Archive for the ‘economics’ 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?

Canada Free Press – What A Joke!

Every now and then, I stumble across someone (usually an intellectually-barren right winger) who cited 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?

What better to do on a plane?

Might as well try to condense the last couple of weeks of thoughts into a blog post. I’m presently somewhere between Halifax and Detroit on a fog-delayed Delta flight on my way to the Fuck It Do It Live Tweetup in Arlington, VA tomorrow night. Why I’m going Halifax-Detroit-DC is a function of the fact that I booked this on SkyMiles I’ve accrued over the last ten or so years.

I’m actually looking forward to meeting so many people I interact with via twitter – I’ve only met one long distance twitter connection so this stands to be quite an experience.

It’s been a crazy month and a bit chez moi. I went into bit of a spin on learning a few weeks ago that I would be deploying to Afghanistan this winter. As soon as I got working on deployment preparations the whole thing came to a grinding halt. Or seemed to. Still not clear what’s happening. I hope to have some firm idea this week.

And there is so much going on in the world. Continued instability in markets and the fiscal mess that is Europe (Greece, specifically) is weighing heavily on economies. The problem, of course, is trying to get some manner of a grip on fiscal realities. No one likes the sound of austerity programs, but the reality is that’s what’s needed to a great extent. I often tell people that being Canadian I have some sense of what these are about. Canada endured the same measures in the 1990’s, slaying a pernicious deficit dragon. It was somewhat painful but we reaped the rewards for years afterward. We ran surpluses for over a decade until the 2008 financial crisis forced some deficit spending.

I’ll often point out that Canada was relatively unscathed by that mess. Note I say relatively, not completely. It wasn’t without impact, but we didn’t see a banking sector meltdown or housing market collapse – all thanks to reasonably prudent regulation that still allowed the business to thrive.

I guess that’s why I can be optimistic that things will, as they always do, work out alright.

I was most recently captivated as well by the effort to spare the life of Troy Davis. I won’t bore you with rehashing the story as I’m sure anyone who happens to read this blog knows it anyhow.

I don’t know if Davis was innocent or guilty. Truth is, there’s a good chance he may well have been guilty. But what matters is that I see no way any reasonable person can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was guilty, and for that reason I like most people was appalled that he was executed.

I don’t understand capital punishment. I don’t see what purpose it serves. I find it particularly troublesome that supposedly pro-life evangelical types are so enthusiastic about the idea of killing people, regardless of what justification they manufacture in their minds for it. Either killing is wrong, or it isn’t. Period.

I appreciate the irony of the fact that one of the two careers I have makes me a student of “kinetic effects” which is a fancy sciency sounding term for killing people. But I understand that the world is full of people who need killing, but only under the most careful and judiciously determined circumstances.

If a state is determined to retain the ability to put people to death, I submit that the standard for doing so must be so high as to be almost unattainable. There must be clear, irrefutable evidence – physical evidence, I’d say. Not subjective witness testimony. Something a CSI episode can turn on, I guess you might say. Every effort must be made to exonerate the accused before the sentence is carried out.

Of course, the smarter thing to do is simply abolish what ultimately is an act of revenge and barbarism as a relic of a past era. But I sense we aren’t really past whatever era that refers to – at least not in some jurisdictions.

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?

Musings About Agriculture

Between reading Collapse and the fascinating program I heard on CBC Radio One’s documentary program Ideas, I’ve been really fascinated with agriculture lately. Well, it’s not totally a new thing, it’s something I have always had some interest in.

Like so many, I grew up in suburban sprawl, with not a tremendous amount of contact with food supplies. I did have some idea about how we got our food insofar as we grew a fair variety of vegetables in our garden, and frequently during the summer we would travel down to the Niagara Peninsula to buy fresh fruit from the farms there.

My parents were no fans of convenience foods or fast foods so we did a lot of cooking from scratch which gave me some interest in culinary arts in general as well.

Most of what I knew about industrial agriculture came from a study in university on the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy and anecdotes about my uncle, who was a dairy farmer in England, who eventually gave up farming altogether.

Without trying to rehash a nine year old essay, what you might call industrial intensive agricultural has been encouraged in the West as a means, theoretically, of providing cheap, plentiful food. It requires significant energy inputs, both to operate farms and to produce the fertilizers required to keep land productive.

The impact has been rather damaging – both the externalized costs of pollution and run-offs, but also in unusual consequences. The CAP encourages production of as much as possible because of guaranteed price system, which has led farmers to plough up hedgerows and culverts, destroying habitat for migratory birds, etc.

It is interesting to note that in many places where societies/civilizations have collapsed misuse of land has been a significant contributor. Livestock is often a contributor to the problem, which is where I think the argument for vegetarianism got a lot stronger, the idea being that the inputs for raising, for example, beef, would actually feed many more people than the beef itself would. It makes a lot of sense.

Then I heard about more sustainable agriculture models, which resemble the original more traditional family farm model, where pastured livestock is raised on grass forage rather than heavily subsidized grain, and a variety of symbiotic relationships can be harnessed. This is what Polyface Farm in Virginia does, and to have heard Joel Salatin, whose family runs the farm I heard about, talk about his model is pretty incredible. You can check it out at and see a lot about how it works.

The contrast he talked about in the doc I heard was the concept of the feedlot, where livestock are packed in tight, fed subsidized grain, along with loads of antibiotics necessitated by the potential for the spread of disease in such unnatural circumstances.

The trick it sounds like is that because the agriculture industry is dominated by large players with the ear of government policy continues to seem to favour them, and the Ideas piece highlighted the fact that small packing plants which could process small herds for local sale have largely disappeared, because of onerous regulation.

Without trying to sound conspiratorial it is rather hard to try to explain such legislation and ignore the concept of lobbying impact. The big players in agribusiness surely have a role to play.

The thing is that I am starting to learn how mismanaging land as a resource – soil fertility, fresh water access, etc – is a key factor in failures of civilizations. One need not look far to see what happens with bad stewardship, even beyond the stark examples Jared Diamond writes about.

Consider, for example, Zimbabwe. Once the breadbasket of Africa, Southern Rhodesia was a political pariah after the unilateral declaration of independence under Ian Smith. Thriving commercial farms not only produced ample food, but tobacco and other products. The impact of sanctions made Rhodesia create its own economy and it muddled through. My father corresponded with ham radio operators there and learned much about the place during that era.

Then came 1980 – Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe became president. And things began to unwind dramatically. First in the early 1980s Mugabe launched violence against rivals in Matabeleland, but the real damage came starting in the late 1990s – “land reforms” a forced redistribution of land from mostly white commercial farmers to blacks, mostly ZANU-PF cronies dubiously called “war veterans”.

Not shockingly, with no aptitude for farming, these folks have in a few years destroyed the land, with fertile soil eroding away and Zimbabwe now relying on importing food. This sort of thing happens globally but this is the shocking extreme.

A recent op ed in the Globe & Mail looked at the other side though, how smallholders are not any better. It seems like ingenuity in farming will be essential to increasing food production in a sustainable way, but the reality seems that nature may have a means of dealing with the problem – starvation as population control.

This subject will continue to fascinate me and I think will get me to study it more. As I contemplate a new home in the spring I’ve already got quite an interest in looking into growing a lot, rather than having some lawn to look after.

Miscellany – A bunch of different things really.

Well, Captain Robert Semrau, who I mentioned in a previous post, has been acquitted of second degree murder by a jury in his court martial.  They did, however, convict him of the offence of disgraceful conduct, which can carry a prison term up to five years.  The sentence has not been passed yet, and there’s no indication of what will happen.  I think the jury must really have struggled with it, and now a judge will too.  Capt Semrau is a model citizen by most accounts, other than this event which was the product of a very, very unusual set of circumstances.

I hope it’s a lenient sentence that doesn’t end his career prematurely, that would serve no justice that I can think of.

Despite that, I’ve been annoyed that some people I know continue to be outraged that the matter ever saw a courtroom.  I cannot see any other way it could have been handled.  The allegations were made by other Canadian soldiers obviously uncomfortable with the event, who felt that their sense of duty compelled them to report it.  Once the allegations were made an investigation must begin and progress in the normal manner.  CFNIS decided that there was sufficient evidence to refer a charge, which is their job.  Those who think that the whole thing should have been swept under the rug should remind themselves of the Somalia Affair and the price that was paid in the end by an entire Regiment for transgressions of a few who could have been dealt with individually had the “system” worked.

I’m watching with interest the big military procurement decisions announced by the government.  They’re finally going to get the ball rolling on replacing our ancient AOR (replenishment/supply ships) fleet.  HMCS Protecteur & HMCS Provider are pretty significant assets to allow the global operation of the Canadian Navy, and it’s time to replace them.  It won’t be long before the Tribal-class/DDH-280 destroyers are going to need to be paid off, too.  I laughed a few weeks ago touring the USS Wasp and being told by the “guide” how the ship was likely to be paid off soon because it was 20 years old.  The newest frigates in the Canadian Navy’s fleet are nearly 20 years old.

Fleet week was interesting, though.  I was impressed the the Danish patrol ship I toured, HDMS Ejnar Mikkelson.  Apparently it’s primarily a coastal patrol boat used in the Arctic.  It’s small, versatile, carries a motor launch that can be fired out off a ramp at the rear in addition to a zodiac, and is lightly armed.  It strikes me that this is what we have the Kingston-class MCDVs for, but I think this Danish ship was a lot more modern and better equipped.  That’s the sort of thing it seems we should be looking at, I’d think.  The Danish Navy is something of a good analogue for us, perhaps – their Absalon-class ships are another potentially good example of ships we would get use out of.

Any time a government announces such big purchases there is of course the drama of deciding what else the money could be spent on.  This of course is an age-old economic quandary – the guns or butter problem.  In particular with the announcement of the single-source procurement of the F-35 Lightning II, there’s been a lot of that.  The 65 jets will cost a total of $16 billion when maintenance contracts are factored in over 20 years.  One has to wonder, do we really actually need them?  There’s that – and the single source thing – although realistically, we’ve already invested a fortune in the program, there’s lots of contracts coming to Canada, and there is no other 5th Generation fighter out there – though I laugh that it is single engine, and we bought out CF-18 Hornets over other alternatives like the F-16 because it was twin-engine and single was deemed to risky for sovereignty patrols over the Arctic.  We do need something to replace the Hornets and we need more naval capability to be able to assert our sovereignty over the north.  It’s not so much fun to know that it costs money, but it’s also necessary.

This ties into what’s been getting me a lot listening to all this stumping in the States – and it’s been in the press a lot – listening to these Republicans going on about the deficit and about how they are going to balance the budget – but David Gregory on Meet The Press tried to pin Mitch McConnell down to what, specifically, he would do in order to get the budget balanced – what difficult choices he’d make, and all he did was spin.  Chris Matthews did the same to Mike Pence, again lots of waffling, but nothing actually believable or concrete.

The fact is, much of the worst of the US budget deficit mess is the product of Republicans making stupid decisions like invading Iraq and the massive cost of the US military – the sacred cow that no one will admit to wanting – needing to cut.  It’s interesting that it draws parallels to the fall of various Empires – the cost of legions to defend the Empire saps the treasury to the point that it all collapses on itself.  I fear that could happen to the USA, and reading stuff like Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which incidentally is an amazing read, doesn’t dispel a lot of that fear.  None of the civilizations I’ve read about so far – all thriving – saw their end coming until it was too late to do anything to stop it.

This is where the debate in the States has to head.  Not to the stupidity of absurd talking points that are being raised by the teabaggers or their deluded prophet Glenn Beck et al, but to real decisions about how to get the spending on the government under real control, without any sacred cows, but in a way that makes the country actually stronger, instead of just making the insanely rich richer while the poor get more fucked over and the middle class just hollows out.  It’s not glib to say that the middle class as my parents’ generation knew it seems to be disappearing fast.  The idea of a single income household seems to be more and more preposterous to people I know, most of whom are now married and starting to have kids.  At least I don’t have that burden and don’t ever plan to.  It kind of makes me wonder why I care about the future so much – without any progeny to care about, when I’m gone none of it matters to me anymore anyhow!  I guess it’s that I wonder about how bad things could become in my lifetime, given the accelerating rate at which we seem able to fuck things up.

I guess I’ll just ride it all out and keep being an interested observer, once in a while writing some nonsense in a blog I hope some folks might find profound…

On Human Costs of Disasters

We’ve all seen the atrocious toll that the Deepwater Horizon disaster has taken, the oil and tarballs on beaches, the pelicans coated in the sludge.  We all heard (though many complained, with some justification, not enough) about the fact that 11 men who worked aboard the rig were killed in the initial explosions.  I say with some justification, because I don’t actually know if they were all men.  The industry is dominated by men but not exclusively ruled by men…  We have seen ample evidence of the havoc that has been wreaked by our efforts to extract more precious petroleum, that resource on which we have an unbreakable addiction, from more and more inaccessible locations.

There’s been only little bits said about the ripple effects spreading throughout the region, as fisheries are likely forever poisoned, and the people who depend on the Gulf to eke out some sort of a life for themselves stare at a future more bleak than any they have likely ever known.  It’s not just this one thing, either – but a series of catastrophes, mainly natural, that blight the region.

I’ve never been to Louisiana, but sometime soon I want to go – I want to see as best I can what’s left of the place, to try to and imagine what it was like before all these messes befell the region.

The great encapsulation of the tragedy is the story I heard the other day of William Allen Kruse, the captain of a charter fishing vessel based in Alabama called the Rookie.  His business basically destroyed, he took work from BP as part of the cleanup, and according to what I can read about him, became utterly despondent at seeing the fact that what he had build his entire livelihood around lay in ruins around him.  After putting out to sea, he was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.  His story, I fear, isn’t particularly unique – the ending perhaps more tragic than many will be, but the cost on the mental health of the people impacted directly must be staggering in ways most people cannot even begin to comprehend.  There are a variety of sources (that I’m apparently just too lazy tonight to link) about increases in domestic violence, people seeking medical attention for mental health issues, etc in the region, because of the impact of the spill.

It’s not just fishermen and charter boat operators being trashed.  It’s the various companies that service drill rigs.  There is a company based not far from where I live that is big in this industry, and these are very, very good paying jobs that are vanishing.  From a purely economic standpoint, that impact too must be felt in places like Port Fourchon which is one of the main supply bases for drilling operations.  Companies that own the support ships, companies that supply the rigs, they are all basically grinding to halts.  That means less people having money to spend on virtually everything, the wonder of an economic concept called the multiplier at work, except in the reverse of the way we generally learn about it – the money flowing into these communities already drying up.

I read not long ago several interesting articles about the severe environmental issues that already existed in much of the south.  I’ve always had an interest in these sorts of things, you see, and I’m the kind of person who needs the distraction of randomly reading up on something from time to time during the day.  I was drawn to the story of some of the small towns in Louisiana in the Lake Charles area, for example, that play home to huge petrochemical factories, factories that some argue only exist there because of the fact that the locals, who we’ll just say are generally part of a particular identifiable group, were so significantly disenfranchised that they couldn’t prevent them from coming, even if they claimed to offer good jobs.  Companies making things like vinyl chloride, generating toxic pollution on scales incomprehensible to most people, in flagrant violation of the law.  Go take a look on Google Earth – look at Lake Charles and then pan east and south and see the massive complexes there.

This is the lot that these people have had to contend with for years.  And it’s gotten dramatically worse since Deepwater Horizon.

When I heard about Mr. Kruse’s suicide, I was riding in to work with my wife, as we do, and the conversation was one of the more interesting ones, and one of the few tiems it seems we wound up vehemently disagreeing.  While I don’t condone Mr. Kruse’s choice, I think I can empathize to some extent, I can see why he may have found there was no way out.  I can’t imagine the stress of watching everything you’ve ever worked at evaporate because of corporate greed (if that in fact was the cause, but it does sound that way thus far), with no ability to do anything about it.  I can imagine the financial hardship, and can’t help but wonder how leveraged he was already – what bills he couldn’t even begin to pay.

It’s hard to find any sort of hope in a situation this bleak.  I hope that this will be the only story of it’s kind I hear, but I can’t say I’m optimistic.

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.