Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Behold! Emperor Trump

What to make of U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed budget. A $54-billion hike in spending on weapons balanced with cuts in foreign aid, environmental programs and domestic agencies. It is if nothing else a major shift toward a military state, furthering a trend the country has been on for some time.

Many people have expressed concern that Trump's election was a serious threat to liberal democracy. I admit to being one of those who thought such concerns were overblown, but now with the commander-in-chief swelling the ranks of his troops while surrounding himself with generals and right-wing extremists, this buffoon is seriously starting to worry me.

What, after all, does the American military need this additional funding for? It already spends more than the next eight countries' militaries combined. And to defend itself against what? It has friendly (and weak) neighbours on two sides and oceans on the other two. And it has enough nuclear weapons to wipe any enemy of the face of the Earth. No country is about to invade the U.S. The only possible use of this extraordinary military is to dominate the international order, to maintain the empire with Trump, presumably, as emperor.

What kind of society encourages children to eat unhealthy food?

What kind of society encourages children to eat unhealthy food? Our kind of society. A society that bombards its children with 25 million food and beverage ads ever year on their favourite websites, 90 per cent of which are for unhealthy products, much of them high in salt, fat or sugar. Add to that the two hours of TV a child watches on average every day with four to five food and beverage ads per hour. We do this year in and year out and wonder why so many Canadian children are overweight.

In the late 1970s, five per cent of children and teens in Canada were obese. Today it's 13 per cent. Not coincidentally, processed and ultra-processed foods have increased from 30 percent of the average family's food purchases to 60 per cent.

There is a high price to pay for our recklessness. Obesity puts children and adolescents at risk for many health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and depression. The cost of obesity in this country, including direct healthcare and lost productivity, is estimated to be between $4.6 billion and $7.1 billion a year.

Advertising Standards Canada has a voluntary program on food and beverage advertising to children under the age of 12 but, according to pediatrician Tom Warshawski, chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, "Industry self-regulation is a failure." It doesn't work.

What does appear to work is Quebec's ban on commercial advertising to children under 13. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the ban is associated with a 13 per cent reduction in the likelihood of buying fast food, compared with Ontario. Quebec has the lowest obesity rate in Canada among children aged six to 11 and the highest rate of fruit and vegetable consumption.

In September 2016, Senator Nancy Greene Raine introduced an act to prohibit junk food marketing to children under the age of 13. The Heart and Stroke Foundation would like the legislation passed without delay and all sensible people must agree. It is a strange and foolish society that systematically indoctrinates its children in bad habits.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Will city folk continue to be Alberta's second class citizens?

Amid debate about adopting a voting system to replace the egregiously undemocratic first-past-the-post, another offense against fair voting is sometimes overlooked. In Alberta, an opportunity to redress that particular sin is underway.

In accordance with the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission Act, a commission has been established to set the constituency boundaries for the 2019 provincial election. If history is any guide, city folk will once again be relegated to the status of second class citizens.

Under the Act, "The population of a proposed electoral division must not be more than 25% above nor more than 25% below the average population of all the proposed electoral divisions." The boundaries were last established in 2010 and, following tradition, urban ridings were generally more populous than rural ridings with the result that the votes of city dwellers were worth less than those of their rural brothers and sisters. They are worth even less today. As urban populations have been growing much faster than rural populations for the last century or so, the situation always deteriorates between boundary reviews.

For example the most populous riding, Calgary-South East, now has 2.7 times more people than Leader of the Opposition Brian Jean's riding, which means that Jean's constituents get 2.7 votes for every constituent in Calgary-South East. The average of the five most populous ridings (all urban) is over double the least populous five (all rural), or putting it another way, the country folk have two votes for each city voter's.

Historically, this injustice has been defended on the grounds that rural ridings are much larger in area. That excuse loses its credibility in this modern era of instant communications. But while it may have been defended, it was never justified. If an MLA faces an extra challenge because of distance then provide him or her with a greater travel allowance, or satellite constituency offices, or additional aides to roam the backwoods of the riding, but diminishing someone else's vote is not the answer.

His or her vote is a citizen's most precious democratic possession. There can be no justification for diminishing one citizen's vote in favour of another. Democracy is, after all, political equality.

All constituencies face their own special challenges. For instance, my constituency, being inner city, has many residents whose first language isn't English. It contains Chinatown, 40 per cent of the residents of which don't speak English at all. Yet I would never suggest we address this challenge by reducing the number of people in our constituency to less than the average. I wouldn't suggest that because I have no desire to diminish the votes of citizens in other ridings. The answer is clearly to provide my MLA with special translation facilities. Solve the problem, don't erode democracy.

On the subject of first languages, it is worth noting that because immigrants tend to congregate in cities, diminishing the value of urban votes results in diminishing the voices of ethnic communities. A victory, one might say, for "old stock" Canadians.

Unfortunately, political equality was undermined by the Supreme Court in the 1991 Saskatchewan Reference case in which Madame Justice McLachlin stated, "the purpose of the right to vote enshrined in s. 3 of the Charter is not equality of voting power per se, but the right to 'effective representation'." It is the arbitrariness of the weasel words "effective representation" that have allowed Alberta its outrageous ± 25 per cent.

Alberta's prairie neighbour limits the range to ± five per cent. Saskatchewan has very similar boundary challenges to Alberta. If it can achieve five per cent, our province has no excuse for 25 per cent except a lack of imagination or laziness.

The chair of the recently-appointed commission, Justice Myra Bielby, has commented,
"The basic underlining democratic principle is that every voter's vote should be relatively as effective as every other voter's vote." Her use of the phrase "relatively as effective" is not encouraging.

But I will give her the benefit of the doubt. I will faithfully make my submission and faithfully keep my fingers crossed that when the new boundaries are established I will finally be able to emerge from the shadows of second class citizenship.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Islamophobia—what's in a word?

Words don't always mean what they say. For example, anti-Semitism says "against Semites," but it means "against Jews," who actually only make up a small part of the Semite community. Yet confusion never arises because the word has become so firmly established as meaning anti-Jew.

That is not the case with the word "Islamophobia," defined by Wikipedia as "fear, prejudice, hatred or dislike directed against Islam or Muslims, or towards Islamic politics or culture." That seemingly innocuous phrase "Islam or Muslims" is critical. Do we mean dislike or prejudice against the religion or against the individuals who practice it?

Canadians generally disapprove of prejudice against individuals because of their faith and, of course, it violates the Human Rights Act. But prejudice against a religion, Islam or any other, is something else entirely. Canadians have the right under the Charter to criticize, ridicule or otherwise show their dislike or even contempt for any faith, an important right not only as an exercise of free speech but because of the unique influence that religion holds over society. It needs to be closely watched.

This brings us to Motion 103, introduced in the House of Commons by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, which reads, in part, That, in the opinion of the House, the government should ... condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination ....

The emphasis on "Islamophobia" has sent certain conservatives, including some of the leadership candidates, into a spasm of hysteria. They have denounced the motion as an assault on freedom of speech with its perceived potential for preventing criticism of Islam. Some have accused it of other sins, including the insinuation of Sharia law into Canada. They have been reminded that it's a motion, not a bill, so in fact it won't force anybody to do anything, but that has not lessened the criticism.

Conservatives objecting to the motion on the grounds of freedom of speech is a tad hypocritical. Last year they unanimously supported a motion censoring the BDS Movement, a thinly disguised attempt to discourage advocating action against Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Nonetheless, they do have a point about Motion 103.

People of good will will recognize the motion simply as an attempt to condemn discrimination against members of racial or religious groups, particularly Muslims, but, by not defining Islamophobia, it can in fact be interpreted as condemning criticism of Islam.

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly insists that "Islamophobia is clear. It's discrimination against Muslims, people of Muslim faith." Dictionaries, unfortunately, are not so clear, offering various definitions, including Wikipedia's.

Over time, Islamophobia may come to mean specifically discrimination against Muslims, even though that's not what it says, just as anti-Semitism has come to mean discrimination against Jews, even though that's not what it says. But then how will we refer to criticism of Islam, the religion? I ask the question with a personal motive because I am no fan of religions, often criticize them, and have even less use for Islam than I have for Christianity.

One obvious answer to the semantic challenge, as a number of observers have suggested, is to use the word "anti-Muslim" for discrimination against Muslims as individuals. It is specific, matches anti-Semitism, and means exactly what it says. And as for Motion 103, anti-Muslim should satisfy both sides of the House. When they discuss discrimination against Muslims (or against Islam) in the future, they could start on the same page. Too reasonable, perhaps?

Monday, 13 February 2017

America's "flawed" democracy or The Revenge of the Deplorables

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), The Economist magazine's research division, annually publishes an analysis of the state of democracy in the world. Its report for 2016, entitled Revenge of the"deplorables," focuses on the popular revolt against the "political elites who are perceived by many to be out of touch and failing to represent the interests of ordinary people."

One significant change in this year's analysis is the demotion of the United States from the EIU's top rank of "full democracies" to the second rank of "flawed democracies." The demotion wasn't due to the election of Donald Trump, but rather due to the precipitous decline in confidence many Americans have in their political parties and government that Trump exploited.

According to the report, this decline was apparent in other countries as well, resulting in a general recession in global democracy. The decline was matched by a populist upsurge led largely by blue-collar workers—white and lacking a college education. The EIU describes this populism as "a revolt by large sections of society who feel that they have been abandoned politically, economically, socially and culturally by the mainstream political parties to which they used to give their allegiance."

The EIU claims that "In Europe and the U.S., the political class seems increasingly out of touch with the people they purport to represent and often seems to express contempt for sections of the electorate" and refers as an example to Hillary Clinton's classification of half of Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables."

I believe the EIU's analysis is spot on. I believe also that some of Trump supporters' complaints are justified. Millions of people are being left behind by globalization and automation—a theme I developed in a previous post—but are getting short shrift from our political parties and governments. They deserve better.

Other complaints lack justification. Economic distress often leads to fear and scapegoating, as demagogues well understand, Trump being a good example. Many white, socially-conservative Americans have been offended by the success of causes such as equality for women, racial minorities and gays, and protection of the environment. Some issues such as the legalization of abortion and accusations of racism aimed at the police have particularly angered them. They feel their values are under attack and their views ignored. These people are, I suspect, Ms. Clinton's "deplorables." I would hesitate to categorize them in that way, but I certainly agree their views are deplorable. Maintaining your culture at the expense of others has no moral justification.

Political parties and governments need very much to respond to the economic anxieties of the working class, but this should not be accompanied by any backsliding on social progress. Regrettably, under President Trump that is exactly what is happening. And considering he has nominated Andrew Puzder for his Secretary of Labor, a fast food CEO with a reputation for underpaying his workers and a staunch opponent of the minimum wage, I am not confident this administration will prove to be the friend of American working men and women.

Frankly, considering the U.S. is run primarily by moneyed interests, I think the EIU is being generous in even calling it a democracy. Plutocracy would seem more apt.

And as for Canada? Well, we bucked the general decline; in fact, our democratic rating actually increased in 2016. The EIU ranks us at an impressive number six out of 167 of the world's nations, tied with Ireland. A nice pat on the back for our 150th birthday.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Repeating history—the new need for unionization

For all Donald Trump’s failings, and they are profound and many, he deserves credit for one thing. He acknowledged the anger and despair of those Americans in the Rust Belt states and elsewhere who have seen stable, well-paid manufacturing jobs disappear in the millions. In their place are often low-paid, precarious jobs in the service industries. Trump’s insight carried him into the White House.

Our prime minister has also recognized this system failure. “What we’re facing right now,” he said in an interview with the Guardian “—in terms of the rise of populism and divisive and fearful narratives around the world—it’s based around the fact that globalization doesn’t seem to be working for the middle class, for ordinary people.” The loss of hundreds of thousands manufacturing jobs in this country has underlined his statement. The portion of Canadian workers in low-paying jobs is at an all-time high.

Economists talk about a new social class—the precariat: workers living a precarious existence due to a lack of job security, including part-time employment and low wages and benefits, stemming largely from the entrenchment of neoliberalism.

The loss of manufacturing jobs in both the U.S. and Canada is due to two forces: globalization and, most importantly, automation.

We can do a better job of globalization—trade agreements, e.g. NAFTA, have been focused on improving things for investors and corporations with trickle down benefits for the rest of us. Unfortunately, trickle down isn’t working. We need to do globalization with workers first in mind rather than corporations. There is, on the other hand, little we can do about automation; it has a momentum all its own. And despite Trumpian wishful thinking, jobs lost to automation aren’t coming back, from China or anywhere else.

There is, however, something we can do about the jobs that are replacing those lost in manufacturing. We can turn bad jobs into good jobs. I suspect that if you asked someone with if they would rather spend their time on an assembly line or working in Starbucks, many would choose Starbucks—if they could make a living. But that’s a big if. The retail sector has now replaced manufacturing as Canada’s biggest employer of both men and women, yet it is the worst paid occupation in the economy. It is characterized by low wages, unpredictable working hours, part-time work, and the need to juggle multiple jobs to earn a living wage.

That doesn’t have to be the case. In Sweden, retail jobs are desirable jobs. Their starting salaries are up to 40 per cent higher than ours, workers have a minimum five weeks paid holidays, receive overtime pay for weekends and holidays, and are entitled to generous parental leaves. Why the difference? In a word, unionization. Sixty per cent of retail workers in Sweden are unionized compared to twelve per cent in this country. We cannot simulate the strong union environment of Sweden but obviously greater unionization would go a long way to boosting working conditions in retail in this country.

After all, we did this before with manufacturing. Early in the last century manufacturing jobs were not all that great. Workers often toiled in dirty, dangerous workplaces for low pay and long hours. But unionization and appropriate legislation turned these jobs into the well-paid, stable and desirable jobs they are today. What unions did for manufacturing they can do for retail. We need to repeat history.

It is important as well, of course, to keep the other instruments of distribution strong—good labour legislation and a healthy welfare state.

Some critics will complain about raising the wages of service workers, complaining that they will raise prices. They will, of course, but when we steadily increased the wages of manufacturing workers did we find we could no longer afford to buy the products? The automobiles, the fridges, the TV sets? On the contrary, with higher wages, we had a more prosperous economy and bought more stuff. Today, we have twice the GDP per capita in constant dollars that we had in the 70s. We are richer than we have ever been. This is not a wealth problem, it’s a distribution problem.

Political parties have been doing good work for investors and corporations, with globalization, privatization, lower taxes and all the other accouterments of neo-liberalism, now it's time to do something for workers. Supporting unionization as avidly as they have supported trade agreements would be a good start. This country doesn't need rust-belt provinces.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Trudeau's big lie

I am reluctant to refer to my prime minister as a liar, particularly when I generally hold him in high regard, but when the lie reaches a certain magnitude, one's hand is forced. And this was a very big one—a whopper.

The promise was unequivocal. The Liberal election platform of 2015 stated: "We will make every vote count. We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. ...Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform."

And in Governor General David Johnston's speech from the throne: "To make sure that every vote counts, the Government will undertake consultations on electoral reform, and will take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system."

And yet this week, Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould was informed "changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate." It was all a lie folks, all a lie.

The Prime Minister compounded the lie with his explanation. "There is no consensus," he said, "There is no clear path forward." In fact, the government's own Special Committee on Electoral Reform reported a consensus and pointed a clear path forward with its recommendation that "The Government hold a referendum, in which the current system is on the ballot" and that "the referendum propose a proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less." The committee reported that the views of the overwhelming majority of the experts and citizens that presented submissions favoured proportional representation. Trudeau's gratuitous dismissal of both the committee's months of hard work and its recommendations illustrated his cynical manipulation of both them and us.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, a member of the committee, responded "I am deeply afraid that this betrayal will strike much more deeply in the hearts of Canadians than Prime Minister Trudeau realizes," and warned him that in these times of dangerous politics, cynicism has led to populist revolts in other countries. And we don't have to look far to see the truth of her words.

What’s the next big lie to be revealed, Mr. Trudeau? Your environmental promises perhaps?