Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Brilliance of Ethical Oil

Yes, I said it, the whole concept is brilliant.

This is a fantastic way to change the debate to an issue that doesn't really matter. Has anyone seriously thought that we would not be able to sell our oil?

Come on.  This is much ado about nothing. Actually, I'm sure the outrage has more to do with the fact the claim is based on the carbon footprint reasoning than anything else.
Oilsands PR Battle goes after Chaquita Bananas
Chiquita spokesman Ed Loyd characterized the campaign to boycott his company's products as "misinformation." He told the Star on Monday that his company is by no means boycotting Canadian oil, but merely asking transportation carriers to use fuel from sources that have a lower carbon footprint than the oil sands. "That does not exclude Canadian fuel. There is a significant amount of Canadian fuel that does not have any oilsands in it," he said.
As for me, I'm buying all the Chaquita I can get my hands on.

On a more serious note this feels like a Rovian Reversal... taking a possible negative and marketing it in a new way as a positive. Gobble it up sheeples!

Personal Economic Deintegration

I've noticed over the years that it becomes harder and harder to avoid deep personal integration within the consumer society.

You may be wondering why this is worthy of noting?

Well, after reading "Death of the Liberal Class" it occurs to me that it is difficult to be a dissident when you are beholden to those with economic power. Ostracism and criticism are coercive forces that a good many people have the power to ignore.

This, along with a more naive viewpoint, may be a good explanation for why the young are often getting involved in various causes. They have little at risk. They can speak out if they wish.

As you get older you have more avenues of attack for those that do not like your opinion. If you have a family the death threats that are uttered against you become far more sinister but at least these can be countered via legal means. With a family to feed and a mortgage to pay financial threats either directly via employers, or indirectly via employers who are beholden to those whose economic interests you oppose, are nearly irresistible.

The risks become too great. You can't function in society if your family cannot be fed and given shelter. You must have the means to provide and given the structure of society this requires having a bank account and access to money.

What would happen if we offered people the ability to partially extract themselves from the economic forces that exist today?  Would dissidents then have the power to voice opposition to society factors without having to fear negative impacts on their family? Would these voices allow an expansion of the conversation by allowing people in the center to visible appear as centrists?


As a thought exercise lets attempt to extract people from economic pressures to some degree. We need to find a way for people to provide for themselves and their families. They must be able to provide food and shelter as well as access to education and other facets of society.  The questions is how do we provide value to society while at the same time disentangling from it?

We'd need land to achieve this. Perhaps enough land to grow food for consumption and possibly for sale. We'd need shelter with all the modern conveniences including television and internet access. We'd need to be close enough to public facilities such as schools and law enforcement. We'd need participants to provide labor for the creation of goods and services for a non-personal integration with the economic realities of society.

With wind, solar and wood or grain stoves it should be possible to be relatively self-sufficient with respect to heating and electricity needs. If beyond municipal boundaries standalone water and septic systems are nothing new. Arable land, with a little capital, can easily be managed in relatively large swaths for the production of food for consumption or sale. Similarly, low level aquaculture may be suitable as well. A little participant labor can easily be used to maintain or build necessary structures.

At risk of scaring both left and right leaning readers I'd suggest that a non-profit corporate structure based on a sustainable self-sufficient operation would be appropriate. This would allow new participants to arrive and replace leaving participants. It would allow excess profits to be distributed in an equitable manner so that participants would have the ability to be economically active beyond direct creation of food and shelter.

Additionally, providing a shared infrastructure would allowed pooled effort and resources. Having multiple families living and working in such a non-consumerist and non-beholden environment would probably make it relatively easy to be self-sufficient, with modern technology and tools, leaving participants enough time to pursue external economic or non-economic interests depending on their desires.

Also, I do realize that sometimes it is possible to find telecommuting work that allows one to earn an income in a non-traditional manner. However, it is certainly not easy to start a family and pursue a career based on this type of situation. There may be little or no job certainty, fluctuating income levels, and a lack of redundancy in case of a temporary incapacity to work. In fact, if it was easy to retreat from society in this way a lot more people would be doing so.

Again, the purpose of all this is to give law abiding dissidents a place to exist where they do not need to worry about undue economic pressures being brought to bear on them for speaking out. Of course, this does presume that the non-profit corporate structure is set up to resist this type of activity. Perhaps an independent foundation would be set up to oversee and arbitrate disputes when the inevitable muckraking infiltrators arrive.


Review: Death of the Liberal Class

This book, authored by Chris Hedges, starts off with a rousing and damning indictment of liberalism in society.  Apparently there was a role for liberalism to play and it has been left undone.

We are told of the policies and practices that eradicated leftist views and the effects of those activities. An environment of perpetual war combined with a corporate assault on government and educational institutions has gutted our collective voice. The discussion of historic tactics employed and how the liberal class rolled over is fascinating and shines a light on the state of affairs today. In particular, the state of journalism and its manipulation are sore points.

It's refreshing to hear such a different point of view and a condemnation of so many sacrosanct parties.

Other parts of the book attempt to discuss what was lost or what types of things are missing from society. In once sense it is the authors handbook for those wishing to find ways to inject views outside of the mainstream back into society.

Frankly, the discussion of far left influences, such as communism, are likely to turn off many readers. The appetite to hear that ideas can come from somewhere so far to the left and still be valuable (even while not promoting communism itself) has all but been expunged today.

Additionally, the lamentation of the state of religion is going to frustrate some. Obviously the author feels that religion was a large part of liberalism throughout the course of history. However, those who are not deeply religious may find this discussion drives them away. It is perfectly possible to be left, or right, without requiring motivations centered around religion. Those who are deeply religious are likely to have their own interpretations  and disagree with the author.

My recommendation, buy the book for the discussion of tactics and real world examples. The playbook of authority, the revelation of how dissent has systematically been driven out, these things are worth the price of admission. Liberals looking for ways to regenerate liberalism in some way may find value in later parts of the book also -- though I suspect most would need to modernize these ideas as there is a lot of historic review that will predate many readers.

Readers on the right might find that authority and abuse of power have in fact gone too far. They may also find that the author does not differentiate very much between democrat and conservative -- instead noting that government and authority of either stripe are basically suffering the same corruption.  If the left and the right would call for the same removal of corruption and influence, the same limitation of the actions of power, things would be much improved though they would continue to disagree about everything else.

In summary, perhaps the value of this book can be expressed in terms of the readers ability to perceive the tactics used to squelch dissent. Whatever your political persuasion it is your duty to understand how power is being abused and to resist it even if it is being abused in your favor, for now. Democracy and freedom of speech suggest that varied viewpoints are valuable but authority routinely works against these ideals.

Buy it. Some parts are a hard slog of a read and some parts will offend the sensibilities of many readers depending on their own sacred cows. However, there is much meat available for thought whether or not you agree with the authors views.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Wheat Board Monopoly Repeal

Peter H Russel raises an important question in his recent article on the Globe and Mail. However, I don't think the issue was explored deeply enough.

The claim of "Parliamentary Sovereignty" has deeper implications.

It implies that anything short of the constitution, or even the constitution itself, can simply be modified by elected government as deemed fit. Of course, attempting to change the constitution without following the expected process would cause fits -- but what is the constitution other than a special law with very strict requirements on form and procedure?

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming anything about our current government! However, who knows what type of party may be in power 20 years from now. Give them carte blanche and who knows what kind of damage could be done by removing one of the few available checks on government activity.

Whether you lean right or left, whether you like the current government or not, keep in mind that we all need to limit the powers of government and ensure that we don't inadvertently erode whatever minor limitations in power might currently exist.

Harassing the Innocent

The National Post thinks we should find ways to track people using social media to post about public police activities.
Don’t Help Drunk Drivers Get Away With It
But for those who insist on deliberately interfering with police officers as they work to keep our roads safe for all citizens, we encourage governments to devise appropriate legal sanctions, which could include heavy fines and potentially court-ordered Internet-usage restrictions, for anyone who can be proven to have acted in such a manner.
We seriously need to change the mindset of people asking for new laws.

We need to find ways to inconvenience and penalize the criminals.  Instead, below limit penalties and random sweeps are ways to make the innocent bear the burden of law enforcement.  It's a policy that is backwards.

Stop annoying the law abiding... if you treat us like criminals perhaps we'll develop the same attitudes they have towards the law.  If this happens the "public good" suggested as the reason to allow random sweeps is likely to be outweighed by the "public bad" of an increasingly disrespectful populace.

Defending Parliament Hill

While I lean liberal I certainly won't bemoan the government spending a few million to help protect the parliament buildings from being blown up.

Millions Planned for Parliament Hill Barriers
The Conservative government is planning to spend almost $8.6 million on barricades to further limit vehicle access to Parliament Hill.

The proposal makes no direct mention as to why the barriers are needed, but it appears to be for security reasons.

"All bollard systems must be supplied and installed to meet significant physical impact loads," the proposal states.

The project is a component of Public Works and the Parliamentary Partners’ Long Term Vision and Plan for the Parliamentary Precinct, a strategy to rehabilitate the heritage buildings that make up Parliament Hill and to build more structures.

Within the plan, security is also a main theme.

"Security of parliamentarians and the buildings and grounds on Parliament Hill is a core element of the LTVP," the proposal says.

The documents show Public Works is currently seeking bids to design "barriers (ie) bollards, at all Parliament Hill vehicle and pedestrian entry points, while respecting the heritage characteristics of the Hill and maintaining a public atmosphere."

The barriers are to be in the form of bollards, or short vertical posts, some of which will be fixed and some retractable.

They must be designed to suit the heritage characteristics of the Parliament buildings and avoid impeding the welcoming mood of the national historic site, the proposal states.
Sounds like a good plan to me!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ouch, That Hurts

I'm mincing my way into the opening chapters of Death of the Liberal Class.

Wow.  If you call yourself a liberal you have to pick up this book at the store and read the first chapter. Everything you stand for has systematically been dismantled and corrupted by corporatism.


Seriously though, pick up the book, it's a sobering wake up call.

I suppose, if you aren't a liberal, you can pick up the book and recognize the tactics that have lead to recent successes.

Economics: Food for Thought

I've had a fairly hefty exposure to economics.

Though I am a liberal I'll throw out the following statements:

  • I agree with the theory of competitive advantage and the benefits of trade.
  • Free markets are the most efficient means to allocate resources towards competing demands.
However, I'll also point out some problems in our current systems:
  • Economics does not do a good job dealing with the impact of rapid changes on society.
  • Free markets are not an appropriate way to deal with issues concerning non-financial public good.
  • Economics personalities at prestigious institutions are often paid to write articles that support a lobbying position held by major industries without disclosure.
None of the items above should be a surprise to liberals or conservatives that have been paying attention. So, with that out of the way I'll toss out an economic concept that we can chew on based on the assumption that free markets and economic theory leave room for significant negative events.

We should consider protecting ourselves from shocks to the international economic system.

Yes, of course, I mean Canada, but this would even be more helpful if other protections were in place elsewhere.  For example, during the recent crisis China decided to invest heavily while the world experienced lower resource costs.  While this was not a "protection" per se it certainly had a protective effective in terms of helping to maintain demand and jobs in the Asia-Pacific region.

While I'll assume, perhaps incorrectly, that many people would agree with this concept, I do think there are some important questions to consider:
  • What types of events should we protect against?
  • How much protection can we afford and what will it cost us?
In essence this is really a case of risk analysis and trying to find some insurance to protect against that risk if things go awry. 

Is it possible that a US financial crisis impact our economic status?

The answer is certainly yes, as recent events make clear, but given the scope of our relationship with the US I'm not sure how to protect against this. Perhaps we can make sure we continue to regulate the banking system in a responsible manner so that egregious risk taking doesn't take place? This means we will limit absolute growth potential in good times but avoid some elements of a crisis -- as happened just recently.

Is it possible that a US terrorist event closes our border and halts trade for some period?

I'd like to say no but we live in a world where we can't be sure that the future might bring. What might we try to mitigate in such an event? Trade revenue, jobs, displaced citizens and vital imports would all be thrown into disarray. Should anything be stockpiled? Are there other countries that would be willing to take up additional trade with us under extraordinary circumstances since they would face similar issues?  Difficult to imagine.

Is it possible that a Middle East crisis of some sort drives oil prices up drastically?

This seems plausible. Would very high oil prices limit who could afford to buy our oil? In particular, would we be able to afford to buy our own oil or refined products? Something we could do, if we haven't already, is negotiate an emergency refined products supply level in return for guaranteed access to Canadian oil resources during a crisis. Would a small stockpile be prudent?

Is is possible that open hostilities or trade wars could cut off supplies of vital materials such as rare earths?

Given the rarity of some vital materials it is hard to imagine that this idea will never occur to anyone. Does it make sense for dependent countries to fund research into alternate materials and technologies? I know this goes against free markets in a sense but at the same time this is a situation where there is no market mechanism in place. Again, stockpiles or alternative supply agreements may be appropriate for this risk scenario.

Is it possible to mitigate the impacts of an unspecified crisis on the general public?

Perhaps. It may be possible to encourage the public to be more resilient. Instead of generalized platitudes specific goals could be given for certain types of activities or preparedness. For example, owning winter sleeping bags would help people deal with lack of energy for heating during winter months. Alternately, growing and storing small quantities of food could help reduce the crisis caused by interruptions in food supplies. In theory, it would be possible to promote such self-sufficiency by offering small annual tax incentives for certain types of emergency preparedness items.

Another question that comes to mind is why worry about any of these things?

Well, as should be abundantly clear, a strong and functioning economy is a matter of national security. This implies some level of expense can be justified in the protection of the economy from unexpected events. This also implies that some level of expense might be used to maximize the ability of the public to contribute to the economy effectively. This even implies that education and the resulting increased economic participation could be a good investment in the long run.

In summary, there are gaps in the ability of the free market and armchair economics to handle risks and public good. There may be occasions for which the government can take steps to protect the nation from rapid economic changes. There may also be occasions for which government involvement in the economy is required in order to protect the economy and hence national security.


Fearful Symmetry: One Sided?

I'm digging into Brian Crowley's book Fearful Symmetry.

I can't help but notice the lack of space used to discuss potential alternatives to the conclusions being made in the opening chapter.

Did anybody else notice that other governments around the world were racking up massive debts too?

Does anybody really believe that government policy caused lowered birth rates and decline of marriage?

Has it occurred to anyone that many companies in Canada are managed by Canadians but not owned by Canadians. Perhaps this one reason why our competitiveness has declined?

Will the author give any weight to the fact that Canada faced historic issues that caused it to take measures to solidify it's stability as a single country?

Obviously, I will continue to read further. Perhaps these issues get consideration later in the book. I do know that finding correlations and treating them as causative issues is a massive error in thinking. I hope the later parts of the book improve in this regard.

I will also note, again, that this book seems to be promoting the values of the Bush government and current right-wing US political viewpoints in a manner directed at bringing Canada into line. I don't have any proof but I seem to be in good company when it comes to reckless conclusions and specious logic.

For example, on page 40 we hear about a professor proclaiming that the government was at fault for much of the financial crisis -- as if the free market would have avoided it if the government hadn't been involved.  Never mind that economists in the US, particularly those in prominent educational roles, are often paid to generate articles by the financial industry as another arm of lobbying effort to mitigate potential government actions that might have an impact on their profits.

And, no, profits are not bad and neither are market forces. However, when power can corrupt government oversight and interfere with appropriate public policy with respect to those market forces then there is a problem that should be addressed.

Crowley is way too far into the profit makes right camp.

However, I won't argue against his basic premise so far that we are going to face shortages of workers in the sense that many people are going to be leaving the workforce due to age and retirement effects.  Let's see where he goes with that vein of ideas once we get past the money knows best rhetoric.

In short, it's a mistake to think that liberal ideas are against capitalism or that any mainstream liberal thinkers believe they have an alternative to the basic ideals of capitalism.  Use of such a straw man argument does not bode well for the quality of this book.

Slightly Suspicious Behaviour

I have just bought a few more books on Canadian politics.

No, that isn't the suspicious part.  The suspicious part is the quantity of books on the shelf that have the primary purposes of telling me why our government's policies are so good!

Seriously, people write books to complain about things -- it's not surprising to see criticism.  Criticism, or at least analysis, is something one would expect. However, blatant cheerleading is something I am not used to seeing.  Perhaps it has been too long since I bought a political title at the bookstore.

What I don't like, though I haven't read them yet, is that these books seem to be saying that unfettered greed and capitalism, you know, free markets, provide all the answers. Never mind the issues of corruption and access to power that these forces cause -- we also have to take into consideration the public good.

The public good is always in a state of conflict with private profit. We should be arguing about the level of environmental protection required, for example, not whether or not we need to protect the environment.  Having clean air and water, and leaving the same for our children, is a public good.

When capitalism is at odds with the public good governments step in to balance the forces involved. This balance, though perhaps out of whack in the past, is certainly under attack.

There is only one force that benefits by this attack. It is the force of profit.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love capitalism and have been involved in several start-up companies performing the magic of creating something out of nothing. It's hard work. It's exhausting. It's rewarding. It's awesome.

No, I'm suspicious that money is being paid to promote a viewpoint that leads us to believe things that are against the public good -- but for the good of the profiteers at our expense.

In any case, unlike many of my online friends, I'm not limiting myself to my own viewpoint. Whether left or right there are kernels of truth and value in most viewpoints. Our job is to extract those kernels and find ways to absorb the best of each breed. We can do better than either alone if we can get past the petulant bickering and modern day attack politics.

What did I buy?
  • Fearful Symmetry: The fall and rise of Canada's founding values.
  • The Trouble with Canada... still!
Both of these books are blaming liberal ideas for all that is wrong in the world.

My challenge to my fellow online pundits -- put your brains to work and understand the views of people that disagree with you. Don't fall for the childish regurgitation of trite sayings as if that actually adds value to the debate.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What is a Think Tank?

Well, judging from these folks, a think tank is a group of people with an agenda who are trying to find ways to present their agenda such that it will sneak past the general public and achieve greater acceptance.
Honestly, I'd join or create a think tank aligned with my own views, however, unlike some, I'd prefer full disclosure in terms of agenda and funding sources.  The ends do not justify the means -- and in general if half the population disagrees with me I should not be attempting to convince everyone that my views are more important.

Ignorance is Bliss

There is something troubling about politics.  Well, there are many things troubling about politics but the issue of voter ignorance is a significant issue.

While everyone seems to agree on the concept of  "one person one vote" we haven't looked at that in the context of our changing world.  Should ignorant citizens subject to misinformation and an inability to understand the issues involved really be deciding our future?  As much as I don't like the idea of denying anyone a voice I also don't like the idea of the ignorant masses setting our course for the future.

How do we improve the perception of voters?  We certainly can't rely on the media, in particular the news, as these organizations now pander to the lowest common denominator in a competition for viewers and profits.  They don't care about the veracity of their content anymore.  They use misleading titles, inflammatory statements, and generally allow potential leaders and pundits to say anything they like -- as long as the claptrap of both sides is represented they label it journalism.

So, when we combine incompetent journalism with an incompetent public we get citizens willing to be led around by their emotions.  We have the public casting votes for issues they don't understand or simply don't care to think through.  Does this lead to good governance?

What if there were basic qualifications required in order to vote at the provincial or federal level?  Hold on, this does not mean we'd have to choose discriminatory qualifications.  We'd want to avoid historic concepts such as land ownership or other monetary factors.  Can we find some publicly available resource that all citizens can avail themselves of that would provide voting qualifications?

Yes, we can.  I doubt we'll do it but I don't think it would be problematic if we trusted the supreme court to make sure that non-discriminatory means were used.

For the purpose of discussion consider the following scenario:

  • Upon showing up to vote you are given a pencil and an additional piece of paper.
  • The additional item contains a common set of questions with randomized multiple choice answers in each of the official languages.
  • People who can't correctly answer enough questions have their vote weight adjusted.
  • When counting votes the plain tally and the adjusted tally are calculated.
  • If the two tallies are not in agreement, for a particular polling station, then a manual review is performed to ensure that the adjusted tally is valid (as it will be used).
Importantly, consider that nobody is treated differently on the way through the voting booth.  As votes are confidential nobody will know how any particular person scored on their multiple choice questions.  People who can read and reason in one of our official languages will be rewarded with a slightly higher probability of impacting the course of the future.  

Also, keep in mind that public education is available and required for all children as they are growing up. Perhaps there would be some discrimination against immigrants who can't speak any of our official languages but this is a minor factor and probably not something that cannot be justified.

Obviously, a politically independent panel would have to come up with the questions used. The questions would focus on issues related to the responsibilities of the level of government for which the election was to be held.  The vote adjustment could be a simple binary rating of valid or invalid or, alternately, votes could be scaled based on a straight percentage of questions answered correctly.

Finally, there is no reason that we can only apply this policy to voters.  Perhaps all politicians running for office should be required to take a lengthy written questionnaire with topics related to governance, ethics, world affairs, history and industry.  Just as we don't need idiots electing people who will chart the course of our future it would be nice to disqualify idiots from running for office.

Of course, I can hear the cries of elitism now.  Yes, requiring that people actually be able to read and write to participate in shaping our common future is elitist, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Nature of Democratic Capitalism

Given the events of recent years the questions concerning democratic capitalism are not whether or not it can be horribly abused but instead what can be done to fix its fatal flaws.

How do we protect the public interest when profit and greed are not aligned with the good of the public?

How do we counteract the corruption that develops when those with resources are given undue access to the creation of public policy?

How do we protect ourselves from undue dependence on external entities while retaining the benefits of internationally integrated economies?

How do we balance the ever growing need for stewardship of public interests with the limited fiscal resources currently available?

These are the issues that are at the heart of much of today's political posturing in Canada and elsewhere.  To this I would add one more question.

How do we ensure that people are able to see past the political posturing and resonant talking points and give careful consideration to the underlying factors -- where the important issues are hidden from casual view?

Bonus reading... learn how to see past the political claptrap.

It's Time

Canada has wallowed around for too long without an identity.

We aren't the little brother of any other country.

We aren't insignificant on the world stage.

We don't have to be paranoid about foreign interests.

We don't have to suck up and hide our own.