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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

7:40AM - a little media training for the Tories ...

Harper stays silent on allegations against Guergis (from CTV News)

Helena Guergis now denies the report about a drug purchase and subsequent blackmail threats. Well fine. Could be she's innocent and this is just a "rumor gone amok". But trying to cover up the story hasn't added to her credibility.

The best approach would have been a Letterman strategy of owning the story and the spin. Obviously this was a big story and it was very likely that somebody was going to give a tip to the news media. Now instead of explaining her side, she's responding to what investigative journalists have found out. She should have said what the story was about and then said she would step out of cabinet and caucus for the duration of the investigation. If she were completely innocent she might say "I will be exonerated and I will return to caucus, and I will be pursuing libel actions against those who have damaged my reputation with their false claims." If it were more ambiguous she might say "I expect to be exonerated and I will cooperate fully with the investigation." If she knows she's guilty of something criminal, she should resign from her parliamentary seat and try to work out a plea bargain. Any of these would still involve her owning the story and being the focus, instead of dragging this through all the corridors of Parliament.

The whole Charlottetown incident was also handled poorly. A written remote apology means nothing. She could have called the airport security staff, arranged for a meeting in front of cameras where she could say she was dealing with stress and took it out on innocent public servants. She should have said it in person, eye-to-eye and in front of cameras, taken comments from the security staff, even letting them vent, and taken all the responsibility on herself.

And the whole Rahim Jaffer situation is ridiculous. When questions arose about his use of a government phone, he should have just handed over the phone to the Ethics commissioner for them to read all of his email, and bought his own phone. The only justification I can think of for having a spouse have a government-paid phone is to make the member of parliament's life easier; anyone should expect that whoever is paying for a smartphone or other communication device should be looking at communications on that device. And if you think your name is ever going to be in the news, well, I would think you would not be in a sentence including the phrase "strip club".

The overall conclusion one draws from this is that the Harper government puts ideology and loyalty ahead of integrity or competence. That's also the fundamental flaw of the modern Republican party, which is why they are facing a long spell out of power. People tend to show the same level of respect they are shown, and is clear that Harper doesn't respect anyone who disagrees with him. In a minority situation, that inevitably includes the public, the media, and members of opposition parties, and on camera that disrespect comes across as arrogance and an unwillingness to consider feedback or deal with real issues. I mean Chretien was arrogant and Martin got a little snippy once in a while, but Harper is perhaps more arrogant than Trudeau (and with less to back it up, in personal qualities or in public support).

So the Guergis story will drag on and will continue to damage the Conservatives. It really does seem like Harper thinks he's beyond question and that anyone who doesn't agree with him doesn't matter. So I think his current polling level is the best he's likely to see for a while.


Monday, March 1, 2010

8:25AM - Empires bounce.

Niall Ferguson argued today in the LA Times that the American "empire" could suddenly collapse. This bugged me for a number of reasons, which took a couple hours to gel.

The Roman republic fell in 49 BC when Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Now, it was replaced by a different form of government that might be considered somewhat successful, but the Republic collapsed and was replaced by an "imperial" ("no ears all mouth") system of government. Yet the ideals and principles of the Republic influenced the Empire that followed and many of the governments that inherited or were influenced by the history of the Republic.

Western scholars teach that the Roman empire fell at some point in the fifth century AD. Eastern European and Middle Eastern scholars find this to be nonsense. The Empire moved its capital in the third century but it continued to function for most of the next thousand years. No one considers moving America's capital from Philadelphia to Washington, Brazil's from Rio to Brasilia, or other similar moves to be major changes, and the Imperium's wasn't either.

The transitions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were hard, but the Ottoman Empire that rose in the region was the successor to the Sultanate of Rum (Rome). This can be considered a revolution that included a change of religion. Other civilizations have undergone revolutions and religious change without being considered a "fall". Life, government, and taxation go on with pretty much the same people and the same system of government.

Other governments were spun off from the Imperium, including the kingdoms of England, France, the "Holy Roman Empire" of Germany, the empire of Russia (whose ruler was a "Tsar" or "Czar", another word for "Caesar"). Arguably modern Italy's history is also strongly influenced by its Roman history. Even the United States defined itself as a "republic" in the tradition of Rome. The principles, laws, and words of ancient Rome live on in our capitols and cultures today.

The historian talks of the fall of Britain's empire. But let us recall that the kingdom of England fell to invaders in 1066. It bounced back with a new ruling class and linguistic change, but it was still England. The English throne fell again in 1645, and again in 1689, and its empire collapsed yet again in 1783, and yet it rose again to "rule the waves" through the latter half of the 19th century. In its transition to greater democracy, Britain shed itself of some expensive distant holdings in the 20th century, but it hardly "fell" at this time; if anything, reducing the cost of empire has made Britain a stronger and better society today than it was in the middle of the previous century.

As for France, well, we'll remember that Caesar also conquered "Gaul" back in the day. Modern France is on, what, its fifth republic? Not to mention a couple of post-royal empires along the way. These transitions affected the lives of some of the ruling classes, but even there, people found ways to survive and find new roles in the new regimes that replaced the old.

Russia's empire fell in 1917, but the new Soviet Union was stronger than the old empire. The Soviet Union "fell" in around 1991, but modern-day Russia is still a strong power that holds the most territory of any nation on Earth. China's empires fell as dynasty replaced dynasty. Sun Yat-Sen brought down the last Chinese emperor, and Mao Zedong brought down the crumbling Chinese republic. Deng Xiaoping changed China in ways more dramatic than Mao, and China became much stronger than it had been before. There are countless other examples.

We could also note that the United States collapsed in 1861 in a way more extreme than the "falls" cited by most historians, and the regime that painfully emerged from the ashes of the Civil War was far different, in which "United States" became a singular noun rather than plural and the member states could no longer dictate the terms of their relationships with the national government. American went on a small binge of imperialism with the Spanish-American war, but most of these territories were quietly turned back to local rule in stages in the latter half of the 20th century. The return of Subic Bay or the Panama Canal hardly constituted the "fall" of the United States.

The US may be looking at sharp economic corrections in the near future. But it survived the dot-com crash and is working through the housing bubble collapse, and both of these, dramatic as they were, were just blips compared to the Great Depression. The US today doesn't hold a lot of territory against the will of local populations, and it wouldn't be economically worse off when it brings some of its troops home that are now serving abroad.

Empires aren't that great and aren't that important in the context of civilization as a whole. "America" will surely continue, as Britain, France, and Russia have. Alexander's ancient realm is still remembered in modern Macedonia, and the words of Hammurabi still influence modern Iraq (more so than most recent leaders).

I put some US equity funds in my RRSP this week. That may have been wise, or not. But economies after an economic collapse are like villages after a fire: the survivors will rebuild, and they will build something similar to what they had before. It's the people and their memories and traditions that matter, and we'll still be around.

Most societies aren't strongly defined by their imperial holdings, and some transitions that historians describe as "falls" don't cause great long-term changes in the cultures where they happen. Nations may move up and down in ranking tables over the years, but most of today's "empires" will still exist a century from now, and history suggests that many strong nations today will continue in somewhat recognizable forms a thousand years from now.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

12:42PM - the nation purple

Seems like a good time to restart this blog. I will try to post weekly. Hope you like the icon.

People talk about the historic change that occurred this week, but it's interesting to note what has and has not changed.

Some hard data:
States where both candidates received at least a 45% vote: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio

These are today's "battleground" states. Many of them will be places of campaign interest in 2012, and a few of them will become safe states for one side or the other between now and then.

States where both candidates received at least a 40% vote: Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin

Most of these states will vote the same way they did in 2008, though a number of them will become much closer, and overall none of them can be reliably predicted as to what they could be like a decade from now.

States where both candidates received at least a 35% vote: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, Wyoming

A strong political majority culture exists in these states that has lasted and will last for years. However, even in these states, large political minorities exist that have different views from the majority.

In New York state, Obama won by a margin greater than 25%. Even there, on the map of congressional districts, a red spot appears in Western New York surrounded by a sea of blue. It happens I have family in that district, and even within my own family there are differences of political opinion.

The point being that most Americans live in a politically diverse society where people need tolerance and compromise to solve the issues of the day. This shouldn't be a huge surprise. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush Sr., and Clinton were all by modern standards relatively moderate. Reagan was more conservative, but even he acknolwedged the need to communicate with and try to include a broad political spectrum (hence the term "Reagan Democrats"). It was George Bush Sr. who, although somewhat moderate by nature, turned sharply to the right for purely political reasons, to take advantage of the organizational strengths of conservative religious organizations who were in turn happy to corrupt themselves and blur the line between church and state. It is only in recent years, during the regime of George Bush Jr., that the national dialectic split into separate solitudes. Before the current president, everyone knew that what was then known as the "party faithful" could be relied on for votes, volunteers, and money, but surely not for policy. But in this century, parties, especially the Republicans, started to campaign at and for what they called the "base". Bush Jr. tried to govern for only half the country. It hasn't worked.

Oddly, the media abetted this. The notion of "red states" and "blue states" was a cynical suggestion that dialog was no longer possible between parties, that political cultures were set in stone, forever and ever, amen. The media even extended this paradigm within the parties. You'll remember in the spring during the Democratic primaries, pundits would talk about how various states, cities, and counties would vote one way or the other purely on the basis of local demographics and economic conditions, as though somehow voters had no individual judgement.

This changed during the campaign. The "red state/blue state" idea clearly broke down in Virginia, which has been going through a period of significant change. The Washington Post noted many months ago that four counties in the Washington suburbs could no longer be considered part of the cultural "South", the successor to the Confederacy, and trying to apply Southern themes and values in that area just would not get traction among voters there. This could be clearly seen in state elections in 2007; most Republicans in the area tried to campaign on anti-immigrant platforms, and all the ones in the corner of Fairfax County where I voted went down to defeat. When a million Hispanics showed up on the Mall to demand action on normalizing status for undocumented workers, and almost all of those came from areas served by Washington's regional transit systems, it was obvious that running on an anti-Hispanic-immigrant platform was going to have problems. And in 2008, it was clear to anyone living there that Virgnia was going to shift strongly towards any Democratic candidate.

The presidential candidates, both of them, figured this out. We saw Obama running ads and making appearances not just in the expected "battleground" states but also in supposedly "red" states like Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, even Arizona, McCain's home state. He won two of those states too. And when I saw McCain campaigning hard in Pennsylvania, it became clear that someone in his campaign had figured out the numbers too. One thing about politics is that the winner is often the last one standing, i.e. that sometimes random events come along that change conditions far beyond the control of any political campaign. The economic crisis was an "October surprise" that shifted things in Obama's favor. If some random factor had shifted things the other way in the final days, Pennsylvania was the state McCain would have had to take. His campaign there did have an effect; as more and more states shifted more and more towards Obama, Pennsylvania shifted from "Solid Obama" to "Leaning Obama" in's polls. A new random shift didn't emerge, so Obama won by seven million votes out of 124 million cast.

Commentators have noted that people no longer have to see the world as it really is. They can view the world through self-chosen media filters that reinforce their opinions and perceptions instead of actually informing people about what is new in the world (which should be the definition of "news"). There is some good news, though. A new study shows that the "net generation" (those born between 1977 and 1997, post-gen-X, who were raised in a time where the Internet became ubiquitous in our culture) get information about the world from a more diverse range of sources than their predecessors do.

The thing about trying to rely on any specific coalition or demographic is that things do change. There is always some new minority or political movement emerging that will take its 5% of the political spectrum over the next four years. Bush tried to rely on the religious right, but McCain was hammered by Hispanics, a group he previously was on good terms with. The evangelical groups also fragmented, as some realized that the devil-take-the-hindmost economic policies of the Republicans was in conflict with most of the Gospel. 32% of young evangelicals voted for Obama which represents a significant trend for future elections.

That's why the red state/blue state dichotomy doesn't work. Smart politicians will look for voters everywhere. The media needs to realize this too. It may be the case that more than two-thirds of individual voters are going to vote the way they always have, but even so, the set of individual voters is going to change over time. Some of the elderly die, adolescents become eligible to vote, people move, immigrants arrive, and so on. And some large fraction of voters think about the qualities of specific leaders, or even specific issues, before they vote. A 6% shift from red to blue might not seem really huge, but when you consider that most voters had made up their minds which party to support long before January, this really was a dramatic political change. Which could happen again. Politicians who take voters for granted, as the Bush Republicans did this time, are going to come up short at election time. The electoral college notwithstanding, 51% is not the same as 100%; it could easily shift 5% or more in four years. Nearly every state, county, and town has diversity of opinions. Notions like class war and culture war assume that the other side can only be defeated, not reasoned with. Partisans need to understand that most of their supporters aren't partisan; people just vote for their own individual issues on the basis of their own understanding.

We're not in a position to judge President Obama in a historical context. But we can note that presidents who succeed and who are judged well by historians are those who have tried to govern for the entire country, not just for those who agree with them. Bush Jr. failed badly when he neglected this. I hope Obama will be more like most of their predecessors in this respect.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

8:01PM - Kerry, Obama, Chavez?

Bill Richardson announced that he is dropping his presidential bid. Richardson had by far the strongest resumé. Hopefully he will play a significant role in the cabinet in 2009. He'd be a good Secretary of State or Energy.

Meanwhile, John Kerry endorsed Obama today. Kerry is perhaps best known for winning more votes than any previous presidential candidate in history. What's interesting is the reaction of Obama's supporters. Bloggers are saying that Obama is about change, Kerry is the past, wtf? Many of them are saying this endorsement will have a negative effect on Obama's campaign.

Reminds me of a Latin American leader who came to office promising change and not caring about the ways of previous regimes. Hugo Chavez got away with this by holding referendums to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution to give him the power he wanted. Seems unlikely that Obama would be able to do anything like that in the United States. The reality is that the American constitution has designed a system that is intended not to be very effective and to leave many obstacles in the way of radical and unilateral change. As a result, successful presidents have had to be agents of compromise, not change. Bill Clinton presided over an era of prosperity and peace by finding ways to work with or around the horribly toxic Republicans in Congress in the 1990s, even as said Republicans were trying to impeach him for having a girlfriend.

New Hampshire notwithstanding, Obama is on a very short list of people who have a chance of being elected president in November. "Change" is not the most original slogan for political challengers. If Obama wants his movement to grow, he has to find a way to work with people who have actively participated or even devoted their lives to politics over the past few decades. The somewhat hostile response from Obama's supporters to Kerry's endorsement is likely to discourage other noteworthy Democrats from siding with Obama in the primaries.

Typically, Kerry got the timing wrong. A week earlier, the surprise impact could have made a big splash in the New Hampshire primary. A couple of weeks from now, it could have had a major impact on Super Tuesday voters. Making the endorsement now gives the Clinton camp time to strategize a response and makes this an old story by the time February rolls around.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

8:10AM - New Hampshire chooses well

It seems to me that Obama's first-place finish invited greater scrutiny to the temporary front-runner. His "President of Canada" comment that didn't get noticed back in August is making the rounds again, showing a startling lack of awareness of basic foreign policy that may have influenced a few primary voters. It could also be that Democrats looked at electability and figured the Republicans might get some mileage from Obama's acknowledged use of cocaine (in the distant past). Personally, I think Obama lacks meaningful experience; his ancestry gives him some credibility in Muslim circles, but spending time in Indonesia isn't going to give much insight into Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran. There are national leaders around the world, even among our allies, who play hardball and who do not show their cards. A trusting, Jeffersonian outlook is just not going to be helpful in dealing with someone like Vladimir Putin. The US needs a president who isn't always a nice guy. Hillary Clinton is a scrapper; you know she can play a tough game when that's what's needed.

I don't want to say nice things about McCain. He's clearly the only Republican candidate who has a chance of gathering some moderate votes. He's in favor of the war in Iraq, but one gets the impression he sees war as fighting specific enemies and that he cares about winning, where for Bush, Cheney, and some of the other Republicans it's more of an abstraction and it's more about making points in American politics than worrying about what's happening on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of course, McCain is still a politician. He takes a lot of money from lobbyists and corporations, he panders to the religious right, he's well connected to special interests with agendas not friendly to ordinary people, etc. He'd be a bad president; I just don't think he'd win an award for Worst President Evah, which is more than one can say about the rest of the Republican field. Of course, from a Democratic perspective, the bad news about a McCain candidacy is that it would make the fall campaign more of a contest and less of a waltz. Democrats would actually have to talk about things like policy or McCain's age or whatever.

Giuliani is just a fascist, which is to say he lies, thrives on crisis, and invents enemies and threats to justify his assaults on liberty and democracy. Too much in common with Dick Cheney, IMO.

I have nothing against Romney being a Mormon; I think Harry Reid, another Mormon, is doing a great job leading the majority in the Senate. I saw Romney speak about his religious background, and he completely dropped the ball. Sound bites he might have used: "Well, we may not serve coffee in the east wing of the White House, but I won't be introducing legislation to ban Starbucks;" "Many cultures, including early Christians, Muslims, and American pioneers, went through phases where polygamy was tolerated or encouraged to increase population in frontier areas, but that's not part of my belief system or of the mainstream Mormon faith today;" "As governor of Massachusetts, I managed to work productively with a left-leaning legislature, and as President I'll be able to work with both houses of Congress to effect positive change for our country;" "We are a nation of many cultures, views, and origins, and our democracy is all about finding ways to work together for the common good. Insofar as my arguments about the policies of the future are persuasive to the American people, it won't be because of my views, but rather, because of yours." Simple stuff. Notice how Romney managed not to say anything this clear? Because he can't; he really isn't interested or qualified to deal with the mainstream. Romney and Huckabee both seem to be running for the leadership of the religious faction of the Republican party, not actually for President of the whole country.

As for Huckabee, he's just scarily delusional about the world in a way that would make people nostalgic for George W. Bush. Though at least he's less delusional than Ron Paul.

I've been saying that nothing is going to be settled until Super Tuesday at the earliest. (I look forward to voting in the Democrats Abroad global primary in February.) I think Clinton will do well in primaries where only registered Democrats can vote. Democrats seem to have mostly figured out that they'll have to work together in the fall; even the negative ads and media back-and-forth are unusually polite. Republican candidates seem mostly too afraid of their own core supporters to worry about winning an actual election. It will be an interesting January.

Current mood: content

Thursday, October 11, 2007

8:10AM - reciprocity in the air

The US Department of Homeland Security has issued a request for personal information about passengers on flights from Canada passing over the US to destinations to the south.

Telling the Americans that we don't care about their security isn't going to fly. Instead, we should simply agree to work with the Americans on a reciprocal basis:

* Canada should demand the same personal information about passengers on flights from the United States through Canadian airspace. (Many flight paths from US cities to destinations in Europe and Asia will cross Canadian territory.) I'm sure American citizens won't mind having information about their international travels stored in a Canadian database, and US airlines can afford to assign additional staff to these data-collection tasks.

* Canada should provide this information on flights to any destination country that also complies with this policy; flights from the north are certainly not more of a threat than flights from the south.

* For flights to countries that do not comply with this policy, Canada's airlines should be allowed to land in a US city en route, complying with all standard information and security requirements for flights into and out of the US. To defray the costs, the Canadian airline should be allowed to drop off and pick up passengers at the US stopover city.

The Americans have legitimate concerns about their security and it is perfectly reasonable for Canada to work with the Americans in an equal bilateral relationship.


7:59AM - MMP in Ontario

With the mixed member-proportional system in this election, the results of this election would have looked like this

Liberals: 59 ridings plus zero proportional members = 59 members
Conservatives: 21 ridings plus 15 proportional members = 36 members
New Democrats: 8 ridings plus 14 proportional members = 22 members
Greens: 0 ridings plus 8 proportional members = 8 members

With 65 seats needed for a majority, this would have led to a Liberal minority government.

If New Democrats had a lick of sense, they would have actively and publicly campaigned for this, and it would have really helped them. Green party support may not decline, it may just going to eat at some of the anti-big-party votes that have traditionally gone to the NDP.

Meanwhile the Greens need to figure out that all politics are local politics. They need to look at areas that could be significantly improved by better environmental policies and build local organizations in those areas.


Friday, July 13, 2007

7:14PM - how the mighty have fallen

It's nice to have a neighborhood story that my Chicago friends know about. 10 Toronto Street is not quite 500 feet from my Toronto office. I crossed Toronto Street every day on the way to and from work. I've eaten at most of the restaurants on the street, once, because they're pretty darned expensive (though I have been to the King Edward for brunch a few times, it's very nice).

Conrad Black has been upfront about who he is for years. He thought he was the man in charge, that he wasn't accountable to anybody, and in particular that he was entitled to whatever bonuses he felt like from the company. He carefully arranged his companies to ensure that he had voting control even when he had a minority financial interest; he kind of saw shares as a cover charge for sharing his coolness.

As his lawyer pointed out, he wasn't convicted of some of the major charges. This wasn't because he wasn't guilty, it's because, well, the jury decided they weren't really crimes. Documented payments approved by the audit committee that represented minority shareholders may have indicated that the audit committee was really stupid, but there wasn't enough evidence to show that Black manipulated the board for the big payments; they only got conviction of some of the small (seven-figure) payments. Many commentators made the point that the prosecution made a lousy case, especially in the beginning, and that they had bad witnesses. However, bad prosecution tactics and lying witnesses do not actually make the accused innocent, they just make it harder for the prosecution to prove their case.

What have we learned?
* If you want public sympathy, might be advisable not to write a flattering biography about a historic villain.
* If you are caught on camera violating the law, especially if the video makes it to YouTube, that's the time to think about a plea bargain.
* Giving the media the finger (literally waving the middle digit at the TV cameras) is also not the way to get a favorable hearing from the media. If you insist on being on camera, for Pete's sake, smile, wave, talk to journalists by name, express some humility, get a decent damned publicist.
* If you're actually going to criminal court... might be an idea to get a lawyer who is familiar with criminal law in that jurisdiction. Just a thought, eh?
* If you decide to sell your shares for zillions of dollars when you take your company private, you get to keep the zillions of dollars and the big corner office, but you can no longer take money from the till and par-tay.

What could he have done differently? Here's a sound byte
"While we don't agree with the government's interpretation of statutes, we've chosen to make an agreement on lesser charges, simply to bring this complex and unfortunate matter to an end. There's no need to subject my family, our investors, or the public to the expense and stress of a criminal proceeding." Yadda yadda. The plea bargain could have written terms about where he would serve. So he takes a writing retreat at Club Fed for a while, then an exit interview with Barbara Walters (or Pamela Wallin, someone nice and soothing), then a book tour (or two, depending on how much time he got). Now, one suspects he'll be paid fifteen cents an hour for a job involving a scrub brush.

I think his old office on Toronto Street got sold. The Rosewater Supper Club might not book quite as many lavish functions, but if companies leave some of their money for shareholders, the rest of us might be a little better off.

Current mood: satisfied

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

7:08PM - what New York firefighters think about Rudy Giuliani

Washington post story:
Giuliani Video is Up, Union Boss Explains Why

Watch the video. Draw your own conclusions.

Current mood: angry

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

7:47PM - losing the war at Askariya

The Washington Post has reported a new attack on the Golden Mosque at Askariya.

One notes that the current wave of escalation in the Iraqi civil war happened after the February 22, 2006 attack on one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines. From that attack, the Shi'ites lost confidence in the (elected) government and moved to a phase of death squads and ethnic cleansing to defend themselves from attacks by Sunnis. One notes that the US has essentially acknowledged that the "surge" has failed; their solution is to give guns to the Sunni militias (most of whom overlap with Al-Qaeda in Iraq) to protect them from the Shi'ites.

The elected Iraqi government had one task, to protect the religious factions from each other, and specifically to protect holy sites that were sensitive and already subjected to previous terrorist attack. It appears that the new attack on the Askariya mosque was done by placing explosives at the base of two of the minarets. The entire 3rd Battalion of the Salahuddin province police, responsible for protecting the mosque, has been detained for investigation.

Baghdadis are reacting to this attack in more or less the way New Yorkers would if Al-Qaeda were flying planes into the Empire State Building. They are like, what-the-f***? It is clear that someone is not paying attention, and it is clear that it is the Iraqi government and the US-backed occupation force that is asleep at this switch.

The US government needs to explain what we are doing in Iraq. Obviously, protecting Iraqi civilians is not on our agenda. We aren't accomplishing anything positive there, and we need to get out and let Iraq heal from the harm we have done to it.

Current mood: sad

Saturday, June 2, 2007

11:16PM - Harper is right, but...

Stephen Harper is planning to tell the G8 summit in Berlin that Canada is special and as such deserves special consideration in terms of meeting its obligations under the Kyoto treaty.

This is the definition of "special" that means "less capable". He's right, of course. Canada is colder and more spread out than most other countries. It also has the handicaps of having a growing economy and a vast supply of exportable oil in the Alberta tar sands.

Harper is unclear on one point, though: Canada is a parliamentary democracy. Unlike in the United States, legislators vote by party discipline. In other words, Canada has the ability to make hard decisions. This probably relates to his argumentative and anti-compromise way of dealing with Parliament; he doesn't realize that minority governments normally negotiate with opposition parties to pass legislation.

It is occurring to me, as an economist, that the problems of energy supply and a growing economy contain their own solutions. If the country is growing in relative terms, a larger share of that growth can be diverted to energy efficiency. As for the tar sands, it's true these are a very messy way of getting oil out of the ground. But somebody is making money off of this. (RBC Energy Fund, hey, that means I'm making money. Go me!) Given a profit, it would be possible to incorporate the cost of environmental remediation in the cost of production. This has two drawbacks, though. First, "environmental remediation" requires either onerous regulation and complex and expensive technology, or else a market in carbon emission which Harper has already rejected. Second, incorporating an environmental cost would reduce the profits of Alberta oil producers, transferring their profits to forestry companies, environmental technology companies, most important of all, someone other than the oil companies.

Funny thing about Kyoto, though. It's not actually that hard to hit the targets. Carbon trading allows countries to meet the target immediately. All of Harper's drama and whining aren't necessary. It would not hurt much or cost much to help some tropical country regrow some rainforest, or to plant trees in British Columbia and northern Ontario, especially compared to the extra hundred billion of economic growth that other G8 countries haven't seen. It's true that places like China are becoming a much more serious problem, but the thing is, less wealthy countries tend to follow the minimum standard adopted by more advanced societies. If Canada won't pay its share, China and India certainly won't either.

Some day we'll find a leader for Canada that doesn't have to apologize for a lack of political leadership. Might take an election or two, though.

Current mood: hot

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

7:49PM - another nail in the pequiste coffin

I didn't mind Andre Boisclair so much. Sometimes he lacked judgement, but he also was not trapped in the empty slogans of his predecessors.

He made a mistake, then realized his mistake, and decided to let someone else have his job. It's interesting to see a leader with some humility, certainly not a common trait. It's interesting to see the reactions and analysis surrounding Boisclair's resignation.

Apparently, Boisclair wasn't popular among the party base because he wasn't a hardline separatist. He used the word "consultation" and didn't mention "referendum" in every breath. It's even possible he wanted to win an election.

Historically, voters are spread across the political spectrums, so to win an election, candidates usually have to appeal to the center. When left-wing parties cater to their special interests, the right makes them look bad, and they lose. Usually the same is true of the right. (On a national level, right-wing candidates can sometimes push voters with fear and xenophobia, and left-wing candidates can sometimes push voters with war fatigue, but these are the exceptions). A study of recent Quebec history is pretty clear on this point: when the Liberals look competent and the PQ talks about sovereignty, the Liberals win; when the PQ focuses on Liberal incompetence or corruption, they win. Quebecois, like most people, want their government to focus on governing today.

Most parties have a disconnect between the anti-compromise base and the pro-compromise leadership that actually wants to govern all the voters, not just roomfuls of supporters. Sometimes parties out of power lose touch with the realities of government. It seems that the PQ have not realized they've come in third. The regionalist-but-not-sovereignist ADQ came in second in the 2007 election.

Realistically, Quebec voters know that the ADQ has no idea how to govern the province. But a lot of Quebecois want more autonomy for Quebec within Canada, so the ADQ looks very attractive. The PQ has a serious problem, though. If they can't find a program more intelligent than "referendum", they're going to have trouble finding their way back to 30% in the polls. But the party hardcore won't back a candidate who doesn't promote sovereignty.

For all his faults, Boisclair was interesting because he tried to make the PQ relevant to today's Quebec voters. Might be a while before the PQ finds another leader who can do that.


Monday, May 7, 2007

8:19AM - literary criticism

Apparently, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's favorite novel is Battlefield Earth. This notoriously cheesy novel is noteworthy mainly for containing part of the de facto foundation myth of the religion of Scientology. (The John Travolta film based on the book is often cited as one of the worst movies ever made.)

It's not just that the guy likes the book, it's that he's comfortable saying so, which is to say, he's unaware of the widely held opinion of the novel.

One could cite other concerns, like the way Romney, unlike other Republican candidates, downplayed reaction to the Virginia Tech massacre so as not to offend the NRA gun lobby, or the way Romney linked non-oil energy development to Hitler. Really, though, do you want the finger on the button to belong to a guy who thinks Battlefield Earth was great literature?

Current mood: strange

8:07AM - who hates cute furry animals?

Rudy Giuliani hates ferrets, apparently. In 1999, he told a ferret owner's group member that he should "should go consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist and have him help you with this excessive concern - how you are devoting your life to weasels."

It's not new news, but you really have to wonder about someone who disparages people because of their pets. We have to remember that this is the guy who "cleaned up" New York with racial profiling by the police, whose public services were in disarray on 9/11/01, with a lack of coordination at the top level resulting in miscommunication and avoidable deaths, and then the guy gets this strange emotional calm in the face of extreme crisis; only fascists enjoy crisis that much. Maybe this guy had a bad experience, a badly-trained ferret can be a little bitey, but the human response would be to simply say he himself had a bad experience, not to lash out at others for keeping cute pets. We don't blame all parents for having any children just because some children are ill-behaved in some situations; it makes no sense to label whole categories of pet owners. Seriously, one has to wonder about somebody who hates cute furry animals.

Current mood: concerned

Sunday, April 29, 2007

1:47AM - contempt for the electorate

Trudeau had an ego. Mulroney brooked little dissent. But these past polarizers of Canadian politics look like models of humility compared to the current prime minister.

The phrase that should come quickly to the lips of a prime minister in a minority parliament is "We will work with the other parties to..." Harper never says that. Far from negotiating, he plays this odd game of brinkmanship with the opposition parties, cranking up the rhetoric and then coming up with surprise legislation which, sometimes, contains some opposition policies, and then he seems to dare the other parties to vote against.

On the Afghan prisoners: the British government made an agreement with the Afghan government which ensured that the British would have access to prisoners after transferring them to Afghan control, and also that the British would have a veto over transferring prisoners to any other power (for example to the Americans); other allies made similar agreements. The Canadians didn't bother with such details, they just handed prisoners over. Well, policy is policy, the government can do what it wants. However, when the question was raised about treatment of Afghan prisoners, the government could have responsed "We will review the situation to confirm the facts and we will report back to the House" or "We are working with the Afghans now to clarify details about our agreement". That's not what the Conservatives did. First they lied, unintentionally, claiming the Red Cross had access to the prisoners (which it happens they do not in a civil war in this case). Then they lied again, after they had an opportunity to check the facts, claiming the Afghan human rights commission was looking after the prisoners (they have no access, and don't have to report back to Canada anyway). Then they lied again, claiming that Corrections Canada staff were monitoring the prisoners (in fact, Corrections Canada staff are advising on construction of the prisons, but have no access to prisoners). Then they claimed the Liberals were lying about allegations of prisoner abuse (which the Liberals got from the Globe and Mail); they further claimed that questioning the government was a form of treason and support for the enemy. (The Liberal questions are much more mildly phrased that the claims by the NDP, but Harper never wants to criticize the NDP as long as the NDP help keep the Tories in power.) The Tories should not be making assertions without checking the facts, and I have to say, putting their credibility on the line over whether or not the Afghan government has mistreated prisoners is a huge stretch. It hardly seems controversial that the Afghans are likely to have abused prisoners; that's kind of the norm in the Middle East. The question is whether there is any way to resolve individual problems. In truth, the Afghan government is very sensitive to Canadian concerns and would be happy to help make the Harper government look good, but someone in the government does have to get the details to be able to have a useful conversation with the Afghans. But Harper is following the Bush tactic of claiming the opposition resorts to treason; that's not working in the US anymore and it's never been very persuasive in Canada.

Then there's the whole environment thing. The Conservatives keep going on about the past, as though the Liberals had nothing to do with the passing of the Kyoto accord in 1997 or the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in 1999, as though the increased emissions had nothing to do with, say, increasing capacity in coal power generation after the big power outage in 2003, or with the increased production of Tar Sands oil in Alberta after the US invasion of Iraq raised the price of oil to make the Tar Sands economically viable. The Conservatives continue to play fast and loose with numbers and facts, claiming the Liberals allowed actual carbion dioxide emissions to increase by 35% (compared to the 1990 Kyoto baseline) while only imposing relative "intensity" targets that will not affect, say, new coal power production or new oil production, and only using a 2006 baseline which, by their own propaganda, is unacceptable. Disagreeing with the opposition is one thing, but the harsh anti-compromise rhetoric makes it difficult for the government to accomplish anything. Remember that for all their words, all the Conservatives have done is hold some press conferences. They aren't allowing bill C-30 (the amended version of the flawed plan they tried to introduce last year) to come to Parliament, and they haven't issued any new directives within the scope of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (which was introduced by who again?).

It seems like the Conservatives don't actually want to accomplish anything, they just want to allow the minority parliament to fail in the hopes that Canadians will give them a majority.

I think Harper would be a heck of a lot more popular with Canadians of moderate political views, especially in Ontario, if he showed the slightest trace of humility. Jean Chretien stayed in power for eleven years by faking humility (and everyone knew it was fake, but people still liked it).

One may agree with the government or not on certain issues. It happens that I strongly support the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, not just as a defensive force to protect reconstruction teams, but as a very sharp edge to hunt down the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. If it takes five years, or ten, or fifteen, whatever. And yet, the government's position on issues is both vague and confrontational, making it hard to agree with them even when I actually agree with them. Once upon a time, Joe Clark brought a respect for Parliament and for reasoned discourse to the Conservative party, but those days are long gone. Analysts say that Conservative communication problems are the result of a lack of delegation from the PMO; Harper has to control everything. Using empty rhetoric to justify authoritarian rule is the tactic of Latin American dictators in decades past, and of the Bush regime in recent years. Canadians are much less tolerant of this, and over time this is likely to cause diminished support for the Conservatives in the future. Fortunately for Harper, Dion isn't the strongest leader the Liberals could have come up with, but he may learn the job over time, and if he doesn't he's likely to be replaced.

In Ontario, voters let Dalton McGuinty, a clearly weak leader even now, come to power when they were sick of extreme rhetoric from the Conservatives. Ontario voters have a lot of influence in federal elections. Harper is leading his party in the direction of where Mike Harris went, which was a political dead end.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

8:03PM - after the veto

Congress has passed a bill to spend $124 billion (more) on the Iraq war, with condiditons on withdrawing troops. Because of those conditions, the President is expected to veto the bill.

Here's the funny thing, though. The United States isn't allowed to spend a dime unless Congress specifically and positively authorizes it. The President can't just write checks.

If I were in Congress, the next step would be simple: pass a law with a time limit. Pass a bill to fund the war for eight months, period. If the President can't wrap his head around the change in Congress, another law in December could authorize another two months of spending. Then simply stop funding the war. Congress can do this, and is within its political rights to do so.

Let us remember that Nixon did not start pulling troops out of Vietnam until Congress started to cut back on defense funding. Sometimes Congress has the responsibility of governing the country, something both Congress and the White House seem to forget at times.


7:56PM - making the problem worse

In theory, having Daylight Savings Time start earlier in the year was supposed to save energy. It was supposed to save 10,000 barrels a day of imported oil.

In practice, people still needed to get up in the morning and make breakfast, which tended to negate any energy savings at the end of the day. What DST did do was give people another hour of daylight at the end of the day. This seems to have encouraged recreational/discretionary travel, resulting in an apparent net increase of 1% in gasoline purchases, or 266,000 barrels a day in extra oil usage.

Maybe all this driving around was good for the economy. Who knows? For sure it was bad for the environment and for the energy trade deficit.

This was one of those lame ideas that Congress waved through without thinking about. Maybe having more Democrats on the Hill will raise the average IQ up there.

Current mood: sarcastic
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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

11:37PM - keeping in the shade

One of the alternatives being considered to reduce global warming is a giant orbital sunshade.

I'm not enough of a climate expert to evaluate the science, but I can do some basic calculations. In order to reduce solar energy to the Earth by 1%, you need an orbital parasol covering an area equal to 1% of the cross-section of the earth. That works out to a shade some 800 miles (1300 kilometers) in diameter. For this dark satellite to be effective, it would have to stay between Earth and the Sun all the time, orbiting in a sidereally-stationary orbit (just a bit further out than a geo-stationary orbit). It would create an artificial eclipse lasting most of an hour. By definition, it would always block the straight-up high noon, which is to say, the actual eclipse would be above the tropics. The edge of this sun-shade might briefly darken the skies as far north as Jacksonville, but that's about it. This adds an interesting element of developed versus developing countries to the discussion. Although this object would be physically smaller than the moon, because it is so much closer, it would appear in the sky many times larger than the moon. While it would not block the sun except in a limited area, it would be visible in a clear daylight sky from just about everywhere.

Obviously there's a major engineering challenge in hoisting 120,000 square kilometers of tinfoil into orbit. The main challenge is maintaining a repair capacity 30,000+ kilometers out. As there is really only one place to put the super-parasol, international cooperation would be required. This cooperation would require some capability to defend the satellite from those who were not happy about it. If scientists think we need more shade, that means more shadow; blocking 2% of the sun's energy would require a satellite over 1100 miles across; 3% would be need a diameter around 1300 miles.

Give or take an order of magnitude, this object would weigh around a million tons. That works out to hundreds of shuttle-type missions a year, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars a year, about what we currently spend oppressing Iraq. Presumably there would be economies of scale, especially using unmanned launches. Still, it would probably require a few wars to make sure everybody is paying their share. As an industry, this might employ hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of astronauts. This might make a lunar mining colony a much cheaper source of supply.

This is a lot cheaper to save the planet than to let the seas rise to claim the coastal cities. It's time to start thinking seriously about the alternatives.

Edit: The article reference claims a parasol would only need to be 12 kilomters across, weigh only about 100 tons, and require one shuttle mission a year. Of course an space umbrella this size would be able to divert approximately 0.0002% of the sun's energy. Not sure how significant this would be in terms of climate change. Might be interesting as a feasibility study, though.

Current mood: warm

Monday, April 16, 2007

3:01PM - Virginia Tech tragedy -- it's not enough to mourn

I hate when relatively local news becomes a lead story in another country.

We should mourn the innocent and share sympathy with their families.

But that's not enough. By tolerating, socially and legally, the gun culture that fosters such extreme expressions of violence, we are complicit in what happens.

The Jeffersonian paradigm of a natural right to bear arms as a means of resisting a tyrannical regime hasn't served its primary objective and hasn't adapted to the needs of modern urban society. Individuals don't need to use lethal force to protect themselves. Guns, especially automatic weapons, are tools of aggression, not defense. The United States has a far higher level of violent crime than other democracies, as the rest of the world has learned from this mistake.

In order to begin to change society to adapt to the reality of modern military technology, we need to give governments a legal framework to legislate. The Second Amendment must be repealed so that gun laws can be made and changed by Congress or by the individual states.

I think it's going to take decades and many state initiatives to change the culture to make gun ownership less acceptable and less of a danger to the citizenry. I don't know how many massacres it's going to take for people to understand that we need to start dealing with this.

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Current mood: mourning

Friday, April 6, 2007

3:22PM - not quite global warming

Lake Superior is getting warmer. The lake's average temperature is 4.5 degrees warmer than it was in 1979, about twice the change of the atmospheric temperature change in the area. Scientists believe the warmer temperature causes less winter ice, which causes the lake to have a lower albedo, so it retains more heat. Higher temperatures is causing evaporation, which is causing water levels to drop, which eventually could reduce available water in the Great Lakes watershed.

Current mood: concerned

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