Northern Reflections

Subscribe to Northern Reflections feed
"There is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent." Leo Tolstoy
Updated: 19 min 56 sec ago

The Economic Argument For Peace On Earth

Wed, 12/24/2014 - 07:08

                                                  http://www.victorystore.com/

"Peace On Earth." We repeat the phrase often at this time of year. It's standard boilerplate -- a postive suggestion, but not very likely. However, Paul Krugman wrote this week that there are realistic reasons to support the suggestion. Those reasons have been around for awhile:

More than a century has passed since Norman Angell, a British journalist and politician, published “The Great Illusion,” a treatise arguing that the age of conquest was or at least should be over. He didn’t predict an end to warfare, but he did argue that aggressive wars no longer made sense — that modern warfare impoverishes the victors as well as the vanquished.
Krugman believes there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Angell was right. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as sad examples of the fact that the spoils of conquest are no longer what they used to be. And Vladimir Putin's recent empire building offers more evidence that conquest no longer pays:

Look at what passes for a Putin success, the seizure of Crimea: Russia may have annexed the peninsula with almost no opposition, but what it got from its triumph was an imploding economy that is in no position to pay tribute, and in fact requires costly aid. Meanwhile, foreign investment in and lending to Russia proper more or less collapsed even before the oil price plunge turned the situation into a full-blown financial crisis.
So what does the evidence tell us about they guys who keep insisting they're the smartest guys in the room?

Let’s not forget how we ended up invading Iraq. It wasn’t a response to 9/11, or to evidence of a heightened threat. It was, instead, a war of choice to demonstrate U.S. power and serve as a proof of concept for a whole series of wars neocons were eager to fight. Remember “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”?

The point is that there is a still-powerful political faction in America committed to the view that conquest pays, and that in general the way to be strong is to act tough and make other people afraid. One suspects, by the way, that this false notion of power was why the architects of war made torture routine — it wasn’t so much about results as about demonstrating a willingness to do whatever it takes.
Christmas isn't about doing whatever it takes. It's about doing for others not to others. Merry Christmas to all. Perhaps next year there will be more peace on earth.
The entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Dictators Love To Pose As Democrats

Tue, 12/23/2014 - 06:23


The Harperites like to present themselves as advocates for law and order. But, Errol Mendes writes in the Globe and Mail, they do their best to undermine the rule of law. Consider their taxpayer funded propaganda machine:

Governments are allowed to advertise about services and programs that they are implementing, but when some of them are either untruthful, promote partisan positions or are not even authorised by Parliament, it becomes a vehicle to undermine the foundations of any democracy that values the spirit and letter of the rule of law.
Dalton McGuinty was no Boy Scout. But he realized that government advertising could be used for blatantly partisan purposes:

The McGuinty government brought in rules that requires all government ads to be reviewed and passed by the auditor-general. The holder of that office has the ability to stop clear partisan ads being funded by the taxpayer.
There is no such mechanism at the federal level:

The present national ads for the family benefits tax package would have been stopped dead in their tracks if we had a similar screening process of government ads at the federal level, especially given that they were not even passed by Parliament.

And Stephen Harper has devoted much of his energy to making sure that no such mechanism materializes:

Even back in 2000, while heading up the National Citizens Coalition, he launched court actions against the spending limits of third parties under the Canada Elections Act. With a challenge that seemed to ignore the need for ensuring electoral fairness, his conservative advocacy group used the argument of citizens’ freedom of speech to ask the courts to strike down limits on third-party funding beyond a $150,000 limit during the election campaign. He failed when the Supreme Court lectured him and his group that the law was needed for electoral fairness and a level playing field in order to prevent certain groups or individuals from dominating the media and the electoral process.Now in government – and outside the electoral period – Mr. Harper has found a way for his government to flood the media with partisan propaganda to the tune of hundreds of millions of our dollars. If such democratic subterfuge has the same effect of unfairness before an election, then the Harper government is clearly undermining the spirit of the rule of law critical to fair elections. He has, in effect, made the government a third party that is allowed to spend potentially millions of dollars, making the actual limits in the election period illusory to some extent.
Empty barrels always make the most noise. And dictators love to pose as democrats.


Trudeau -- Mythic Hero?

Mon, 12/22/2014 - 07:33

                                                   http://merlin.wikia.com/

Michael den Tandt writes that the political narrative in Canada over the next year will be all about what Justin Trudeau does. That's because -- for better of for worse -- Trudeau has assumed the mantle of the mythic hero:

Trudeau’s popularity could be linked to the very fabric of how human beings perceive political narrative. His brand has been crafted, deliberately it seems to me, to tap into very old archetypes of heroism. These archetypes are everywhere in our culture – in film, literature, myth and politics.

Joseph Campbell called it the mono-myth. It’s also been described as “the hero’s journey.” A young warrior appears, often of secretly noble parentage. He or she is called to adventure, initially refuses the call, but eventually yields to destiny, to take up the mantle and burdens of leadership. George Lucas’s character Luke Skywalker, of course, was built around this meta-story. So were the tales of the Lion King, and numerous other Hollywood fables.

Perhaps den Tandt is going a bit overboard. But he points out that:

Trudeau’s policy deficit has been presented as his greatest problem. It really isn’t. Though the lack of hard platform thus far has caused him some discomfort, the waiting does have one benefit: The Liberals will have the last word. It is safe to assume that, at some point between now and October, Trudeau will unveil a detailed plan to address income inequality and high household debt among the middle class. It is also safe to assume this plan will be framed as more egalitarian than the Conservatives’ income-splitting plan, and more realistic and responsible than the NDP’s ideas. The policy gap, in other words, will be filled.

What’s more intriguing, and potentially dicey for the Liberals, is the relentless pressure on Trudeau to live up to what I have heard jokingly described as his “Skywalker brand.” It’s actually no joke. The framing of a leader in Arthurian terms, as a good-hearted young hero, is inherently risky, because it makes it incumbent on that leader to live that part, and continue living it.
The problem with the Arthur fable was that -- in the end -- it all came crashing down. Only time will tell if Trudeau can rebuild the Round Table.


Whose Terrorist?

Sun, 12/21/2014 - 05:31

                                                 http://www.terrorism.com/

The word "terrorist" is everywhere these days. But, Tom Walkom writes, the definition of the word depends as much on domestic considerations as it does on international considerations. And domestic considerations change -- frequently:

Take the most basic question: Who are the terrorists? Until Wednesday, Cuba was listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism. Now U.S. President Barack Obama says it is not.
Why? It’s not because Cuba has changed. It’s the same old place. Raul and Fidel Castro are still in charge.
Rather it is because American domestic politics have changed. Now it’s politically useful for Washington to bury the hatchet.Is Hamas itself terrorist? Canada says yes. The European Union’s second highest court says maybe not. The General Court said the EU used improper methods to place Hamas on its terror list.
And, in the lead up to an election, the word "terrorist" becomes a hot button:

For more absurdities, look at Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s air war against the Islamic State.

According to Ottawa, it is part of an epic battle for the future of civilization. Yet in almost 50 days of warfare, Canadian fighter jets have released their bombs only nine times.
In part, this is because the U.S.-led coalition can’t find enough enemies of civilization to bomb.But in part, it results from the disjunction between the rhetoric surrounding this conflict and a more mundane reality — which is that Harper needs a war to win the next election, but he needs it to be a war with few Canadian casualties.

Last week, both Peter Mackay and Stephen Harper suggested that the murderers of two Canadian soldiers might be connected to ISIS. To date, no evidence of that connection has emerged -- just as those "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq never materialized.

So whose terrorist are we talking about? A real one -- or one manufactured for political gain?


What's The Conventional Wisdom?

Sat, 12/20/2014 - 06:48

                                                   http://www.slideshare.net/

Parliamentary government is rooted in a series of conventions. The problem, Andrew Coyne writes, is that our political parties are no longer paying attention to those conventions. And if -- as seems likely -- we elect a minority government the next time around, what, he wonders, will happen in the wake of no political consensus:

We are notably lacking in consensus in this country on even the most basic rules of the game. We flirted with an all-out constitutional crisis on more than one occasion then. The next time we might not be so lucky.

Suppose, for starters, the Conservatives win a plurality of the seats in the election, and suppose, as seems likely, they are defeated in the Commons shortly thereafter on a matter of confidence: the Throne Speech, for example. What then? Would the prime minister go to the governor general and demand that he dissolve the House, triggering another election so soon after the last?

Would the governor general be obliged to do as he was told, or could he call upon some other party, perhaps even a coalition, to try to form a government? Mr. Harper has been adept at presenting this as dirty pool, an attempt by “the losers” to steal the election. Traditionalists like me insist that’s precisely how our system is supposed to work. We do not elect governments in this country: we elect Parliaments. The prime minister is whoever commands the confidence of the House, full stop.

All three parties now operate on the principle that we elect leaders, not parliaments. And it appears that most Canadians think that's the new convention. What happens when the conventional wisdom no longer applies?



The Curse of Petro-Politics

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 06:35

                                                          http://thetyee.ca/

Stephen Harper has made no secret that it is his intention to transform Canada into a petro-state.  Stanford professor Terry Lynn Karl has devoted her academic career to the study of petro-states. And she has concluded that petro-politics lead to self immolation. In an interview with Andrew Nikiforuk she predicts that falling oil prices will have catasrophic consequences for several petro-states:

"The effects of falling oil prices will be quickly felt in Venezuela, which is extremely vulnerable. If oil keeps dropping, the country's employment, standard of living and GDP will be affected. This tends to make people not like their government.

"Venezuela, which is already extremely polarized, is in big trouble. In this respect, there is a big difference between how oil prices affect Canada and the U.S. and how they affect countries where the politics have become totally petrolized. Where there is simply no difference at all between wealth and power, where corruption and rent seeking have taken over the whole enterprise or where conflict is already very high, these are the most vulnerable countries.

Russia isn't quite as vulnerable as Venezuela, but because it is a global power its fate is more important. In the face of both sanctions and low prices, the ruble has plummeted, debt is rising, living standards are declining, and food prices are up sharply. With oil prices high, Putin took certain actions in the Ukraine and elsewhere because he felt untouchable; his popularity remains very high.

"But this could change very quickly if prices remain low.

"Most people don't understand that the decline of the former Soviet Union was closely linked to the 1986 collapse in oil prices. Putin later took advantage of high prices to build his own personal power. That could be at stake if prices stay low."
And for all petro-states:

"Debt is the Achilles heel of this picture. If prices remain low for several years, a lot of U.S. shale producers have high debt loads, especially in junk bonds. Today, energy debt currently accounts for a substantial 16 per cent of the U.S. junk bond market. If these producers start going bust, investors in junk bonds will be in for a shock.

 "Dropping oil prices affect international debt as well, creating a high risk of default by countries like Venezuela. Around the world two sets of debt are coming in -- from the high cost bitumen and shale oil producers who borrowed to help create the current supply glut and oil exporting producers who have borrowed heavily. Both affect the entire financial system.
So, just as the financial system almost brought the house down in 2008, oil could be the cause of the next global economic collapse. And Stephen Harper happily assumes oil will lead to national Nirvana.

Who would you believe -- Karl of Harper?

Should We Be Surprised?

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 06:25
                                                      http://www.cbc.ca/

Canadians were appalled when the U.S. Senate report on torture saw the light of day. We like to think, as John Baird said, that "Canada doesn't torture anyone. Period. Period." But, like everything that comes out of the mouths of this government, that's a half truth. Linda McQuaig writes:

The Harper government has opened the door to Canadian complicity in torture. It issued a directive allowing Canadian officials to share intelligence with foreign governments in some situations, even when this could lead to torture or to the receipt of information extracted under torture.

But like so many other disgraceful things that this government has done, the Harper crew issued this directive secretly; it only came to light through the access to information law.

Rather than simply prohibiting Canadian government agencies from sharing torture-tainted information, the Harper government’s directive simply requires approval from higher-ups, specifying that the matter should be referred to the appropriate deputy minister or agency head.
And, given the fact that "higher ups" either fall into line with this government or are fired, that protection means nothing. The goal is to get the information and let others do the torturing -- which is precisely what happened with Maher Arar. Justice Dennis O'Connor rejection of that policy was scathing:

In his powerful report, Justice O’Connor found that the RCMP’s false information likely had contributed to Arar’s year-long ordeal in Syria, and recommended Canadian agencies never send foreign authorities information that could lead to torture.

That recommendation led the RCMP to revamp their information-sharing procedures.

 O’Connor’s report went further and condemned torture under any circumstances, noting that the prohibition against torture in international law is so fundamental it has acquired the status of jus cogens — a body of “higher law” that overrides all other laws or government practices.
But the Harperites' secret directive, in effect, eviscerated O'Connor's specific recommendations.  Should we be surprised?


That Would Make No Sense At All

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 06:30
                                                   http://www.sodahead.com/

Scott Clark and Peter DeVries ask the question the majority of Canadians are asking:

Why do the Conservatives govern the way they do? Why do they treat so many Canadians with such … contempt? Aboriginals, immigrants, children, disabled and minorities — all have been pushed aside. Not-for-profit groups and associations have been deprived of the resources they need to contribute to the economic, social, scientific, environmental and cultural well-being of the country.
This government loves power but hates government. And it has a plan:

The plan is, actually, quite simple — when you remember that these Conservatives came to power not to praise government, but to bury it. This is an administration committed to reducing the size and relevance of the federal government (not counting advertising and PR staff, of course). Since 2006, federal programs and services have been cut dramatically — not to serve the short-term needs of budget austerity, but to fulfill a conservative quest for the smallest government possible … “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” to borrow a phrase from American arch-libertarian Grover Norquist.
Government can actually be quite effective. And it wouldn't take much to make the federal government much more effective. Scott and DeVries offer a modest proposal:

Suppose the government increased the GST by one point. What would that do? Well, the cost of a $100 product or service would go up by … one dollar. Ten cents on a $10 dollar purchase. The cost of a pack of gum might go up by a penny (there aren’t any pennies any more, but you get the point). What would that do for the federal treasury? It would raise about $8 billion every year. That’s a lot of money for veterans services, for badly-needed infrastructure, for everything we’ve been neglecting. And it still amounts to just .04 per cent of GDP.
They won't do that, of course. Making government more effective would destroy their raison d'etre. That would make no sense at all.



Coalition Time?

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 06:13

                                                 http://www.huffingtonpost.ca

After the latest EKOS poll, there has been a lot of talk about a Liberal-NDP coalition. Frank Graves claims that's what the majority of Canadian voters want. But, Chantal Hebert writes, that's not what the two respective party leaders want:

This fall, their mutual obsession with each other has tended to blind them to other big-picture considerations with posturing and positioning regularly taking precedence over the fight against a common Conservative foe.

Think of Justin Trudeau’s opposition to Canada’s combat role in the international coalition against Islamic State extremists. It ran counter to the advice of some of the party’s brightest foreign policy minds and it was poorly articulated but it did offer the Liberal left flank some cover from the NDP.

Or think of Mulcair’s out-of-the-blue musings about a resuscitated federal gun registry. He may have hoped to score points against Trudeau but he mostly ended up bringing long-standing NDP divisions back to the surface.

Think finally of the reciprocal suspicions that attended their handling of the delicate matter of the alleged sexual misconduct of two male Liberal MPs against two of their female NDP colleagues.
The days are long gone when Liberals, under Louis St. Laurent, thought of Dippers as "Liberals in a hurry." And Stephen Harper knows that. In fact, he's counting on the new Dipper-Lib rivalry to keep him in power.

And, unless Mulcair and Trudeau can learn to talk to each other,  Mr. Harper will get his way.

Stephen Harper's Word

Mon, 12/15/2014 - 05:44
                                                http://www.huffingtonpost.ca

Newfoundland Premier Paul Davis was not happy after his meeting last week with Stephen Harper. "It really solidifies that you can’t trust the federal government, you can’t trust Stephen Harper’s government," he said. "We bargained in good faith. We believed that we had an agreement in place, that we had a deal set."

Davis sounded eerily like another premier from Newfoundland, Danny Williams. Michael Harris writes:

Former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Danny Williams, once believed he had a deal that would allow his province to keep its offshore oil revenues while still being eligible for full equalization payments from Ottawa. When Stephen Harper changed that arrangement, Williams went on the war path. With the full backing of the premier’s office, word spread across Newfoundland and Labrador — vote for anybody but Harper at the ballot box.
And then there was Harper's alteration of the Atlantic Accord. When Bill Casey met with Harper, he discovered that the agreement meant what Stephen Harper said it meant:

Casey visited the prime minister personally, armed with legal opinions from the justice department confirming that the deal had been changed and that it was illegal.

“Harper swept the opinions off his desk and said that the words meant what he said they meant. He said that I had never been with the program,” Casey told me.
Jack Layton said he discovered early on that you couldn't take the prime minister at his word. That, Harris writes, is what the next election will be all about: Stephen Harper's word.


Questioning The Orthodoxy

Sun, 12/14/2014 - 06:21
                                                   http://canadabubble.com/

Joe Oliver is meeting with his provincial counterparts today. Kevin Page writes that, given Canada's and the world's economic outlook, it's a time to ask some tough questions:

Some of these issues cannot be ignored any longer. For instance, will any provincial or territorial finance minister confront Joe Oliver, their federal counterpart, about income stagnation? Data on Human Resources and Social Development Canada’s site shows that median after-tax incomes for all families (or real GDP per capita) has been virtually flat since 2007. Debt feels very heavy when incomes are stagnating.
Or what about income inequality? The New Canadian Income Survey on the Statistics Canada website shows that 4.7 million people or 13.8 per cent of our population lived with low income in 2012 (income less than half of the median of all households). That is a troubling number that should worry all Canadian political leaders.

It's not that our finance ministers lack brains. Page gives credit where credit is due:

Our finance ministers are smart. They know that faster growth is going to require higher investment rates and sustainable public finances. But the reality is that Canada is falling down on capital investments in both the private and public sectors.  
That's because the ruling orthodoxy these days dictates that the only way to encourage investment is to cut taxes:

Why do we continue to pursue an approach that stunts growth now and for the future? Is this public sector mismanagement? Or, is this an effort to achieve a balanced budget that allows for spending on current goods or services (for my generation that votes) at the cost of capital goods for future generations (our children and grandchildren that do not yet vote)?
And what about infrastructure spending? Will the ministers confront Oliver about the 2013-14 Public Accounts for Infrastructure Canada, which show the federal government is not getting planned transfers on infrastructure out the door. Last year, $640 million was left unspent on a range of infrastructure programs. What will this mean for future Canadians?
The austerity approach set out in the 2012 federal budget will succeed in generating a balanced budget, but at a cost: slower growth and degraded public services like support for veterans. Meanwhile, the government is responding to its improved fiscal situation not by raising the investment rate, but by cutting taxes further.
Page got into trouble because he questioned the Harper government's orthodoxy. Time has proven, however, that Kevin Page knows a lot more about economics than Stephen Harper does.


A Foremost Fabulator

Fri, 12/12/2014 - 04:26

                                                http://www.webchercheurs.com/

Stephen Harper came to Ottawa claiming that he was a righteous man. He stood, he said, for the truth. But, Michael Harris writes, with Harper it's never been about the truth. It's been about advertising -- and he arranges for Canadians to foot the bill:

We’re living in the age of propaganda politics financed by the public between elections; appearance and reality are now separated by light years of marketing BS. As the PM postures as the veterans’ champion, his government has quietly agreed to transfer to Quebec the last Veterans Affairs hospital in Canada run by the feds. It hasn’t been announced yet, but Quebec’s health minister, Gaetan Barrette, listed St. Anne’s Hospital in the Law Number Ten Project, merging the federal facility with other establishments in Montreal’s West Island.
The veterans affairs fiasco is a particularly egregious example of how advertising has replaced the truth:

So the latest episode of let’s-pretend marketing goes something like this: The Harper government is going to hire new front-line workers for VA — ergo, its commitment to veterans is confirmed.

It’s nothing of the sort, of course. In fact, it’s more tarnished than ever. The Harper government has fired thousands of VA staffers and are hiring dozens. There is no information on how these new front line workers will be deployed. There never is any detailed information in Harper “news” releases; he saves that for information leaks about his enemies, like Helena Guergis or Jim Prentice.
And the Harperian propaganda surrounding the F-35 was equally putrid:

Remember all the marketing attached to this file? The PM confabulating that there was a contract when there was no contract. The PM saying the price was $16 billion for sixty-five F-35s; it was $10 billion higher and cabinet knew it. The PM saying the parliamentary budget officer was wrong on his numbers; it was the PM who was wildly, consciously wrong. The Auditor General finally put the Cons out of their misery by completely backing up Kevin Page.
Joan Mellen wrote that Lillian Hellman was the:

foremost literary fabulator of her generation. Lillian Hellman invented her life, so that by the end even she was uncertain about what had been true. 
Hellman's and Harper's politics were diametrically opposed. But they shared a fatal flaw.