Friday, December 24, 2010

Volcker fears for the future of America

Paul Volcker, who chaired the Fed through most of the 1980s, thinks the dollar is in trouble:

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who is chairman of President Barack Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said the U.S. dollar is in danger of losing its role as a global benchmark currency.

“The growing question is whether the exceptional role of the dollar can be maintained,” Volcker told a gathering of New York civic leaders at the University Club of New York last night.

The decline of the U.S. economy, political gridlock at home, U.S. involvement in two wars and “festering” geopolitical issues in the Middle East and Asia have undermined the ability of the U.S. to influence global events, Volcker said.

From Bloomberg (h/t Eric Janszen in this iTulip thread). Not surprisingly, Volcker takes it for granted that this will be a bad thing. But perhaps most interesting is this:

Volcker offered no prescriptive solutions as he spoke in broad terms of the country’s loss of stature.

When a guy who's supposed to be in charge of America's economic recovery admits that he has no clue what to do about it, it certainly does look like that country is in trouble.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Prentice was prepared to act on oilsands: Wikileaks

This is an interesting revelation:

Former environment minister Jim Prentice privately told U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson more than a year ago that he was prepared to impose new regulations on the oil sands if the industry and province did not improve their environmental performance, newly released Wikileaks documents reveal.

In a cable to Washington, Mr. Jacobson described an introductory meeting – held a month after he assumed his post in October, 2009 – in which Mr. Prentice eagerly sought to establish a personal relationship with the new face of the Obama administration in Ottawa.

From the Globe. One can't help but wonder if this had something to do with his recent resignation; if Harper wasn't prepared to budge on the issue, Prentice would have no choice but to either live with it or resign. Maybe he took the latter option.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The US is even more strapped for cash than we thought

They're so broke it's starting to cut into their ability to kill people:
The United States executed fewer people this year, in part because there is a shortage of the drug used in lethal injections and because executions are too expensive in tough economic times, a report released Tuesday said.

The Death Penalty Information Center said in its annual report that executions decreased 12 percent this year and new death sentences stayed near the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

From the London Free Press. The death penalty, paradoxically, is far more costly than imprisoning someone for life. The thing is, even societies that accept the death penalty don't feel comfortable if they get it wrong, so if someone's going to be executed they have to make sure they get it wrong as little as possible. And that means a lot of appeals, making sure that the accused has proper legal representation right up to the point when the last appeal is exhausted. Indeed, in some US states a person who is sentenced to death gets an automatic appeal whether they want it or not. Needless to say, that gets expensive.

What's striking, though, is that the US is one of the few modern democracies that has stubbornly clung to the practice of capital punishment. It's almost a fine old tradition there, and they don't give up their traditions easily. So for them to loosen their hold on it now is a sign that they're really broke.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The spectre of Internet voting turns up in Manitoba

It seems some municipal officials want to introduce Internet voting:

Plans are already in the works for the next municipal election in 2014 that advance polls in Winnipeg will include the Internet.

"If you want to continue serving the people you serve, you've got to meet their expectations," city clerk Richard Kachur said. "It's also important for the next generation coming up. They use the Internet far more than anyone else. They expect it."

From the Free Press (h/t PolicyFrog). It's a seductive idea, to be sure; even decent folk like Joe Pantalone have advocated it. And it's in use already in some places, but does that mean we should follow their example? I don't see any way of ensuring that the vote isn't rigged by hackers, and even if you could guarantee beyond a reasonable doubt that it couldn't be rigged, it would be a lot harder to convince voters of this. It would undermine the legitimacy of the winner, too. At least now, I can accept that Sam Katz (and Rob Ford, for that matter) won fair and square. I might lament the narrow-mindedness of the voters who put them there, but I can't dispute their legitimacy. But if they had won their positions through Internet voting, a lot of people would be skeptical - perhaps to the point where they wouldn't bother voting next time, since the fix is in. Which is exactly the opposite of what the proponents of Internet voting want. And that's not even counting the fact that some would likely conclude that they ought to try to "un-fix" the next election (i.e. fix it in the other direction).

It's also worth noting that Internet voting could actually worsten the tendency for the poor to be underrepresented at the polls. Laziness spans class boundaries, but if those who can afford a computer and an Internet connection find it easier to vote than those who can't, this will further disenfranchise the poor.

Finally, you have to be suspicious of an idea that is promoted using bogus arguments. And PolicyFrog has found one in the article - U of M political scientist Jared Wesley, who thinks online voting is just grand, tossed out the old chestnut that "more people voted on American Idol than the American president". Sounds shocking, but it isn't true, as Froggy points out:

The 2008 U.S. Election drew over 131 million votes, while the biggest American Idol finale brought in about 100 million.

Furthermore, fans can vote multiple times on Idol. Given that the viewing audience for a finale ranges from 20 million to 30 million, and only a portion of those people actually vote, then it’s clear that waaaaaaaay more people cast a ballot for President than Idol. And don’t even get me started on votes cast by those over the age of 18…

So does anyone still think online voting is necessary or desirable? Fortunately, the city can't implement this without the province's co-operation, and the provincial NDP has shown no interest in this folly to my knowledge.

The Alberta tail wags the federal dog

It seems that Alberta's opposition is enough to convince the Harper government to shelve the proposed expansion of the CPP:

Provinces are planning to fight for enhancements to the Canada Pension Plan at a key meeting on Monday, setting up a showdown with the Harper government over how Canadians will fund their retirements.

Just days before federal and provincial finance ministers meet in Kananaskis, Ottawa made a surprise move to reject CPP enhancements for now in favour of a new privately run savings vehicle.

The shift in federal priorities on pension reform comes as the Bank of Canada heightens its warnings that Canadians are borrowing too much and saving too little, putting some households at risk when interest rates inevitably climb back from near-record lows.

Ottawa’s critics insist long-term pension problems must be tackled now and premium increases can be phased in, but the Harper government is aligning itself with Alberta in arguing the economy cannot absorb a new hit on the take-home pay of Canadians.

From the Globe. No doubt the feds (and Alberta) like the private-sector nature of the new proposal; from the average citizen's point of view, though, the most significant feature is the fact that it would be a defined contribution plan, unlike the defined benefits provided by the CPP. It's trendy these days to call defined benefit plans "gold-plated pensions"; I suggest that a more appropriate term would be "galvanized", since they protect your pension from corrosion.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Polls show a lot of volatility

A new poll has come out from Harris-Decima that completely contradicts the Ipsos poll of a few days ago:
The Conservatives and Liberals appear to be ending the year the same way they started it — in a dead heat.

A new poll by The Canadian Press Harris-Decima suggests the Tories have the support of 31 per cent of Canadians, statistically tied with the Liberals at 29 per cent.

The poll puts the NDP at 15% and the Greens at 11%, both noticeably higher than the Ipsos results. The Ipsos poll was conducted between the 7th and 9th; the Harris-Decima one was conducted between the 2nd and the 13th. So it's pretty clear that at least one of them must be wrong. Which one? On the one hand, the Harris-Decima poll has a larger sample size (2,022 respondents vs. 1000 for the Ipsos poll); on the other hand, the Ipsos poll, having been conducted in a shorter time period, might provide a better snapshot (and 1000 is still not an unreasonable size). The moral? Nothing really, except that it's hard to predict how the actual election will play out.

Is Hugh McFadyen driving away the moderates?

The fact that Brandon West MLA Rick Borotsik has decided not to run in the 2011 election would not be a big deal in itself; politicians retire all the time, and Borotsik has had a long and (by Tory standards) respectable career. However, David Faurschou has also decided not to run, and it may be no coincidence that both Borotsik and Faurschou are among the most moderate Tories in the legislature (for instance, Borotsik, as an MP, was one of the few members of his caucus to support same-sex marriage). Add to this the fact that former Tory MLA Marcel Laurendeau, in announcing his intention to run for the Liberals next year, said that McFadyen has moved the party "too far to the right", and you have to ask - do we really know Hugh McFadyen? One thing is clear - Borotsik, Faurschou, and Laurendeau do...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

US Southwest could face catastrophic drought

Nothing is certain in this business, of course, but some fear this is what's on the way:

U.S. researchers shows that the American southwest could experience a 60-year stretch of heat and drought unseen since the 12th century.

Researchers at the University of Arizona examined studies of temperature changes and droughts in the region over the past 1,200 years and used them to project future climate models in the hope that water resource managers could use the information to plan ahead.

An examination of the past, through human-kept records but also via rings in the cores of trees that can show periods of wetness or drought, showed that dry spells of earlier centuries were much worse than any we have seen in modern times.

From the Montreal Gazette. The thing is, those areas are strapped for water now owing to the huge demands of agriculture, not to mention the golf courses and swimming pools that litter that part of the US. Even now there are fears of Lake Mead drying up, for instance. What would they do? Desalination might help, but it is extremely expensive in terms of money as well as energy, and given that California and Arizona, at least, are badly strapped for cash, how are they to pay for something like that? Will private money be forthcoming? If not, the next few decades could see a massive displacement of people from those areas. If nothing else, one could relish the irony of Arizonans wanting to move somewhere for a better life and being hated as job-stealing outsiders...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Swedish city eliminates use of fossil fuels for heating

Kristianstad is almost as big as Brantford, and Sweden is not exactly a warm climate. If it's possible there, it should be possible almost anywhere:
When this city vowed a decade ago to wean itself from fossil fuels, it was a lofty aspiration, like zero deaths from traffic accidents or the elimination of childhood obesity.

But Kristianstad has already crossed a crucial threshold: the city and surrounding county, with a population of 80,000, essentially use no oil, natural gas or coal to heat homes and businesses, even during the long frigid winters. It is a complete reversal from 20 years ago, when all of their heat came from fossil fuels.

But this area in southern Sweden, best known as the home of Absolut vodka, has not generally substituted solar panels or wind turbines for the traditional fuels it has forsaken. Instead, as befits a region that is an epicenter of farming and food processing, it generates energy from a motley assortment of ingredients like potato peels, manure, used cooking oil, stale cookies and pig intestines.

A hulking 10-year-old plant on the outskirts of Kristianstad uses a biological process to transform the detritus into biogas, a form of methane. That gas is burned to create heat and electricity, or is refined as a fuel for cars.

From the New York Times.

What the Cons might do with a majority

Dean Del Maestro, parliamentary secretary to Heritage Minister James Moore, let this slip in committee last month:
Do you think, and I'm just asking an opinion, this is not a government policy, obviously, but do you think it's time that the Canadian government looks at it and says, maybe it's time we get out of the broadcasting business and get into investing more money into content?
Source. Admittedly, he says it's not government policy, which is to say it hasn't appeared in public policy statements. But what if they had a majority? Just another reason why the Cons must be stopped at all costs. For what it's worth, there's a petition here; it can't hurt to sign it, at least...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cons close to majority territory - poll

What the heck is this?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's governing Conservatives have lunged ahead of their political rivals in public favour and would easily be returned to power if an election occurred now, a new poll finds.

The national survey, conducted for Postmedia News and Global TV, reveals that the Tories have broken out of a lengthy stalemate in public opinion and appear to have political momentum on their side.

The new findings by Ipsos Reid raise questions whether Harper will try to precipitate an election next spring, or perhaps even earlier in 2011.

According to the survey conducted this week, the Conservatives are supported by 39 per cent of decided voters, up four points from a month ago. By comparison, Michael Ignatieff's Liberals remain at 29 per cent of the decided vote.

The NDP, led by Jack Layton, would garner 12 per cent of the vote, down four points from last month. The Green party, led by Elizabeth May, would receive nine per cent of the vote, down two points.

Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québécois has 10 per cent of the vote nationally, but within its own province the party has a commanding lead over the other parties.

From the Free Press. Now I know that Ignatieff is not an appealing leader, but that doesn't explain the fact that the NDP is dramatically down from previous polls too. And it's not like the Cons have been doing themselves proud - they've lost one of their most competent ministers, the war in Afghanistan is a defeat waiting to happen, they've gutted the census, they continue to embarrass us on the international scene with their inaction on climate change, and they're under investigation for cheating in the 2006 election. So what's going on? This might provide a clue:
He says these “key cluster” ridings had been Conservative under Brian Mulroney. In suburban ridings, Mr. Nanos believes Mr. Harper’s team is using “crime as a hot button” and in the rural Liberal and NDP ridings, they are using the long-gun registry as a wedge issue.
From the Globe. The sickening thing is that this strategy seems to be a very sound one. Regardless of the actual truth, the TV-watching public generally seems to think crime is worse than ever, and if the Cons keep screaming "CRIME! CRIME! CRIME!" enough times, the suburban zombies fall into line and vote for them. Quite disheartening really.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

B.C. forests now a polluter, thanks to pine beetle

Not a good situation:
A government report says B.C. forests, often hailed as a giant sponge soaking up harmful air pollution, have become a net producer of carbon dioxide.

The report says the mountain pine beetle, which has killed millions of trees, and massive forest fires in recent years, have transformed the forests from a carbon sink into a polluter.

From the Star. The thing is, the beetles have become much more lethal to forests due to milder winters, so this is an example of a positive feedback with regards to climate change. Dealing with the problem may involve some hard choices, because the best way to mitigate the damage done might well be to harvest all those dead trees before they burn or rot (since either process will release an unacceptable amount of CO2). The idea of clearcutting huge areas is far from appealing from a biodiversity point of view, since a forest that is clearcut will not return to its natural state for a long time, if ever. However, it is far from normal for such a wide area of forest to die off like this; I suspect it won't return to its natural state regardless. In effect, the forest has already been clearcut; it's just that the trees haven't fallen down yet. Whatever replaces those trees, whether they're removed or not, will be different from what's there now, so maybe they should be harvested and made into furniture, building materials, or biochar.

Just to make things more difficult, this comes at a very awkward time, since with the crash in housing in the US and elsewhere (including here to some extent) the market for timber is way down, and isn't likely to recover in time to use all that material. Perhaps the BC government should be actively harvesting it and making it into biochar, returning much of that material to the soil so as to keep the nutrients in the ecosystem. After all, they just brought in a carbon tax; maybe they should be devoting that money to trying to actually mitigate climate change. But maybe that would make too much sense...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Can hyperlinking be defamatory?

A case before the Supreme Court of Canada depends on this question:

Canada would be offside with other English-speaking countries if legal restrictions were imposed on the exploding practice of linking to online postings, the Supreme Court of Canada was told Tuesday.

The court reserved judgment after a three-hour hearing in the case of Lake Cowichan writer Jon Newton. Several lawyers representing a variety of interests argued that exposing writers like Newton to lawsuits if they link to a defamatory posting would cast a wide chill.

Several judges seemed receptive to the argument, including Justice Louise Charron, who speculated that Internet users would be afraid to link to other material if the court made them legally responsible for their actions.

The appeal was brought to the Supreme Court by Vancouver businessman Wayne Crookes, who alleges that Newton, who runs the website, defamed him by linking to a reputation-smearing article in a 2006 post about free speech.

From the Vancouver Sun. I'm pretty confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the lower court's decision, which ruled that hyperlinks are analogous to footnotes and are not publications themselves, but we'll have to see how it goes. Any other ruling, however, would be a travesty. For one thing, I'd have to think twice about continuing this blog; what if someone decides that something I've linked to is defamatory? Or what if you link to something that links to something else that's defamatory? If Crookes gets his way, you wouldn't want to risk linking to anything. And of course, without links a blog -- and indeed, the entire Web -- is almost worthless.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

US historian has ominous predictions for the future of America

Alfred McCoy is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He thinks the American empire has passed the point of no return and is now in a death spiral:

A soft landing for America 40 years from now? Don’t bet on it. The demise of the United States as the global superpower could come far more quickly than anyone imagines. If Washington is dreaming of 2040 or 2050 as the end of the American Century, a more realistic assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025, just 15 years from now, it could all be over except for the shouting.

Despite the aura of omnipotence most empires project, a look at their history should remind us that they are fragile organisms. So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003.

Future historians are likely to identify the Bush administration’s rash invasion of Iraq in that year as the start of America's downfall. However, instead of the bloodshed that marked the end of so many past empires, with cities burning and civilians slaughtered, this 21st-century imperial collapse could come relatively quietly through the invisible tendrils of economic collapse or cyberwarfare.

But have no doubt: When Washington's global dominion finally ends, there will be painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life. As a half-dozen European nations have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.

From the Huffington Post. The reasons are ones that should be familiar by now; he expects that the US dollar will eventually lose its reserve status, the country has badly overextended itself with its foreign military adventures, and its economy is gradually being hollowed out as manufacturing increasingly moves offshore. While his predictions are fairly good as they go, I'm not sure I agree with his assumption that China will simply replace the US as the world's most powerful country. The biggest issue is not mentioned in the article -- namely, climate change -- and this will harm China at least as much as the US.

Gillard hangs Assange out to dry

Usually, if you get in trouble in a foreign country there is an understanding that your country will do what it can to help you. In Canada we've seen this principle flouted (Maher Arar, or the even worse example of Omar Khadr) but it doesn't particularly shock or surprise me any more coming from Stephen Harper. I'd have expected more of Julia Gillard though:
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been accused of possibly prejudicing any future case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange by claiming he is "guilty of illegality" for leaking US diplomatic cables.

Mr Assange is expected to meet with British police sometime in the next 24 hours after Swedish authorities issued a fresh warrant for his arrest over alleged sexual offences.
From the ABC. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she's afraid for the stability of her minority government (especially given that she's of an age to remember the infamous dismissal of Gough Whitlam's government). I guess all governments make such calculations sometimes, but it always seems like a letdown coming from a progressive government.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Europe doubts Afghan war winnable: Wikileaks

It seems that one of those leaked diplomatic communications suggests that European Union officials suspect what many of us have believed for years -- namely, that there's little hope of success in Afghanistan:

Leaked diplomatic memos said that European Union President Herman Van Rompuy told America's ambassador that the EU no longer believes in success in Afghanistan, and that European troops are still there “out of deference to the United States.”

U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, in the memo released by WikiLeaks, quotes Mr. Van Rompuy as saying in December 2009 that the EU will wait until the end of 2010 to see progress.

Mr. Van Rompuy, the former Belgian prime minister who at the time was EU president-designate, reportedly said that “if it doesn't work, that will be it, because it is the last chance.”
From the Globe. Will this hasten the end of the war? I don't know, but possibly. After all, with this going public, a lot of European governments will face hard questions from their citizens about why they're still throwing money and lives at a cause that they know is probably hopeless.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Toronto police chief apologizes to beaten protester

A couple of days ago police chief Bill Blair savagely criticized the Special Investigations Unit for their ruling on the vicious beating of a chap known, publicly at least, as Adam Nobody. Blair alleged that the video had been tampered with. Now he's backing away from that statement:

Chief Blair said there is no evidence Mr. Nobody was armed at the time of his arrest.

He also said he regretted that his comments in a radio interview created a false impression that the video of Mr. Nobody’s takedown, captured in two segments by bank employee John Bridge, had been doctored in an attempt to mislead.

Source. Well, at least Blair is willing to admit that he was wrong, which is probably more than can be said for a certain previous police chief...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leaked document suggests health-care privatization for Alberta

Given that it's Alberta, this isn't a huge surprise:

A leaked internal document from the Alberta government shows the ruling Tories plan to privatize health care after the next provincial election, opposition parties are charging.

The 27-page internal Alberta Health and Wellness presentation suggests the provincial government has a two-part plan to delist health services, legalize new kinds of private insurance and allow doctors to provide public and private health care at the same time.

Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky denied the allegations late Monday, but exiled Conservative MLA Dr. Raj Sherman confirmed its authenticity and slammed the government's plan.

"This is basically privatizing health care," said Sherman, who was Zwozdesky's parliamentary assistant until he was ousted from the Tory caucus last week for criticizing his own government's record on health care. "My understanding is that phase two is coming after the next election, and I absolutely can't support that."

From the Calgary Herald. It would be interesting to see how much awareness the feds have of this; it sounds like Stephen Harper's wet dream.