Archive for the ‘american politics’ Tag

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?

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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.

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?

Whither The Centre?

For some reason, I guess because I’m some kind of masochist, I tend to insert myself into all sorts of debates and discussions over politics.  Canadian politics, American politics, whatever – they all fascinate me, and if there’s one thing that’s becoming clearer and clearer over time, it’s that all politics is indeed local – everything matters, because we’re all really connected.

When I was a first year university student, I read Benjamin Barber’s article (since expanded into a book), Jihad Vs McWorld.  It was a very good explanation of the competing forces which we were just coming to be understood as “globalization”.  That article was six years old by then, but seemed to me very insightful.  I had started to understand those impacts during the brief travels I managed to do before and during school, which doesn’t seem to be a habit I’ve carried on with enough, though hopefully that will change.  Anyhow, if you’ve never read the article, do so – it’s worth a read.  It talks a fair bit about the ideas of confederalism and trying to define the role of a nation-state in this new world.  We’re seeing the same sort of thing now when we take a look at NATO trying to define a role for its future post-Cold War.  That, I suppose, is a whole other matter.

If I tell you that higher education softened my conservative views, I guess I’ll play into some sort of sick right wing stereotypes about liberal education.  Truth is, while I went to a very, very liberal school, I didn’t really start to really think like a centrist until a while after I was out of school in the real world and started to realize that all those monetarist, conservative “theoreticals” are just that, and they don’t really seem to work.  And I guess I realized that before a lot of people, because what I’m seeing unfolding in the world suggest it.

What happened to the idea of a rational, pragamatic centrist movement?  In the US, the only people I’ve seen claiming the label of centrists are really right wingers trying to sell themselves a little softer.  In Canada, the reasonably centrist Liberal Party of Canada just got totally wiped out in the recent election, and the “Progressive Conservative” Party no longer exists.  Although Prime Minister Harper doesn’t strike me as having some incredibly insidious right wing agenda, he also learns a fair way to the right, more than perhaps I’d consider acceptable, and even worse, some of the clowns in his party are far less ambiguous about it.

The problem is, as I see it, we have a whole lot of challenges to deal with.  Climate change, regardless of the degree to which you accept the anthropogenic nature thereof, is something that is going to impact the world somehow – it’ll change migration patterns, it’ll impact food supplies, it will impact everyone in some way.  The global economy is another problem – casino capitalism as it were has impacted us certainly.  The world’s largest economy sits in a country that faces massive budget deficits and complete unwillingness to overcome the polarization in politics in such a way as to actually make any progress.  There’s no rational voice in the centre trying to balance out the two highly polarized sides in any debate, and so there’s deadlock.

Why do we have to talk only about tax cuts, tax hikes and spending cuts and not look at other ideas?  More importantly, why is there no discussion of combining various approaches in the US for example to solve problems?  Obviously, taxes have to rise in some form in the USA, it’s just a matter of time.  Despite the claims of various pundits on the right, America does indeed have a revenue problem.  It does have a spending problem too, and that will take a lot of effort, it’ll take some pain I’m sure to fix it effectively, but it must be done in some form.  What astounds me is the denial of realities that healthcare reform as it’s been initiated by the Obama Administration will likely help while actually improving healthcare outcomes.  I’m also surprised (not really) that no one seems to grasp that massive, massive military spending cuts in the USA are going to be necessary to make any progress.   Those cuts will have to come from capital procurement primarily, and allowing the force to shrink via natural attrition.

What I don’t get is why people aren’t demanding better from politicians, demanding actual reasoned discussions.  I guess that advantage we had in Canada when we went through this in the 1990s is that our Parliamentary system allows the government of the day to just get on with things without having to constantly battle the opposition.  Score 1 for us.  Obviously there’s no way to make changes to that, but where are the voices starting up to the Professional Left and the Theocratic-Fascist-Corporatist right?

Thoughts On Israel & Palestine – Early Thoughts.

Lots in the news lately about Israel and Palestine, given President Barack Obama’s recent speech where he referred to the need for negotiations based on a starting point of the pre-1967 borders, with what he called “mutually agreed upon swaps”, meaning that there would likely need to be some exchanges of territory to reflect where people have setter since that time.

President Obama’s speech brought a strong response from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He strongly dismissed the President’s statement saying that it would leave Israel “indefensible”. The statement isn’t totally off-base, in simple terms. The Golan Heights region seized from Syria offers some significant strategic advantages which Israel would be understandably loath to relinquish.

That said, the real controversy seems more to stem from President Obama’s explicit enunciation of what has long been a US policy regarding a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. Netanyahu seems to be some kind of darling among a set of the American right that seems to have an innate ability to suspend any form of rationality when it comes to Israel, and his bluster against Obama apparently made them very happy.

What I want to try to do is explore this obsession with Israel and its implications for any form of lasting peace. I’m not any sort of expert on the matter but I’m just going to sort of audibly ponder the situation.

While I think the world meant well in giving assistance to the Zionist movement in establishing the State of Israel, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, I have come to wonder if it was really a good idea.  Divorce, for a moment, the religious fantasies that played a role (not least of which is the dominionist Christian eschatology) in the location of the state, and consider this: carving a new state which immediately set about bringing settlers from all over the world into land that had been occupied by another group for many years, and surrounded by nations which stood little chance of abiding this new neighbour, and the nightmarish flood of refugees it created.  In any reasonable context of consideration, it makes absolutely no sense.

Being someone who follows this blog I will take some license in assuming that you have at least some background in the history of the State of Israel, including the Nakba, the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, and Israel’s involvement in the Lebanese Civil War.  If you aren’t up to speed, may I suggest Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut To Jerusalem as a primer?  Israel’s borders have expanded each time these conflicts have happened, including holding territory in the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank at various points.  They’ve made some pull backs, but still hold the Golan and effectively control the Gaza Strip and the West Bank even though they “withdrew” in 2000.

To get peace, I have to just consider two states bickering regardless of the other issues.  One is militarily mighty but considers itself to face a constant existential threat.  It also has a stronger economy, and some friends in high places.  The other is militarily weak, faces a stagnant economy, and lives under the boot of the other, finding the situation uncomfortable enough as it is, but made worse by the fact that vast swathes of its population have been forced into third countries, and that there’s no prospect for improvement as the other country continues to encroach on the land.  Oh, and adding to the misery, the former party, well, they just showed up.

So what can I presume the average Palestinian divorced from politics wants?  I’ll hazard a guess that it’s similar to what Israelis want – and more importantly, what any human likely wants – to live peacefully, to be able to make a decent living, to provide for their children, and to see them grow up wealthier and better off.  To do that, it strikes me, isn’t hard, but that’s why Israel needs to make the rather reasonable concessions that were essentially articulated by President Obama a few days ago, but are nothing new.  They don’t need to capitulate on everything, and they’ll still remain militarily quite strong.  They do, after all, have quite a nuclear arsenal among other things, but I’d hazard a guess that on the Arab Street a reasonably negotiated two-state solution will probably be enough to make most people accept the existence of the country.

There’s a lot more to it, but I just wanted to start somewhere.

Early Thoughts On Wikileaks

I’ve been trying to sort out my position on the latest release by Wikileaks and on the site and its concept in general since it all made headlines. I’ve looked at some of the cables revealed, as well as the many other things they have released since they came into existence. It is something fascinating and thorny to me to try to come up with a position on.

Conceptually the answer should be simple. I believe in the importance of civil liberties and that free speech should trump virtually all concerns about the content of the speech, saving exceptions of course for libel, slander, and spreading hatred or false news. That should make it rather simple for me to say that Wikileaks has done nothing wrong.

I do, however, believe that rights imply responsibility and that it is important to use them judiciously in the interests of society. This is where the problem arises with Wikileaks.

I should say that I am no real fan of Julian Assange. He strikes me as a genius but also something of an egomaniac as interested in his own status as he is in the ideals Wikileaks claims to uphold. I’m not going to say much more about him, because what matters is the site, the info, and its impacts. The reality is that whatever becomes of Assange is ultimately irrelevant. He is not Wikileaks, he is merely the most public face of it and many others stand ready to pick up where he has left off I suspect.

I understand, at some level, what it is that Julian Assange thinks he is accomplishing. Wikileaks seemed originally to be put together to shine light into dark corners, to illuminate those things that go on that most of us simply don’t know about. The first time I went to the site it was sort of a clearing house for every imaginable sort of document and inside information. The idea seemed to be to fill in what journalists have failed to do, to expose more of the world. In principle this is a good thing I think. Exposing things like Scientology is good.

Then came the Collateral Murder video, which was released to highlight the more grisly side of the war in Iraq. It was in my eyes more a tragic illustration of the fog of war and the risks that journalists take to get stories out. It is my understanding that the soldiers involved were not found to have done anything wrong in the tragic event, simply to have acted on the basis on their understanding of what was happening.

The main concern raised by opponents of the leaks recently concerning Iraq, Afghanistan, and the US diplomatic cables is a perfectly reasonable one. Sources face great risk in giving information to diplomats or military personnel because of the potential for those they provide information on to threaten them or their families. In Afghanistan, for example, ISAF relies on many HUMINT (human intelligence) sources for information on what the Taliban is up to, how their networks operate, etc. These sources are absolutely vital to the mission and deserve protection of their identities because the threat to them and their families is very real. You can be quite sure that when the Afghanistan files were leaked, the Taliban’s leadership was very quickly studying it to add to a list of collaborators to be targeted for execution as soon as possible.

Similarly, the diplomatic cable leaks have the potential of discouraging normal flows of information in the diplomatic community though I consider this risk low as most of the cables seem to contain information that is innocuous. The sort of frank off-the-cuff assessments seen about world leaders and other personalities and so on is what diplomats get paid to produce. There is some embarrassment perhaps about the raw cables being aired but realistically there isn’t much to get worked up about.

The assessment the takes the form of trying to objectively assess the benefits offered by the leaks against their consequences. The trick is that I’m not sure how to assess any tangible benefit to the leaks but plenty of consequences from some of the things released, particularly raw leaks that are potentially untrue. There was for example a document leaked about Afghanistan suggesting certain Canadian casualties were victims of friendly fire which were quickly refuted by others who were there. The releases were factually incorrect early assessments.

In the so called “Cablegate” releases there has been an effort with various media outlets to manage the leaked information and to remove some details which may cause problems like names. I don’t know how effective that effort will be because some really simple analysis might still reveal the identities of some of the sources. Intelligence types call this sort of thing “mosaic theory” – cobbling together tidbits from open sources which allows them p surmise the content of the gaps better. Particularly juice bits of intelligence may have their sources hidden but it’s not hard potentially to determine who would know the info and thus deduce the source of the leak.

As far as the leaks allegedly attributable to Bradley Manning, the Americans have some culpability. Allowing some many unfettered access to this information has proven disastrous. A pretty basic principle of information security is to keep things to those who need to know. The dispersion of all this info was a response to hoarding of info and I understand why that was done but it still seems striking that so much was available to one low level functionary.

So what to think of Wikileaks at this point, then? What have they accomplished? At this point I’m not totally sure that they have done anything particularly positive, and I see at least a potential for significant negatives. I guess I have to keep myself listed as ambivalent about the whole thing for now.

Ramblings – On Retirement Ages Eventually.

I have a myriad of things running through my mind at the moment, and I haven’t really been updating the blog lately.  It’s been even worse on my more personal one, I don’t think I’ve put anything meaningful there in a very long time, and that’s kind of sad in a way – I’ve had that blog since before the word existed, back when LiveJournal was a referral service and someone had to give you an invite for you to join.

But being busy with other things is good, of course.  Work continues to be getting better and better, and it appears that for many reasons I’ve made a decent move.  I’m still not totally settled on things though, and I think my wife is homesick for Ontario more than she really admits, but is willing to concede that she has to give this a more thorough attempt.

Lots has been going on politically lately on both sides of the border, and I find it hard to nail down anything really sharp to say on a lot of it – in Canada, we have the renewed discussion of what the hell we are going to do in Afghanistan next year when the Parliamentary mandate for our current contribution to ISAF ends and in theory we are done.  As of my last check, the PM has decided that we’ll stay there in a training role, it sounds like in Kabul (vice the rather more dangerous Kandahar), with about 1000 troops on the ground.  I suspect that many of them will continue to be drawn from the Reserve, and have not given up on the idea of getting a tour in, though it’s hard to say what’ll happen.

This was sort of a dovetail from a major debate about Veterans Affairs, which started when the current ombudsman, Col Pat Stogran (ret’d) got into the spotlight for his vigourous criticism of the government’s handling of the claims of veterans, particularly those injured in Afghanistan, but also those with injuries, including invisible ones like PTSD, from previous operations.  Apparently it’s Bosnia veterans that report the highest rates of debilitating PTSD.

I don’t have a fully formed opinion on that whole thing, though I understand fully the frustration many feel because I’m a VAC client myself – well, I’m trying.  I was injured during my basic officer training years ago, I probably broke my foot but didn’t know it because I received rather lacklustre treatment, and no follow-up when I was sent home from the course, this is a common problem Reserve soldiers face that is starting to get addressed.  While I’m not so badly off, I do have a lot of pain from time to time walking, and I need special orthotics to be able to do my job.  My civilian job’s benefits currently pay for them, but I’d rather VAC do it.  I’m not really bothered about getting a lump sum payout (though it would go toward my house fund), I just want to make sure that if it gets worse as I get older, I have something to prove that it was due to service.

It took forever to apply, forever to get my first answer (no), and now I’ve been just to busy to jump through the hoops that the Bureau Of Pension Advocates wants me to endure.  We’ll see how it goes.

So we went to Boston a couple of weeks ago on our first real “vacation” in a long time – in fact, it was sort of our honeymoon for our fifth anniversary, just a long weekend, but it was neat to be there in the run up to the elections and all – we actually came home the day of, listening to the results come in on XM.  It is a little different seeing how things work in the US compared to here – one thing that really struck me was that it was hard to size up opinions from signs not knowing the actual candidates, since it seems that American candidates don’t always put their party on their signage, or in any way use colours etc that ID them.  Not so here, where signs are generally standardized and it’s pretty clear who’s who.

In the end, I guess the results didn’t surprise me.  I was happy to see that most of the crazy teabaggers got smited, though Rand Paul getting into the Senate was just a bit shocking, I have a feeling those Tea Party morons are going to regret sending him there.  Seriously, that guy has some ridiculous ideas and opinions, truly baffling that he was electable.

Losing the House was no shock, the Democratic Party has amazed me with its inability to put its majority to work and just get things done.   Particularly in the face of the idiocy spewed out by the Republicans.  I don’t get how people fall for their bullshit.  I read their “Pledge” which was mostly fluffy empty rhetoric and nonsense aimed at people who don’t really know much about politics.  The tax cuts thing is the most galling.  There is no reason to believe that a tax cut for the most wealthy will do anything to stimulate the US economy, and more ridiculously, the people calling for it keep calling themselves fiscally responsible.  Adding $700 billion to the US deficit is just not fiscally responsible, it smacks of the highest forms of hypocrisy, which seems to be their theme anyhow.  How does the GOP plan to balance the budget?  What will they cut, specifically?  They have no idea, no plan.  When you highlight to them that a staggering cut to the military they understandable go ballistic at the idea.

The silly thing is that the things that are reasonable to discuss are now being rejected by both sides – things like discussions of retirement ages and entitlements.  Given my personal background I have some insight on this, and that’s what I think I’ll focus on here.

One of the things put out as an idea in the United States was reforming Social Security by raising the retirement age.  You’ll likely know that France was recently gripped by protests and strikes over a plan to raise its state retirement age from 60 to 62, a move expected to save the French social security significantly.  To me, 62 seems still very generous, but anyone familiar with France’s generous welfare state will tell you that it’s still a big change.

As one of my colleagues likes to highlight to people when doing retirement planning presentations, the conventional retirement age of 65 was chosen for a reason.  The reason is simple: Life expectancy was (depending on which study of which country you look at) about 59 (or 63, I’ve also heard quoted).  That means that there was a pretty good chance that you’d never actually qualify to retire, you’d work until you died, and social security systems were in place to look after the lucky folk who actually lived longer.

The reality is that when you look at demographic trends and how long people live, it’s not reasonable to have a state pension fund a retirement that is in some cases nearly as long as one’s working life.  Even well managed ones (like the Canada Pension Plan) won’t be stable for long under such a setup.  Even now, more and more people are working longer, or phasing retirement by working less and less, but still working in some capacity.  In the case of many retirees I work with it’s out of boredom as much as anything else, a need to keep doing something.

We need to change the way we think about working and retiring, and about older workers if this is the approach we’re going to take, though.  In Canada the current approach is to stiffen the penalty for drawing one’s pension early.  Currently you can draw CPP at age 60 but you get penalized 0.5% per month for every month early you draw it – that’s going to increase to 0.6%, meaning that you will only get 64% of your entitlement vice 70% if you start at age 60.  They’re also increasing the premium one gets for delaying drawing a pension, which they hope will persuade people still working to wait a couple of years in exchange for a larger annuity.  That could work and should be helpful.  I have to wonder how such changes might impact Social Security in the USA…

This is kind of discussion that has to be had, though, because pensions are a ticking timebomb potentially, as boomers retire, and there simply aren’t as many workers coming in behind them – and well – there’s not as many growing up either… but that’s something for another entry.  The key is, it’s going to take createive ideas and not political dogma to get things going again, and that will take a lot of dialogue that we all need to be involved in.

The Spectacle That Is Politics

Politics of all sorts have been rather interesting lately.  First, there’s been the failure of Manitoba MP Candice Hoeppner’s Private Member’s Bill C-391, which was designed to finally scrap the Long Gun Registry.  It made it through two readings before a number of New Democratic Party MPs were persuaded to switch sides and defeat it by the narrowest of margins.  One of them, Peter Stoffer, is an MP from Nova Scotia, and the number of angry letters in today’s Halifax Chronicle-Herald is interesting.  His riding will be one targetted in the next federal election campaign I’m sure by the Conservative Party.

I’m annoyed C-391 failed, mainly because there are simply no good arguments for the registry that justify spending any further money on it when there are other programs that could be persued in its stead that might actually improve public safety, but I think I’m more annoyed that it’s revealed the true dark underbelly of Canada’s political system currently, and shown that while Stephen Harper is the best guy to be running the show right now, he’s really not great, and should count himself very lucky that there is no credible alternative to him for the time being.

For all his efforts this summer, much to the chagrin of the aforementioned Mr. Harper, Michael Ignatieff is just not resonating with a lot of Canadians (except maybe those damned “Toronto elites” that MP John Baird hates so much), and that suits me fine, as it means that the status quo of a relatively powerless Conservative minority will last.  I’m okay with that.

The next big PMB that seems like it’ll come up for debate is Gerard Kennedy’s C-440, which basically neds the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to allow American deserters to qualify for refugee status in Canada.  This is probably the most alarming development to me lately.  Since the Iraq War in the US started, there’s been quite a few American military personnel who have deserted and made their way to Canada, where they have tried to claim refugee status.  So far, none of them have been accepted, and they have no reasonable prospect of doing so unless the definition of “refugee” is significantly altered.  Some have been deported already, and prosecuted in the normal maner in the United States, others have not.

So, let’s be clear.  A deserter from a volunteer military in a liberal democractic country like the USA – someone who was not conscripted or otherwise impressed into service – should absolutely not be considered a refugee, period.  The definition of refugee in Canada is taken from the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.  A refugee is a person who, “”owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

A deserter is not someone facing persecution.  They face prosecution for the crime, but that is not justification for another country to offer them refuge, particularly when desertion is an offence in Canada as well, under Section 98 of the National Defence Act.

These so-called “war resisters”, all of whom joined the military knowing (or at least, they ought to have known) the risk that military service entails, the possibility of being deployed to a serve in a war zone, whether they agree with the politics of the war or not, have no business in Canada.   They are owed nothing by us, and to bend our rules to process these people is an affront to the process of aiding legitimate refugees.

So, C-440 must fail, and any politician who supports it in any way better not be asking for my vote as they will not get it.  It’s an insult to anyone who has accepted unlimited liability in military service, who has made any sort of sacrifice as such, that some selfish fool who doesn’t want to live up to their end of the bargain should be allowed a pass.

As if Canadian politics isn’t interesting enough of late, there’s the brewing shitshow in America.  I am rather interested to see what will happen in the mid-term elections in November.  My father was musing last night that he wants to make sure he’s at his place in Arizona on November 2 to see the results and listen in on the conversation.  I have to think it’ll be interesting.

I don’t get what the hell this “Tea Party” movement is going to accomplish.  It seems that “their” candidates are nothing but utter wingnuts, people whose only credibility seems to be some hatred of the status quote and little or no knowledge of anything to do with the challenge of running a country.  Most astounding is their disdain for, or avoidance of the democratic process – such as interaction with the media.  In a democratic society, the media has a role to play in getting candidates’ messages out and in holding them to account for what they say.  The recent antics of two of the chief wingnuts, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Nevada’s Sharron Angle are prime examples.  Both seem to avoid any sort of media contact out of a fear of “gotcha questions” – like, as one pundit put it, “What is your plan when you get into office?”.  O’Donnell comes off as a puritan religious nutter, and Angle, well… she’s certifiable I think, the shit this woman has said in the past makes me astounded that anyone would take her remotely seriously.

Of course, if you think the Republicans have a rational plan for anything, take a look at their “Pledge To America”  and see what you think.  I had a hard time taking it seriously, except for the ideas of not intermixing different policies into single pieces of legislation or tagging controversial matters to “must pass” bills in order to shoehorn them.  This is a feature of the American legislative process I’ve always been appalled by.

The Pledge offers no credible solutions, and sticks to the same nonsense that the GOP has parroted for ages – tax cuts create jobs, a healthcare reform act that won’t work, and so on.  It is the most empty set of policy ideas ever, designed to trade on the fear and lies they’ve promoted since they lost the last election.

For his part, President Obama has failed – not in policy accomplishments – he has gotten a lot done – but he has utterly failed to show the value of his presidency to Americans – he’s not made any real political capital on them.  He’s tried to be nice when the GOP haven’t, and now he really needs to go on the attack, he’s started a little bit, attacking John Boehner (what’s with that guy’s obsession with tanning, by the way) directly, and so on.  He needs to show average Americans that GOP policies are bad for them, and he needs to get on that quick.

In which I try to figure out my position on the Flotilla mess

I’ve got to say, whoever it was that came up with the idea of the “freedom flotilla” is something of a genius. The idea of running the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is brilliant, because it put Israel into essentially a no-win situation. Israel was forced to react somehow, and it was pretty clear from the outset that there was essentially no reaction possible that would not result in bad press for them.

In the case of one of the ships – Mavi Marmara I believe it was called, the IDF walked right into the trap. The Manchester Guardian, one of my favourite newspapers, called the reaction what I think it most clearly was – something of an “own goal” for Israel. Likely none of us will ever know what happened on that ship, but we know that when it was over, nine people were dead.

I do think Israel went about the boardings in a reasonable way. The video I’ve seen does very clearly show that the main weapon carried by the boarding parties was an old fashioned Tippman 98 paintball gun, an excellent non-lethal weapon, whether they were shooting rubber balls, pepperballs, whatever. It also shows clearly that the men aboard the ships met them with violence despite several warnings that the IDF intended to enforce the blockade and would not allow them to land in Gaza.

The claims that the IDF committed what amounts to piracy doesn’t seem to hold up.  A military colleague sought the relevant information from the various applicable “laws of the sea”, and it seems that when a blockade is publicly announced, a state has the right to intercept any ships that intend to breach it, even in international waters.  It seems the Israelis knew the rules and followed them.  They have the blockade in place for a reason and it’s no secret.  They couldn’t allow it to be run.  That, of course, is what the organizers counted on I think.

It’s significant to note that only on the Mavi Marmara was their any real violence.  The other ships were boarded peacefully and without significant incident, all were then taken to Ashdod where the Israelis unloaded the cargo and offered to transport it onward to Gaza.  Well, some of it – the banned materials, like concrete, were not going to be forwarded.

The video released from the boarding suggests to me that the Israeli use of force wasn’t unjustified – they went in with non-lethal weapons and were attacked with metal bars, clubs, chairs, and apparently knives.  This isn’t “passive resistance” they encounter on the ship – it was active hostility, and the ship had been duly warned of the impending boarding.  I think the loss of life is regrettable but I don’t see that Israel did anything wrong in that sense.

The broader issue is the long term future for the region.  The Israelis of late – or rather, their current government, as I don’t believe the Israelis have a universal opinion, seem to be bent on prolonging the misery of the occupation.  The fact that Netanyahu allowed new settlements to be constructed while being visited by US VP Biden shows a ridiculous disregard for any effort at a peace process, I would think. 

I take a pretty sharp view of things.  Israel is a dependency of the United States of America when you really consider it.  It has something of a strong economy, but it is the largest recipient of US foreign aid, primarily in the form of military aid.  The second largest recipient is Egypt, which the USA seems to provide support to in order to use their leverage with other Arab states to keep the peace.  Were it not for the support of the USA, I don’t think Israel would last too long at all, it would be driven out of existence if only to restore a state for the Palestinians.

The roots of the conflict are deep and difficult to understand.  I, some time ago, did a lot of reading on the subject trying to understand the different dynamics of the region – not just Israel, but also Lebanon, another hotspot with a complex past and a number of dynamics that make it difficult to understand its interests, its key people, etc.  Lebanon itself is a really strange mess that also needs a long term solution, but that’s fodder for another blog maybe.

The Israel mess, like so many global conflicts, dates to the remnants of colonialism.  To this day in many parts of the world we endure the fruits of various great games, in Africa, in Asia…  The British Mandate for Palestine and the Balfour Declaration which set in motion the Zionist movement to settle Israel created this mess.  I don’t think it was something that was done with any sort of idea that we’d wind up in this situation, but one has to wonder what was expected when an influx of Jewish immigrants showed up in the region and immediately found themselves in conflict with the Palestinians who lived there already.

And so the stage was set for conflict.  I don’t plan to use this blog to rehash the history of the modern State of Israel – I’m neither an expert on it nor is it necessary – the interested reader can simply research it themselves, there are ample sources available.  I’m more interested in the current situation and the prospects for the future.

It, to me, is simple.  There is no viable long term solution but some manner of a two-state solution – a situation where the Palestinians receive statehood, and the ability to build their economy and create prosperity.  Look at recent statistics about the economic disparity between the occupied territories and Israel, and you’ll see what drives the conflict.  It’s not nationalism, it’s not religion, it’s none of these things, though they are tools of those in power – it’s economics – it’s the fact that people who have nothing will fight to get anything.

That’s why this was such a trap for Israel and played right in to Hamas’ hands in Gaza.  It’s something that people just don’t seem to get, and it’s a key part of the tyrants’ playbook.  In order to retain legitimacy in power, tyrants need to be able to control their subjects.  The most effective means to do so is to keep them poor and ignorant.  This is something religions have understood for a long time, and they’re extremely good at it.  To go the next step, tyrants need a great national enemy against which they can cast themselves as the people’s salvation.  Israel has served remarkably well in this role for Hamas, for Hezbollah, for other factions in the area.

To flesh this idea out, I like to point to Cuba.  The United States has had a very robust economic embargo against Cuba since 1962 – though the actual embargo started in 1960.  This tremendous campaign has done absolutely nothing to liberalize Cuba at all, but in fact, one can argue, it actually made Fidel Castro, and now his unofficial successor Raul Castro stronger.  As Cubans experienced continued poverty as a result of the embargo, Castro could point to the USA as an enemy of the people, the source of their misery, and could show himself as leading the revolution necessary to overcome them.

Look then at North Korea, again, poverty and ignorance keep the masses under the control of the Kim Family Regime, more properly described as a cult, I’d say.  The reason that they can maintain their grip on power is an ability again to point to America.  So long as their propaganda machine can keep people convinced that the US is the architect of their misery, the system works.

The Israelis are being trapped by the same mess.  By starving the people of the occupied territories, by choking off their economy, it’s easy for Hamas, Fatah, and Hezbollah to characterize them as manifestly evil, and to garner support for the continued struggle against the occupation.  It was this that allowed them to rally people to the intifadah in the first place, after all, and it builds tacit support for an undercurrent of religious extremism too.

So what’s to be done?  Well, let’s go back to a parallel – Cuba.  If the Americans really wanted to see Cuba liberalize and the Castro regime fall, then they’d lift the embargo, call by-gones by-gones, and realize what Cuba is to the rest of the world – a Caribbean island with beautiful beaches, lots of resorts, and really friendly people.  Americans would flood into the country to take advantage of it, to see its wonders, and to interact with the people.  The economic growth and actual interaction would disarm most of the claims about the revolution, and I think you’d see Cuba liberalizing very, very quickly, much as we saw happen in Europe.

In the case of Israel and Palestine, it is a little more complicated – but the principle is the same.  Open up – let the economy of Gaza and the West Bank begin to grow – let more cultural exchanges happen, let Gazans interact with Israelis more, and eventually you’ll see that relationships and trust forms.  This happens already all over the place on the small scale, but it needs to be broadened.  If that was the case, eventually Hamas would lose its influence, the ignorance and poverty on which they rely to stay in power would fade, and two states could probably live as decent neighbours.

What’s killing me with the whole thing is deeper than this rather simple premise.  It’s these people who are “supports of Israel” in the USA who tend to be fundamentalist nutcase Christians.  They “support” Israel because in order to fulfill their absolutely insane eschatological views (that’s fancy talk for the end of the world), they need Jews to be in Israel to trigger the great battle, Armageddon.  These sick people actually, really, truly believe this bullshit.  I think that’s why so many of them want to see the USA take on Iran, another country run by a religious nutcase who can point to America as the Great Satan from which he defends Iran. 

These folks, it seems, actually think that war in the Middle East is a “good” thing, because it fulfills the insane “prophesy” of the Bible.  This too is nothing new in the region.  In Thomas L. Friedman’s very insightful book on the region, From Beirut to Jerusalem, he describes the efforts of some of the more crazy Messianic Jews to bring about the coming of their Messiah.  I’m no expert on the story, but the way Friedman tells it is rather simple.  It seems that for the Messiah to come, the Temple of Solomon needs to be rebuilt in Jerusalem.  The trick is, the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the Dome of the Rock) sits on top of the site, rather inconveniently.  Jewish extremists figured that the easiest way to bring about this great event was to, as he put it, “dust off the throne” by blowing up the Dome of the Rock.  Fortunately, Israeli intelligence was wise to them and prevented what would have been a cataclysmic event.

Ultimately, I hate that those folks cannot seem to give any critical thought to the situation.  I think they’re fucking dangerous, frankly, and that’s why being an atheist I cannot see any good reason to be silent and rather have to call them out for their stupidity.  They seem to have bet big on a Bronze Age bullshit story and I think they’re totally, dangerously wrong.

In the end it seems that religion is what fuels this mess – without it there’d be no intifadah – no need for the conflict, because Zionism wouldn’t exist at all.  This is a sad, shining example of how poisonous to civilization religion really is – that one group of people would do violence to another over their idea of of god – the same god, for fuck’s sake!

I’m sure that some might read this and think I’m pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel – or worse “anti-semetic”.  Bullshit.  I’m none of the above.  While I think Zionism meant well it’s been a destructive nightmare in the end, but I don’t begrudge the nationalist aspirations of a group like the Jews, particularly in light of the persecution they’ve endured over the years.  I don’t see how there’s any good end to the situation, simply, without a recognition of the right of the Palestinians to be there too, and some effort to share the land and build a future.  This is something that has to start happening, and it has to start with the youth there.  The government of Israel has to take the lead – and its patron – the piper that calls its tune – the US – needs to motivate them to get on with it, I think – something that Obama has sort of done but not particularly well.  It’s time to stand up to Israel and remind them who pays the rent, as it were.

In the end, 2100+ words later, I’m no closer to really having a position on the flotilla, but I hope at least there’s some clarity for anyone who bothered to read the whole thing as to why I can’t make up my mind on it.  Comments are as always welcome.

The Oil Spill – And The Strange Impacts Thereof

What’s going on right now in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster.  Not that that’s a particularly insightful statement, but it’s true.  It’s a demostration of the very, very awful things that can go wrong in modern industry.  As much as companies will say that they plan for every imaginable contingency, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is proof that it’s impossible and unrealistic to assume that indeed we can handle anything.

What’s really shocking is that like so many other disasters, it’s been turned into some sort of perverse political football as well.  It shows a lot about conservatives/teabaggers who hate big government, but curiously have been pleading for government intervention.  Probably the funniest example of this was raving lunatic Michelle Bachmann.   Commandeer boats?  That sounds like tyranny to me. 

Then there was the world’s biggest moron, Sarah Palin, posting on her ludicrous Facebook page blaming “liberals” for offshore drilling, and trying to qualify that when she said “drill baby drill” she didn’t mean that.  Again, the media mocked her, and deservedly so.

These same people are the ones calling this “Obama’s Katrina” and demanding he do something about the hemorrhaging wellhead.  I don’t know what these people figure Obama could do.  I think the comparison to Katrina doesn’t work, either.  I got the impression – though I’ve not looked into it as much – that Dubya simply accepted the administrative incompetence of FEMA in dealing with the aftermath of that event.  In this case, the catastrophe is ongoing, but it doesn’t seem that no one is doing anything about it.  I’m sure BP’s engineers are working long hours trying to figure out how to handle the problems.

The laugh is that it all is coming down to these champions of the free market looking like complete hypocrites.  They’re basically calling for socializing the costs of the mess, when they should of course be advocating for BP, TransOcean, Halliburton, Cameron, and any other firms who might be found to have contributed to the disaster to pay up.  If they are bankrupted in the process, so be it.  Of course, they have to get around the ludicrous liability gap that was another great conservative gift to the world.  I hope that can be done easily.

It certainly seems as though BP’s got lots of resources to fire up the PR machine, and I have to say they are doing a pretty good job of messaging on the whole issue, Tony Hayward and his US subordinates have been visible, and it seems to me fairly candid.  I don’t think Hayward is a bad man, nor do I think anyone in the industry is necessarily intentionally a villain.  Accidents always happen, and it seems like BP is trying to come out looking the best they can and hopefully can do this thing right.

This morning, however, the Nova Scotian magazine that I get with my Chronicle-Herald had a small article about the Niger Delta, and the environmental disaster there.  The amount of oil spilled there annual rivals Deepwater Horizon, apparently, never mind that they flare tremendous amounts of gas, and the companies operate with relative impunity. One source suggested that the equivalent of around 40% of Africa’s total volume of natural gas consumed is flared in the Delta annually.  Never mind the needless air pollution this causes, the release of greenhouse gases, etc, that’s natural gas that could be used for proper, necessary consumption.  The trick is that AG (associated gas) is expensive to separate and put into production, it’s cheap to just burn it off and maximize crude oil production instead.

 Most people in the Delta haven’t got access to any uncontaminated water, and suffer ill health as a result of oil production, and get no real benefit of it.  The terrible story of Ken Saro Wiwa is just one example of the problem. 

That’s not the only story of the misery of oil production – virtually everywhere, it’s the same.  Huge pollution problems, suffering amongst the local population, and a curious absence of direct benefits to those who live in the area in production. 

The only real thing I can see as a solution has been the obvious one for many years – we need to start weaning ourselves off of oil.  We need to work harder to find alternatives and making better use of what we have.  The fact that we’ll have to keep going further and further offshore to find and produce more oil and risk repeats of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is the best evidence of that, leaving aside climate change and all the other associated problems.  If we don’t start working at this now, we’re only going to see more problems – and we don’t even see all that are already here.