Tuesday, January 16, 2018

We Are Not Making Progress

The countries which fought on the United Nations side of the Korean War are meeting in Vancouver. China, Russia -- and North Korea -- won't be there. The United States is pushing for more sanctions. But, Andrew Coyne writes:

Sanctions . . . will only be as effective as China allows them to be. And while the Chinese have tightened the screws to some degree, they are also likely to oppose any serious attempt to enforce them: for example, by means of “maritime interdiction,” the multinational quasi-blockade that is also up for discussion in Vancouver. North Korea has already denounced the idea as an “act of war,” but China is unlikely to be much happier.

So that leaves accepting the reality of a nuclear North Korea. And what does that mean? It means deterrence:

Surely deterrence can be made to work on the Korean peninsular, as it has these past seven decades in Europe. But to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea is essentially to live with what Hawaii has just endured, in perpetuity. Much effort has been expended to suggest the Kim regime is “rational,” as in non-suicidal. But non-suicidal is not the same as stable, predictable, responsible, prudent or wise. The possibility of error is ever-present. And the consequences of error are catastrophic.

It means, Coyne writes, anti-ballistic missile defence. You thought we were getting rid of nuclear weapons? And Hawaii has just reminded us that, with all those weapons, it's easy to make a mistake.

We are not making progress.

Image: China National News

Monday, January 15, 2018

Now Is The Time

Bernie Sanders writes that now is the time to take on the oligarchs. The data tells the story of the last thirty-five years:

Difficult as it is to comprehend, the fact is that the six richest people on Earth now own more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population – 3.7 billion people. Further, the top 1% now have more money than the bottom 99%. Meanwhile, as the billionaires flaunt their opulence, nearly one in seven people struggle to survive on less than $1.25 (90p) a day and – horrifyingly – some 29,000 children die daily from entirely preventable causes such as diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia.
At the same time, all over the world corrupt elites, oligarchs and anachronistic monarchies spend billions on the most absurd extravagances. The Sultan of Brunei owns some 500 Rolls-Royces and lives in one of the world’s largest palaces, a building with 1,788 rooms once valued at $350m. In the Middle East, which boasts five of the world’s 10 richest monarchs, young royals jet-set around the globe while the region suffers from the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, and at least 29 million children are living in poverty without access to decent housing, safe water or nutritious food. Moreover, while hundreds of millions of people live in abysmal conditions, the arms merchants of the world grow increasingly rich as governments spend trillions of dollars on weapons.

So, what's to be done?

Now, more than ever, those of us who believe in democracy and progressive government must bring low-income and working people all over the world together behind an agenda that reflects their needs. Instead of hate and divisiveness, we must offer a message of hope and solidarity. We must develop an international movement that takes on the greed and ideology of the billionaire class and leads us to a world of economic, social and environmental justice. Will this be an easy struggle? Certainly not. But it is a fight that we cannot avoid. The stakes are just too high.
A new and international progressive movement must commit itself to tackling structural inequality both between and within nations. Such a movement must overcome “the cult of money” and “survival of the fittest” mentalities that the pope warned against. It must support national and international policies aimed at raising standards of living for poor and working-class people – from full employment and a living wage to universal higher education, healthcare and fair trade agreements. In addition, we must rein in corporate power and prevent the environmental destruction of our planet as a result of climate change.

We can start, Sanders writes, by getting rid of tax havens:

Just a few years ago, the Tax Justice Network estimated that the wealthiest people and largest corporations throughout the world have been stashing at least $21tn-$32tn in offshore tax havens in order to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. If we work together to eliminate offshore tax abuse, the new revenue that would be generated could put an end to global hunger, create hundreds of millions of new jobs, and substantially reduce extreme income and wealth inequality. It could be used to move us aggressively toward sustainable agriculture and to accelerate the transformation of our energy system away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of power.

But it takes political will -- something which, these days, is in short supply.

Image:  NBC News

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Here We Go Again

Larry Elliot writes that another debt crisis is just around the corner:

Global interest rates are rising. Poor countries are finding it tough to pay back money borrowed from banks in anticipation of a commodity windfall that never materialised. Stir in some dirty dealing that has seen funds stolen and what do you have? That’s right: the makings of another debt crisis.

Banks have been lending to third world countries and doing some pretty sloppy accounting:

A prime example is the one made in London five years ago between Credit Suisse and Russia’s VTB bank to lend $2bn to two companies in Mozambique backed by the government in Maputo.
The money was supposed to be for a tuna fishing fleet and for a navy to protect the boats operating in Mozambique’s territorial waters. Credit Suisse and VTB trousered $200m between them in fees, but the loans were never revealed to the Mozambique parliament, the IMF, the financial markets or the Mozambique people.
A report into the deal by the corporate investigations company Kroll concluded that the two companies were inadequately managed and had generated no meaningful revenue. At least a quarter of the money is unaccounted for, with some suspicion that it was spent on military equipment. Jamie Drummond, the director of the development campaign group One says that it is not clear the money ever turned up in Mozambique after being sent to two offshore companies in Abu Dhabi. For sure, though, not a single tuna has been landed. Mozambique has paid a heavy price for defaulting on the debt, which has been sold on to vulture funds. The IMF, miffed at being lied to, has suspended its programme and the loss of financial support has meant public services are being cut.

It's a replay of the home mortgage crisis of a decade ago. We should have learned that such sloppy practices snowball and the ripples are felt world wide. Apparently, we -- or more precisely, our bankers -- haven't learned that lesson.

Fasten your seat belts.

Image: moneytalks.net

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Getting What It's Owed

There's been a lot of sound and fury -- particularly from Tim Horton's franchisees -- about Ontario's recent minimum wage hike. But, Alan Freeman writes, the raise makes perfect sense:

If you go past the hysterical outpourings from the likes of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business — which specializes in crying wolf every time there’s a talk of improving the Canada Pension Plan or making any small improvement in the lives of employees — the overall impacts of the minimum wage hike for the economy are quite small.
The increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour from $11.60 is about 21 per cent. That’s about the same percentage increase as Walmart is voluntarily giving its employees in the U.S. (22 per cent). US$11 is worth about Cdn$13.80. In that context, the Ontario wage hike doesn’t seem unreasonable.
The jobless rate in Ontario is currently 5.5 per cent — about as close to full employment as you can get, making this the best time to implement a big minimum wage hike. You might think that employers desperate for labour would do whatever they could to keep the good ones from bolting.

The usual complaint is that legislating minimum wages kills jobs. But that complaint needs to be put in context:

According to the Bank of Canada, about 8 per cent of Canadian employees work for minimum wage and minimum wage rates affect about 15 per cent of all employees with the lowest wages. The bank says the increased wages planned in Ontario and elsewhere could mean that 60,000 fewer jobs are created this year than otherwise — although that’s just a guess.
That may sound like a lot of jobs but it’s a blip in an economy that employs 18.6 million people — a figure that an economist at Scotiabank says is “likely within the margin of error.” It’s worth noting that the Canadian economy created 79,000 jobs in December alone.

The disciples of Milton Friedman are apoplectic. But, finally, labour is getting a little bit of what it is owed.

Image: The National Post

Friday, January 12, 2018

An Ignorant, Senile Old Man

Two days ago, the cameras were allowed into the cabinet room as the members around the table talked about reaching a deal on immigration. Donald Trump actually looked reasonable, capable of reaching a compromise. And then yesterday he returned to form, blowing everything up. Abigail Tracy writes in Vanity Fair:

On Thursday afternoon, as the White House basked in the afterglow of the president’s ability to contain himself for 55 minutes, Donald Trump brought their triumphant parade to a screeching halt, calling into question not only his own mental fitness, but the possibility of a bipartisan deal on immigration reform. When a bipartisan group of senators approached the president with a tentative immigration agreement, which included protections for Dreamers, an additional $1.5 billion in border-security funding, and the possibility of restoring protections for countries recently removed from the temporary-protected-status program, the president responded with an outburst that reportedly alarmed the group.

And it should have:

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asked in reference to African countries and Haiti, according to The Washington Post. Instead, the president reportedly suggested that the U.S. should encourage immigration from countries like Norway.

He is already on record as believing that immigrants from Haiti "all have AIDS," and that white nationalist groups contain "some very fine people." He then confidently asserts that, "Before I make a statement, I need the facts. I don't want to rush into a statement."

It seems pretty clear. Trump is an ignorant, old man on the cusp of senility.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Too Much To Bear

Some are speculating that Michael Wolff's book, The Fire And The Fury, will be the straw that breaks the camel's back and lead to Donald Trump's demise. Frank Rich writes that kind of speculation is all wish and no substance:

The only way Trump leaves office absent a Democratic sweep in the 2018 midterms is if he does so of his own volition: poisoning himself with his binges of Big Macs and Diet Coke; making a deal to head off pending indictments of himself, his son, or son-in-law; or breaking down mentally to the point where he is so unhappy, angry, and unmoored that he’d rather declare victory and take his marbles home to Mar-a-Lago.

Wolff's book has been the catalyst for the demise of Steve Bannon. Trump's ouster will be much harder to accomplish. Nonetheless,

Fire and Fury has moved the latter process along. That Trump would feel compelled to declare himself a “very stable genius” and turn this book into an epic best seller by (impotently) threatening legal action to suppress it suggests that Wolff has quite successfully gaslighted him. Though it’s Ivanka Trump whom Steve Bannon described as “dumb as a brick,” her father’s self-immolating actions from the moment New York posted its Fire and Fury excerpt is proof positive that the apple didn’t fall far from the orange tree.

It's remarkable when you review the number of clips when Trump claims -- again and again -- that he's very smart. Wolff's book documents the number of Trumpian supporters who have called him an "idiot."

At some point, the cognitive dissonance between Trump's claims and the conclusions of those who know him will be too much to bear.

Image: wonkette.com

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Worth Of An English Degree

A long time ago, I informed my father that I intended to get an English degree. My father -- a mechanical engineer -- asked, "What the hell can you do with that?"

"I can write for a living," I said. "Or, I can always teach." The rest is history. I taught -- and now that I'm retired -- I write.

I have always believed that my English degree was a superb investment. Thus, I was pleased to read Mandy Pipher's op-ed in The Toronto Star. There are far fewer students studying English these days than there were twenty-five years ago:

Many of us seem to hold — consciously or not — an underlying belief that the skills gained through higher education in English are largely irrelevant to the advancement or maintenance of our society. What, after all, is so important about an essay on the use of metaphor in Coleridge or so urgent about another analysis of the allusions in The Waste Land? Are these not esoteric individual interests best pursued in leisure time?
And so science, engineering, and medical research in Canada is funded at three times the rate of the humanities and social sciences, and StatsCan data shows that undergraduate enrolment in humanities programs has dropped to half of what it was in the early 1990s, as a percentage of overall enrolment. Across the country there are fewer students enrolled in undergraduate humanities degrees now than there were in 1992-93, despite overall enrolment having increased by almost 700,000 students. Why should we care?

That data helps explain why the skills one learns from studying English are sadly lacking these days:

What, for example, are some of the most stubborn fault lines running beneath many of the current, deeply troubling, fractures in Western democratic societies? A distrust of rational discourse about differing points of view; confusing a strong emotional response with inalienable truth; an inability to parse good information and legitimate sources from the bad and disingenuous; a lack of empathy for the humanity of people different from oneself.
These are the skills that a good English education teaches: Critical thinking; analysis of language; insight into the minds of people from different places and times. Ultimately, it’s an understanding of the vastness and interconnectedness of the world — its subtleties, stories, and strengths.
The benefits of these skills for a society may not be as immediately evident or clearly measurable as those of technology or medicine, but they are just as vital to its health. In the age of Trump, we ignore them at our peril.

Shortly after I made my announcement, my father sat down with me to watch Lawrence Olivier's version of  Hamlet on our television. When the film got to the beginning of Act V, he turned to me and asked, "Why the hell is everybody dying?"

My father -- may he rest in peace -- was a good man. He gave me his name. But he did not insist that I do as he did. And, by the end of the movie, he understood why so many people had died.

Image: Old Hollywood Films