Monday, November 30, 2009

UAE aids banks amid Dubai meltdown

Probably there was no good alternative. The question is, will this help?

The United Arab Emirates' central bank said Sunday it has notified domestic and foreign banks with branches in the country that they would have access to "a special additional liquidity facility."

The offer comes after Dubai World, the conglomerate that has long been the chief engine behind Dubai's explosive growth, announced Wednesday it needed at least a six-month reprieve from paying its nearly $60-billion US debt. The news sent global markets tumbling.

Mideast markets were unaffected because of an extended Islamic holiday, but they reopen Monday.

"There is concern," said John Sfakianakis, chief economist at the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based Banque Saudi Fransi-Credit Agricole Group. "They're trying to take preventive measures in order to lower the risk of a run on the local banks."

"Depositors could very well panic … and they could decide to take their money out of the banking system," he added.

The UAE has been guaranteeing bank deposits since October 2008, but the pledge for new help at generous terms stems from concern that UAE banks have some of the biggest exposure to Dubai World's debt. Several have been downgraded by international ratings agencies or been placed on review for downgrades.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Peak oil - when?

Almost everyone knows, deep down, that the amount of oil on the Earth is finite. The question is when it will run out. Actually we'll have a problem, economically speaking, long before it actually runs out, because the price of oil will skyrocket, and like it or not our economy, as things stand now, is heavily dependent on the stuff. From an environmental point of view this would be a good thing, because it would virtually force us to reduce our CO2 emissions, but the transition will be tough on a lot of people.

Given this, one would hope that the experts have reliable information. After all, if we have an idea when oil production will peak, we can plan ahead for it and work to reduce our dependency. So how reliable is the information that they have?

The debate has intensified in recent weeks after whistleblowers claimed the IEA figures were unreliable and subject to political manipulation – something the agency categorically denies. But the subject of oil reserves touches not just energy and climate change policy but the wider economic scene, because hydrocarbons still oil the wheels of international trade.

Even the Paris-based IEA admits that the world still needs to find the equivalent of four new Saudi Arabias to feed increasing demand at a time when the depletion rate in old fields of the North Sea and other major producing areas is running at 7% year on year.

From the Guardian. We'll have to see where this goes; if the peak comes when the experts aren't prepared, things could get rather ugly.

Friday, November 27, 2009

An interesting tidbit

Fiat Currency, in this iTulip thread, has pointed out something rather interesting about the stock market turmoil in the wake of Dubai's troubles:
A computer crash at the London Stock Exchange, which by coincidence is 21 per cent owned by the Dubai Government, left dealers unable to trade for three and a half hours.
From the Times of London (UK). Also interesting that their impending default was announced on American Thanksgiving, perhaps in the hope that an across-the-board selloff could be averted. So far, it doesn't seem to be working.

Edited to add: Looks like the timing was indeed deliberate:

Just after 4pm on Wednesday, his Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum wrote on his Facebook page: "I would like to congratulate all UAE citizens and Muslims around the world on the advent of Eid Al Adha."

The flood of replies started instantly: the tech-savvy Ruler of Dubai is a favourite with young Muslims.

But among the well-wishes a few rogue messages started to slip through, tarnishing the illusion that all was well: "Good lucky buddy it looks like you bit more than you can chew. Hopefully Abu Dhabi can bail you out," said one.

Another read: "May the clouds of despair flow away from the country." And another: "I wish you all the power and wisdom to guide your country through this difficult times."

The Sheikh's holiday message had co-incided with the announcement from his government that Dubai World, the key conglomerate behind some of the emirate's most ambitious projects, was seeking to delay the repayment of its debts.

Released after the markets shut, ahead of the 10-day Eid holiday and the Thanksgiving break in America, the notice was designed to have minimum impact. It wasn't the Dubai government's first miscalculation.

From the Telegraph. Still unclear how this will pan out, but it makes the average investor a bit nervous, that's for sure. It probably makes the average Emirates resident downright terrified, for reasons we've already seen.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Another bump in the road to economic recovery

Markets around the world are in turmoil yet again, this time because Dubai's economic development agency has, er, a cash flow problem:
The global stock slump was in response to Wednesday's surprise announcement of an overhaul of Dubai World, the state-run organization that holds almost three-quarters of the Middle Eastern country's total debt. As part of the restructuring, Dubai World's creditors were asked to hold off on requiring debt repayments until at least May 30, 2010.

Funny thing is, the word "default" doesn't even appear in that article, but what else do you call it when they tell their creditors they can't pay for six months?

Dubai is actually a truly strange place, if this story is any indication. The United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai, has the largest per capita carbon footprint of any nation, owing largely to the energy needed for desalination. And those desalination plants are expensive to run. So what if they can't afford to?
If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes Dubai could run out of water. "At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil..." he shakes his head. "We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There's almost no storage. We don't know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive."
Crazy. I wonder if Raouf is right? You'd think the water supply would be kept going above all else, but...

And what would happen if a resident of Dubai were to default on his or her debts the way Dubai World has? Dubai actually still has debtors' prisons. A bit of an irony...

Harper shamed into going to Copenhagen

I guess the fact that the Obama and Wen are going forced his hand:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will attend the Copenhagen climate change meeting next month after all, his office said Thursday — a day after saying he would not go.

Harper decided Thursday to attend the meeting to work on a new climate change agreement after the U.S. president and Chinese premier announced that they will show up, his spokesman said.

Canada has been strongly criticized internationally for reneging on the Kyoto climate protocol and for refusing to sign on to a new deal limiting greenhouse gases unless developing nations are included.

From the CBC.

Foreign activities bill angers miners

Periodically we hear stories about the activities of Canadian mining companies in the Third World, and it's not a good thing at all. Liberal MP John McKay has introduced a bill to remedy this, and the mining companies are freaking out:
Thursday, a trio of Canada's largest miners will attempt to answer their accusers and argue against a proposed law which they say could devastate their industry and result in the loss of billions of dollars in financing and investment.

Executives from three mining heavyweights – Barrick Gold Corp., (ABX-T 46.240.671.47%) Goldcorp Inc., (G-T 46.520.681.48%) and Kinross Gold Corp. (K-T 21.200.683.31%) – are slated to testify in front of a parliamentary committee examining Liberal MP John McKay's bill, which has passed second reading. In a submission, the gold miners warn Bill C-300 will lead to “frivolous and vexatious claims” against mining firms and will put Canadian companies at a disadvantage against their international competitors.

They claim that the bill, believed to be the first of its kind in the world, would create a potential “exodus” of mining companies leaving Canada.

From the Globe and Mail. I guess respect for the environment and human rights is too much to expect of the mining industry.

Canadians mad at Cons... but not prepared to do anything about it

So given that 51% of Canadians believe Richard Colvin's reports of our government's complicity in torture, not to mention that 75% of Canadians are embarrassed about our the Cons' inaction on climate change, one would think that this should show itself in people's voting intentions. Shouldn't it?

The federal Conservatives continue to hold a 10-point lead — stable for nearly one month — over the Liberals, a new EKOS poll suggests.

The poll, commissioned by the CBC and released Thursday, suggests the Conservatives would have the support of 36.9 per cent of eligible voters and the Liberals 27.1 per cent.

The NDP would follow at 15.3 per cent, the Green Party at 11.4 per cent and the Bloc Québécois at 9.4 per cent, according to the poll.

While the Conservatives continued to hold the lead in voter support, approval of the government's direction dropped among those polled in the last week.

EKOS conducted the poll between Nov. 11 and Nov. 24.

From the CBC. So, fellow Canadians, what the frig is wrong with you?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interesting observation on that Belgian case

Have a look at this video, particularly from around 12 to 35 seconds:

The facilitator is moving the guy's hand on the keyboard. Doesn't that seem, well, a bit strange? James Randi certainly thinks so. Dr. Nancy Snyderman introduces the segment as follows:
A mother [in Belgium] says her son has emerged from what doctors thought was a vegetative state to say he was fully conscious for 23 years but could not respond because he was paralyzed.
To which Randi responds:
No, that is not what the man said, Dr. Snyderman. That's what an incompetent layperson typed for him!
Looking at the video, Randi definitely seems to have a point. Wishful thinking can be awfully effective, not to mention any ulterior motives some folks might have for promoting the version of the story that the mainstream media is running.

Thanks to Stimpson for tipping me off to this interesting twist on the story.

Dealing with child poverty

In 1989, the House of commons unanimously passed a resolution calling for the elimination of child poverty in Canada by 2000. Of course, it hasn't worked out that way. Ed Broadbent, who was instrumental in bringing forth that resolution, has a lot to say on what we should do about that now:
On the 20th anniversary of a noble parliamentary resolution, let's acknowledge our failure. And then reverse course. Instead of an income-tax policy favouring the rich, let's do the opposite. For a start, let's get our poor, hard-working families what they need immediately: more money.

For more than a decade, it is upper-income Canadians – not the poor or middle class – who have disproportionately benefited from globalization and deregulation. Therefore, I say that increasing their share of income taxes would be based on neither greed nor class envy. It should be called justice.

In the next budget, let's impose a six-point increase in income tax on those earning more than $250,000 a year (whose average taxable income is $600,000). While leaving them with very high incomes, this would provide $3.7-billion in additional revenue. All of this should be used to increase the National Child Benefit Supplement and thus help our poorest children. With this single act, we would significantly make up for two decades of neglect and make a major dent in child poverty.

From the Globe and Mail. Makes sense to me, at least. In the long run, I'm still inclined to think that the basic income is the way to go, but that's a long way off, and Broadbent's proposal seems perfectly achievable.

The future of Pakistan?

It seems likely that the Afghan war would quickly end in utter defeat for NATO if Pakistan's regime collapsed. So what is the likelyhood of that? Canada Guy thinks this issue is worth a closer look (h/t to jblaque in one of the comments to this post):
Recent history in Pakistan seems to bear a similarity to events in Iran during the rule of the Shah. The recent leadership of Pakistan has been similar in several ways to that of the Shah. In both countries the leaders were strongly backed by the United States. Both were involved in repressing or attacking their own people. In Iran, this led the revolution of 1979 which created an Islamic Republic. Could something similar happen in Pakistan?
His conclusions aren't encouraging either:
Pakistan's alignment with the US and US interests appears to be the largest factor causing instability within that country. The majority of Pakistanis do not support this role nor any domestic government that follows it. I will predict that unless there is an election in Pakistan of a government that follows the will of its people more closely, the likelihood of a revolution, coup, or breakup will increase over time. Eventually the situation will become untenable, and one of these outcomes will come to pass.
So why the hell don't we get out of Afghanistan now, before this happens? It'll be a lot harder afterwards. And the consequences of a coup in Pakistan could go well beyond Afghanistan... it could conceivably include stuff like this.

Police in UK accused of arresting people purely for DNA samples

At least, that's what is expected to be reported at an inquiry:
Police officers are now routinely arresting people in order to add their DNA sample to the national police database, an inquiry will allege tomorrow.

The review of the national DNA database by the government's human genetics commission also raises the possibility that the DNA profiles of three-quarters of young black males, aged 18 to 35, are now on the database.

The human genetics commission report, Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?, says the national DNA database for England and Wales is already the largest in the world, at 5 million profiles and growing, yet has no clear statutory basis or independent oversight.

The highly critical report from the government's advisory body on the development of human genetics is published as the number of innocent people on the database is disclosed to be far higher than previously thought ‑ nearing 1 million.

The commission says the policy of routinely adding the DNA profiles of all those arrested has led to a highly disproportionate impact on different ethnic groups and the stigmatisation of young black men, with the danger of their being seen as "an 'alien wedge' of criminality".

The crime and security bill published last week by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, proposes to keep DNA profiles of people arrested but not convicted of any offence on the database for six years. This follows a landmark European court judgment last December, ruling illegal the current blanket policy of indefinite retention of DNA profiles whether or not the person has been convicted of an offence.
From the Guardian. Hell, why don't they just take a sample from everyone at birth? Oh yeah, it's not white folks' DNA that they're after...

Monday, November 23, 2009

The modern American-style funeral

Totally DIY:

HOCKINGPORT, Ohio -- Jesse Hayes' family, already overcome by grief after he died in a house fire last month, quickly had to come to grips with another unthinkable reality.

With no money for a funeral, they would have to bury him themselves.

And so the day before Hayes' graveside service Oct. 15, his cousin and a handful of volunteers gathered with their shovels at Stewart Cemetery, a quiet spot in the woods not far from the Ohio River in southern Ohio.

They spent four hours digging with the shovels before finally being forced to bring in a backhoe when they hit rock about 3 feet down.

After a brief graveside service the next day, the family went to the nearby Lions Club for a meal provided by friends while the volunteers returned to cover the casket with dirt, finishing the grim task.

From the Columbus Dispatch, via zadok in this iTulip thread. This wasn't always so:

The state once provided assistance for indigent funerals, but the aid was eliminated a few years ago and not restored in this year's budget. The burden had fallen to counties, townships, churches and community groups to bury the dead when money is short. But many of those sources are running dry, too.

"Now, what's started happening is people are digging their own graves to make it more affordableit's the result of a long cycle of picking away at programs and cutting benefits, and because the economy is bad, other resources that may have been available before just aren't anymore," said Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services.

It's noteworthy to see the responses, both the comments on the story itself and the replies in the thread. One of the comments reads as follows:
This is a tough situation .......... been there and done that .......... my brothers and I dig our father's grave , there wasn't enough money . But we understood , that is not the Governments responsibility , it first of all was our job to provide for our own, and when that isn't possible , it is the church, that needs to step in , even if they were not members , and of course the relatives and community are responsible.
My emphasis. How ironic that many people support separation of church and state, but then advocate that most of the state's functions be transferred to the church.

Good news for the federal NDP?

Is the NDP's recent victory in the New Westminster-Coquitlam by-election a sign of things to come? Hard to say, but many are suggesting that the HST was a major factor. Layton certainly hopes so:
“[This] was the first election on the HST,” says the NDP Leader, whose party's portion of the riding vote went up eight points from 2008 results. “If it's even worth five points [of vote share], that's worth seats in B.C. and Ontario.”
From the Globe and Mail. With the Liberals in disarray, could it be that the NDP is poised to become the realistic alternative to the Cons? Too soon to tell (a lot can change by the time the general election comes along) but this is worth watching for sure.

Harper still has his supporters...

... like Conrad Black:

Conrad Black, a former Canadian writing from his involuntary lodgings in Central Florida, has taken the measure of Stephen Harper, asserting his belief that the prime minister may one day share the mantle of greatness with Black’s heroes, Mackenzie King and Maurice Duplessis (“the two greatest Canadian political leaders since Laurier”).

“The past six years have been a virtuoso performance by Harper, as he has cobbled together a new party and led it through three general elections, two to victory, and breasted his way through severe economic weather,” Black wrote in the National Post on Saturday en route to his conclusion: “If he continues to win the domestic political chess game, he could be a great prime minister.”

From the Waterloo Region Record.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The latest anti-Obama slogan

It's a subtle but unsettling message:
There’s a new slogan making its way onto car bumpers and across the Internet. It reads simply: “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8”

A nice sentiment?

Maybe not.

The psalm reads, “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.”

Presidential criticism through witty slogans is nothing new. Bumper stickers, t-shirts, and hats with “1/20/09” commemorated President Bush’s last day in office.

But the verse immediately following the psalm referenced is a bit more ominous: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”

From the Christian Science Monitor, via AlterNet. It may not meet the technical definition of sedition or hate speech (it isn't overtly advocating violence, unless you believe in the power of prayer to kill someone) but it shows where their minds are at, on more than one level.

A couple of auto industry stories

As we know, Ford is the only American automaker that didn't need a bailout. Why might that be? Well, maybe it's because they don't suck:

DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. has secured its position as the only domestic automaker with world-class reliability, according to a report released last week by Consumer Reports.

The findings for the trusted magazine's 2009 Annual Car Reliability Survey are from 1.4 million consumer surveys combined with its own performance testing.

Of the 51 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln cars and trucks surveyed by Consumer Reports, 90 per cent were average or better.

The Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan midsized sedans ranked higher than any other family sedan, except for the Toyota Prius hybrid car.

That's noteworthy because the Ford Fusion, which is the 10th best-selling vehicle in America so far this year, outperformed the better-selling Toyota Camry (No. 2) and Honda Accord (No. 4).

Interesting; so much for "found on road dead". Maybe GM and Chrysler are being held back by their unions... Oh, wait. Our friends on the Kitco and iTulip boards will be a bit nonplussed by that, but maybe there's another reason? Like, say, that the management at GM and Chrysler don't know what the hell they're doing, while those at Ford do?

But there's good news for Wilmington, Delaware, whose GM plant closed this year. Fisker Automotive is buying the plant to build electric cars:

NEW YORK -- Electric-car start-up Fisker Automotive said Tuesday that it will invest nearly $200 million to buy and retool a former General Motors plant in Wilmington, Del., facing off against Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and other big manufacturers in the nascent market for electric vehicles.

Topped off by an appearance from U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden at the plant in Delaware, Fisker Automotive said it hopes to support 2,000 factory jobs and more than 3,000 vendor and supplier jobs by 2014 at the site, with a production target of 75,000 to 100,000 vehicles per year.

The Irvine, Calif.-based company will spend about $18 million to buy the plant from Motors Liquidation Co. and then spend an additional $175 million to retool the plant to begin production in 2012. "This is a major step toward establishing America as a leader of advanced vehicle technology," said Henrik Fisker, the firm's chief executive.

Fisker Automotive received $529 million in government-loan guarantees in September to develop plug-in vehicles, after breaking into the business as the maker of a luxurious, $80,000 electric car with a range of up to 483 kilometres. That car, called the Karma, is expected to go on sale in 2010.

Given the need to reduce our greenhouse emissions, this could be the best news of all in the long run, if the cars work as advertised. I am curious, though, as to whether Fisker will hire laid off workers from the plant, or if they'll hire kids straight out of school? The former would probably be better for the community, but it remains to be seen whether Fisker will choose that route. After all, many companies don't like to hire people who have worked for other companies in the same industry. The Toyota plant in Cambridge has a reputation for this, for instance. I suppose this could be rationalized in terms of differing corporate cultures, and preferring to train a worker who is, relatively speaking, a tabula rasa than one who's already habituated to a different corporate culture. I suspect, though, that these companies' real fear is that people who have worked in a unionized environment might have traits that they might not want in their company -- like, say, knowing what their rights are.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

So why are we in Afghanistan again?

Sorry to keep flogging this particular moribund horse, but Devin Johnson has summed it up far better than I have. Check it out.

Basic income... an idea whose time has come?

It's a well kept secret that in the 1970s a joint federal-provincial study was conducted between the Schreyer government in Manitoba and the Trudeau administration in Ottawa on a program called "Mincome". It involved paying a basic income to residents of Dauphin and a like number of people in Winnipeg. The study was aborted when the feds decided to pull the plug on it. The date of the cancellation depends on who you read; according to the Uniter it was killed in 1978 (thus in the dying months of the Trudeau government), while Wikipedia claims it lasted until the following year (perhaps under the Clark government). Either way, the data from the study sat in vaults for decades before Evelyn Forget dusted off the old files and tried to draw some conclusions from the study. What she found was interesting:

Originally designed to test what impact guaranteed income would have on people’s decision to work, Mincome provided Forget with a unique natural experiment to look at the impact of poverty through health and education outcomes.

“Kids [that were part of Mincome] stayed in school longer and people used hospitals less, especially for accidents and injuries and mental health reasons,” said Forget.

What was surprising, she notes, is the strength of the findings. Even though only 30 per cent of the families qualified for support, “many people benefited from Mincome, and not only those who received payments under the scheme,” said Forget.

Participants at Mincome’s sister site in Winnipeg had similar outcomes. Even with guaranteed income, participants still chose to work.

From the previously cited Uniter article (my emphasis). If you think about it, it makes sense, considering the way welfare works right now. After all, if you're on welfare and get a job in a fast food hellhole, you're not going to be making any more money than you were on welfare, so you might as well just stay on the dole in the hope of finding something better. On the other hand, with a basic income, your income from your crappy job is on top of your Mincome payments. So it makes a lot more sense to find a job under a basic income regime than it does with conventional welfare.

Obviously, the elephant in the room is that running something like this on a provincial or national scale would require significantly higher levels of taxation than most Canadians, not to mention Americans, are accustomed to. The folks at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative have looked at the economics of this in more detail, and it's noteworthy that they like the idea in spite of the tax drawbacks. Noteworthy because the WCI folks are pretty mainstream economists, and pretty free-market oriented at that.

Exemption from "Buy American" policies is a sham -- CCPA

Frances Russell explains:
Taxpayers' dollars should be used to create and support taxpayers' jobs, not export them to another country.

At least that's what U.S. governments believe. But Canada's federal and provincial governments are so frantic to get exemptions from Buy American laws governing the massive U.S. economic stimulus package that they are preparing to open up $21 billion in provincial procurement and perhaps as much as $84 billion in municipal procurement -- and who knows how many jobs -- to U.S. suppliers in return for a virtually meaningless trade concession.

So says the author of a new research paper from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Political economist and CCPA senior researcher Scott Sinclair says the U.S. has cleverly steered the bilateral talks away from U.S. Buy American laws towards what President Barack Obama has called a "multilateral solution." Obama says Canada can get in on the U.S. stimulus gravy train by following its example and signing up provinces and local governments to the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Government Procurement (AGP.)

But U.S. federal, state and municipal governments have exempted so many Buy American policies from AGP commitments, they're almost a dead letter. Federal spending on highways, mass transit, municipal infrastructure and utility spending already are exempt. Thirteen states have no AGP commitments. Many more exclude steel, motor vehicles, coal and printing. All U.S. municipal procurement is protected. Finally, the U.S. federal government itself has carved out the bulk of its federal stimulus spending, leaving it free to apply its buy-local preferences.

From the Winnipeg Free Press. I really can't fault the Yanks for wanting stimulus funds to be spent at home where possible (much as I might find fault with them for other things); indeed I think we should be doing the same thing.

Does this make any sense?

Seems that the Department of National Defense wants to build a building in Afghanistan that could be abandoned within months of completion:
National Defence is looking to spend more than $4 million to erect a new multi-use building in Afghanistan — with a completion date just months before troops begin to withdraw from the military mission.

The sturdy, big-box structure would replace existing "weathered" tents at the Kandahar Airfield. A notice seeking letters of interest from construction companies was posted online Monday, with an estimated cost for the "opportunity" of $4.26 million.

DND spokesman Maj. Jason Porteous said current storage and maintenance facilities are in rough shape. The project calls for a new 3,608-sq. m. building with a 26-bay workshop, wash bay, shelters, office space and land communication and information systems storage.

"It's a project we've had on the books for a while. There's a long lead time to get these going," he said.

Despite Canada's 2011 scheduled end date for the mission, Porteous said the project is still worth proceeding. It will also serve as a spot to prepare Canadian military vehicles for their return home.

From the Portage Daily Graphic. Makes you wonder how serious they are about leaving in 2011, doesn't it?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Climate change laws years away: Prentice

They have no clue, do they?

The federal environment minister says it may be a few years before Canada tables regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Jim Prentice said the world has to first negotiate a new climate change treaty and Canada and the United States must finish their continental agreement on the same issue.

"I think it's fair to say that this all needs to knit together," Prentice said during a teleconference call from Copenhagen.

Prentice is taking part in the last round of climate change talks before the formal United Nations conference begins next month.

He also dampened any hope an international treaty will be reached in December.

"I think even a few months ago there had been an expectation on the part of the outside world that we would arrive at a full international treaty in December in Copenhagen. That clearly is not going to happen."

From the CBC.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The ghosts of Vietnam haunt Barack Obama

Further to this post, it seems that Obama is indeed unsure about what to do in Afghanistan:

It's a decision that is clearly the most difficult of Barack Obama's young presidency -- whether to heed the pleas of top military officials to send more troops to Afghanistan in a conflict some fear could become his Vietnam.

The president's dilemma has drawn parallels to Lyndon Johnson's deliberations about Vietnam 45 years ago as Obama grows noticeably thinner and confesses to skipping meals as he ponders the risks of escalating the United States presence in Afghanistan.

Like Johnson, Obama came to power with an ambitious domestic agenda as a controversial war raged overseas. His presidency hasn't yet been hijacked by an enormous American casualty rate in a faraway land against a stealthy enemy, but his closest advisers worry that it could be.

"The lesson of Vietnam surely is how can you get a nation engaged in it? It seems hard to imagine that Afghanistan is ever going to be a popular war," said Stephen Hess, who worked for Richard Nixon as the Republican president dealt with "Johnson's war" after his 1968 election.

From the Hamilton Spectator. He's in an awful situation; he should really pull out, but is the electorate willing to accept that they're in a fight they can't win?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

$1.10 a day ensures suitable housing for all: report

Doesn't sound like a lot, does it?
OTTAWA -- An estimated 1.5 million needy households in Canada could have access to suitable, affordable housing for the cost of slightly more than $1 a day for every household in the country, a new report says.

The price tag to eliminate Canada's "housing affordability gap" was a key finding in the report, which said single-parent families, the unemployed, the elderly, immigrants and aboriginals were being hardest hit by the lack of suitable housing.

The report, released Thursday, was prepared for the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada and based on an analysis of 2006 data collected by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Source. Do you think it would kill you to pay another $1.10 a day in taxes? Me neither.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Obama's last chance?

Gwynne Dyer thinks that the recent sham election in Afghanistan may give Obama an out:

As the evidence emerged that up to a third of the votes allegedly cast for Karzai had been fraudulent, the United States backed away from celebrating his “re-election”. Indeed, the fraud was so blatant and massive that even the Afghans began to choke on it, and various American emissaries threatened and bullied Karzai into accepting a run-off vote against his closest rival in the first round of voting, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.

That vote would have been held this Saturday (November 7), but Abdullah knew that he would lose again. He belongs to the Tajik ethnic group, and there are twice as many Pashtuns (Karzai’s ethnic group) in Afghanistan as there are Tajiks. So Abdullah complained that the election officials conducting this run-off would be exactly the same men who had rigged the first round—which was quite true—and demanded their resignation.

Karzai refused to remove them, Abdullah used that as an excuse to withdraw from the election, and last Sunday (November 1) the run-off was cancelled. Karzai was proclaimed president once again on the basis of the discredited first-round vote, and the whole sorry mess was abandoned. But there is a silver lining: if Obama wants to bail out of Afghanistan, he now has an excellent excuse for doing so.

From the Georgia Straight. The question is, will Obama take advantage of this opportunity? Dyer makes no predictions, except for what will happen if he doesn't:
If he misses this opportunity, he may never get another, for it will inevitably, inexorably become “his” war, and the Americans who are killed there from now on will have died on his orders. Once that kind of burden descends on a politician, it becomes almost impossible for him to change course and admit that those deaths were futile. In that case, the Afghanistan war will eventually destroy him.
I'm inclined to think Dyer's right. But does Obama?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Human rights ruling against classroom crucifixes angers Italy

This is interesting:
There was uproar in Italy today over a ruling by the European court of human rights that the crucifixes that hang in most Italian classrooms are a violation of religious and educational freedoms.

The seven judges, whose decision could prompt a Europe-wide review of the use of religious symbols on public premises, said state schools had to "observe confessional neutrality".

Except on the far left, the ruling met with condemnation among Italian politicians and was denounced by the Vatican. Silvio Berlusconi's education minister, Maria Stella Gelmini, said: "No one, not even some ideologically motivated European court, will succeed in rubbing out our identity."

A Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, said the crucifix was a fundamental sign of the importance of religious values in Italian history and culture, and was a symbol of unity and welcoming for all of humanity, not one of exclusion.
From the Guardian. I think we're going to see one of these:


It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future

Actually, I think I did very well, in that I didn't make too many concrete predictions (except to predict that Blaikie and Howard would be appointed, which they were). Some highlights:

Steve Ashton has been transferred to Infrastructure and Transportation... with significant chunks of his portfolio (Emergency Measures has moved with him). This kind of makes sense, especially given that his finest hour as a minister was during this spring's flooding.

Dave Chomiak, who many thought would retreat to the backbenches, has taken on Innovation, Energy, and Mines (formerly Science, Technology, Energy, and Mines).

Rosann Wowchuk, to nobody's surprise, has been confirmed as Minister of Finance (the first woman to occupy that post, incidentally).

Eric Robinson, again not surprisingly, is now officially Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs (he'd been acting minister since Oscar Lathlin's passing).

Ron Lemieux takes over the Local Government portfolio (formerly Intergovernmental Affairs, but with some responsibilities carved off).

Stan Struthers got Agriculture. No surprise there; with Wowchuk out of the picture, there's precious few rural MLAs, and Struthers is at least as good as any of the other possible choices.

Nancy Allen is now in charge of Education; a good fit given her past experience as a school trustee.

Jim Rondeau has been moved back to his original position at Healthy Living. Having spent the last five years in a higher profile portfolio, that's gotta hurt! Meanwhile, Kerri Irvin-Ross has been given responsibility for Housing (no word on whether she's responsible for cat detector vans, though).

Andrew Swan is the new Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. No great shock there; there aren't too many lawyers in caucus, and he's as good a choice as any of them. His old portfolio (under the new name of Entrepreneurship, Training, and Trade) goes to Peter Bjornson.

The new ministers include Bill Blaikie in Conservation, Jennifer Howard in Labour, and Flor Marcelino in Culture, Heritage, and Tourism. Unfortunately, Marcelino's appointment was marred by this, but hey, nobody's perfect.

Diane McGifford, Christine Melnick, and Theresa Oswald have retained their old jobs.

And for their sake I hope Erin Selby and Drew Caldwell didn't buy into all the predictions that they'd get posts...

Overall, it's hard to say how this will change things. Nice that the inner city, as well as women, have a bit more representation in Cabinet now, at least, with the appointment of Howard and Marcelino. And Howard in particular has always impressed me as someone destined for great things.

Shuffle day?

It's looking like today is the day of the big shuffle. And it's going to be a big one, apparently; it won't be just a matter of filling the finance portfolio. After all, Aboriginal and Northern Affairs is technically vacant too (Eric Robinson has been filling in since the untimely death of Oscar Lathlin), and rumour has it that one or two current ministers want to return to the backbench. Yellow Snow has a reasonably plausible set of predictions; on the other hand the Free Press' Bruce Owen has some different ones. Interestingly, Owen suggests that Selkirk MLA Greg Dewar might take over Agriculture, something I'd never heard suggested before. Expect to see Bill Blaikie and Jennifer Howard get noteworthy posts as well.