I have these thoughts because when I read stuff like the calls for improvements to the 911 system, I think about what could have been done to prevent it from getting out of date. What could have been done to prevent Canada's health care crisis? What could have been done to ensure that our military had never gotten so embarrassingly out of date? What can be done to get rid of murder and crime?

We can always have ideas. I think getting rid of poverty is do-able and doing so would remove a great deal of our social problems. I think we can get most of the homeless off the street, and that would prevent deaths (like that woman who accidental burned herself trying to stay warm). I also think more intelligent government could get these things done. I think, actually I know that the health care crisis was caused in the early Chretien years. The Canadian Medical Association tried to tell Chretien that if he cuts medical school funding now it will lead to a great shortage by the late 1990's. Chretien's response was simply that we shouldn't listen to the CMA because the CMA only looks after the CMA. Well, it turns out that the CMA was right and that cutting back on funding in the 93, 94 and maybe 95 budgets would exacerbate a problem that was already looming. At the time there was a small national surplus of nurses and the right amount of doctors. So, that is a clear case of just bad governing. Also, Chretien's decision to cancel Mulroney's helicopters was also a stupid election gimmick that has been costing us ever since.

Alright, so that's why I'm a political liberal. I do think that we can't imagine just how good a state can run yet, but we'll not reach perfection for a while. Well, what would be perfection anyway. Will there ever be a day when there is no crime? Will there ever be a day when there is no poverty? Well, looking throughout history, few societies have ever been as peaceful as what much of the developed world is today.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The soft side of Chinese power: moves to assist burn victims

I in no way wish to view any sort of humanitarian relief with skepticism, and I don't view this with skepticism at all. So, this little piece of analysis should be taken with that in mind.

I would like to point out that China's offer to send skin-graft specialists to Bangkok to help those who were burned in the fire at Santika night club on New Year's Eve is another example of how China is remaking its image around the world.

After the Asian financial crisis in 1997, it was China who was on the ground first with offers of assistance. The effect upon public perceptions of China was strong. Again, in 1990 when an LP-G gasoline truck overturned and exploded, it was China who came to help first.

Now, again China is one of the first on the ground and making firm offers of assistance for those who were disfigured in the fire. This is exactly what China needs to do to win over the hearts and minds of South-East Asia. The Chinese clearly know that they can act much more quickly than most other large nations. The United States simply cannot move as quickly as China can, and China is very talented at getting maximum exposure for her actions. Again, really sorry for trying to analyze humanitarian assistance from any source. My heart truly does go out to the victims, some of whom have been burned beyond recognition.

Thai building safety issues to be brought before Cabinet
Thai Public Health Minister, Manit Nop-amornbodi was quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying that the Thai government will cover the full medical expenses of the burn victims.

Though the investigation is ongoing, Mr. Manit also stated that the reason why so many people died was due to "changing of building structure by the owner of the venue." He further stated that the issue of building safety will be brought before Cabinet.

In a way, that's something for people to hold on to. This horrific tragedy might force the government to really take action to get serious on building safety. This is just so ridiculous that a high end nightclub like that would not have any sort of fire escapes or suppression systems. It is simply disgusting and unacceptable. If we were talking about some old mom and pop club (is there really such a thing?) catching fire, I might have a bit more sympathy for the owners. Actually, the owner must be going through a lot. How could he not be.

I'd also like to point out that the death toll is now up to 61. I hope that's all. Not everyone has been accounted for yet.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Fire in Bangkok Nightclub, 59 dead

A fire in a nightclub here in Bangkok killed 59 and injured many more. I didn't realize this had happened until just a moment ago when I noticed a post on it: Nightclub in Bangkok on fire on New Years Eve from a blog that I follow. The bar is called Santika Club in the Thong Lor area. I don't normally go to that area so it never crossed my mind to to their for the New Year's Eve celebrations. I was in some very overcrowded venues around Central World and Khao Sarn road last night and I was thinking about the possibility of a bombing or something but not of a random fire.

I hate to say it but fire safety in Thailand really sucks...pyrotechnic shows are done by obvious amateurs with absolutely no fire suppression system available...not even a fire extinguisher in many places. I don't know if that is what caused this, but the media reports seem to suggest that it might have. The article in that link mentions people fleeing for their lives and trampling some others to death in the process. If you've ever been to nightclubs, or even buses in Bangkok, you'll know that they stuff in as many people as can fit. There might be legal limits but they are pretty much non-enforced. I've gone into (or attempted to go into) clubs here where there wasn't even enough space to get past the ID check point.
I think the new Thai government should start to get tough on this stuff. Order the police to get tough on it. I like the wild side of life also, and I don't want Thailand to turn into a nanny state but untrained people should not be working on electrical lines in their bare feet and filling gasoline in a car while smoking a cigarette. Really, could a bit of fire-prevention safety and some safety standards really be that bad?

Just looked up another news report on it, this one from Al Jazeera that reports that police say it might have been caused by firecrackers that people brought in.
The Al Jazeera report quotes a survivor, Oh Benjamas as telling Reuters:
"We were all dancing and suddenly there was a big flame that came out of the front of the stage and everybody was running away...It was chaotic, too many people were stuck behind the door. Some of them tried to break through the glass window. I think a lot of those who died are people on the second floor who got stuck behind the crowd inside."

The article also states that "Watcharapong Sri-saard, a firefighter at the scene, told the Associated Press that another door at the rear of the building was known only to the staff" and that the number of staircases made it difficult for people to escape.
How horrible this is. I've been in bars when it's taken a really, really long time to make my way to the bathroom do to just about ever bit of space being filled with a person...was in one of those last night. I've been in a crowd of people all pushing hard to get through and had to really fight to not get knocked over...was in one of those last night also. And that was not a crowd who was trying to get out of a burning bar. I can't imagine...well I can imagine but I'd rather not.