On both sides of the border, contrived budget crises mask real problems

11 Oct
The absurdity of the row between the GOP and President Obama over the ACA and the debt limit continues. Image via DonkeyHotey/flickr

The absurdity of the row between the House GOP and President Obama over the ACA and the debt limit continues. Image via DonkeyHotey/flickr

We should all have seen this coming.

For the third time since the beginning of Obama’s presidency, the GOP has resisted calls to raise the ceiling on borrowing by the U.S. Treasury. At each instance, the motive has been slightly different: the first time around, in 2010, a tidal wave of fresh-faced Tea Party Republicans that swept through the House was determined to limit the president’s reign to a single term. The second time around, in 2012, the GOP could smell a shot at the presidency, and insisted that federal spending be “brought under control”—despite the fact the federal deficit was already diminishing at an historic clip. Now, we find ourselves in the throes of Round 3, entailing the first (partial) U.S. government shutdown since 1996—and the primary motivation of the Tea Partisans this time, is to obstruct the introduction of President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

But although it’s easy to identify the party that bears the greatest immediate responsibility for the present situation, to place all of the blame on GOP congressmen would be a mistake. That is precisely what Obama wants us all to do—and it’s a tactic he has deployed with relative success throughout his presidency. When House Republicans—who no doubt have become increasingly reckless and extreme in their demands through the years—yank yet again at the levers of power at their disposal, Obama the statesman, Obama the centrist, Obama the perennial advocate of bipartisanship, seems to take veritable delight in the art of compromise.

The tragedy of his line of reasoning, however, is that there is no virtue in a compromise between misguided policy and disastrous policy.

The U.S. debt ceiling “crises” are contrived, unnecessary, and completely avoidable—yes, Obama himself has the power to prevent what has become an annual standoff against congressional Republicans, but for some reason, perhaps due to a lack of understanding on his part of the realities of the U.S. monetary system, he has consistently failed to exercise it. (This is an issue I’ll return to later in the post.)

The consequence, sadly for Americans in need, pensioners and public employees, is that President Obama consistently finds himself in a prison cell of his own device, with his Republican counterparts holding the key to his release.

Remarkable similarity

Canada and the U.S. share a great deal of history, and both countries find themselves in comparable positions in the second decade of the 21st century. Both are in the midst of wobbly “recoveries” from the depths of the economic collapse of 2008-’09. Both national governments arranged historic rescue packages for their big banks, along with inadequate, ill-apportioned fiscal stimuli, in an effort to avert the worst effects of the recession. And both countries’ leaders have since been persuaded, however erroneously, that despite the ruinous effects of austerity policies in Europe and the impossibility of “cutting one’s way to prosperity”, reduction of the federal fiscal deficit through substantial spending cuts should be their foremost domestic priority.

But as is always the case in the event of such belt-tightening, the cuts have not been distributed equally.

In Canada, a project ostensibly designed to reduce federal government spending has been accompanied by unnecessary and unhelpful reductions in the corporate tax rate, an enlargement of the federal public service, and investments of tax dollars in costly propaganda campaigns for the government and its associates in the oilsands industry. In the U.S., Wall Street bankers have continued to enjoy the benefits of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve, transferring their toxic liabilities to the central bank’s balance sheet, while recipients of food stamps, medicare and medicaid have stood in the crosshairs of further efforts to scale back their already paltry benefits. Both governments have taken steps to curb their regulatory bodies, in the vain hope that by “liberalizing”, and unfettering the powers of the corporate-dominated “free market”, their economies will soar to dazzling heights.

History has repeatedly demonstrated the failure of unfettered, unregulated capitalism. But even through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the economic religion of neoliberalism has proven largely impervious to factual debunking.

Although the regimes of our respective countries appear ideologically distinct, their policies have aligned like the iron rails of a train track. Obama, derided by his more strident critics on the right as a “liberal”, or even a “socialist”, has presided over record wealth inequality, a foreclosure crisis, an unemployment crisis, and record corporate profits. Honey-tongued, he extolls the values of American progressivism, while inculpating his political opponents for his most virulent domestic economic decisions. The government of Stephen Harper, meanwhile, though possessing a majority in the House of Commons, is constrained in the court of public opinion by the relative social liberalism of most Canadians; it is for exactly this reason that it invests so heavily in its endeavours to mould public opinion, spin political talking points to its advantage, and boorishly denigrate its most visible political adversaries.

Despite their differences, the agendas of the respective governments have produced remarkably similar effects on the ground: namely, to undermine, repress and render increasingly unsustainable an already fragile domestic economy, while promoting increased fossil fuel extraction in the face of increasingly ominous warnings from climate scientists.

The Athabasca oilsands are simultaneously the largest industrial project on earth, and one of the most destructive manmade ecological calamities in history. Image via Pembina Institute/flickr

The Athabasca oilsands are simultaneously the largest industrial project on earth, and one of the most destructive manmade ecological calamities in history. Image via Pembina Institute/flickr

The wrong priorities

Why did our respective governments decide austerity was the best policy, at a time when the global economy is limping along, wealth inequality is rising, the ecosystem upon which all life depends is in peril, and so much of our infrastructure is badly in need of upgrading? Why, in an epoch of unprecedented total levels of net worth, are we locked in a false discourse of scarcity? And why do our leaders—both political and financial—seem to possess such a dismal understanding of economics, credit, and debt?

Since the release of a fallacious 2010 study by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, it has become fashionable for policymakers to fixate on the level of public debt a country carries, in both absolute terms, and relative to GDP. Consistently cited as an impending potentiality if we fail to “rein in spending” is the crisis in Greece, where unwieldy levels of public indebtedness forced the national government to seek repeated bailouts from the European Central Bank.

But the Chicken Littles of the economic world are, needless to say, omitting vital components from their analysis.

First of all, there is a crucial distinction between European countries like Greece, Spain, and Ireland, and nations like Canada and the U.S.: Unlike the aforementioned Eurozone states, both of the latter countries are issuers of sovereign currencies, over which our respective central banks and treasuries exert a great deal of control through taxation, spending, manipulation of interest rates, money “printing”, and in the U.S.’s case, the various stages of the quantitative easing program.

As long as our governments issue their own sovereign currencies, they are able to transfer funds to the accounts of their creditors, and fund their liabilities, simply by striking a few keys on a computer. In other words, it is almost impossible for either federal government to default on its dollar-denominated debts, and any situation (such as the current U.S. government shutdown) that appears to portend a “catastrophic” default, does so for political, and not financial, reasons.

In other words, Canada and the U.S. are not Greece, nor are our respective countries in danger of ending up in a severe recessionary spiral, of the sort currently experienced by Greece, in the near future.

On the list of challenges Canada and the U.S. face, the federal deficit is trivial compared to global climate change, biodiversity loss and the specter of mass extinction, crumbling infrastructure that will place our economies at a long-term structural disadvantage against our competitors if we fail to invest in upgrades, and some of the highest levels of household debt in the history of our respective countries. At present, we find ourselves in a zero-sum game of untenable private debt, hefty mortgage payments, and housing and asset bubble inflation, stemming in part from a long period of artificially low interest rates, courtesy of the misguided monetary “stimulus” policies of our respective central banks. And we needn’t remind ourselves of what happens if an economy become overleveraged, debtors begin to default en masse, and large credit bubbles burst…

We know how the Eurozone, Canada and the U.S. are handling their sovereign debt situations. But what about China?

Long redoubted as an engine of the world economy, China has recently experienced a slowdown in its economic expansion, partly because of foreign weakness, but also as the result of a conscious decision by Chinese policymakers to retard growth in order to limit inflationary pressures within the domestic economy. Since August, however, the Chinese economy has resumed strong growth.

How has China achieved this despite the economic ‘headwinds’?

Other than through currency manipulation (which is hardly the wont of China alone), and the suppression of wages and union organizing in its factories through what I call the CINO loophole (i.e. Communist in Name Only: China still fancies itself a communist country, and hence its workers “own the means of production,” which—purely in the realm of fantasy, of course—”obviates” any necessity for the formation of unions and demands for better wages and working conditions), China has invested in some of the most grandiose public infrastructure projects in human history. Beyond this, the world’s second-largest economy has maintained robust GDP growth through massive and continuing stimulus programs at the federal, provincial, and local level, largely in the form of direct government spending, as opposed to tax cuts for the wealthy and multinational corporations.

In other words, China’s macroeconomic strategy has been more or less the opposite of those embraced by technocrats in Europe, and the economically misfeasant governments of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere.

All of this is not to say, of course, that China does not have asset bubbles and other serious problems of its own, including severe environmental contamination, institutional corruption and the virtual absence of anything resembling the rule of law in many parts of the country, poor food, transport and workplace safety standards, the persistence of child labour, a lack of basic freedoms and civil liberties, and the regime’s apparent contempt for human rights. But China’s progress in multiple areas is undeniable, its macroeconomic indicators are strong, its employment-to-population ratio much higher than that of most Western economies. And although the material standard of living of the average Chinese citizen is inferior to that of the average American, or Canadian, China is rapidly catching up—with significant implications for the world’s supply of non-renewable natural resources, and the viability of global capitalism itself.

President Obama’s failure to avert conflict with his GOP adversaries

Contrary to what you may have been led to believe by those of Democratic inclination, President Obama is not merely a victim of the GOP’s debt ceiling tactics (which clearly amount to extortion). He has long had a pair of options available to him to rightly deprive the GOP—which has already lost a congressional vote, a federal election and a Supreme Court challenge over the ACA—of its bargaining power in this costly, unnecessary and unpopular showdown over healthcare reform. Unfortunately, he chose to exercise neither of them.

Option 1—Issue a platinum coin of the denomination of his choosing: The U.S. Constitution vests in America’s Congress the power to create money, and delegates this capacity to two federal agencies: the Federal Reserve, and the U.S. Mint. As explained in this article in the New York Times, in 1996, congressional Republicans passed a statute that permitted the issuance of platinum coins, of any denomination. If President Obama so chose, he could instruct his Secretary of the Treasury to request the minting of a platinum coin, with a face value of [insert number], which could then be deposited at the Federal Reserve. Thereafter, the Federal Reserve would simply credit the account of the U.S. Treasury, effectivley obviating any discussion of the “debt limit.”

Are you still following? No? Oh well, you can take my word for it. The trillion-dollar coin is a gimmick, of course, but so is the debt ceiling itself. Which brings us to

Option 2—Unliaterally raise the debt ceiling by invoking the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Aside from possessing the ability to order the minting of a coin of any denomination, President Obama can also invoke his executive powers to raise the debt limit without the approval of the extortionate Republican-dominated House, but has refused to do so.

Either option would be the next-best-thing to outright abolition of the debt limit, which numerous economists and informed commentators have rightly identified as a cumbersome anachronism.

However, with Obama having declined to exert either of these powers, the realistic outcome is predictable. The GOP and the Democrats will unite, over the next few days, to iron out the details of a “deal” that would enable them to avoid running up against the borrowing limit. The result will be further austerity and “streamlining” of the government’s regulatory agencies, at a time when the last thing the U.S. needs is more of either of those economic toxins. Meanwhile, in the U.S.’s neighbour to the north, our prime minister will continue in his misguided efforts to “balance the budget”—even if it comes at the expense of social cohesion, human rights, the economy, the environment, infrastructure, and Canada’s valuable stock of non-renewable resources.

What our countries actually need

“We should realize that the [quantity of] resources in our economies—the United States and Europe—is the same as it was five years ago…What has happened is, we’re having a fight over claims, claims to resources…and the fight over claims, is interfering with out use of these resources.

“If we could only get our resources back to work…to use the creativity of the citizens of Europe and America—then we will have unprecedented prosperity.” -Professor Joseph Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel laureate in economics, speaking at the World of Business Ideas forum in 2012

The notion that the most pressing issue facing the U.S. and Canada right now is their respective federal deficits, is the peak of folly. Both countries’ economies are anemic, and both are running trade deficits—that is, importing more goods and services than they export. As their manufacturing bases decline, both federal governments are striving to increase exports to foreign markets in the form of fossil fuels—coal, oil, diluted bitumen, shale gas. Both nations have the means and the imperative to develop more advanced, energy-efficient economies as soon as possible, but neither government is making adequate efforts to do so.

On the economic front, policymakers in Canada and the U.S. would do well to take a page out of China’s book—invest heavily in upgrades to our dated infrastructure, develop renewable energy, and put an end to most fossil fuel subsidies. Rather than concentrating so heavily on corporate-friendly, secretive “trade” deals like the TPP and CETA, with the potential to introduce draconian intellectual property provisions that will protect pharmaceutical companies, potentially criminalize innocuous online copying, and allow for more outsourcing and offshoring of jobs, both countries need to focus on building a more productive, efficient, sustainable domestic economic base, and promote local economies.

If relatively wealthy countries like Canada and the U.S. aren’t prepared to dramatically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, invest heavily in renewable energy, do our part to bring the global ecological crisis under control, give up on self-destructive austerity policies, and eradicate poverty and food insecurity within our borders, we have no right to expect cash-strapped developing countries to do so.

A U.S. strike on Syria won’t help Syrians

5 Sep

There’s a great deal of self-deception circulating the Internet and mainstream media with respect to President Obama’s (and now the U.S. Senate’s) intent to lash out against the regime of Bashar al-Assad—so much so, that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

One of the more popular contentions of the pro-war punditry, is to the effect that “the international community can no longer stand by and do nothing, while a madman gases his own people.” (Leave aside for now the fact that the Obama administration has yet to furnish conclusive evidence to this effect, and the inevitable comparisons to the debacle over non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.) The armchair generals are anxious to see the U.S. respond forcefully to this travesty, to teach Assad and his regime a lesson. In more than a few dimensions, their arguments mirror the inane pronouncements of the American president himself, who has declared that a military strike on Syria would amount to a “shot across the bow,” demonstrating to Assad that the U.S. and its Western allies find the use of chemical weapons unacceptable.

Or do they?

Locals stand in the rubble of a house in Azaz, Syria. Image c/o Scott Bob, Voice of America News/wikimedia commons

Locals stand in the rubble of a house in Azaz, Syria. Image c/o Scott Bob, Voice of America News/wikimedia commons

No moral leg to stand on

As has been amply reported, there is no basis in international law for a U.S. military intervention in Syria. So the question before us is really a moral one. But based on its history and ongoing behaviour, the U.S. dearly lacks moral credibility.

Not only is the U.S. responsible for an unprecedented international assassination strategy in the form of the drone program, it has also employed chemical weapons against civilians on multiple distinct occasions in the last forty years: including in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where it doused the jungle in Agent Orange in the 1960s; and in Fallujah, Iraq, a city U.S. forces bombarded with white phosphorous and depleted uranium in 2004. The U.S. also provided intelligence to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, which Hussein used to target Iranian positions with lethal nerve agents, and subsidizes the genocidal Israeli and Egyptian militaries to the tune of billions of dollars each year.

Ulterior motives

When he announced that chemical weapons would form a “red line” for him, President Obama effectively painted himself into a corner: failure to respond to a chemical attack by the Assad regime would expose him to charges of weakness, or even cowardice, leveled by his detractors. But doesn’t the fuss over chemical weapons seem odd, given the number of Syrians—nearly 100,000—who had perished in the country’s civil/proxy war by the time of the recent chemical attacks? Why was Obama apparently unwilling to intervene militarily in the mass slaughter of Syrians with bullets, mortars, missiles and bombs, only to be roused into action by the regime’s alleged use of nerve agents?

Don’t be deceived by the holier-than-thou, humanitarian buzzwords of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry; the prospect of a U.S. attack on Syria has little to do with principle, or with helping the Syrian people, and much to do with political calculus. Obama has framed the debate in such a way that only two options exist—the U.S. can either “act” by striking the Assad regime’s military installations, or fail to act by refraining from a Syria strike. The latter option, the argument goes, would hearten rogue leaders like Assad to continue to flout international norms and laws prohibiting the use of chemical agents in warfare, and undermine America’s credibility. (Incidentally, Obama is less outspoken on the question of how a misguided military strike against Syria might affect America’s credibility.)

The former option is more virtuous, Obama and co. contend, since it involves taking action to punish an evildoer for his misdeeds. But the endgame, and how a strike may affect the outcome of Syria’s armed conflict, are less clear.

Moreover, Obama’s “red line” is itself a received idea. According to Alternative Information Centre economist Shir Hever, the notion is the brainchild of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is anxious to monger fear in his own country, where a political appetite has been growing for cutbacks to the expansive military budget in favour of enhanced social spending. What better counterweight than the threat of a gas attack on Israeli territory by Bashar al-Assad?

Likewise, the prospect of warfare is a major boon to defence contractors, whose lobbying presence in both Israeli and American politics is gargantuan. Not coincidentally, as Obama’s intention to attack Syria crystallized this week, the top seven defence contractors in the U.S. celebrated record stock prices.

As for the armchair hawks…

If you support Obama’s incoherent mission to lash out against the Assad regime, there are a couple of questions you ought to ask yourself.

First, what is the objective here?

Although Obama maintains that regime change in Syria is not the intent of his government’s policy, the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Since last year, the U.S. (along with Canada and others) have been funnelling logistical and financial support to Syrian rebel groups, some of which are openly jihadist and/or extremist, others filled with elements from outside Syria’s borders. Saudi Arabia, a chameleonic U.S. ally, has been doing the same, and in some cases, has provided rebel groups with weapons. Russia and Iran are involved in the conflict, on the side of the Syrian regime. And, as infrastructure is destroyed and stability eroded through war, various religious and ethnic sects—including Alawites, Druze, Sunni and Shia—have become embroiled in struggles for their own survival.

Syria is not a state that formed organically, but rather a former French colony that, under the contemptible rule of Bashar al-Assad and his father, has nonetheless featured secularism and relative religious tolerance. If an armed rebel group eventually seizes control of the Syrian government, this may no longer be the case. And if the violence in Syria continues for an extended period of time, no religious or ethnic group in the country will be safe.

At this point, we must evaluate Obama’s planned strike on Syria by its probable consequences, and those include the loss of civilian life from the strikes themselves, a shift in the balance of power away from the Assad regime (which will likely sow the seeds of regime change, in spite of the president’s affirmations to the contrary), and the potential for an irate or even retributive response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia. In any event, there is not even a remote possibility that the violence in Syria will end as a result of a U.S. military strike. It also seems highly unlikely that the safety of Syrian civilians would improve as a consequence of U.S. military action.

There is only one remotely realistic way to bring peace and stability to Syria and save lives, and that is through the negotiation of a ceasefire between the various warring factions, and enforcement of that ceasefire under the auspices of the UN. There are also legions of Syrian refugees in need of humanitarian aid and a place to live, a situation to which the Swedish government has responded by offering permanent residency to Syrian asylum-seekers within its borders.

Displaced Syrians at a refugee camp in Lebanon. Image c/o Freedom House/flickr

Displaced Syrians at a refugee camp in Lebanon. Image c/o Freedom House/flickr

However, as long as Obama and his supporters omit these topics from consideration, the debate will continue to revolve around military action.

The second key question is, what is your real motive for supporting a U.S. strike on Syria?

At this point, you can’t claim that your backing of Obama’s strategy is about protecting civilians, because both the strikes themselves and their broader ramifications will only endanger civilian lives. If you’re especially disturbed by Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, why have you waited so long to demand action, after nearly two years of civilian slaughter by the regime and various rebel factions within the country? Is there genuinely a moral distinction between murder with chemical weapons and murder with bullets, explosives, drones, or even throat-slitting? If there is, I have to admit I don’t see it.

Is it possible that you would like to see the U.S. strike Syria because you feel badly about “sitting idly by” while a genocidal maniac somewhere deploys chemical weapons against his own people (as if that’s not what you would have done either way)?

Are you really interested in bettering the welfare and safety of the Syrian people? Or is it possible that your support of Obama’s planned attacks on Syria is really about assuaging your own personal guilt?

The War on Terror is a losing proposition

10 Aug

This week marks the 68th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two deployments of a nuclear weapon against civilians in the history of warfare.

The Gembaku Dome building in Hiroshima serves as a monument to the events of Aug. 6, 1945. Image c/o Fg2/Wikimedia Commons

The Gembaku Dome building in Hiroshima serves as a monument to the events of Aug. 6, 1945. Image c/o Fg2/Wikimedia Commons

Hiroshima was leveled by the weapon codenamed 'Little Boy' on August 6. Three days later, 'Fat Man' devastated Nagasaki – which, notably, was not the original target of the second bomb. The United States abandoned plans for the obliteration of Kyoto at the urging of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had honeymooned in the city.

The U.S. needed a substitute. Nagasaki would do.

A common refrain in years hence has been that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki foreshortened the war with Japan, averting an incalculable human cost. Though the counterfactual is difficult to prove, many modern historians argue that Japan, facing total defeat upon the entry of the Soviet Union into Manchuria, would have surrendered irrespective of whether the atomic bombs had been dropped.

Others contend that the true purpose of the bombings was to send a message to the Soviets, who had begun to develop nuclear weapons capability in 1942.

While mushroom clouds billowed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nearly 100,000 Japanese civilians, including school children and infants, were literally cooked alive. Japan found itself on untenable footing, surrounded by enemies, and soon capitulated. Following the surrender, the U.S. occupied the East Asian archipelago and established its own military bases there, decommissioned its armed forces and imposed a new constitution in 1947.

As experiments in nation-building go, the U.S. managed the restructuring of Japan with relative success. It was an experience that would inform subsequent action by America and its allies that have thus far proven far less triumphant.

Fast forward to 2013, and the face of war has changed. Unlike a campaign of belligerence with an identifiable adversary – like the Kingdom of Japan – the War on Terror is a war not against any one entity, but against a nefarious tactic.

However, what exactly is "terror" – that tactic Western governments purport to deplore?

Various countries, Canada and the U.S. included, have striven to formalize 'terrorism' and terrorist acts. The definition they've devised is typically some variant of "ideologically motivated violence, or the threat thereof, against civilians."

A predator drone, of the sort used by the Obama administration to carry out an unprecedented assassination campaign. Image c/o U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt

A predator drone, of the sort used by the Obama administration to carry out an unprecedented assassination campaign. Image c/o U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt

But that definition exposes Western states engaged in the War on Terror to the charge of hypocrisy. What were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if not ideologically motivated violence against civilians? What, indeed, are drone strikes that terrorize Pakistanis, Yemenis, Afghanis, that have slaughtered not only suspected militants, but hundreds of innocent people too? What was the shelling and subsequent invasion of Iraq, or for that matter Afghanistan?

Following the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001, in which more than two thousand Americans perished, the U.S. government faced a dread decision. The first option was to pursue through international legal mechanisms the culprits of the crime that befell New York City and Washington on that fateful day. It was a choice that would have required that most elusive form of bravery – the courage to be vulnerable. But it was one that would also have spared innumerable lives.

The second choice, the one the U.S. unfortunately chose, would send the country tumbling headlong into a trap.

In 1996, the editor of London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al Quds al Arabiya, Abdul Bari Atwan, became one of few Western journalists to interview Osama bin Laden. He recounts being told by the infamous insurgent of a plan to lure the U.S. into a series of self-destructive military engagements overseas, to bankrupt the country and mar its international standing.

"It seems the invasion of Iraq fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s wish," Atwan reflected in a 2007 interview with Tony Jones of ABC News.

"He told me personally that he can’t go and fight the Americans and their country. But if he manages to provoke them and bring them to the Middle East…where he can find them or fight them on his own turf, he will actually teach them a lesson."

Today, more than $16 billion in debt and having both lost and extinguished thousands of lives in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the U.S. still shows no sign of curtailing its foreign military interventionism.

Even if one accepts the premise that al Qaeda and other shadowy organizations are the true enemies in the War on Terror, the prospects of victory are poor. While many champions of violent Islamic jihad have indeed perished as a consequence of the drone campaign, the spectre of enmity toward the West remains. There is no telling the extent to which Western violence will further radicalize young men in Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere – some of whom have lost, or will lose, innocent loved ones to lethal Western assaults, including so-called 'double-tap' drone strikes by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

But there is no doubt that wars in Muslim-majority countries, if not the drone campaign, have served as a persuasive recruiting tool for the cause of violent jihad. If anything, these foreign conflicts have further jeopardized the national security of the U.S. and its allies, rather than enhancing it. Moreover, as citizens of Western countries are increasingly saddled with pernicious encroachments on their privacy and civil liberties, like mass collection of metadata from our online communications, and anti-terror laws that permit pre-emptive arrest and detention, the cause of 'national security' is consistently cited as justification.

On the other hand, if one adopts a principle of moral consistency, and rejects the War on Terror's double standard – that acts of ideologically motivated violence against civilians are tolerable only if the U.S. and its allies perpetrate them – an ineluctable conclusion emerges: that victory in the War on Terror is impossible.

Western state-sponsored terror can no more vanquish jihadi terror, than a flamethrower can douse a fire. And no matter which faction ultimately triumphs in this seemingly endless struggle, terror will have prevailed.

Victims’ rights for some

26 Jul

Newly appointed Attorney General and Justice Minister Peter MacKay has been talking up victims’ rights quite a bit lately. In fact, Wednesday in Vancouver, MacKay announced his intent to enshrine a victims’ bill of rights in legislation by this fall.

Victims of crime in Canada, MacKay lamented at a media scrum, “very often, sadly, feel that they are re-victimized, or feel that in fact the system is failing and doesn’t meet their needs.”

Peter MacKay (Image c/o Leon Panetta/Wikimedia Commons)

Peter MacKay (Image c/o Leon Panetta/Wikimedia Commons)

Exactly what form the bill of rights will take, or whether it will have any measurable effect on the administration of justice, remains to be seen.

Since garnering a majority in the House of Commons, the federal Conservatives have repeatedly underscored their view that Canada’s justice system seems to esteem the rights of perpetrators more highly than the rights of victims. (Which essentially means, in the federal government’s view, that penalties for crimes haven’t been stiff enough over the past few decades.) Two omnibus crime bills, a slew of mandatory minimum sentences, and changes to pardon rules that have made it much more difficult for offenders to expunge a criminal record, all illustrate the Tories’ attitude toward crime and punishment. And who could forget the prime minister’s tearful encounter with the family of slain Greyhound passenger Tim Mclean in February (just days after U.S. President Obama shed tears over the Newtown school shooting) that precipitated Bill C-54 – legislation designed to keep not criminally responsible (NCR) offenders in custody longer.

Victims are billed as the primary beneficiaries of the shift from rehabilitation to retribution effected by the Tories. But it appears that not all victims are created equal.

According to a study conducted by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, as many as 600 Indigenous women either disappeared, or were murdered, over the past three decades. Many of those abductions and/or murders have never been investigated, much less prosecuted. On Wednesday, the provincial premiers, who convened this week in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. for the annual Council of the Federation meetings, called on the federal government to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered women. The following day, MacKay rebuffed their request.

According to a statement from MacKay spokeswoman Paloma Aguilar, obtained by the Canadian Press, the government “has already taken concrete action, including passing legislation that gives First Nations women on reserves access to emergency protection orders.”

What exactly does that mean?

The following is excerpted from the text of the relevant legislation, Bill C-47, which became law in September 2008:

In situations of family violence, emergency protection orders can be obtained from a designated judge; such orders can require, among other things, that the applicant's spouse or common-law partner vacate the home for up to 90 days (clauses 21 to 24).

In other words, Indigenous women who are involved with abusive partners, on First Nations reserves, can petition a judge for a 90-day protection order, similar to a restraining order. According to the Harper government, this will help prevent future recurrences of tragedy. But as any reasonably critical thinker will quickly discern, 1) this legislation does nothing to bring about justice for victims and families of victims of crimes that have occurred already, 2) the women themselves must obtain from a judge protection orders that are useless if not effectively enforced, and 3) this bill won’t protect women in most of the situations in which they are most vulnerable: in cities, where a disproportionate number of Indigenous women and girls are involved in street prostitution and/or trafficked into the sex trade; and outside of the domestic setting, where Indigenous women are far more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to be targets of sexual and/or racially motivated violence by (frequently non-Indigenous) men.

For example, two of the most infamous serial killers in Canadian history – Robert “Willie” Pickton of Port Coquitlam, B.C., and John Martin Crawford of Saskatoon, Sk. managed to carry out their criminal activities for years before any official investigation took place.

In rebuffing an investigation of the sort the premiers have endorsed (albeit free from the obligation to cover any of the associated costs, unlike their federal counterparts), MacKay has stressed the Harper regime’s goal of focussing on the prevention of future transgressions, rather than justice for the events of the past. In this respect, the rejection of a federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women seems perplexingly at odds with MacKay’s preoccupation with the rights of victims and their families.

The Harper government’s “enemy lists” are much ado about nothing new

19 Jul

In the wake of the Tory cabinet shuffle, there's been great furore over "enemy lists." The hullabaloo started with an e-mail from the PMO, prompting outgoing ministerial aides to apprise incoming staff of potentially adversarial stakeholders within their respective circles.

Opposition partisans have condemned the lists, keen to capitalize on the news cycle and yet another apparent fumble by the Harper regime. The revelation even prompted Peter Kent, the dispatched environment minister who may or may not have an axe to grind with his employer, to draw comparisons to Richard Nixon – the American president renowned for his "me against the world" disposition, even before Watergate.

The "e" word brings us pause, even perturbation, as it ought to. "Enemy" conveys a sinister message, an indication that opponents and critics of the Tory agenda are now more than just citizens whose opinions differ from those of the regime. Enmity entails that the discord between cabinet and its adversaries is intractable, beyond the pale of discussion or reconsideration, let alone compromise. Indeed, the underlying notion is that the federal administration is unwilling to acknowledge the concerns of its detractors as it relentlessly pursues its own designs.

In other words, business as usual will resume for Harper and his cronies.

Mature, sensible folk reserve the word "enemy" only for the most extreme cases, or for use in the context of war. That stated, the comportment of the Harper regime toward its critics suggests the opposite of maturity and prudence: an implacable hard-headedness, combined with a childish, wonton haste to burn bridges.

Though we don't know whose names appear on the enemy lists, we can probably infer the identity of some. Begin by listing those the regime has derided or called names. Obvious suspects include the Sierra Club of Canada, David Suzuki and his Foundation, and an estranged former partner of the regime in Tides Canada, all consigned to the category of "foreign-funded radicals" or "environmental extremists." Even more ominous is the moniker applied to Greenpeace: "eco-terrorists."

Add to the roster civil libertarians, who stood "with the child pornographers" in their insolent efforts to safeguard the privacy of Canadians from official intrusion, a right supposedly guaranteed in the Charter.

Scroll down a bit further, and you're liable to find First Nations advocacy organizations from whom the Harper regime has slashed funding, along with the Association of First Nations Chiefs. (Although National Chief Shawn Atleo, known to inspire flourishes of intense nonchalance, possibly appears on the "frenemy" list.)

The CBC, that ulcer in the wretched gut of what Sun TV pundits call the "media party," is locked in the Harper regime's crosshairs. And although it prides itself on a level of non-partisan neutrality that borders on obsessive-compulsive, its presence on the enemy list would come as a surprise to few. And on the subject of media, environmental reporters like Mike D'Souza, whose work unavoidably irks Harper et al., could expect to find their names displayed prominently on that vast index – perhaps even underlined, in bold font and bordered by asterisks.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and fellow First Nations leaders, Idle No More activists, union members – including striking diplomatic staff, muzzled federal scientists, and frustrated former allies like Brent Rathgeber who abandoned the government precisely because of its intolerance for dissent, all assuredly have special places reserved for them.

But even if the Tories’ lengthy register of nemeses were to surface next week, a place on the list hardly seems cause for alarm, much less shame. Indeed, millions of Canadians would rejoice at their presence thereupon, taking it as a sign that they were doing something right. On the other hand, among those whose names have been omitted, more than a few might feel a bit miffed – snubbed, as it were.

But take heart, fellow enemies. Surely your exclusion owes to a clerical error by a careless junior staffer somewhere – nothing more.

Stop Harper rally, July 1 in Vancouver

28 Jun

I’d like to apprise my readers and contacts of a Stop Harper rally that will take place on Canada Day, at Victory Square in Vancouver, beginning at 11:45 a.m. See the event’s Facebook page for more information, and join if you can.

Canada needs a Tahrir moment

27 Jun

One of the first maxims I internalized as an aspiring journalist, is that "journalism is the engine of democracy."

The duty of journalists, in other words, is to inform the public, such that they're empowered to make conscientious decisions in their own best interests. And while some journalists provide opinions on, evaluate, or filter the information that makes its way to readers, listeners and viewers, the fundamental mission of journalism is to disseminate facts and truth, encourage critical thinking, and ultimately, help to promote an enlightened citizenry and a robust democracy. In turn, it is hoped, enlightened citizens will elect enlightened leaders to make consequential decisions on behalf of society, and then hold to account the leaders they've chosen, espousing viewpoints grounded in verifiable fact.

In Canada, however, our democracy has failed in monumental fashion. And rather than enlightened leaders at the federal level, Canadians are saddled with a profoundly unenlightened sort.

As we all know, in 2011, Stephen Harper's Conservatives achieved a majority of seats in the House of Commons, in spite of attaining only 39 per cent of the popular vote. This detail in itself is not inherently problematic; in theory it should not matter which party the members of the House belong to, provided they continue to fulfill the basic duty that is their charge: namely, to serve and voice the concerns of the constituents who elected them.

Under our current electoral system, however, this is not what happens most of the time.

"Party discipline," enforced by party whips, is regarded as a virtue among most parliamentarians rather than a vice, and Stephen Harper – though neither alone in nor a pioneer of this practice – is notorious for demanding total compliance among his ranks. In such a parliamentary arrangement, the voice of the people may easily be subjugated to the whims of a rogue party leader.

With that understood, a key question arises: If parliamentarians are obliged to vote as their leader votes, or face crippling reprisals in the form of impediments to the advancement of their political careers, do affiliated members of parliament – other than party leaders – truly serve any purpose whatsoever? And if so, what is it?

Strip away the facade of "liberal," "representative," Westminster democracy, and we are left with what author and journalist Frances Russell terms "electoral democracy" – a system in which a party is voted into power, and the leader of that party makes all the decisions until a fresh election is called.

In contemporary Canada, we effectively vote for party leaders, not members of parliament who represent our views and concerns – what the system is ostensibly designed to feature. Our press radiates a constant limelight on the leaders, attendant to their every public manoeuvre, perpetuating the paramountcy of those leaders in the public eye, obsequiously and often uncritically replicating their statements. Our alleged democracy has delivered a prime minister with virtually unchecked power, who rams unwieldy omnibus bills down our throats, dismantles environmental protections in the name of enhanced profits for natural resource firms, renders decisions grounded primarily in ideology rather than facticity, and now enjoys the support – based on public-opinion polling – of less than 30 per cent of the Canadian electorate.

Tahrir - Hossam el-Hamalawy

In the summer of 2011, Egyptians flooded Tahrir Square to demand the removal of Hosni Mubarak from office. Their revolt continues. Image c/o Hossam el-Hamalawy / Flickr

Canada, at the federal level, has become a DINO – democracy in name only. And in the absence of democracy, political journalism that fails to challenge the established order can hardly be regarded as journalism at all. In this sorry state of affairs, the purveyors of information in the Canadian journalistic establishment have a responsibility to raise hell on a daily basis, until real democracy prevails. But with a few notable exceptions, Canada's mainstream journalistic establishments simply aren't doing that.

"Politics," to many editorial teams at Canada's major corporate news outlets, consists of the frigid, amoral language of electoral strategy. How will Stephen Harper's (repugnant) behaviour affect his chances in 2015?, some ponder. Can Stephen Harper "fix" the drag on his polling numbers inflicted by the growing array of scandals under his purview? Will our Prime Minister manage to add a notch to his belt in the form of a new trade treaty, like the CETA with Europe? Will this be enough to redeem him in the eyes of voters and ensure his re-election?

As this dog-and-pony show drags on, crucial questions are left unasked, vital points unstated. There is precious little debate in the mainstream press over whether trade deals like the CETA and TPP – which include sweeping corporate intellectual property provisions with the potential to bankrupt Canada's public health care system – may in fact be detrimental to our country. And seldom is the view entertained that Stephen Harper may not be the kind of man who is apt to "fix" his ruling party's missteps.

In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests, nay, exclaims, that Stephen Harper is not an individual of virtue at all – that he is rather a conniving, obsessive control-monger anxious to maintain and expand his clout, along with that of his constituency in the oil and gas sector, at exorbitant expense to the rest of us, and with little heed paid to democratic principles. His lack of integrity, credibility, perspicacity, compassion and foresight is evident in the bulk of the policies he chooses to pursue, the lies he chooses to perpetuate, the dubious priorities he emphasizes, the juvenile, cowardly smears he launches against political adversaries from the safety and anonymity of the prime minister's office. His government's mad dash to liquidate many of Canada's raw materials – including the Athabasca oil sands and even domestic gold stocks – is setting the table for the impoverishment of our country in decades to come. And his inability or unwillingness to confront the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change, even as record flood waters ravage Alberta, represents a menace to the livelihood of not only future generations, but increasingly to the present one as well.

Simply stated, it is insane to appoint a man like Stephen Harper custodian of our country's present and future for any length of time. However, as of this moment, that's exactly where we stand.

Stephen Harper and his henchmen have a vision for Canada, alright: one in which citizens can expect far less of their government, not only in terms of basic programs and services, but evidently in terms of leadership, integrity, honesty, competence and maturity too.

Canadians continue to foot the bill for a multi-billion dollar recapitalization of our major chartered banks, as the CMHC bought up masses of mortgages during the financial crisis – a bailout that contributed in no small proportion to a record federal deficit in 2009. Canada's national net worth now exceeds $7 trillion, many of our corporate executives are receiving multi-million-dollar annual compensation, our state-rescued financial institutions are enjoying near-record profits, and yet a record number of Canadians sought the services of food banks last year. Gross domestic product is cresting at an all-time high, and yet Harper et al. insist that this is a time of "fiscal restraint" – often little more than an ideological disciplinary tool, as in the case of wounded Canadian Forces soldier Glen Kirkland, or the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs. In the same vein, First Nations reserves on which half or more of the children live in poverty, and infrastructure is in a state of terminal decay, have become commonplace – yet another symptom of the regime's negligence, and refusal to abide by the tenets of Canada's foundational treaties.

All the while, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are allocated to a propaganda campaign advertising Harper's questionable Economic Action Plan, in an effort to recover the allegiances of disenchanted voters.

At this point, volumes could be indited detailing the Harper regime's failings. But the point is, Canadians deserve better than a government that treats them like pawns in an agenda of corporate hegemony. And the situation in which Harper's many opponents find ourselves is urgent; in fact, if we await the 2015 election to make our voices heard at the ballot box, we will likely have spoken too softly to defeat his agenda, too ineffectively to impel the extensive reforms to our governmental institutions necessary to avert a future blight of parliamentary authoritarianism, and too late to undo the revolutionary changes Harper is foisting on us from his castle on Parliament Hill.

One of the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, espoused the notion that popular revolt was periodically necessary in order for a salubrious form of governance to prevail. Where the people fear their government, Jefferson noted, there is tyranny; only where the inverse is true can liberty prevail.

Jefferson was right.

In countries around the world, many thousands of citizens, from all walks of life, are rising in peaceful indignation, determined to strike at despotism, unaccountability and corruption in the seats of power: Brazil, Chile, Turkey, Bulgaria, the Middle East, Spain, Greece, Malaysia. And the fight has only just begun.

The time has come for Canadians to instill respect for the populace in our federal elected officials once again. As the celebration of our national holiday approaches, let's send an unambiguous message to Chairman Harper that no prime minister can push Canadians around, without expecting us to push back.

Let's follow the example of protesters who filled Egypt's Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of strongman Hosni Mubarak in the summer of 2011.

Let's resuscitate genuine democracy, and put it into action.

National Stop Harper Day is June 28, across Canada.

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