I Feel A Rant Coming On

It’s been a ridiculous few weeks. I’m glad the election in the US is finally over, and that it ended reasonably well, but I’m not surprised to see that  it’s led to yet another round of insanity, the so-called Obama Derangement Syndrome.

One of the overarching themes seems to be a widespread belief among these lunatics that somehow President Obama’s victory was the result of “voter fraud”. They manage to believe this while glossing over the fact that the only publicized cases of registration fraud involved Republicans. They also seem blissfully unaware of the casual admission that voter identification laws aggressively pushed in some states were targeted at disenfranchising traditionally Democratic voting individuals. This, it seems is some sort of legitimate strategy to win in the eyes of the new, non-reality-based conservative movement.

Thing is, polling leading up to the big day was pretty consistent. Other than within the deepest, most insulated segment of the conservative world that is completely divorced from reality by its apparent desire to hear only lies and propaganda from the media, it was reasonably clear to onlookers that President Obama was going to win. Even those expressing concern about a close race still had little to really worry about, their biggest fear seemed to be voter complacency bringing a different result. When pollster Nate Silver called a landslide Electoral College victory (correctly), he was dismissed by the right wing echo chamber as some kind of hack, never mind that polling data collaborated his claims, and his methodology is pretty simple and straightforward.

There of course has been no end to the ridiculous claims, more birtherism and so on. What’s even more hysterical is secession ramblings. Why do I find this so hilarious? Well, it’s fairly common knowledge that Red States (those where the secession nonsense comes from), are subsidized by federal tax dollars, which are essentially a transfer of wealth from Blue States. It’s not shocking to see this happen when you look at socioeconomic measures in the Blue States. Better education, higher incomes, lower rates of teen pregnancy, etc etc etc…. To me, this is something of an amusing parallel of the sovereignty movement in Quebec, it’s floated amongthe politically ostracized but devoid of any practical consideration.

The latest thing the wingnuts are in a froth over is “Agenda 21″, a United Nations framework for sustainable development. Insane tinfoil hat advocate Glenn Beck recently bought a manuscript from some moonbat in Pennsylvania, threw his name on the cover, and now all sorts of morons who can’t think for themselves about anything, let alone invest a little time in researching  the actual document and its history are going on about how there’s some massive insidious plot by the United Nations to “take over” the United States, which is ludicrous (to say nothing of impossible).

Agenda 21 was a very broad conceptual framework for sustainability, that is, the responsible use of resources in order to deal with a growing population that risks outstripping the potential of the planet to support it. The critical aspects of Agenda 21 are pretty simple. It’s not binding on any signatory. Its main thrust actually is on building networks of NGOs, community groups, and national governments to share ideas, technology, etc. It aims to improve use of land, water, forests, etc, all those things which are critical to our survival as a species, particularly as the planet gets more crowded.

The criticisms, where they are coherent, suggest that it amounts to an assault on national sovereignty, which is not a new criticism of the United Nations among the John Birch Society set, though this is ludicrous since national sovereignty is trumpeted is paramount by the UN (one of two things that are, the other being territorial integrity), and that it is an assault on private property. The only way I can make sense of this is that Agenda 21 talks a lot about using zoning rules and taxation to prevent concentration of land wealth, which I don’t find manifestly evil given how land rights have been a source of so many problems around the world. The anti-Agenda 21 types don’t strike me as land barons, though. They, like most supporters of this sort of nonsense, strike me as more likely to live on an over-mortgaged trailer on leased land, though that’s obviously an exaggerated stereotype. But I have to wonder what the overlap is between those who’d scream bloody murder over someone having the audacity to use eminent domain to build a bike path on their land (yes, one of those exists) and those who’d be open to happy to see eminent domain used to build the Keystone XL pipeline, a topic of more ridiculous controvery.

It’s a fact that cannot be argued in any reasonable way that we depend on a myriad of scarce resources, and that the growth of the population, ignoring other variables, means that there’s a likelihood of conflict eventually coming over those resources, and it’s that rather basic calculus that drove Agenda 21 (which was produced at the Rio Summit in 1992). Overlay that simple math with things like the impact of climate change (which of course these folks dispute, even though there’s no actual controversy) on things like food production, water consumption patterns, migration, etc. As an aside, I’m sick of people saying “but temperatures haven’t risen…”, because that’s an aggregate assessment, and ignores changes at a regional level which are what actually matter. I’m sick of this red herring.

I guess when you can sell books to idiots by just slapping your name on it, you run with whatever ridiculous conspiracy you can find and buy. Add to that Glenn Beck’s recent ridiculous chalkboard session in which he concludes, among other things, that he must “teach critical thinking”, the very process which would blow all the bullshit he spews out of the water, and I have to start wondering what the fate of the world is. These people need to be identified, ridiculed, marginalized. It’s not a pretty reality in some ways, but all this sort of nonsensical screed does is shift debate away from actual, real, relevant, vital issues.

And there’s no shortage of those. But before this gets too ridiculous, I’d better just cut it off.

Rants. A Long, Vaguely Coherent Rant.

I feel a rant coming on. And I think I’m just going to run with it – to purge out everything that might come out, so if this reads like a rambling stream of consciousness type post, well, either enjoy, or don’t read, whatever suits.

Dear America:

What the hell is wrong with you people? How are your election campaigns this… disturbing?

I’ve been trying to understand the mindset of the Republican voter for a very long time, especially in the context of the red/blue state thing. I don’t get it. I can’t wrap my head around it at all. The only way that Republicans can get any support, obviously, is by getting people who are so poorly informed that they can’t see that their interested are not represented by the GOP to vote for them. I guess xenophobia, scapegoating of the poor, and outright lying really do work. And it’s amazing, as an outsider, to see it happen. Nothing stuns me more than watching the right rail against the “liberal media”, which is just a giant myth that they’ve created. In their mind, in their narrative, “liberal media” means any outlet that will not simply spin a story exactly the way they want it. They seem to lack a basic understanding of what actual journalism, which I think is a dying art, is all about – to look at the story from as many angles as possible and to report it accurately. There’s no such thing as “conservative news” or “liberal news”. Or rather, there shouldn’t be.

I console myself a bit by realizing that generally, the worst of the commentators (regardless of their alignment on whatever political spectrum you want to use) are really only ever preaching to the choir. If you’re listening to the screed of the likes of Rush Limbaugh, it’s not like you’re an informed, intelligent, politically pragmatic character. In all likelihood, you’re listening to him, because the message – the racist, anti-woman, xenophonic, right wing message is already something you believe. I’d like to think that a rational person hearing Limbaugh for the the first time would simply laugh and say, “What’s this guy’s problem?” or dismiss it as some sort of poorly executed satire. But I guess I’d be wrong.

To me, though, it makes no sense why their ideas would get support. The reality of conservatism is that it absolutely needs low information voters. It needs ignorant, easily manipulated minds who can be sold a vision of an alternate reality that they then think voting Republican (or any conservative party, since it could happen anywhere, it’s just the USA is such a great ilustrator, and probably the worst case of  it) will actually give them access to this world. Americans, as I understand it, grow up believing in the “American Dream”, the idea that hard work will make you successful. The grow up with the idea that they can become one of the so-called “one-percent” if they just work hard at it. It’s a lie. Well, not totally. They may well just end up lucky, but most of those people, they come from old money. The best way to become rich and powerful in the USA is to be born into it. Joe Sixpack, the ignorant, Rush-listening trailer trash living in the backwoods of Georgia? It’s not going to happen for him. And voting Republican, as he likely does, is only going to help ensure it doesn’t happen for his kids, or their kids.

Conservatives, for all their bluster about hard work, initiative, and personal responsibility, seem to view the working family as some kind of parasite, or drain on the system. This has never been put out more clearly to the American electorate than last week when Romney’s “47%” video emerged. Who are those 47% who don’t pay taxes? Senior citizens who paid taxes all their working lives and now are living on the Social Security they contributed to. Young families who’ve availed themselves of tax credits and other fiscal incentives to keep them prosperous (which were lauded by the likes of St. Ronnie Raygun himself), and people who work for minimum wage or just above it – the people who clean your schools and offices, who work unskilled labour jobs, who serve you food, do your laundry, pump your gas, and so on. These people are the invisible underclass on which the prosperity of the richest depends.

I don’t want to start sounding Marxist or anything, because I’m not. In broad terms, capitalism, individual initiative, and free markets have for the most part been responsible for providing those of us lucky to live in the industrialized world the great standard of living that we have. In fact, even many of the poorest dregs of American society are still far, far better off than most of the world. I’ve been in Afghanistan for almost eight months now. Think you’ve seen poverty? Think again. And things here aren’t even as terrible as they are in some places in the world. The concept of a social safety net, as miserable an existence as they may well be in North America, does not exist in most of the world. People starve to death, freeze to death, try to eke out some sort of existence in most of the world. However, there’s a definite class division. And the idea of social mobility – that you can earn your way into the sort of upper crust that goes to $50,000/ticket fundraisers to hear politicians mock half the population of a country? That’s a fairy tale. It’s possible, but so unlikely that you’re better off trying to win the lottery. And on that subject, winning the lottery only proves the point more. Even having money can’t get you into that circle. If you didn’t have the right parents, go to the right schools, and so on, that’s a world that simply is not open to you.

That’s not to say there’s no point to working hard. My father was an immigrant. Granted, he came from England, and was likely a few steps ahead of immigrants today – he looked like Canadians, spoke the same language (albeit accented), and shared a cultural heritage with them. But he came to Canada with a few dollars, a job offer, and that’s about it. He didn’t have an advanced education. Never went to university. He left school as a teenager and started working, and realized that England in the 1960s was a bleak place. He got married, worked, saved, had a family, and is now enjoying a modest retirement. Well, less modest than many. While I was growing up (I’m 32 now), most of my friends’ mothers didn’t need to work for their family to enjoy a decent standard of living – or worked part-time, as my mother did. It was not the norm as it is now. I went to school with many children of very recent immigrants – tradesmen, many of them, or autoworkers. They worked hard and pushed their kids hard to succeed so they could have a better life. And it seems, mostly, like that worked. Now I have to wonder.

That said, the days of going and getting a good paying job without a lot of education seem to be gone. North America is deindustrializing. It’s no shock. The industrial revolution has spread to the developing world, and with cheaper labour costs, it simply doesn’t make sense not to globally rationalize production. That leaves North America (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, Europe, as manufacturing seems to remain very viable in countries like Germany) to figure out what to do next, economically. Here, we should be focused on what we’ve always been good at – innovation, development of new, better ways to live life and do things, invention, research, and developing knowledge-based industries. If we don’t stay ahead of the curve there, we’re going to be in for a world of hurt. It’s often noted that Chinese and Indian universities are churning out engineers at a far higher rate than North America, and soon, innovation will all come from them. That giant underclass? It’ll become all of us, because you can’t base an economy on selling hamburgers to each other (I can’t remember who I got that line from, but it’s not original, and if you know, let me know so I can attribute it properly).

How does a party manage to succeed on a platform that’s entirely based on ideas that not only have failed in the past, but that don’t even sound reasonable or logical?! Romney’s “platform” seems entirely based on the same tired ideas. “Let’s give big tax cuts to rich people, so that they’ll create more jobs.” Of course, since he is one of those plutocrats, who was born into the right family and is insufferably out of touch with the average American, he’s going to benefit from that, but let’s leave that aside. Why do people think that this will work? Even if there’s any merit to the Laffer Curve, the concept the idea is based on – it all depends where on that curve (it’s actually a parabola) you are. There’s no reason to believe it will work all the time.

And then there’s the GOP’s ideas about healthcare. They clearly live in a dreamworld. Only what, yesterday(?) Romney actually said something like, “Everyone has access to healthcare, they can go the ER.” The most expensive form of care available, only available as a last-ditch intervention? This is a brilliant plan. So our folks (30+ million of them) who don’t have health insurance are expected to go get emergency treatment. Then they’ll get the staggering bill, and they won’t pay. So who picks up the cost of this incredibly expensive, too late care? Everyone. Because prices go up while hospitals try to recoup the cost.

This. Makes. No. Sense.

This is the whole problem in the healthcare debate. You want to save money? Make sure everyone has access to care, to good, effective, preventative care. That won’t guarantee that everyone will use it, but over time, it will save money. It works in pretty much every other industrialized country, since they all manage to spend less public money on healthcare, and yet insure everyone.

But we’re not seeing this discussion in American politics. Instead, we’re talking about personhood, slut-shaming, and how ridiculous the idea of improving access to contraceptives is. All bullshit issues. And all generally aimed at women, who it seems conservative men seem to think they can make decisions for. Again, common sense should prevail. Oh, you’re pro-life (read: antichoice)? Don’t like abortion? Great, then why don’t you get behind making comprehensive sexual health education available to everyone, and access to contraceptives simple. That will reduce the demand for abortions! But of course, this doesn’t make sense to these people. They’d rather try to push “personhood amendments” and actually seem to believe that criminalizing abortion (which they’re not helping demand for by making it harder for people to prevent pregnancy!) will make it go away, instead of pushing it into shadows with real consequences to those who decide they have no other option. Nonsense. Sheer lunacy.

This brings me back to my original question. Who the hell supports these people and why? Why is it that the “47%”, who overwhelmingly seem to live in Red States which mooch federal tax money off of Blue States, are voting for a party which seems to despise them. What do they see being offered to them? What is to gain for them in supporting a party that thinks that people who find themselves unemployed, or who want to further their education but don’t have rich parents to fund it for them, or who are raising a family are just freeloaders? And that “47%”? It’s not a static population. It’s fluid. People pass through periods of unemployment for brief moments, generally. They may get tax credits for having kids and learning lower income for other brief moments. In fact, I’d wager the only people who stay in that bracket a long time are senior citizens, availing themselves of benefits they paid toward for their entire working lives.

The Red/Blue thing always makes me laugh. Want to piss off a rabid Red State Republican? Highlight that California subsidizes their state. They love to rant about how California is “broke”. At the state level, their fiscal position is a mess, thanks in large part to stupid populist ideas like Proposition 13, but also due to some of the demographic challenges they face. And yet, they send far more money into the Federal Treasury than they get back. Where does that federal tax revenue go? To prop up Red States. This is the perverse fiscal reality. And if they don’t believe you, there’s myriad sources that will support it. From notoriously liberal sources. Like, er, The Economist. In fact, just Google. There’s plenty of sources.

So what’s the way forward? The way I see it, it’s pretty simple. First, drop this horseshit talk about yet another war. Sorry right-wing Americans, you don’t get to complain about the national debt (by the way, You Built That!) while at the same time crying for war with Iran to protect the interests of a third party. Wars are incredibly expensive, which is why the Bush Administration was so keen to keep the Iraq War off the budget books. And stop talking about “uncertainty” as though electing a plutocrat who doesn’t have a plan is going to fix that. What is dragging down the economy is demand slumps. It’s pretty simple. People who feel unsure about their future employment prospects put off purchases because they don’t want to deplete their savings, or they don’t want to take on more debt for them. Less demand means companies need less labour, which causes unemployment to grow. It’s a rather vicious circle.

So, what can be done? Well, let me take you back to Macroeconomics 101. We start with a simple equation:

Y = C + I + G + NX

Y is GDP (or national income, more technically, in some books). C is consumption (consumer spending). I is investment – capital investment, essentially. G is government spending. NX is net exports. Pretty simple identity.

That whole thing also can be used to assess something called Aggregate Demand. That’s what’s dragging down the US economy. And probably a lot of other places. So how to we spur more demand? How do we make people feel more confident to open their wallets and buy durable goods, or go out to dinner more, or travel, or otherwise just put money into the economy? What could be done?

Well, the US (and everywhere else) has something called an Infrastructure Deficit – that is, a valuation placed on the amount of work needed to be done to maintain or upgrade infrastructure. Roads, bridges, railways, ports, all sorts of things. All these things are vital to the function of the economy. Remember “you didn’t build that”? The out-of-context remark that the GOP seized on? Among other things, like education, President Obama was talking about that infrastructure. In the United States, this deficit is in the trillions. So, let’s flesh this out. What would happen if the government, instead of handing yet more tax cuts to the rich, instead plowed money closing this gap?

Yes, they’d have to borrow the money. But that’s not manifestly evil. Hell, if the Republicans are cool with borrowing money to go to war, they should be cool with borrowing money to invest in economic growth. And if not, well, why listen to them?

Doing this work would require the employment of a large number of people. Some of the jobs will be unskilled, simple construction jobs, and to jobs producing raw materials. Some will go to engineers, skilled tradesmen, etc. Regardless, that will put money in people’s pockets. They’ll feel some security, and they’ll start spending money. They’ll eat out occasionally. They’ll buy coffee while they work, beers on Friday night. They might actually feel secure enough to buy a new car, or replace their washing machine.

And then something awesome kicks in. It’s called the multiplier. See, each of those businesses that those workers are now patronizing, they’re seeing demand. They’re making money. And they’re either paying wages to workers they need, or maybe it’s a sole proprietor who now too feels some security to start spending a little. Estimates on the size of the multiplier vary, but somewhere between 1.25-1.40 seem common. So gradually this growth in demand will becomes self-sustaining. As the infrastructure deficit closes, you’ve got some demand that’s replacing it.

But why’d I put that equation up? Well, the “I” is often the problem. Critics of stimulus will readily point out that private capital investment can be “crowded out” by government spending. Except that right now, “I” is low. Firms are sitting on their cash because they don’t see much value in investing in capital they don’t need. So crowding out isn’t likely to be a real problem. There’s just not much to crowd out.

Doing this – basically Keynesianism – requires an understanding that the money borrowed now equals future obligations to be collected through the tax system. That’s where Keynesianism breaks down for people – and why I argue it’s never actually been done – Keynes said that spending to stimulate the economy in bad times was important – but he also highlighted that you need to use the surpluses in boom times to retire that debt or save for the next bust. That doesn’t happen. Surpluses in Canada were used to give tax cuts to people (with little stimulative effect) instead of to retire the national debt back before the last big crash. Then the government made some big stimulus investments and leveled the economy out, but ran massive deficits that are harder to recoup because raising taxes is a lot less easy to do.

If we actually had an informed citizenry, this might be something that could be debated, discussed, shaped into something resembling a plan that most reasonable people could support. Then, if the US had a legislature that actually cared about doing its job rather than just trying to jockey for position in the next election (again, not likely), maybe they could actually work together to craft a solution and push it through. I’m pretty sure what the vaunted but oft-misquoted or misrepresented Founding Fathers were going for looked a lot more like that than that blind partisanship to the detriment of the national interest that pervades ow.

Unfortunately, I’m too cynical to believe that’s actually possible. I know that Joe Redneck Sixpack will not be swayed from his moronic talking points, because thinking for himself requires an effort he’s not prepared to make. I know that the media won’t be able to sway people either. And I know that most people just won’t put the thought it takes to write something like this into choosing which box to put the X in or what lever to pull or however it is you folks decide elections, so we’re stuck with a system that’s horribly broken. Or are we?

Again About Guns – Maybe A Starting Point For Discussion?

Like any sane and reasonable person, I was sickened and saddened to hear of the massacre at the cinema in Aurora, Colorado. And I felt somewhat compelled to put out something of an op ed piece on it.

First off, I am a gun owner. I used to own more than I do now, not that it matters, but I own firearms, like millions of Canadians do. I don’t begrudge people for owning firearms, whether they own them to hunt, or to control predators on a farm, or to shoot recreationally at a club. I shoot trap, skeet, and pistol and enjoy doing so. These are sports that require responsibility to practice, and that responsibility should be significant and backed up with good, sound laws.

I cannot for the life of me understand the hold that the NRA has on US gun politics. I don’t understand when it became reasonable to try to argue that any sort of legal controls on the ownership of firearms is somehow reprehensible or unacceptable. They of course point to the Constitution, selectively quoting the Second Amendment. Thing is, I’m often reminded of The Princess Bride – you say these words, but I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

The Second Amendment says: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” I cannot help but opine that while they saw the important of maintaining firearms for myriad reasons in those days, and felt that the population ultimately should be entrusted with the responsibility of owning firearms if they chose, that they did not anticipate the way it would be interpreted. Of course, that’s my opinion and there’s a wide array of scholarship on the subject that I’m not going to wade into here.

The fact is, when people say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, they’re semi-correct. In Canada for example there are some 8 million firearms in circulation in public hands, if memory serves. The overwhelming majority will never be misused by their owners, they’ll be handled with due care and caution, because those owners have accepted the responsibility that comes with them. The fact is, however, that the presence of firearms in our society brings about the risk of misuse, and we’ve seen that with terrible consequences. A firearm can turn an argument into a homicide very quickly. It can turn anger into atrocity. So it simply isn’t acceptable to allow them to circulate freely.

The trick, then, is to try to balance the concept of allowing responsible citizens to do what they want (which is more or less the crux of a free society) with protecting the public from those deviants. This is why when “the left” starts to scream about banning firearms (or other stupid ideas like Toronto City Counsellor Adam Vaughn’s “brilliant” banning the sale of ammunition in the city!) I just dismiss them. It won’t work. Guns came out of a sort of Pandora’s Box. Banning them will not work. They aren’t going away. In Canada, most of the guns used in crime weren’t legal in the first place, and those who have them aren’t going to care about a ban. Vaughan’s banning ammo sales is ludicrous because people who don’t have firearms licenses can’t buy ammunition legally anyhow, and besides, if it was banned in the city, they’d just go elsewhere. But all the same, they can’t. No card, no signature on the ledger, no ammunition. I don’t see whoever was responsible for the Danzig Avenue shooting tragedy having popped into Lebarons, flashed a PAL, and bought his rounds. I could be wrong, sure, but I doubt it. In the States, well, that’s an even more complex situation, since so many are in circulation.

It’s not just the anti-gun side of the house that I find have issues. Some on the right are certifiably nuts, and some simply have an unrealistic view of what they would have done had they been there. Talk is cheap.

I’m galled by people saying, “Well, I have a concealed carry permit, if I had been there, I’d have intervened!”

Bullshit. Utter bullshit.

Even most well trained shooters, people whose jobs put them at far greater risk of dealing with a gunfight, find it extremely difficult to avoid going into “Condition Black” during such an event. The brain activates the “fight or flight” response, and without a great deal of training and practice it is extremely difficult to overcome the physiological changes that are happening to be able to think clearly enough to draw a weapon, acquire a target, and successfully engage it. Add to that, in the case of Aurora, that the environment was a large, dark room filled with smoke or some sort of tear gas, and I find it incredibly unlikely that most people could actually have done anything. There’s no info as to whether anyone was carrying the other night – and I find myself skeptical that anyone would admit they were having done nothing.

The other thing that is grinding my gears is the right saying, “leave it to the left to politicize a tragedy.” This is total nonsense. A tragedy that can only be solved by political means must necessarily be politicized. I hate the phrase “never waste a crisis”, but it is apt. Massacres are horrific but they are what prompts people to think more critically than usual, to break down some of their preconceptions, and to really actually shift their views. I would lay money on the most pro-gun, NRA talking point bleater changing their tune about gun laws if it was one of their loved ones who was killed at Aurora. Or Danzig Avenue. Or Virginia Tech. Or wherever. These events shift those people’s perceptions because they force them to think. They have to be politicized, and I doubt too many victims’ families would be offended by that. If they were, I’d have some questions to ask.

So my suggestion to liberal types is to work on presenting reasonable ideas that achieve the noble aim of reducing gun violence is to actually get informed about firearms (because frankly, a lot of you lose arguments before they start because you don’t know what you are talking about), and work toward a compromise proposal. Fact is, a lot of people who own firearms are not NRA type nuts, they believe that reasonable laws are possible without restricting them too much. Compromise has become a bad word in politics both in US and Canada, but that’s the only way to get anything done here.

Maybe, just maybe, some good can come out of this most recent horror if we start thinking about how to approach it all better.

Nick:

Fortune demolish Fast & Furious in one shot.

Originally posted on FORTUNE Features:

Fortune investigation reveals that the ATF never intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. How the world came to believe just the opposite is a tale of rivalry, murder, and political bloodlust.

[cnnmoney-byline src="By Katherine Eban"]

dave voth

Dave Voth, Fast and Furious supervisor for the ATF

FORTUNE — In the annals of impossible assignments, Dave Voth’s ranked high. In 2009 the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives promoted Voth to lead Phoenix Group VII, one of seven new ATF groups along the Southwest border tasked with stopping guns from being trafficked into Mexico’s vicious drug war.

Some call it the “parade of ants”; others the “river of iron.” The Mexican government has estimated that 2,000 weapons are smuggled daily from the U.S. into Mexico. The ATF is hobbled in its effort to stop this flow. No federal statute outlaws firearms trafficking within the…

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What The Hell?!

Life has been fairly busy lately, and I’ve devoted more attention to my blog about my current (mis)adventures in Southwestern Asia than I have to here – but I think it’s time I add some commentary here, because while I’ve been quiet, I’ve still been watching the rest of the world’s adventures.

Dear America: What the hell is going on in your country? It’s as though every time I look at American news or my Twitter feed there is more absurdity to politics than I’ve ever thought possible. It started with the debate over healthcare, and now that you’re getting into an election season, it’s become some kind of circus of Republican candidates trying to outdo each other with saying more insane or simply stupid things.

It’s not as though that’s totally a surprise though. It’s been clear to any observers that the fringes of any party in probably any jurisdiction usually are a little nuts, but in the States it seems like that fringe is all that’s mattering. Is that normal in a primary, that candidates have to try to appeal to the most insane factions of their organizations?! Throughout the primary campaign I couldn’t help wondering what awe-inspiringly stupid thing would be said next. And I wasn’t disappointed at all throughout the process, either.

I’m almost getting weary of talking politics, because it seems generally to happen in right wing echo chambers, especially Canadian politics, because of the forums I tend to look to. Or it’s dealing with the hot-headed (but slow to think their arguments through) left amongst my friends – a couple in particular who are experiencing a phenomenon I’ve never heard of before – “newly rich guilt”. I think that’s probably something that should wind up on stuffwhitepeoplelike.com – the ultimate causehead condition.

I can’t count how many people I’ve read whine about “fascism” coming to Canada because the current Prime Minister and his government, which won a majority in the last election, are doing things they don’t like. That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate things to be angry about – but screaming “fascism” is like a dog whistle – it is only heard by like-minded hotheads who don’t make intelligent arguments.

I’ve actually lost “friends” for suggesting that kids protesting in Montreal are mostly mollycoddled middle class kids who even after proposed tuition hikes will still enjoy one of the cheapest postsecondary educations that can be had in Canada. It’s true that after I made that statement it became clearer to me that they had some legitimate grievances, and that most were of course not interested in the kind of trouble that’s come of the process, but what galls me is the suggestion that destroying property and such things is some sort of basic liberty. It’s not. It never has been.

The “discussion” degenerated when one of the parties brought up military service, and I suggested that no, her family did not fight for the right of people to smash windows and set fires. They did however stand up for the right to assemble peacefully, to protest, etc. There is a line there though.

It only got worse from there. But that’s life. I can’t deal with hysterical morons, so fuck them.

When, though, did the process get so toxic that all we can do is scream at extreme positions rather than actual discuss real issues? When did we start falling for this trickery?

I’ll tell you something related. I’ve been reading Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family which I think is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. I’ve always understood that religion is poison but when you start to understand how much it has influenced politics in the USA, it gets very scary. The fact that a network of religious lunatics who actually believe on the bullshit that is Christianity, particularly The Family’s insidious version of it, has as much influence as they do scares the shit out of me. The book gets into what impact these nuts have had on Somalia, Uganda, Indonesia, and so on. It will sicken any reasonable person.

So, again, what they hell is going on?

Canada Free Press – What A Joke!

Every now and then, I stumble across someone (usually an intellectually-barren right winger) who cited http://www.canadafreepress.com to support an argument. Even more amusing is that occasionally people seem to think that writing for this blog is some kind of journalistic credential.

When your tagline is “Because without America there is no free world…” I have to wonder what the “Canada” part is all about. CFP started as a print paper in Toronto, a right wing free birdcage liner, but it’s now rarely about Canada, and more a haven for American conservatives, and frankly, not good ones. There used to be a comedic value to it, but even that’s gone. Now it’s just… well… I can’t describe it. So let’s look at one of their articles, about the evil (well, if you grossly misinterpret it) UN Agenda 21) and its impact on the military, by Dr. Ileana Johnson Paugh. The article is here. Read carefully, because some of the hilarity is subtle.

The good doctor’s article is based on a US government directive about sustainability and designs for military bases – to make them more “walkable”, something that’s been, as I understand it, an urban planning concept for a long time. Most military bases I’ve been on aren’t, don’t offer much in the way of incentive for transit or ride share, and are thus often traffic nightmares. A base I spent a lot of time on has three gates fed by a series of collector roads, and it’s not uncommon to spend 15-20 minutes or more trying to get out at the end of the day, sitting in traffic. To travel a kilometre or two. That’s a lot of cars idling for no good reason. But I guess, if you’re a right wing moron, that’s not a big deal.

She wastes little time to turn an architect’s report on the community around the US Air Base at Aviano into a snipe at Italy – suggesting “they can defend themselves”. Which, of course, they do, which a fairly large and well-equipped military. I’m not entirely sure who or what the US base at Aviano defends Italy from, and would guess it primarily serves US and not Italian interests.

I particularly love this paragraph:

The military leadership explains that transit-oriented development reduces traffic congestion and accident rates while encouraging walking, bicycling, and overall healthy communities. This is a ridiculous excuse since a soldier, by definition, has to be healthy and fit in order to serve in the military. Walking and biking actually increase accident rates of hit and run. There are retirees, even young ones, who are handicapped, and biking and walking is not an option for them. We have thousands of soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Iran with severe, life altering disabilities.

I literally cannot make any sense of this. Where to begin? First, military communities don’t just include “soldiers”. Bases employ civilians. Military families use their facilities as well. And ultimately, that soldiers have a fitness standard that the general public doesn’t has pretty much nothing to do with this. Increased rates of hit and run? Okay, whatever. Conveniently, the Good Doctor offers no statistical support for this, and I somehow don’t think it’s particularly important. Biking and walking aren’t an option for lots of people, sure, but nothing in the ideas of better urban planning makes it impossible. Thanks to not right wing people, after all, we have laws about making sure that we accommodate disabled people. Of course, if you’re a certain class of conservative, you think those laws are an encroachment on your civil liberties and free enterprise, but we’ll try to leave Paultards out of this, shall we? I also love she says soldiers “returned from Iraq and Iran”, to help build the case that on basically the entire subject matter of this post, she has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. Iran? Really?

Another gem of a paragraph:

Because of drastic cutbacks in the military for cost-saving reasons, at a time when the world threat to our country is at an all time high, we do not have money to refurbish and modernize the military capability. We let soldiers fight in Afghanistan and Iraq with scarce resources and protection, having to duct-tape their body armor to non-armored vehicles in order to provide some level of safety.

Well, “we” sent soldiers to fight a way in Iraq without proper equipment because there wasn’t enough of it to go around. By invading Iraq, Afghanistan was neglected with victory declared early, and it was allowed to fester. And the war with Iraq was totally unnecessary. By the way, which political party has members that actually voted against better equipment for soldiers? Ooops.

The military is more concerned with rules and regulations, like a soldier being licensed properly to drive an un-armored SUV through a war zone. Those who make ill-conceived rules from the safety of their offices in Washington, D. C. do not worry that this soldier might be blown off by a roadside bomb because his vehicle is not armored.

Why are soldiers “licensed” to drive UP-armoured (not “un-armoured”) SUVs? In the case of some places, because they’re less conspicuous and easier to maneuvre around cities. Big convoys of armoured vehicles are juicy targets. Consider the attack on the Rhino Bus on October 29, 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was a big, heavy, armoured vehicle, and a vehicle-borne IED destroyed it and killed all its occupants. It was a clear, significant target. SUVs disappear into traffic, theoretically. Why are they “licensed”? Because they have to pass a driving test that’s a little more than what most people do – how to drive evasively, and maneuvres that increase the safety of the driver and their passengers. Not just anyone should be thrown keys and told to have at it.

“Which would you rather have? Would you rather spend $4 billion on Air Force Base solar panels, or would you rather have 28 new F-22s or 30 F-25s or modernized C-130s? Would you rather have $64.8 billion spent on pointless global warming efforts,  or would you rather have more funds put towards modernizing our fleet of ships, aircraft and ground vehicles to improve the safety of our troops and help defend our nation against the legitimate threats that we face?” (Sen. James Inhofe as quoted by Caroline May)”

I like the solar panels thing. I recently read an article about the US Marine Corps using them on FOBs in southern Afghanistan, saving massive amounts of fuel that would be needed for generators to power the installation. Not only does using less fuel save money, and hey, it’s good for the environment (particularly relevant when the US military is under fire for the air quality on their bases, generator emissions are not exactly good in that sense) – but it saves lives potentially because less fuel consumption means less convoys to transport fuel, means less vehicle movement on the roads, regardless of whether the vehicles are armoured or unarmoured.

Yet we spend billions to needlessly restructure military bases into global environmentalism compliance. It is more important for our executive branch to “sustain” the so-called endangered environment, and please the environmentalist wackos, than to defend our country.

Actually, as I understand it, the directives apply to new base construction and chages thereto. Environmental compliance not only is good for the entire world, it saves money, and in most cases, if you look at what sustainable communities are actually about, it makes them more pleasant places to live. Saving money on defence facilities (the massive of cost of which she references in her article, oddly enough!) leaves more money available for defence, or whatever else. There’s literally nothing bad I can see about that, at all. Unless, like The Good Doctor, you want to make a series of arguments from ignorance to hear yourself speak.

Live From Cuba

While I won’t get to post this right away due to not having Internet access, I’m composing this post from the Hotel El Bosque in Havana, Cuba. I’m at this hotel right at this moment to get changed and freshened up before heading to the Tropicana Cabaret to see Cuba’s most famous cabaret show.

My wife and I came on a last minute trip to Varadero via Toronto, and have been staying at Be Live Turquesa, one of the numerous resorts along a peninsula on Cuba’s north shore about two hours east of Havana. The resort has been quite nice, relaxing with no shortage of rum, beer, and food. Today we are on an excursion and have spent the day touring the Old City before going to the show.

Cuba is, of course, a socialist/Communist country, one on a very slow track to reform despite the failure of most other such regimes. It is one that mostly manages to survive, even thrive despite the US embargo. Tourism is no small part of that, and Canada is a driver of that. Some 60% of tourists who visit Cuba come from Canada. When the Soviet Union disappeared almost overnight and with it the aid that sustained Cuba it was the development of the tourism industry that brought in desperately needed hard currency.

This is my first real visit here. The contrast between the “real” Cuba in Havana and the resorts is stark, though people seem to have a different view. Cuba is poor but its people are generally happy because they are relatively well off in the sense that their basic needs are met, at least to some degree, by the state. Housing, education, healthcare, and basic nutritional requirements are supplied adequately. Luxury goods are not impossible to get (there is a United Colors of Benetton store on Plaza Viejo in Old Havana, its presence surprised me!). It just takes some willingness to save and work hard.

Some Cubans have getting money out of tourists down to a well-honed art. One of the guys in my tour group today quipped, “Everything is free in Cuba, until it happens.” People will show you around museums, draw caricatures of you, play live music (which is everywhere here), and it’s all “free”, but at the end expect a hard push for a peso or more. Yet you don’t feel unsafe with it happening, it just gets annoying fast. They won’t push the issue much, you see.

It’s sort of a microcosm for the country – they’ve found ways to get around their plight very smartly. Cuba now has a new benefactor – Venezuela – which supplies it with oil it desperately needs and cannot produce in quantity. That said I saw several massive drill rigs flying Chinese flags, apparently CNOOC is partnering with Cupet to produce more domestically. Cuba has also taken to exporting human capital – doctors mostly – to other countries to earn both goodwill and hard currency. They then come home and pay that in taxes which provides general revenue.

And the embargo? Worthless. You can find almost anything in Cuba shipped via third countries since no one else actually participates on the most nonsensical American foreign policy ever. What the embargo does is drive the prices up and keep the country poor, and give the Castro regime a bad guy to point at to justify their revolution. Cubans don’t seem to need to be blasted with propaganda (though it’s everywhere) when they can see the comparisons easily. They can even watch CNN!

But that’s politics and a whole other issue.

I’ve been overall pretty impressed and understand, in large part, why there is such a draw to come here. People are friendly, welcoming, and it feels much safer than most of the tropics – certainly more so than anywhere I’ve been in Central American in terms of large cities. The contrast is remarkable.

The Long Gun Registry Is About To Die

The one thing that I was happy about when the Conservatives won a majority in the last federal election was that they would finally be able to get on with their long-standing promise to abolish the long gun registry. The registry, a massive white elephant, is quite possibly the most useless piece of legislation that was ever conceived of in this country, in that it was a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived problem, which has been patently ineffective at dealing with the problem. Add to that it was a massively expensive program, costing far more than it ever was claimed it would, and really delivering nothing in return for the money.

I’m hoping that the money saved might be diverted to programs that might actually deal with gun violence effectively.

What makes me laugh – and cry – is simply this: the chief defenders of the program are basically totally ignorant of anything to do with firearms, and thus generally are woefully unable to discuss anything about them. They cannot make any significant intellectual arguments in the matter. They instead would like to paint Canadian gun owners as a bunch of nuts who want no laws at all, which is frankly completely ridiculous. Most realize that owning firearms is a great responsibility and a privilege, and that some manner of legal controls are necessary in the interest of society. That’s why we have mandatory safety training, licensing systems, and we make certain types of firearms harder to own and use. Of course, some of those restrictions are rather silly (like the restriction on any AR15 derivative, while similar firearms that aren’t “black and scary” aren’t restricted), but in all, most are not unduly onerous.

What I’d like to see, now that it looks like the LGR is done, is some of those resources directed instead to things that might work – better education, diversion programs to keep kids away from things like gangs and crime, and hey, I’m cool with better licensing rules and more intensive application processes to screen out more problems. In the rare event that legal gun owners commit crimes with their firearms (like, for example, Dawson College shooter Kimveer Gill), I have to wonder if a more thorough investigation of applicants for firearms licenses would have kept them from buying the guns in the first place.

How To Fix The US Economy

All the kerfuffle about the American Jobs Act, Stimulus 2, etc, has me wondering why there’s no movement in the US to fix the economy, which I’m starting to think really isn’t that complicated when you really consider it.

Today, I read a Politifact piece on the “infrastructure deficit” in the United States, that is, the cost to do all of the infrastructure work currently needed to maintain current infrastructure. They put it around $2 trillion dollars. In a time when businesses are holding on to cash and not investing, there is no real danger of crowding them out if government starts spending on needed projects, such as rebuilding bridges that are currently condemned because of their condition.

Where to get the money? Jack up corporate taxes, perhaps? If corporations aren’t investing in expanding, then hit them for more taxes, and put that money into infrastructure projects. It’ll still grow the economy in the long run.

How, you ask?

Think back to Macroeconomics 101. Remember aggregate demand functions? Well, if you dump $2 trillion into the pockets of highway workers, concrete and asphalt producers, and so on, a curious thing happens. They spend that money. On all sorts of things. They create demand in the economy which then incents businesses to hire. That then puts money into more workers’ pockets who in turn increase aggregate demand. Remember this? The multiplier? It’s simple, and it’s brilliant.

These infrastructure projects have an advantage – they often require relatively low skilled labour, meaning that many unemployed people could transition into these jobs, and they could be made to pay decent wages. That will get many of the unemployed at least in an even keel, and as the economy comes back to life, those jobs will wind up and new ones will emerge.

It’s not that complicated. It really, really isn’t. But sadly, it seems there’s more political will to interfere with things like reproductive rights than there is to actually improve the lot of millions of Americans. It won’t get the GOP votes to let things get fixed on President Obama’s watch, after all.

That’s the problem. That’s what needs to happen. And waiting until next November to bounce the GOP out of Congress to do it won’t cut it.

So, where do we go from here, then?

On Occupying Things

I’m not going to be anywhere near as well spoken on this issue as the great @iboudreau on Twitter and his post, which in theory I’ll link here at some point, but I’ve been pondering this whole “Occupy [insert location]” protest concept. I tend to ponder these things at odd times, like in the shower, or during conference calls I’m not really interested in, but I’m trying to let this gel into something worth writing.

I see the same problem as the Tea Party had for them. Yes, them. Spare me the trip on the outrage bus, but there’s more similarities than differences. Of course, Occupy movements aren’t media darlings getting the push that Tea Partiers did, but to the observer who’s not made up their mind what to think of a movement, they’ve got a pretty clear problem. They have ideas, demands, etc – but their message isn’t clear, and the signal-to-noise ratio is unbearably low. It’s not enough to have a clear message, you have to also curb all the off-message messaging. There’s been a lot of that, and it’s no wonder that the media is able to lambaste them constantly. When you mix in a lot of pointless babble (or downright contemptible fringe opinion) with a big movement, then the whole thing is so muddied that you’re going to have a hard time winning anyone over.

Of course, I think that’s the curse of any big movement, particularly when you want it to appear as organic and formless as OWS type protests. And I don’t have any answers on how to fix that without undermining that apparently desirable characteristic.

What’s therefore more important is to channel the energy into something that’s meaningful and productive – which really means getting people interested in issues, educated enough to be able to make an informed decision, and most importantly, into voting booths. The reason that insidious agendas make progress is that people don’t pay enough attention, and frankly, as an outsider looking in on the US, it’s pretty terrifying the kind of ideas that get traction. It happens because of voter apathy, manipulation of messaging, and so on. That’s what these sorts of movements can do that is of value – put out a strong counter message that resonates.

So there’s room for the movement to get somewhere, but it means that everyone who wants to see things change needs to get involved in some form – even if it’s just helping get people informed and interested in the political process. That, and not drum circles, will actually effect change. But then the question becomes, how to really do that…?

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