Friday, May 31, 2013

Partisanship is Human Nature: Good luck changing it.

Though I have often been a member of a political party, voted more often than not (and usually for the same party) I do not consider myself to be an overly partisan person.  And I like to think that I don't often find myself just going along with the herd (okay...I know no one actually knows when he or she is simply adopting herd like practices...but hey, I'm subjective, there is nothing else I can be). As it were,  I often wonder about people who defend everything their side does but attack the very same actions when performed by other parties.  I don't want to really get into specifics right now, but you all know what I mean (all three of you)

Perhaps a big part of this is caused by the tribal part of our brain.  Actually, I'd bet that is really the biggest explanation.  Sure, there may be some systemic processes that cause parties to become ever more entrenched in their own worldviews and ideologies, but is it not the tribal part of our brain that allows those systems to occur in the first place?

Let me explain the "tribal" notion for a moment.  Some anthropologist or other started this idea, and since then it has become a rather commonly held idea.  It basically goes that our tribal nature right from our prehistoric ancestry has caused us to develop an in-group love.  Now, lots of research has recently shown that in-group love does not, by necessity equate with out-group hatred, it does cause the in-group to be favoured by the individual.

This goes further than the partly biological and instinctual goal of protecting one's own offspring as it extends beyond the immediate, or even extended family toward those in a generalized clan, syndicate or tribe.  The clan must be protected at the expense of any group which is not "one of us".   As the theory goes, this is the explanation for everything from tattoos to biker gangs, tree forts to gardening clubs, fashion statements and political behavior.

I think we don't have to look so far and wide to see that this probably is why political parties and movements seem to have so many people who all see eye-to eye on just about everything.  I really don't think it is because big bullies like Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair in Canuckistan or Nancy Pelosi in the U.S are enforcing discipline with an iron fist and ensuring that caucuses tow the party line.  Is that part of it?  Probably, but why do we allow it to happen over ourselves?  Why do we adopt party ideology wholesale?

Is it not possible to be a democratic socialist who believes in old institutions like the Monarchy or the House of Lords/  Is it so contradictory for a conservative to be pro-abortion?  Why does it get laughs when what's his face describes himself as pro-death because he is pro-choice and in favour of the death penalty?  Maher...Bill could I have forgotten that name.

Anyway, I am not so sure that there is a solution to any of this.  If were were to try to ban political parties and run a non-affiliated system (like that which exists in municipal politics in Canada) would unofficial (but still present) affiliations not just replace them?  I also can't really see us ever getting rid of the a majority consensus...perhaps we can weaken adherence to it, increase tolerance of alter opinions, and reduce majority views to pluralities on many issues, but end it completely?  Good luck with that.

An Angry Baird in its natural habitat
Party discipline may be unusually high in Canada, higher than in the U.K or the U.S, but even in countries with relatively week political party discipline, people still seem to rally behind large generalized groupings.  That's not going to change.  Don't spend too much time worrying about it.

I think that this is simply human nature and not much should be done about it but to attempt to limit the level of partisanship.  Oh, and I do think it is a great myth that we are so much more partisan today than we were in our so called glory days.  It wasn't so long ago that Canadian elections involved armed thugs punishing those who voted the wrong way.  Sure, the government has been trying to manipulate results, but until Harper sends one of his hench-persons...(John Baird) out to physically hit you with a stick or vomit in your face, than we have not yet reached the nadir.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Myth of Human Rationality

As Noam Chomsky recently observed in an interview with, one purpose of advertising is to affect public decisions.  He advises us to "take a look at the first ad you see and television...and ask yourself" (is the purpose of the ad to help you to make a rational choice)?  Is the purpose of advertising not simply to convince you to make a choice which you might not rationally decide on your own?  He links this in with the PR industry in general and how political choices are made.

I wrote on this topic fairly extensively last year, but I'd just like to break it down and summarize some of the main arguments for you without getting into an overall political statement.  I recognize that I am stepping on the turf of economics, and have done so many times under the guise of politics, but it's not like the economists don't do the same thing in political science, so I don't really see a problem in that.

Anyway, so much of our contemporary economic theories are based on the idea that rational consumers exist:  Rational people will make decision which will make objective sense.  Workers will shop around for a better job with higher pay, more benefits and better conditions.  Left to their own devices, without interference, they will create a "job market".  Employers will also, without interference "shop around" for decent employees.  Without regulation, they will hire and fire after weighing the costs of training.  The basic theory is referred to as "rational choice".

The theory also is used to explain the real market place.  Consumers will create demand for items they want.  Inferior items will disappear as the market makes them obsolete.  Producers will gradually become more efficient as weaker and more expensive products are simply not purchased by the market.

Further, this theory has been applied in the political as well.  Give people a choice between health care providers, schools, prisons or whatever and they will gradually do what no government can do.  They will weed out the weaker of the lot, and cause suppliers to offer a better, and better product.

Well, the fundamental problem with this theory is that it assumes rationality where there is none and now I will explain what I mean and back it up with some evidence from a variety of fields.

I believe it was Jean Chretien who stated that voters are not motivated by reason alone, rather they are guided by an instinct.  Well, let's take that as a starting point. (the link for the sources and data I'm using is mostly available through the "academic" link above)

What exactly is instinct?  Let's look at a study (J. Cohen 2005) that showed that "the brain can absorb about eleven million pieces of information a second but can only process forty consciously".  This neurological study would suggest that so much of the brains activity remains in the subconscious mind and never reaches the conscious mind.

Furthermore, research by Crawford (2000) and Damasio (1994) show that rationalist assumptions that people make rational decisions without using emotion are flawed.  According to their research, good decisions cannot be made with an absence of emotion.  One patient they studied had suffered severe brain damage which caused him to have very little obvious emotion.  He was almost entirely unable to make appropriate decisions which seemed rational to the observer.

Benjamin Libet, a well known physiologist once wrote "the brain signals associated with movement occurred half a second before the person was conscious of deciding to move", but the individual believed that he or she made that decision consciously and could explain the decision to the researcher.

So, from these studies we see that most of what is happening in our brain is not processed consciously, is driven or affected by emotion and the conscious mind believes itself to have been in control of decision making when the signal for movement was actually sent before the individual was aware that he or she decided to move.

When it comes to voter intention, many studies have shown that people are much more likely to vote for the first name on the ballot than any other ranking.  You can randomize the ballot, but it always holds true.  And, what's more: the people who made the decision will tell you clearly and eloquently all the rational reasons why they chose that name on the ballot.

One researcher went as far as to describe this as being something like a monkey riding a tiger.  The tiger goes where it wants, but the monkey thinks itself in control.  The unconscious mind is likely doing all sorts of things which would shock you.  That's one reason why our first impressions tend to be so accurate; why we can sum up a situation so easily but then not really be able to explain how it is that we know...we know that we know, but we can't really explain how we know...we just do.  Well, that's probably because your brain has figured it all out and only told you what you need to know in order to not get eaten.

Let's move along:

Research by child psychologists recently quoted on CBC (Hamlin, Akin and Dunne, 2012) observed that babies like to give their own candy away to others.  They like when we eat their candy.  Why would they do this?  Rationally, would they not want to get as much candy as possible, or would they not want to use their candy in some sort of trick?  Clearly, people can and do act as power maximizers, but they also do all kinds of other stuff.  Not all decisions are rational...perhaps none really are.

Think about this:  is it really a rational choice that causes you to prefer pepsi over grape juice, or over coke?  Is it a rationally calculated decision that makes you choose a Benz over a Toyota?  Is there not some sort of cultural issue at play regarding your political choice?  Do you vote Conservative because of their platform?  Are you a Democrat because you genuinely weighed all the party platforms...or even the platform of the Republican candidate?

Or is it that people "like you" vote Conservative?  Could you possibly drink Coke because everyone you know also drinks Coke?  Maybe you drink a craft ale because only rednecks drink Budweiser or whatever.  Maybe you read literature because only children read comic books.  Maybe you drive a sedan because you think you'd look silly in a sports car.  Are these really rational choices?

If they are so rational, than (returning to Chomsky) what the heck is the point of advertising campaigns using sex, family values, soft voices, exciting places or appeals to emotion?

This is the fundamental flaw with economics today and also the public choice brand of politics.  There is no such thing as human rationality.  We are not rational beings.  We have these strange things called emotions and we sometime behave intuitively, emotionally or for reasons we don't even understand.

This is the direction that modern science has taken us in.  Perhaps we should actually try to apply it to our political theories.  You're not a machine, stop pretending that you are.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

No Stability without Tolerance.

While I don't accept Schlesinger's Cyclical theory entirely, I do think he was at least partly correct.

His theory basically goes that a "self-generating and autonomous" cycle occurs from the people themselves rather than from leaders and that cycles of political action occur because the population becomes disenfranchised with the current system.  This disenfranchisement brings in a new political mentality and explains political shifts.

If this is true, and I think it is in the broadest strokes, than it would make a great deal of sense to be nice to the political opposition to avoid extremes in cycles, or a pendulum effect.

Just days ago, a bomb was exploded in the general area of Ramkhamhaeng university.  From what I hear, it was likely a "red shirt" versus "yellow shirt" issue.  Whether or not that is true, I think it proves the point.  Extreme partisanship only increases tension, polarizes groups thus preventing them from reaching consensus, and causes instability.

If we want a peaceful society, and this goes for all societies than we need to recognize that there is no group of people who are inherently more irrational than "us", whatever your "us" may be.  Taking strong lines against those with different political and social views and life-styles may help your side to eventually win, but it is also going to create a strong group of people who are going to fight just as hard to replace your ideology with theirs.

This can be the relatively mild political instability in the United States or Canada, or the much more vicious instability in Syria or Nigeria.  A hard line against groups you don't support may work in the short term, but in the long term it is much better to try to reach some sort of consensus and to negotiate with the understanding that you, and your views are not infallible.  But, if you can't accept that you could possibly be wrong, than at least accept that you are going to win more friends and converts by being a bit more diplomatic.

For those of us living in relatively stable political situations, we need to realize how rare those periods have been in human history.  We also have to understand that what seems normal debate now can easily become something that can rip people apart and result in violence.

I'm not saying that vigorous debate is not a good thing, but I am saying that whatever the debate is, you should still be able to get along with the opposing side.  The highest degree might be a true ability to see past differences, but even a respect for the other probably suffices.  At the very least, let others live their lives and don't assume that you are completely right and "the other" completely wrong.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Crazy? Of course we are: On why we need economic democracy

So, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual has just been updated to include even more mental illnesses which we will all probably suffer at some point in our lives.  Sure, even the BBC and other mainstream media seem to think that this is just a really convenient way to sell more medications and to justify the existence of the huge psychiatric industry.  It also has spill over affects for therapists, psychologists, non-psychiatric health providers and the self-help industry.  But, what if they are right?  What if 25% of Americans are suffering from mental health problems at the moment and the majority will face mental health issues at some point in their lives?

Think this is all made up out of nothing?  Think again.  Let's look at some numbers before I tell you why I think this is happening.  You might be shocked to learn that between 1999 and 2007 the U.S suicide rate quadrupled to over 17 in 100,000 people.  This in a country that is not materially poor, where just about everyone can get a job, where social organizations exist to help people through hard times and where everyone can get at least something to eat.

17 in 100,000...think about that number for a moment.  That's four in 25,000.  That's two suicides in about 12,500.  That's every single year.  Do you know 12,500 people?  Do you know someone who has committed suicide?  Would you think that number is under or over reported?  According to a recent report in the Lancet, U.S suicides are massively unreported.  That's probably party because of investigators, family and coroners not wanting the victim to be recorded as a suicide.  Much nicer to say that he died cleaning his gun than he died with the gun in his mouth.  Three people who were very close to me committed suicide, and I know of many more.  I also know plenty of people who've attempted suicide.  Some of them more than once.  Believe me, I'm not making light of this in any way.  I'm not suggesting reasons or motivations for any one person or groups of people, but perhaps there is something seriously wrong with our society.

Let's look at some more numbers.  In 2010 there were nearly 34,000 deaths by motor vehicle accident and nearly 38,000 suicides.  You are more likely to die by your own hand than you are by a car.

Still think there isn't a mental health crisis?  How about the Boston bombing, the school shootings, the high murder rates and the violence?  How about the bar fights?  Is that really just a normal part of human existence?  Did we evolve from lone cats or from monkey's?  Are we social or territorial?  I argue that we are behaving in a way that is not natural for our species.  We are supposed to live most of our lives in peaceful coexistence for we are a social species.

But, look at how we are actually living.  Just about everyone of us spends the majority of our time trying to get enough of the proverbial pie to stay alive, keep our families alive, and to avoid social stigma.  Ever tried walking into a half decent restaurant in cheap clothes?  Ever felt like your car didn't totally project the image of yourself that you'd like to show the world?  Ever felt that you needed to upgrade your computer or camera because yours wasn't as nice as your peers?

I think the term "wage slave" might be overplaying it a bit, but how much of your life is spent in the pursuit of earning more money, spending money or thinking about money?  How many hours of sleep do you loose worrying about paying a bill, worrying about getting to work on time or worrying that your kids need a new pair of shoes and they won't wear the cheap ones?

Yes, we've always had to work hard.  But perhaps these days we are working hard and stressing even harder because we don't want to feel that sense of shame when we know we aren't keeping up; when we aren't giving our families what others are giving their families.

Why do we feel this way?  Well, it would be hard not to with so much of our culture being given to us by an elite.  Think you are just watching television or visiting a website for entertainment?  You, even you visitors to my site are being marketed to.  Advertisements, since the earliest days have worked hard to convince us that we need something.  You need to spray Febreze in your house because it stinks.  You need to buy coke because that is what people drink and you do want to be a person, don't you?  You need those new shoes because they are shiny and you must have shiny feet, mustn't you?  You need a new car that reflects your status, that separates you from those beneath you.  Go ahead, spend.  It's good for the economy.  You'll feel better.  You'll be anuyoo!  You'll get that date; that promotion and you're cat will stop vomiting on the floor.  Drink Coke!  Drink it now!  Rot your teeth and buy these new porcelain veneers.

And in charge of all this are the elite untouchables.  Massive corporations who pay less tax than you enjoy trademark protection.  Try to criticize them and they might take you down.  Question what it is that they are feeding you and they might legislate away your right to bring them to court.

There is no easy solution, but any solution has to recognize that democratic values have to be part of it.  Why do we have democracy over one type of social structure (our governments) but not over another structure (the economy) which has just as much, if not more direct impact on our lives?  Why do we settle for so much liberty granted to those at the top end, but none for ourselves in the work place?

How's your pension doing?  How's your vacation?  Are you getting paid for maternity leave?  Do you get holidays off?  For too many people, those programs are just a dream.  But, they tell you that it's not affordable that we need to stay competitive while massive profits fill their bank accounts and they don't even pay their taxes.

They go after the labour movement saying that it is closed to outside scrutiny.  They claim that "big labour" is secretly controlling left-wing parties like the NDP, while their corporate decisions are not open for public debate, are closed to outside scrutiny, are able to avoid paying taxes, avoid benefits for their workers and muscle governments into doing what's in their own interests.  But, they go after the labour union which anyone can join and are made up of people who work and pay taxes.

Of course, there are lots of other things that might be driving us crazy.  The banality of so much of our popular culture, our crowded city streets, our frantic daily schedule, but so much of it comes down to the way our lives are dominated and determined by the biggest cult, the biggest lie and the biggest, most sinister instrument of control, the economy.

The economy is the word that cannot be questioned.  It is ultimate truth and ultimate fact.  If it hurts you, that's your fault.  If it helps you, that's the government's credit.

Remember this: people built the economic system.  It is not a law from God.  The instructions were never found on the face of the mountain.  GDP targets are not written on a strand of DNA.  These are social constructions which affect material reality, and as social constructions they can be changed by people.  The economy can be democratized.  I believe it is going to happen.

I will leave you with this image I saw on earlier.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hunting Rob Ford

So, it's not only the Canadian media who can't get enough of the allegations that a video exists showing Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine.  Yes, the story is funny and it would also explain why he hardly schedules any public events, and yes this is the guy who has lost control over his council over pie-eyed plans to build more subway lines Toronto clearly can't afford...and yes, this is the guy lampooned internationally for walking into a camera last month, and yes this is the guy who flips out at the media, launched a highly public weight loss effort only to be seen sneaking KFC.

I'm also well aware that this is the mayor who has been caught barreling down the highway reading a newspaper (to the point where his people no longer allow him to drive), and yes he hasn't done a very good job in all the other issues that people seem to expect a mayor to take the lead in (getting federal dollars from a sympathetic Prime Minister is just one of the more recent examples).

Okay, he makes the antics of former mayor Mel Lastman look like statespersonship, but, and this is a big but...almost as big as Ford's butt...but... I do feel awfully badly for him.

Look at it this way: Either he is innocent of this charge and is simply being hunted down by a bunch of drug dealers trying to make some money off him, or he has a problem.  Either way, does that not warrant some degree of compassion?

He may very well have a drug problem, or he might simply use drugs (minus the problem) or, the video could be a fake, or even not exist...until we know, should we not reserve judgement?  If we really want to have a just society, should we not try to internalize the value of innocent until proven guilty?

And, another issue I have with this is that it seems that so many of the people who are coming down so hard on him also tend to believe that drug usage is a private matter or even should be entirely legal.  If people believe that drug use is a private or a health issue, rather than a legal issue, than what business do we have to hold this against him?

Perhaps cocaine usage has negatively impacted his performance as mayor, or perhaps it's the only thing that causes him to get anything done at all.  We just don't know.  And until we know, should we not call off the attack?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

GMO fear mongering

I'm not a scientist, but from the summations that I have heard scientists make, genetically modified foods are safe as long as the manipulations are safe.  GMO food is not necessarily any safer or less safe than a natural food, but the implications of the modification must be fully understood.  The modified organism should behave exactly as predicted each and every time it reproduces.  Of course, if the modification itself is dangerous, than the product will also be dangerous.  But, these modifications are not done by lay-people.  They are done by people who know what they are doing.  Or at least that's what we would all hope to be true.

But, is food ever totally safe?  One argument I hear is that people want to be in control of what they eat.  That argument is rather ridiculous.  Do you know every single compound or molecule that naturally exists in your food?  Do you control every single atom which enters your body?  Do you even understand what is your body and what isn't your body?  Consider for a moment that the vast bulk of DNA found in your organism is not human DNA, and consider that the percentage of the DNA in your body that is human is almost identical with that of the chimpanzee or the carrot.  Why be worried about the genetically modified components of food when we don't even know the non modified components of food.  To me, this seems like a generalized fear of the unknown.

Another argument I hear is "the right to know".  The problem with this, in my eyes is related to the previous argument.  Most of us, myself certainly included, do not know the chemical names of naturally occurring compounds anyway.  Does a GMO contain a different molecule than that which already enters our body through one mechanism or another?  Would we be able to understand whether or not that molecule is useful, harmful or simply not absorbed?

Would we be able to understand if the change is dangerous to the naturally bred plants?  Should it not be enough to have a trustworthy regulatory agency certify that the food is safe for consumption?  There are lots of naturally occurring compounds which are also dangerous.  GMO does not equate with toxic.  And, GMO's often require fewer pesticides and other chemical additives which are known to be hazardous in high enough doses.

I also, frequently here the argument that what is natural must be better.  Again, there are lots of naturally occurring toxins which are far more dangerous than an insect resistant soybean...snake venom comes to mind.  In fact, some of the most dangerous chemicals known to science are readily available in forests all over the world...completely GMO free!

Does this mean there are no risks?  Of course not.  But, it does mean that GMOs are not necessarily any more or less dangerous.  It's like saying that computers are useful, or shoes are stylish.  Some shoes are hideous, and some computers are absolutely useless.  But, we don't outlaw all computers because Dell makes a few doozies...nor do we protest against shoes because some are ugly.  Genetically modified organisms can be safe, or dangerous depending on what the modification is.  Shoes with nails in the sole are probably not a good idea...of course if the shoe company was in league with the sinister doctor, this might make some business sense, but I digress.

A lot of the arguments are based on fear, misunderstandings, conspiracy theories with little factual basis and argument by analogy.  Okay, yes...I just argued by analogy...but I'll ignore that convenient fact.

Time for the climbdown:  GMO's need to be very carefully researched and studied by experts.  Any potential interaction has to be known, and a good regulatory framework is needed.  Also, food producers, like Monsanto should not be protected from judicial inquiry.  Though I doubt the funny talk that Monsanto hates you and wants to poison your family for profits has any truth, they should not be exempt from normal, legal exposure.  If they were to screw up, than they should be made to pay.  That in itself would very much help to keep them honest.

And why do we need these GMOs?  Food costs are rising.  Millions of people can't afford to eat properly as it is, and as the climate is warming and the population is increasing, this problem is not going to just disappear.  Should we just shrug our shoulders and say that we should freeze farming in the 1950's even if it means that some people can't afford to eat well, or even eat at all?  Should we just say that we've learned enough and we are happy with our pesticides, failed crops, subsidies of products no one wants and just leave it at that?

Where do we draw the line?  At what point do we say that the technology is okay and that anything after that is dangerous?

People are always afraid of new things.  There is always a fear of new, and poorly understood sciences.  I remember as a kid hearing that invitro fertilization was going to lead to franken babies.  Still haven't seen any of them running around.

We need to progress, and we need to do more.  Science can dig us out of many of our current problems and perhaps even save our species from extinction.  Curtailing it based on scary pictures and faulty arguments is very, very scary indeed.

Ignore all those pictures of fetuses growing in tomatoes, silly pictures of strawberries with kiwi inside, slug-strawberry hybrids, zombie Obama Monsanto clips and colourful syringes sticking out of fruits and vegetables.  That stuff is all a bunch of silly fiction.  The actual science focuses on small, genetic changes to improve the quality of food.  Food is good.

Oh, and if you really want to help your body, make sure you are eating enough fruits and vegetables, cut down on red meats and sodium, avoid soft drinks and get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day.  Also, cut down on naturally occurring snake venom...that stuff will really kill you, natural or not.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Senate should attempt to fire corrupt Senators

With three Senators, one appointed a Liberal and two appointed as Conservatives, under investigation, the issue of Senate reform is certainly upon the minds of many Canadians.  This debate has been going on for almost as long as the country has been going on for and with no real prospect for any real solution.

To my mind, it is simply not acceptable that Mac Harb, Pamela Wallen, and the worst of the lot, Mike Duffy just leave their respective caucuses.  Rather, they should leave public life completely.  Well, or at least get a job on a local radio station and leave the Senate without pay.  While there is no clear method of doing this, as this article discusses, there is at least one possibility.

As Political Scientist, Ned Franks told the CBC, the issue of whether or not the Senate can remove a sitting Senator from the red chamber is still an unresolved question unless the Senator has been found to have committed a criminal act.

If the Senate wants to have any legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians, they should immediately present a motion to test the waters on this.  It might have to go all the way up to the supreme court, and that could take several years, but as the Senate is unlikely to be abolished any time soon, we might as well do what we can now.

Even if a ruling were to bar the Senate from removing sitting Senators, the Senate can at least remove the Senator's pay, pension and expenses.  That would be a start.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Yingluck is right to end use of shackles in Thai prisons

PM Yingluck at Bang Kwang Prison

 Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra (pictured left) is right to end the use of shackles in Thai prisons.  As various sources  have been reporting over the past few days, these shackles can weigh up to 5 kilograms and are known to cause extreme pain, and according to, sometimes work their way into the skin of the wearer causing skin and bone damage.

Organizations world-wide consider the use of prison shackles to be a form of torture as they are worn permanently by those convicted of serious offences.

I do get that we need a strong prison system, but the use of these shackles, and the conditions overall in the Thai prisons are simply not achieving this.  As the Prime Minister said at the shackle breaking ceremony at Bangkwang prison, society needs to reform criminals.

It's awfully easy for the outside observer to think that a prisoner gets whatever he or she deserves, but think about it for a moment.  What does it say about society when we keep prisoners in such conditions?  It provides no value to society and is cruel and unusual.

Now, I know you are probably thinking that she just want to avoid seeing her brother in shackles in case he ever does serve his prison sentence (joking), on this issue, she has done something long overdue.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Life can be hard, but chances are you've got it better than these people

So, after a really long day I was feeling what I would have described as hunger and exhaustion.  I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I was feeling a bit sorry for myself.  But then I was entering my building and I saw a rather poor looking family moving into my building, with what seemed like the assistance of a few people who were not at all poor-looking and I realized how good I actually have it.  I don't know hunger, and I don't know exhaustion.  I know something close to these, but the solution has always been in sight. I don't know what it's like to be persecuted.  I don't know what it's like to live in a shanty.  I don't know what it's like to not be able to wear clean clothes, shower well, and blend in with general society.  I feel a bit ridiculous now.  

Now, this all came to mind as the family I saw (who I actually held the door open for...I usually don't take much notice of people, so I'm thankful I didn't ignore them) This family looked to me to be Rohingya.  Of course I have no idea if I am correct, but the point is that it reminded me that at this very moment there is an entire group of people who are unwanted in the country they live in, are persecuted by their neighbors, and are about to be hit with by cyclone Mahasen  which is approaching the eastern shore of Myanmar. They live in shelters which have been declared by the U.N to be unfit for human habitation and those shelters couldn't survive much at all.  

Most of these people are not going to leave.  The Burmese government is trying to get them to go to shelters, but considering how badly they have been treated by their government, it's no surprise that these people don't trust them.  Considering that the Burmese military is being used to provide relief (probably the only purpose of the relief is that they know it will look bad for them if they screw up again) and that the Burmese military has been known to rape children and burn down villages, I don't blame them for taking their chances with the storm.  I also would be awfully hesitant to attempt entry to Bangladesh, who also don't want these people, or in Thailand which has sent some off on boats to die with no food or water.  I think I would probably just dig down and pray to God too.

Consider also that only yesterday a hundred Rohingya were found dead after their boat collapsed.  Consider that they have no way to travel.  Consider that they can't get visas, have no passport from the country they live in and don't have an economy anyway.

Would you hop on the back of the army vehicle?  Would you pose for the international media and than just hope the world pays attention long enough so that your daughter doesn't get raped and your son put to work?

This makes my problems seem very minor.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Forget Labrador: Bourassa will be the real test

The Little Prince, and The Bear

The loss of Labrador by Conservative incumbent Peter Penashue marks one of the few times that the Harper government has not been able to retain a seat in a by-election and the first time he has lost a cabinet minister since 2006.  As Sun News' David Akin recently observed, there have been 20 by-elections called by Harper since 2006 and Harper has not only not lost any seats, he has actually gained three.  As the Conservatives are now saying, it is unusual for majority governments to retain seats in by-elections, but for Harper this is rather unusual.

However there are mitigating factors which make this electoral test less interesting and less indicative of things to come.  For starters, Penashue is currently under investigation for receiving illegal campaign contributions, including corporate donations which are illegal in Canada.  That Mr. Penashue went down is also not such a surprise as Labrador has gone Liberal since the riding was established.  In 2008, the Liberals took it with over 70% of the vote.

If recent polls are correct, Harper is in read trouble though.  Harper's Conservatives are at 28% nationally, according to the most recent poll  I could find, which was conducted by Canadian Press-Harris Decima.  But, whether or not the Liberals or NDP will be able to knock Harper out of office in 2015 comes down to the battle between them as much as it does with any change in narrative from Harper.  Harper's ceiling seems to be in the low 30's now.

A much more interesting by-election could very well come in Bourassa Quebec if Denis Coderre fulfills expectations and runs for the Montreal mayoralty.  If this happens, we can expect to see a real battle between the two Quebec leaders, the NDP's Thomas Mulcair and the Liberal's Justin Trudeau.  Though recent polls have shown that the Liberals have surpassed the NDP in most parts of the country, the NDP is still going strong in Quebec and would likely be able to launch a more effective campaign in Bourassa than the Liberals.

The Liberals though are benefiting from the honeymoon period, or at least so says the Winnipeg Free Press, that generally comes with a new leader, and the fact that that leader is a Trudeau doesn't hurt, at least in media exposure.

Mulcair in Quebec:  CBC Photo
But, Mulcair is an incredibly effective campaigner and he has many rising Quebec stars in his caucus.  With the right candidate and the right messaging, he could give Mr. Trudeau a nice little wake-up call.

Very soon, the public is going to want to see more substance from the Liberals and begin to seriously analyze which party really supports the issues they care about.  Since 2004, more and more Canadians have been moving toward the NDP as being that party.

 It's not surprise that the NDP has fallen to third place in the interim, but when people seriously consider who has the experience, the leadership ability and the platform, they will see that it is Mr. Mulcair.  It is Mulcair who has the governing experience, and it is Mulcair who has a grasp on the real issues.  He doesn't speak in platitudes and he keeps his politics professional, away from the personal and exudes dignity and competence.

I think Canadians have had enough of the pettiness of Harper, Pollievre, and the rest of his loud caucus, and have had enough with the gaffe-prone Liberal rump.

I might be wrong, but I know that I'm right on this:  if Coderre steps down, there is going to be one heck of a battle in Bourassa and that battle will be between the bear and the little prince.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reza Baraheni: "A Minor Mistake in Evin Prison"

If you are anything like me you have read your fair share of really dark literature which outlines the absolute worst in our species.  Often, there is also this stream of light which manages to to break through, but the darkness is very often given the major portion of the story line.  In reality, it seems to me that the kindness in human nature is much more prevalent than the darkness.

I've been reading a book, Another Sky: Voice of Consciences from Around the World.  Though these essays and excerpts from those imprisoned, persecuted and executed for their writings contain unimaginable horror and insight, many of them have such profound moments of compassion.

One essay in particular comes to mind.  Reza Baraheni, the ethnic Azerbaijani Iranian born former head of PEN Canada, and organization devoted to freeing writers held due to their beliefs.  Baraheni was also Professor of English at Tehran University and has taught at a number of other universities in the U.S and the U.K.  He was also imprisoned during the time of the Shah in the 70's and during the Islamic Republic in the 80's.

In this book, he tells a story of a mix-up at Iran's Evin Prison.  Through blindfolded confusion, he ended up in the line of prisoners headed for execution, but he himself had not actually gone to the court yet and was due for further interrogation.  He voiced his confusion to the prisoner walking immediately behind him.  This prisoner realized that Baraheni had no idea he was in the execution line and urged Baraheni to shout to the guards.  After numerous efforts to convince the guards, he was successful.

The prisoner behind Baraheni took enormous risk.  At one point he stated: "Do what you can to stay alive.  We've lost our lives, perhaps for a reason.  But why should you lose yours?" (p. 7).  During this whole event, the guards were continuously shouting for them to be quiet.  The prisoner could have been taken back for further torture or a slower death than the gun would provide.  But, he didn't.

This is an element of human nature worth remembering.  During the worst of disasters, in the worst of circumstances there are always those caring for others.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cultural Shift will bring a New Galactic Polity

I was watching an interview with Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales on BBC where he spoke about the growth in the diversity of voices now online.  He said that the old paradigm where we, in the developed Western world, create the technology and provide access to people, in the lesser developed world is changing because 'the other', the people of the developing world have their own voices and their own stories to tell. They are using technology to tell their own stories.

This, and a conversation with a friend on Facebook got me thinking about what this sort of change could mean for our future.  There is the very common view that the state, the corporate world, and the media are all in some kind of unholy alliance to deceive and control.  Now, perhaps elements of them are.  But, even if they are, is it really sustainable?

We are entering a period where the message we hear is becoming ever diversified.  A lot of people say that they miss the old days where the news was the news.  It wasn't politicized, it wasn't corporatised, and you could trust it.  They say that these days, you just don't know what to believe.  I think this is a good thing.  We find it hard now, because it is new.  But, it is the way things are going and will continue to go. It wasn't so much that the media used to be more accurate, but that the media was more centralized and more subject to control by a single group of voices and a single narrative.

The message itself is becoming broader, more interactive and diversified.  McLuhan was right. The medium and the message have become ever more interconnected.  The medium and the message have also become much more participatory and cognizant of alterity.  It's not so much that the media has become more corporate, but that we now know that there are other viewpoints and other voices.  As Lyotard wrote, the meta-narratives are breaking down.  We don't all believe in a single version of our own history to the extent that we once did.  But, I'd say that he and McLuhan were really just witnessing the effect of hearing other voices for the first time.  The other voices are becoming closer to our own narrative and are broadening and deepening our perspectives.

So, in a context where the medium is the message and the message is diversified, the message and the medium are increasingly difficult to manufacture or manipulate.  The person listening to the media is no longer confined to simply being a passive audience, but the listener is also now a speaker; an active participant in the structure itself.

I contend that we are heading toward a new galactic polity, a return to the pre-Westphalian order.  The modern nation state is becoming less relevant to our lives.  I'm not saying that it is not relevant now, or that it will cease to exist entirely, but other settings are becoming more important.  This is a long process.  And, this process is being driven by international organizations, technology, social organizations and international kinship.  By the last, I mean the idea that new, international cultures are developing.  Segments of populations in one city, let's say Bangkok have more in common with segments of populations in New York than they do with people in the North-East of Thailand.

The life-style of a migrant worker in Shan state in Burma is more similar to the condition of a migrant worker in China than to the lifestyle of a business person in his own country.  This has always been the case, but with increasing access to tranportation and communication this is increasing.  The old national loyalties are not going to be as important as they once were.  The ability of any nation-state to control the message is not as strong as it once was.  The linkage between members of a single nation are important, but other cultural linkages are also important.

Chinese diaspora in Singapore have strong cultural and familial kinship with the Chinese in China, in Malaysia and in the U.S.  Twitter users in Canada have an audience with people in Iran, and vice-versa.  Members of Rotary international have a kinship with their members from around the world.  These structures are but a few examples.

What is clear is that this is not decreasing, rather it is increasing.  Every year, more and more people now have access to the internet.  In India alone, only 17% of the population have access to the internet.  World wide internet usage increased from hundreds of millions in 1998 to 2.5 billion in 2010.  Means of transportation have also become cheaper and more available to people.  This will not decrease.  The cultural shift that follows this could easily become the most significant change to have ever occurred in human history.

The narrative is shifting, broadening and increasingly happening outside of national contexts.  Supranational loyalties are becoming as important as subnational affiliation.  This is "the global village".

I contend that this will result in a new paradigm where the state will, eventually give way to something new.  Our public life is happening in new places.  Some of it occurs in a corporate environment, some of it occurs in international organizations, some of it occurs online.  This is chaotic in the same way that nature is chaotic.  As nature is stable because of its diversity, a new political structure will also be stable because of its diversity.


For more reading on what the original galactic polity meant, or the mandala model of governance, visit here.  The part about a strong leader attracting new tributaries is particularly relevant.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

On why the Libertarian Right is only Half Right.

There is a fundamental problem with the dominant (U.S variety) of Libertarianism, alternately referred to as "small government conservatism" or "right wing Libertarianism".  The essential flaw is that it assumes that a smaller state will result in more freedoms for the individual.  The assumption rests on the view that it is The State with it's machine gun totting commandos, drone aircraft, and ubiquitous methods of surveillance, both known to the surveilled and otherwise.

The theory argues that free citizens are capable of making their own decisions in a way that leaves the society better off.  That the problems in the economy are primarily caused by state interference and collusion in the economy.  The tend to assert that the free economy would operate to the benefit of the overwhelming majority if the government were to stay out of it; that many of our economic woes and inequality is caused by a corporatist policy between the government and supposedly private companies.

These libertarians tend to argue that the economy would self regulate through the simple mechanism of supply and demand and public choice.  They further argue that this would result in more opportunity and would respect individual freedom.

Now, I agree with much of this.  But, supposing the state...let's take an example.  Let's say that the United States government were to be run by a small government libertarian.  Let's say that they followed the constitution in it's original form, in a way that is reminiscent of the way governments ran a hundred years ago.  Let's say that they were to cut defence spending, remove entire departments, like the department of agriculture; that the were to lower taxes for all, end all subsidies and begin removing 'victimless laws'.  Let's say that they were to reduce police spending, and focus policing on better policies.  And that they were to reduce public health care spending for all but the most vulnerable.

Now, perhaps this would leave the public in a position where they would be motivated to succeed by their own efforts.  Perhaps it would allow new companies and new ideas to emerge.  Perhaps it would result in better food safety and would allow prices to return to something more in keeping with true supply and demand.

But, are they seriously saying that nothing else would step in to fill the void of a reduced government?  Therein lays the flaw in the argument.  We have powerful, multinational corporations which are more than capable of fulfilling many of the actions that the state currently fulfills.  And, in many parts of the United States, the removal of the state would probably prompt at least some of these companies to take on more of these duties.  Google has gotten into the business of providing electricity, a role normally done by states.  I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, I'm just saying that they already do some of the job of the state, and with a shrinking state, they would probably do more.  Additionally, throughout the United States, there are many other organizations which already do some of the stuff which people normally associate with state action.  Some of this is governmental agencies using Twitter and other forms of crowd-sourcing to provide disaster coordination.  Again, not necessarily fact, this is the kind of private action I think we need more of.

Another example are the private schools, and private hospitals.  I know the U.S is somewhat unique in this regard and that for them this is very normal, but again these are public goods.  These are services required by the population as a whole. They go beyond the simple market mechanism that consumer goods go by.  The same could be said for private prisons and social services provided by churches.  All of these go into areas that are normally associated with governmental actions.

Now, in the case of a shrinking state in the United States, we could assume that these organizations would indeed take on more duties.  It doesn't take much to imagine Google expanding it's electricity services, or it's telecom infrastructure.  That is probably going to happen anyway.  It wouldn't take much to imagine social organizations taking on more of a role in public health.  It doesn't take much imagination to conceive that private agricultural business would take on more of a role in food inspection, distribution and technology.

Again, much of this is good.  But, is it not conceivable that at least some of these organizations and companies would have motivations which are less concerned with the public good, and more concerned with private gain?  Would it not be conceivable that a major corporation would take on actions and activities which provide a benefit for themselves, but overall have a spill-over affect with a public cost?

Now of course, few are talking about completely removing the regulatory powers of the state, but the fact that these organizations have a compelling incentive to maximum their profit and to socialize their cost creates a major problem for "right wing libertarianism".  These organizations will try to fill gaps in areas of their expertise.  And, I'd argue that very often they would behave in a manner which does harm the overall public good.  They would engage in power maximization in order to achieve maximum profits for their shareholders.

The large, multinational company responsible only to it's board and shareholders would not, suddenly, become more altruistic just because the state has stopped subsidizing them.  In fact, many of these corporations are not subsidized.  They are constrained by state action.  They would be unbound and they would attempt to monopolize, coerce and co-opt, just as they already do.

Now, I'm not saying that all corporations do this, but some do.

Is the lust for power, control, wealth and luxury only a feature of systemic forces in the modern nation state?  Certainly not.  If we look to the feudal period, before the creation of the modern nation state, we see the same motivations.  If we look to small groups of people in a gardening club, we see those motivations.  We've all met the social climber!  He or she is not a product of the system, and he or she will always find structures to use for her or his advantage.  This is not going to go away just because the state goes away.

So, the solution?  Well, that is a matter not fully in my grasp, but it would most certainly require actions that go beyond simply limiting state power.  It would require limits on private power as well.

Anarcho-syndicalists, left libertarians and "small state socialists" probably have it right that private companies pose just as much threat to liberty as big government.

The motivations that cause the state to intrude on civil liberties exist in all power structures.  Would things still be better with a smaller state without limits on other structures?  I highly doubt it.  Is there an immediate solution?  I doubt that even more.  But, let's stop pretending that the only problem in modern life is big guvament.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Before the Levy Breaks: No Stability Without Inclusion

Burmese Migrant Workers in Thailand
I've been reading The Flood, an earlier book by Ian Rankin.  In this story there is a minister who means to understand and help the people in his town who he views as hard as nails, but also bitter and lost.  The winds of the economy had shifted, but these people didn't.  Combined with their old superstitions, these people are unable to adapt to the new world they find outside of their town.  This story, and my own observations have got me thinking about the question of what Marx called:  'the opiate of the people'.  While Marx was speaking of religion, I think the metaphor can be extended.  I'm not going to do a detailed examination of Marxism here, but I would like to address the matter in the broadest and briefest strokes.
A Thai worker beneath campaign posters

Two days of the week I work in a government compound on the outskirts of the city.  As the underground is being extended out that way, and as much of my commute takes me through areas with many working poor, I often find my thoughts drawn to these matters.

The question most on my mind now is regarding the education of these people, their world-view and their aspirations.  I've heard it said by many educated people in this country that those members of the working poor "have nothing in their heads".  I've attacked this line a number of times in courses I've taken.  I once said to a graduate student at my university that I think that is a hypothesis which he would need to test before he starts saying it in an economic setting.

I'd also like to say that if it is true, than who should be blamed for that?  These people often have very little education.  Their children do not have the same access to education, even from the "public" system.  They sit in hot, non airconditioned classrooms in 40 degree weather with 50 students in a single class.  Their teachers are often overwhelmed, living on a poverty wage and working with very few materials.

These people spend all day (and in many cases all night) working to build structures which they will never be able to afford to enjoy.  They are often sinewy and underweight as they cannot afford to eat well.

The WHO Country Strategy on Thailand states that around 77% of Thai people do not eat enough fruits and vegetables.  There is also a significant iodine deficiency among these groups.  Iodine deficiency results in irreversible brain damage in adults and children.

When they do get to go home, they are blasted with absolutely banal television that teaches them to be silly and not to take things seriously.  They are told to accept their fate and wait for it to get better in the next life.  They drink cheap alcohol and  often use stimulants to stay awake the next day.

So, if they don't have anything in their heads, who do you blame for that?  Fill her full of opium until she can't see straight and then blame her for not walking the line?  Keep them docile, sleepy and unconscious that they are mere commodities.  They have no clue...there is nothing in their head.  Healthcare, education?  They don't understand that stuff.  Right?
Electrolux Workers on Strike
I may be verging on hyperbole, but I don't think so.  And, I don't think this plan is working too well.  Since the 70's there has been an undercurrent of left-wing farmer/labourer discontent.  In the 70's the official Marxist groups were driven out of all influence.  But, they form a significant section of Thailand's so called "red shirts".

I am no Thaksin supporter.  I think he bribed the working classes and filled them with propaganda to win their support.  But, at least he did pay attention to them.

These people are not going to go away.  They are going to want those flashy little items they see others carrying.  They are going to want clean rooms.  They are going to want to enjoy some of the fruits of their labour.  All political parties in this country have to recognize this and start listening to these people before they decide, once again that they are going to take what they need.

Let a few streams flow, or watch the levy break and drown us all.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Tom Drake: Whistle-blower or Spy?

Former National Security Agency Executive Turned Whistle-blower, (or spy) Tom Drake in a sketch by Michael McCutcheon.  

See more sketches here. 

We all want to be safe.  Most of us expect our government, in one form or another, to protect us from internal and external threats.  But, if Thomas Drake (read one version of the full story here and another here) is correct than the United States government has been using the excuse of the September 11 attack to, in his words: "unchain itself" than there is serious cause for concern.  

I'm sure we all have that friend who posts endlessly about the erosion of civil liberties and the coming empire (I have hundreds of them now, I think they are forming a majority), but the public facts and statements are compelling whether or not you prefer a corduroy jacket or a tin-foil hat.  

Thomas Drake began by pointing out "fraud, waste and abuse", which government officers are required to point out, in 2005. The original incident involved a private company which he alleged provided weaker intelligence analysis at a higher cost, all paid for by the U.S public.  The story has been confirmed, according to some sources, but this may have been the first action which attracted the wrong kind of attention to him.  

Now, this action should have been protected under federal legislation protecting whistle-blowers, but as one source reports he was deliberately targeted through a misuse of the 1917 Espionage Act which was passed to target spies, not whistle-blowers.  

In an interview aired today on BBC's Hard Talk, Drake noted that President Obama has charged more people under the 1917 act than all previous presidents combined since the act was passed.  He claims that he fulfilled his duty to report waste, and also to expose misuse of government power.  He also said that he was hired from outside of the NSA under a movement to bring in new eyes and new perspectives to the agency, which by it's own admission at the time was very much unprepared for the digital age.  

This implies that he felt that it was part of his mandate to expose flaws in the NSA and to bring them forward to Congress.  But, his seniors clearly didn't agree.  Instead of just trying to charge him with leaking sealed documents, they alleged that he was retaining classified documents.  This could have resulted in a 35 year prison sentence under the 1917 act.  That case fell apart, and instead he was charged under lesser offences and only given a year's probation.  He claims that he passed on documents that were not classified and that he was acting legitimately.  

I can see both sides of this argument.  On the one hand (even by Drake's admission), security administration needs to be able to keep some information confidential.  But, on the other hand is it not the duty of public servants to point out, in the U.S government's own terminology Fraud, Waste and Abuse?  If you spent as much time watching U.S military TV as I did during my time in Korea, that slogan is deeply entrenched after countless public service messages.  

Where's the line here?  How much secrecy do these agencies need to provide security?  How should people who provide information be handled?  According to Drake, Congress must be informed, but also the Fourth Estate (the media) is the final check in America's system, to ensure that government's do not become "unchained".  Keep in mind that Drake did have his day in court, and the court did find him guilty of the lesser charges.  

It's sometimes difficult to know what to think on matters which are all behind smoke and mirrors.  It's difficult to know who to be more afraid of:  the 'bad guys' or the government.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Temporary Foreign Workers Fill the Gap (but that's no way to build a society)

With news breaking that unemployed Canadians with relevant experience and skills were by-passed in favour of temporary foreign worker programs, my mind is drawn to the long term implications of such a program.

I'll leave the day-to day analysis of the program to others, in favour of a little examination of the possible long term effects of this program on the society as a whole.

First, let me say this.  I am a Canadian citizen, and a tax-paying resident of Thailand.  I plan to return to Canada some day, and I will always be, first and foremost a Canadian from Miramichi in New Brunswick.  My father is English and has only recently taken up Canadian citizenship in addition to his U.K citizenship.

But, let's look at my father as a picture of what real immigration does for a country before moving on.

My father has lived in Canada (which I often, warmly refer to as Soviet Canuckistan) since the mid 1970's.  Since that time, he has started several businesses, employed a number of natural born Canadians (some of them for many years), pays his taxes, is a well respected member of his church, built several houses, served as an able employee, bore three children who live on the right side of the law and contribute to their respective communities, and has been a positive influence in many many lives.

His roots in the Miramichi run deep.  His economic contribution has been notable. Though I am biased, I think he is a true role model.  My mother has often said to me, in times when I'm confused, to "do what your father would do".  He's that kind of dad.

My point is that Canada wins by having such people whether they be from China, France, Britain, the Ukraine, Somalia or any point in between. These people set their roots in the country; they build the land, and they make us prosper.

There have been darkspots.  I won't get into them here, but the abuse of immigrants from some countries, the quotas and the genocide upon the First Nations are all issues I'm cognizant of and I will start to address them at a later time.

But, it is immigration that built this country.

On the other hand, there are people like me.  My roots are not deep in this land.  I'm working.  I'm not saving any money.  I haven't any children, or a spouse and I won't stay.  I'm still fulfilling a public need.  I'm educating people and helping them to succeed.  I'm doing what the King called for when he stated in 1997 that if foreigners want to come and dig the riches of this land, let them dig for us (the Thais).

That's what I see myself as.  I dig.  I don't dig to plunder, but I dig to build the place where I live.  That fills the gap that Thailand currently has, but it isn't going to go much further.  What I do here doesn't lay down the deep routes that add strength to the soil itself.

Should Canada allow temporary foreign workers?  Absolutely.  But, the answer to a better country is to do what we've done in the past:  Encourage real immigration with the full opportunities for citizenship.  The NDP's Once in a Life Time bill to allow anyone to sponsor, a family member, once in a life-time to come to Canada would help accomplish that.  Focusing more resources on family class immigration would help to accomplish that.

Let's get back to nation building rather than short-term stop-gap measures.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Printable, Working Guns: Why You Shouldn't Panic

As BBC is reporting, U.S group, Defense Distributed plans to publicly release blueprints for a working 3D gun.

Perhaps this is one of the unintended consequences of 3-D printing.  Any product imaginable could, eventually be replicated by a consumer in her or his own home. If your like me, your first though might be...oh, shit.

But, think about this for a moment.  Is this really a game-changer?  Stay with me here for a moment.  I don't want to disturb you, but indulge me for just a moment.

Take a look around you right now.  Yes, I mean really.  Just physically turn your head to your right and tell me if you can see at least one object that you could use to harm another human being.  Can you see any?  What about that water glass?  The vase?  What about your kitchen knives?

 Now, stay with me for just another moment.  Look around again.  Is there anyone around?  What about your husband calmly cooking dinner while you read my rant? Children doing homework?  They wouldn't see it coming, would they...I bet you wouldn't see it coming, would you?

Do you see where I'm going with this?   Deadly object+human=murder.  Right?  For most of us, thank God this is not the case.

 Now, I'm sorry to have put your mind in a dark place like that, but can you explain why it is that you are not going to harm that person with that object? Can you explain why you are not looking over your shoulder right now?  (By the way, if you are, there is medication that can help)

 In my own case, I don't live with any other humans, but I do live with two beautiful kitty cats.

  As I looked around my apartment, I realized that my iron could easily be used to kill my kitties, I have several lighters which could be used to light them on fire.  I have pots and pans which I could clobber them with.  All of this is entirely possible if the will exists.
Konja, my talking cat enjoying a murder-free afternoon

I was walking back from dinner with a good friend.  He's a scientist.  We talked about some of his current and recent research.  I ranted on and on about how much I love my job.  I never once suspected that my delicious salad could have been poisoned by the workers...I never once even thought that the floor cleaner may have been added to my balsamic vinegar by a sinister cook.

Lynette on the ledge of floor nine.  I didn't push her off. 
The sun was warm and I had some time, so I walked back home.  It's a busy road.  Not one person tried to run me came close (I do live in crazy Bangkok after-all), but no one intended to kill me.  On these narrow lanes full of maniacs, I would have been an easy target.  Now, I know what you are thinking.  You are thinking that they just didn't want to damage their cars...har de har.  But much as we might fantasize about ramming the daily news paper down that rude guy in the shop's throat, we never do it.

Folks, we don't walk around killing people or kitty cats because we don't have the tools to do so. It's not lack of opportunity either.

Hopefully, you don't live in a community where many people want to cause you harm, where crazed crane operators are dropping sewer pipes on your head, where old ladies are throwing rocks out of window, where waiters are putting methyl alcohol into your g&t (methyl alcohol is highly toxic and wouldn't be noticed in many cocktails and also is difficult to trace if the person has already been drinking)

Perhaps a few of you do, and my heart goes out to you...but, that's not the normal way people live.  I'm not contesting that bad things happen...but, not as often as you might think if you watch too much TV.

I also live in a city where night markets, on the side of major roads, sell tasers, serrated long knives, ninja stars, swords and other objects which would kill so easily.  I've never heard of anyone grabbing one and then slicing up a shopper.

Has it ever happened?  Maybe...but out of the millions and millions of people...have a sense of perspective.

But, I contend the natural state of humans is to live in peace with other people.  Just because the gun is there, does not mean you need to walk around shooting people.  Will this plastic gun, printable by anyone result in murders?  Probably.  But, it's not going to really change how the overwhelming majority of us live.

Murder is very rare in almost any part of the world at any time.  There are many ways a person, who has decided to cause someone's death can do so.

If people have opportunity for success, love in their lives, the basics for life and affirmation, they will mostly live in way that causes no harm to others.  If you have a large amount of violence in your area, you have to think about what causes that violence.

I think we have a mental health problem more than we have a gun problem. Young people feel displaced.  Older people feel they are not appreciated.  We have a social illness.  That's what we need to focus more on.

 Let's look a little deeper, be a bit more introspective, a bit more understanding and heck, while we are at it... be more optimistic.  Help other people, take some time to enjoy life.  Go shoot a target or a clay disc.  You'll like it.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Will UKIP do to The Tories what Reform did to The Tories?

UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage
In the 1993 Canadian General Election, the governing Progressive Conservative Party under Kim Campbell retained only 2 seats out of the 156 they held, and way down from their 169 seats in the previous election of 1988.  This represented one of the largest drops in seats for a governing party in any democratic country, anywhere in the world, in history.  In that election, the NDP was also decimated.

The main beneficiaries of this massive drop were of course the Liberals, who won a large majority and also the Reform Party under Preston Manning and the Bloc Québécois under Lucien Bouchard who took a large majority of the seats in Quebec.  Keep in mind that the Reform party took only 2% of the national vote in the previous election and only competed in seats in the west.  In 1993, Reform took 52 seats and the Bloc took 54 which was enough for them to form the official opposition.

What's most interesting here is that this emergence of the Reform party and the near destruction of the Progressive Conservative party eventually resulted in the two parties merging in 2003, under terms which many Progressive Conservatives felt was a Reform take-over.

Reform's policies were fiscally and socially conservative.  Their campaign slogan was "The West Wants In" and they ran a populist campaign attacking the Progressive Conservatives for their perceived focus on Central and Eastern Canada (especially their perceived pandering to Quebec and The Maritime Provinces).  They were in favour of a smaller government, reintroduction of capital punishment, end of subsidies for large corporations, increased military spending, anti-official bilingualism, anti-gay marriage and increased fire-arm liberties.

This scenario has more than a little in common with the current struggle over in the UK between the Conservative Party under David Cameron and the UK Independence Party under Nigel Farage.  Farage has been running a populist rebellion in traditionally conservative areas mainly in England.  They want to pull out of the Euro zone, run a smaller, more "libertarian" government and are in favour of lower immigration, lower taxes and are socially conservative.

Like Preston Manning in his then trademark blue-jeans, Farage often speaks to supporters in pubs, drinking a beer and sometimes holding a cigarette.

The affect of UKIP on the British Conservative Party is already apparent.  David Cameron announced recently that they will pass legislation to force a referendum on EU membership:  A key plank of UKIP.  

Manning Campaigning in 1993
To my eyes, it looks very much as though UKIP could very well do to Cameron's Conservatives what Reform did to Campbell's Progressive Conservatives.  If that were to occur, the main beneficiary would likely be Ed Miliband's Labour Party, just as Jean Chretien's Liberals benefited from vote splitting between the PC party and Reform.  This would be a fundamental shake-up of British politics which would have wide-scale implications for Europe and elsewhere.

For decades now, Canadian commentators have intermittently predicted that Canada's Liberals could go the way of Britain's Liberals who were replaced as the main party of the centre-left and left by Labour.  But now, it appears that the U.K will have to look to us for a vision of how their future might appear.

If you didn't like the Tories under Thatcher, you might really hate what comes next.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Gun Control or Erosion of Liberties?

I sometimes think that I believe in two contradictory messages.

 The first message I believe in is that gun ownership, just like the ownership of anything else is a matter of individual discretion, responsibility and personal liberty.  What right does the state have to tell a person that he or she cannot own a gun?  What gives them the right to tell you, as law abiding citizen that you cannot go out and get your own food, or shoot clay disks or other targets?

On the other hand, news of a child given a gun by his parents for his birthday and then went off and killed his kid sister. Of course it was an horrific accident and one that I will not use to make a message advocating gun control, but let me just say that the individual responsible is the parent.  However, as there are people out there like those parents, we do need laws.

Where is the balance between these two messages?  As the NRA top dog, Chris Cox stated, you can't blame lawful gun owners for these incidents.  You have to blame the criminal or the person who though it was okay to give a gun to a child.  This is a compelling argument.  You wouldn't give your five year old a car to drive, would you?  If you would, you probably should have your head examined.

As unfortunate as it may be, I think it is true that people cannot be given full right to buy anything they want without any kind of regulation because people do moronic things and sometimes those moronic actions spill over and have a broad public cost.  The idea of any innocent person being harmed by another individual who has misused his rights is, to my mind, a compelling argument for gun control.

However, the vast majority of gun owners have never shot anyone.  In fact, statistically, your neighbors swimming pool poses a greater danger to the public than his rifle.  So, does that mean that we should ban his pool along with his gun?  Perhaps not.  There is a sensible middle ground here.  As unfortunate as it is, we must make homeowners have safe premises and we must also encourage safe pool ownership.

We have natural rights and liberties, but we also have the responsibility that goes along with them.

I am well aware of the argument that some make that the United States government wishes to control your guns so that they may control you.  I don't buy it.  Folks, they have tanks and drones...your gun is not going to stop them.  Rather, I think it is far less sinister.  It is the madness of politics that drives these gun control efforts.  The President and Congress want to be seen as acting.  If they are found by the public to have not prevented a disaster, they will suffer in the next election.  That is one of the unfortunate kinks in the electoral system.  A focus on short-term priorities and a race toward some kind of action often trumps deep inquiry and long term solutions.

We balance budgets by cutting the very programs that are needed for long term economic success.  We reduce medical school placements to save costs in one budget only to have to spend greatly later on to fix medical shortages.  Leaders often have trouble keeping up.  Top civil servants are often racing to provide answers to the politicians which just do not exist.

I think it is these factors which are more responsible for government action than plots to take away the rights of the public.  The state is not a unitary actor with a single goal.

What I fear most is that the public will begin to panic against gun control, and that the government will react to that.  The fear of the slippery slope has been reified.  People really believe that that metaphor is true.  Take away my semi-automatic, and the next step is that you'll take away my shotgun also.

So, on the one hand you have the desire to protect the public from a small number of criminals, and on the other hand you have a public that is overwhelmingly peaceful and shouldn't have the government interfering in ownership.  I believe in both of these messages at the same time.  I'm not so sure if they are contradictory.  If they are, perhaps we just need to allow for these two contradictory impulses to exist at the same time and trust the legal system to find the balance.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Thai PM: New "Seeing Eye" Police for Distracted Teens.

Thai Tourist Police on Segways

The government of Yingluck Shinawatra announced today that a new division under the Thai Tourist Police will begin guiding distracted teenagers through public streets by the end of this year.

"We love our young people and we want to be sure that they don't get hurt while they walk aimlessly around public places playing on their mobile devices".  The move came after the Prime Minister was nearly hit by a train while waiting at Siam Station while on a recent tour of the BTS Skytrain.

"Our new, Seeing Eye Division will each be given a Segway so that they don't have to walk too much and we are also contracting a Chinese company to provide one tablet for each Seeing Eye Division officer so that they actually know where you want to go.  Thank you three times."
PM Yingluck and her personal Seeing Eye Person
According to government figures, the entire cost of the program will be financed through future economic growth and increased electricity rates.

In a separate press conference,  Leader of the Opposition Democrats and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Bangkok Governor Sukumband Paribatra  (pictured left) stated that if the Prime Minister "bothered to consult with the people than she would know that her program won't work".  Instead, the Democrats plan to create the Department of Public Seeing under Municipal Public Works.

"Our plan will have city employees guide distracted teenagers around in teams of two.  One to carry the iPad, and the other to help the worker who is distracted by the iPad" stated the Governor.

Some reports have the number of teenagers distracted by mobile devices now outnumbering the seeing-eye teenagers 10-1.