Thursday, November 30, 2006

Alternatives to Congress and the Prez

Keywords: Climate Change; peak oil; Supreme Court; purchasing power of government

The big forum on and is tomorrow. Besides managing my to-do lists, I have been thinking about climate change a lot. Today I was interviewed on CIUT about the forum. When they asked me what the key difference is between the peak oil thinkers and the climate change thinkers I said that it was a question of timing. I’m not sure that’s the best answer, but there’s at least something to it. Specifically, it’s a question of which problem is going to overtake us first. The peak oil people believe (I guess – but I’m over-generalizing) that before we run into the catastrophic effects of global warming, we’ll already be in deep trouble because of the lack of cheap energy. Climate change people believe that global warming is going to do us in first. Indeed, some of them may even think that the sooner we run out of oil, the better, because that will delay the cooking of the planet.

I keep looking for alternatives – not only hopeful new technologies but alternative ways around the governmental obstacles. Some people look forward to a new regime – Democrats in Congress, Liberals or better in Parliament. But that’s too long to hold your breath.

Instead of the or branches of the federal government, the judiciary may be one way to go. published an article in The Boston Globe on November 30 reporting on a case that the US is hearing about the impact of auto and on the environment. It seems that Massachusetts and eleven other states are arguing that the US must use its power to stop the damage to the coastlines that will result from the impact of carbon dioxide on global warming.

Climatologists estimate that six percent of the planet’s greenhouse gases are caused by cars and trucks in the United States. The states are testifying before the supreme court that the EPA is not using its authority to set strict limits on CO2 emissions. For its part, the EPA claims that it lacks the power to do so – but of course it takes that position because the White House does not intend for it to limit emissions. The lawyer representing the EPA is the deputy solicitor general, who of course is appointed by the Bush administration.

The Boston Globe article notes that the requires the federal government to regulate “any air pollutant” that can “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” According to the states and other environmental groups, this clearly includes greenhouse gases from American vehicles.

Some of the more conservative justices seem to be questioning whether the EPA could possibly reduce CO2 emissions enough to make much difference. In any case, it’s a promising approach.

Besides that, there are encouraging efforts by other governmental bodies — local and state levels (notably California) — which are not waiting for the federal government’s initiative.

Government has purchasing power that can also make a huge difference. ’s book, Winning the Oil Endgame, suggests that such purchasing decisions can be exceedingly influential in the developing of energy efficiency. When any branch of government raises its standards for the purchase of trucks, the manufacturers will start meeting those higher standards. This is also within the power of certain large corporations. For example, has declared that it will require its trucks to become doubly — and eventually triply — efficient. Because of Wal-Mart’s size, that one decision has an impact on the truck industry.

So while we’re waiting for better politicians to come onto the national scene, we can possibly make other useful changes by influencing local and provincial governments, as well as the employees of government who make the decisions about how to spend our money. And I love the idea of dragging the Bush administration before the US Supreme Court for failing to do its duty. Way to go, Massachusetts!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Connectivity or Re-localization

Keywords: Thomas Homer-Dixon; climate change; peak oil; systems;electric power failure; scale-free network; hub; node; terrorist; redundancy; re-localization

’s new book, The Upside of Down, is superb. I’ve only read one-third of it and I’m overcome with admiration — and fear. Despite its title, it offers a gloomy prognosis. Maybe he will come up with some basis for optimism by the end, but not yet.

Still, the facts are not surprising. I’ve been reading a lot about climate change and energy depletion lately, and everybody is telling the same story: if the end of cheap oil doesn’t do us in, climate change will. Plus all the other catastrophes to the environment. But Tad Homer-Dixon tells the most integrated story of all, showing the inter-connections between all these problems, and indeed singling out inter-connection as a problem in its own right. That’s the angle that impresses me most.

He wrote about this in the Globe and Mail three years ago — I think after the massive that stopped the northeast urban corridors of the US and Canada in its tracks. I was impressed with his novel argument at the time — at least it seemed novel to me at the time, and I think it still is. I haven’t heard anyone else including it in the big story. He writes, on page 10:

“When the power went off in August 2003, all air conditioners, elevators, subways, and traffic signals failed — but that wasn’t surprising. What did surprise many people, though, was the simultaneous failure of portable phones, automatic tellers, debit card machines, electronic hotel-room doors, electric garage doors, and almost all clocks. Most disconcerting of all was the loss of the constant flow of information that’ become a drug in our lives, as people were cut off from television, e-mail, and — worst of all - the Web. No one could tell what was going on. It was as if darkness had fallen in mid-afternoon.”

We need to reflect on this general insight, as Homer-Dixon does in a later chapter. The extraordinary connectivity among all parts of the world mean that we are all susceptible to influences from every direction, and that the dependence of our complex systems on each other multiply our vulnerability to breakdowns of all sorts. Computer viruses can sweet around the world in a day. The network of airlines can spread epidemics of disease around the planet. A widespread failure in the transporting of food or fuel or electricity could imperil us all. We can no longer count on our own resourcefulness in a crisis. I am no longer even able to walk home from downtown if the subway should fail, though most other Torontonians probably could do so. A failure in one system — say power — can cascade into failures in other systems, such as , health, and food.

To overcome these vulnerabilities, we need to understand the properties of systems – which are not all alike. Thus Tad explains the great power outage of 2003:

“...the deregulation of the North American power grid in the 1990s caused long-distance electricity sales to skyrocket, which stimulated a surge in connectivity between regional electricity production and distribution systems that had previously been isolated from each other.“

What we need is a system of networks like those linking all the towns to each other by highway. Most nodes have only a moderate number of links to other nodes. Only few nodes have either very few or very many links. In contrast, as Homer-Dixon points out, there are “,” (like our airline connections today) in which a very few cities (called ) have a huge number of links to other . He notes,

“ If a scale-free network loses a hub, it can be disastrous, because many other nodes depend on that hub. An ecosystem, for example, will have a certain number of ‘keystone species’ — species that provide vital services, like pollination, to a wide range of other species — and these keystone species are essentially hubs in the ’s larger network of species. If enough of these hubs are lost the ecosystem can collapse.”

Terrorists, if they are smart, will target key hubs in our scale-free systems. How can these insights help us prepare? They definitely constitute warnings against becoming too dependent on scale-free networks. Any corrections to this problem requires us to build quite a lot of redundancy into our big systems.

Moreover, we need to take account of the psychological multiplication in anxiety that occurs when one of our important hubs is attacked. Homer-Dixon points out that the damage to the global economy resulting from the attack on the World Trade Center mostly resulted from the emotional shock spread through our networks of information. “The total cost of lost economic growth and decreased equity value around the world,” he writes, “ultimately exceeded $1 trillion — and that total doesn’t even include the increased spending on security measures and the later Afghanistan and Iraq wars.”

Homer-Dixon’s analysis of our predicament reminds me of another, related analysis by various people who focus on the looming problems of peak oil. According to this model, if petroleum fuels become too expensive, ordinary city-dwellers will be unable to afford food imported from any distance away. We will have to eat food grown close enough to our dwellings to enable us to bring it home easily — possibly even by bike trips. Yes, we’ll need to exchange services with each other, but these will have to be local exchanges, not requiring expensive transportation. The term that peak oil believers have coined for these new arrangements is “re-localization.” We will have to settle in communities where many of our basic needs can be met by the local community. Large urban aggregations will be impossible.

I had understood this portrait of the near future “re-localization” to be imposed by the excessive costs of transportation fuel. However, I can now see a different argument for this kind of re-localization. It will sever much of the connectivity among nodes. A person living in a village, growing her own potatoes and joining other women in their communal quilting bee, will be less likely to catch bird flu, for example, when arrives from Hong Kong in a Boeing 747. If her house is powered by an independent windmill or solar panels, she will not be devastated by the power outages that sweep her country, nor by pile-ups on interstate highways, nor by terrorists’ bombings of trains.

Still, this re-localization will not be possible for everyone. I, for one, will stay here in my high-rise apartment, despite everything. So will most of my friends, including the younger ones who are still adaptable enough to endure the return to a more primitive lifestyle. Yet I’ll pay attention to Homer-Dixon’s useful warnings and, insofar as I can, will encourage the creation of less vulnerable networks. Thanks, Tad.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Choose Your Issue: Globalization or Climate

Keywords: environmental sociologists; globalization; climate change; Joseph Stiglitz; Doha round; agricultural subsidies;re-localization

There are fashions in worries. I’m on the train, returning to Toronto after a day in Montreal, where I talked with a couple of environmental sociologists, among other pleasures. Last year (or especially two or three years ago) I would surely have had a conversation about . This time, however, I had two significant conversations about climate change and the degree of pessimism that seems warranted.

On the train I’ve been reading ’s new book, Making Globalization Work. It feels like an old issue, though of course it is still vitally important in the lives of billions of people, especially in developing countries.

The chapter I’ve been reading is about . Again, it makes the rich countries appear unconscionably greedy. It recounts the history of the previous rounds of global trade negotiations. Always they have addressed liberalizing the regulations of trade for economic spheres where the rich countries are advantaged. This last time, in the Doha round, there was a promise to work on reducing or eliminating agricultural subsidies, for that would markedly help the poor countries. In exchange, the developing countries made further concessions.

Yet again, the rich countries failed to carry through with their promises. In fact, in 2002 the US passed a new law that nearly doubled it agricultural subsidies. The next year at a meeting in Cancun, Mexico, the EU and the US insisted in pushing their own agenda, to reduce tariffs and open access for the goods and services that the US wanted to export. This time the meeting broke up on the fourth day in disarray. Again in 2005 the negotiators met in Hong Kong and also failed to make progress.
Stiglitz, a left-of-center economist who had worked in the World Bank and in the White House, points out that the average European cow receives a subsidy of $2 per day – more than the income level of human beings in the poor countries. He writes,

“Since the vast majority of those living in developing countries depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood, eliminating subsidies and opening up agricultural markets would, by raising prices, be of enormous benefit.”

One point of this would be to enable farmers in the South to export some of their produce. But that’s when my other new preoccupations begin to intrude and make me wonder how relevant this reform may be.

What I am hearing about is apocalyptic. I don’t know what kinds of numbers are involved in these projections, but the main implications are horrible – probably even more so for most people in the “South” than for those of us in northern climes. Their land is going to fry.

But worse yet, the only way anyone is going to survive, if at all, is by “.” People will consume food from their own region because it will be too expensive to transport it. No more papayas in Toronto.

So maybe it makes no sense to address the problem of because climate change and will take care of that for us – though not in the way we want.

What a conundrum. I can’t even get up to speed with today’s social problem before it becomes obsolete. In the past, however, I’ve had the satisfaction of knowing that all the problems we’ve been addressing were systemic and interrelated, so that whenever I work on democracy or economic justice or racism, for example, I’m also indirectly working to reduce the problem of warfare and violence. I’m not sure that’s the case with globalization and . If we work on the former, it won’t have any bearing that I can foresee on the other problem.

Am I wrong? Maybe some good reader can enlighten me. Thank you.

The Debate over Nuclear Weapons Continues

Keywords: The Agenda; North Korea; United States; Iran; Israel; nuclear weapons; retaliatory strike; launch on warning

I have heard that the TV show, The Agenda, read aloud a letter that I placed on their blog after North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon several weeks ago. So a friend of mine wrote me, challenging my statement that the United States is far more dangerous than and , which are now the subject of anxiety and vast media coverage. The existence of 24,000 nuclear weapons by the existing nuclear powers is not considered a problem. This double standard absolutely appalls me, but my friend Richard does not see it that way. He wrote to me,

“As much as I think Bush is....unwise and you really think a nuclear armed Iran-- vowing to wipe off Israel off the map, and threatening Europe with missiles-- is ....less dangerous?”

Yes, I do. For one thing, is responding the Israeli nuclear weapons by attempting to build an arsenal of his own, probably more as a way of recapturing Iran’s primacy in the Muslim world by pulling Uncle Sam’s beard. But if you want to see them disarm, then get Israel to offer to disarm if they agree not to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel won’t do that. It has 400 plus nuclear weapons, some of them installed on several planes whose pilots are trained deliver them. (See the photo showing the inside of the nuclear plant at Dimona -- photos for which Vanunu served many years imprisonment and still is being kept from leaving Israel.)

held a day-long series of lectures a couple of weeks ago. , a political scientist at UBC, estimated that it would take four years for Iran to acquire these weapons.

Richard writes more:

“A nuclear armed Iran that will give suitcase nuclear bombs to its clients in Hezbollah and elsewhere? Look what they did in Argentina.

“It may be a mistake will happen, like you mentioned on the Ideas episode. And the thugocracy in Moscow and the pea brains in Washington will exchange nuclear weapons. But who actually thinks THAT'S the most dangerous scenario on the planet?

“You do I guess. You may have good reasons. But I don't think the Russians and the Americans are insane.

“Fanatics who want to bring on the coming of the Messiah Mahdi are not. (including Christian fundamentalists).”

I don’t know what you’re referring to in . There was a time when Argentina was attempting to develop , but they gave that up voluntarily.

I don’t like suitcase bombs, and I don’t like proliferation of any kind – especially vertical. But the answer to that is to stop accepting – allowing countries you’re friendly with to have such bombs when other countries are not. India violated the only international treaty about the access to nuclear weapons, the NPT, and now Bush has said that’s okay. Yesterday the newspaper reported that Congress has accepted Bush’s decision on this point. It just keeps chipping away at the only fair standard for managing these things. Actually, it’s not a fair standard because it gave special status to the five countries which then had nukes. But at least it was supposed to be a fair standard after that point, with mechanisms for inspection and verification. That treaty is broken now; the tolerance of Israeli bombs was the biggest early damage to the treaty.

Right now there’s very little prospect that the Russians and Americans will get into a nuclear war. However, the general principles that might prevent nuclear wars have been deteriorating. For a while Russia promised never to be the first to use a nuclear weapon in any conflict; now they no longer promise that. The US has never promised that. Indeed, the US has explicitly abandoned the claim that nuclear weapons are intended just for deterrence. Now the official policy is to use them in war.

In March 2002 Patrick Martin wrote,

“The Bush administration has told the US military to greatly expand preparations for the use of nuclear weapons in future wars, according to press reports on the weekend which have been confirmed by the Pentagon and White House."

"The Pentagon has been directed to develop contingency plans for nuclear attacks on seven different countries. These include China and Russia, the two powers which have long been targeted by the US nuclear arsenal; Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the three countries demonized by Bush as the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union speech; and Libya and Syria.”

Then last month, Bush announced a much more radical policy about the use of nuclear weapons against other countries, plus the intention to expand into space. Basically he’s saying now that the US will do whatever it damn pleases, and will prevent other countries from doing the same. The US as policeman? Ye gods.

US war plans exist for all kinds of contingencies, including against Iran, though I don’t expect that to happen. I think Bush will have to negotiate with Iran as part of the plan for leaving Iraq – not that he will want to do so, but the Democrats will force him to do so pretty soon. Ahmedinajad is willing to negotiate – he said so to Europeans within the last few days.

However, the biggest danger is that there will be a mistake that can’t be rectified in time. There are serious errors about once a year and vastly more false alarms than that, which are generally detected as false before anything irrevocable happens. Scott Sagan wrote a book about the subject, though only a fraction of these events can be described, because of secrecy rules. Also, Alan Phillips wrote a paper a few years ago describing a selection of twenty different past mishaps that might have caused a nuclear war.

“The rising moon was misinterpreted as a missile attack during the early days of long-range radar. A fire at a broken gas pipeline was believed to be enemy jamming by laser of a satellite's infrared sensor when those sensors were first deployed.”

Here is one example that Phlllips gives:

“November 5, 1956: Suez Crisis Coincidence

British and French Forces were attacking Egypt at the Suez Canal;. The Soviet Government had suggested to the U.S. that they combine forces to stop this by a joint military action, and had warned the British and French governments that (non-nuclear) rocket attacks on London and Paris were being considered. That night NORAD HQ received messages that:

(i) unidentified aircraft were flying over Turkey and the Turkish air force was on alert

(ii) 100 Soviet MIG-15's were flying over Syria

(iii) a British Canberra bomber had been shot down over Syria

(iv) the Soviet fleet was moving through the Dardanelles.

It is reported that in the U.S.A. General Goodpaster himself was concerned that these events might trigger the NATO operations plan for nuclear strikes against the U.S.S.R.

The four reports were all shown afterwards to have innocent explanations. They were due, respectively, to:

(i) a flight of swans

(ii) a routine air force escort (much smaller than the number reported) for the president of Syria, who was returning from a visit to Moscow

(iii) the Canberra bomber was forced down by mechanical problems

(iv) the Soviet fleet was engaged in scheduled routine exercises.”

There was another case that I know better when a Colonel was in charge of monitoring possible incoming US missiles and was informed that the radar showed five US missiles headed their way. He was supposed to begin the steps to immediate retaliatory strikes but he refused to do so. You and I are still alive today only because he disobeyed orders. I collected money for him a few years ago and sent it to him via my friend Julia Kalinina, who took a picture of him in Moscow holding a copy of Peace Magazine.

The great source of danger is the continuing “” status of thousands of missiles, both in Russia and the US. False alarms are almost a daily thing, but even within the past five years there was a mistake because of a test firing in Scandinavia that was set off without pre-notifying the Russians, who took it seriously. When there is a possible , the standard procedure is for the operators to inform the top authorities and ask permission to launch a retaliatory strike before the first incoming missile has landed. They have no more than fifteen minutes. There are numerous US generals who have had responsibility for the nuclear arsenal and who acknowledge that the risks are hair-raising. At a minimum, these weapons should be taken off Launch-on-Warning status.

Enough for now. I have more to say, but this chunk is getting too big.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Why Do I Like Borat?

Keywords: Sacha Baron Cohen; Ali G; Borat; ethical criticism; Gilda Radner; empathy; anti-hero; Simon Baron Cohen; psychology; humor; contempt.

You can’t turn the page of any newspaper without seeing a new article or photo of – usually in character, either as his Kazakhstani journalist , or the British rapper or the gay Austrian fashionista . Half or more of the articles for the past three days have told us how offended people are at the crudeness of his new film and the way his crew tricked people into humiliating themselves before the camera.

Some of my best friends refuse to see the movie, whereas I continue to enjoy every sketch by Baron Cohen that I can find. Before I go to bed late at night, I often stay up and watch some of the three-hour marathon of his clips, mostly ones that were produced for a show in Britain.

Since I am so concerned about doing “” I guess I have some sort of duty to explain myself. Why don’t I hate Baron Cohen the way a principled person presumably should?

Of course, I might actually dislike the man himself if we met socially – I don’t know. It’s his characters that I enjoy, and not all of them equally. The fact is, I don’t like Bruno at all. That gives me some comparative basis for judging what makes the other two characters likable.

I think the people who dislike Baron Cohen’s sketches are talking about them in the abstract. Critics usually say that they cannot justify their amusement. What the shows reveal ought to be shocking instead of funny. And of course, what he does is trick people into revealing things about themselves that they are later embarrassed about. The idea that some of his naive interviewees were humiliated is what gets people’s ethical backs up. But not mine. Why not? He exposed the poverty of a backward Romanian village, making the inhabitants’ way of life look even worse than it really is, which must be pretty primitive. Yet I was not indignant. Yes, I hope he sends them a nice big cheque – say, $500,000 – but just because they need it, not because they deserve damages for any harm done to them. He can afford to be generous now, having made many millions of dollars in a single weekend. But why doesn’t his humor bother me?

I think it’s because his two likable characters, Borat and Ali G, are not themselves . They are ignorant — outrageously stupid — but they do not seem to wish harm to anyone. They are journalists earnestly questioning their interviewees, apparently seeking honestly to get their opinions or knowledge about a subject. Baron Cohen does not express hostility to anyone. He has some backward ideas about women and Jews, but he is likable nevertheless. For example, in one session with some physicians he asks them to discuss medical ethics – especially those of youth in Asia, whose principles seem questionable to him. The good doctors soberly inform him that what they are concerned about, euthanasia, has nothing to do with Asian doctors or youths. Oh, he says – much as Gilda Radner’s hard-of-hearing character used to respond to similar corrective information. For example, during one presidential campaign, her character claimed to be perplexed by all this talk about the . When informed that they were actually discussing was the presidential election, she just said. “Oh. Never mind, then.” Baron Cohen probably would not be able to assimilate this information. He kept pursuing the question: what Asians were the source of the problem, if not youths? No, no, there’s no connection to Asia, he was told. But still that did not easily sink in.

I guess the thing is, Borat and Ali G are well-meaning and innocent. Stupid and crude, yes, but not inexcusably evil and not even resentful toward the interviewees who disclose their own disreputable opinions. I keep thinking: Baron Cohen is a devout orthodox . What does he feel when he hears these people uttering remarks? As Borat, he of course shares those views and even instigates these outrageous comments.

How does he get people to say such things? I think it’s because he says them himself, and he’s a likable guy. He’s an . Nobody could admire him, but we can like him. It’s perhaps more this: We can feel for him. We can excuse him, since we can remember making a fool of ourselves sometimes, and here he’s doing the same thing. He’s human, that’s all. We benefit by taking an anti-hero’s flaws lightly and empathizing with him.

But we cannot empathize with just everyone. I personally can empathize with any character who seems to be trying to understand, but there are some characters for whom I feel contempt. Bruno, Baron Cohen’s gay Austrian fashionista character, is so shallow that I cannot empathize with him. I don’t like to ridicule anyone or laugh with hostility and contempt, so I prefer to stay away from that fellow.

The wonderful thing, in general, about Baron Cohen’s humor is that he can pull me into empathizing with such idiotic characters. He does that by empathizing himself with the people he interviews. He seems to be genuinely trying to understand them, genuinely taking their opinions seriously.

In an interview with the Rolling Stone, not yet published, I have read that Baron Cohen claims he could not do these things to other people if he were not in character. If he were his own personality, with the full knowledge that he possesses as a sophisticated, Cambridge-educated man, it would be inexcusable to treat people that way. Why so?

Because, I suppose, he would have to react honestly with shock and disapproval, and that would be really hurtful to others. In character, on the other hand, he can allow them to discredit themselves because he too is a discreditable character. There is mutual tolerance as the conversation goes along, and we observers can tolerate them too, strictly out of empathy.

I once had a conversation with Baron Cohen’s distinguished cousin Simon, who is a famous psychologist at Oxford. His research deals with the process of . One of his projects is to gauge the extent of empathy that people have by determining whether they will adopt the speech patterns of their interlocutors. In a way, Sacha must be testing his theory all the time. In one interview, for example, Borat or Ali G (I don’t remember which) is questioning an expert about weapons of mass destruction – WMDs. But the interviewer forgets the acronym and keeps referring instead to “s.” The expert answers his questions by referring also to “BLTs”. He has adopted the frame of reference of this idiotic journalist. Wonderful! He wouldn’t do that with just everyone – only with someone extremely likable, as Baron Cohen is. I love it. I’ll empathize with practically anything he proposes — except that mindless Bruno character.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Canada, the Good News and the Bad

Keywords: Roger Martin; Canadian economy; prosperity gap; Japan, United States; equality; taxes; tuition; higher education; R & D; corporate taxes; claw-backs.

Today I attended a fascinating lecture by (see photo), the dean of the School of Business at University of Toronto. He proceeded by asking us to guess the truth or falsity of a number of propositions about the . His answers were all based on a comparison of the world’s sizeable states, eliminating smaller ones such as Luxemburg (with its population of 400,000), and the Scandinavian countries.

Among the large countries of the world, Canada’s economic rank is second only to the United States.

The bad news is that within the past 20 years, the (in terms of GDP per capita) between Canada and the US has widened. As recently as 1989 we were tied with the US, but no longer. There is a gap of $8700. The after-tax gap is$12,000 per family. Canada would be collecting #112 billion per year in taxes if we could close the gap.

But the surprising good news makes a longer list than the bad. For example, the US and Canada grew at about the same rate during the twentieth century after the Great Depression; the US economy grew 7.07 times, whereas Canada grew 7.02 times. What about the idea that “if the US catches a cold, Canada gets pneumonia?” No, the Canadian economy has been more stable, now less. During the twentieth century the US had nine serious recessions covering 13 years; Canada had four such periods, covering six years.

Canada’s economy is more egalitarian than any of the big European countries and we are far richer than they are. He drew a graph on the blackboard showing the location of a number of countries in a space where is the horizontal axis and prosperity is the vertical axis. Canada’s position is the most favorable. The US is more prosperous, but less equal. Japan is more equal but less prosperous. We have the best balance. All other big countries are less prosperous and less equal than Canada. Twenty-five years ago we still had this excellence, plus a higher income relative to the US than we do now.

Actually, Martin does not think in terms of equality per se, but rather in terms of how well the poor are cared for (and I fully agree). To measure that, you compare the various quintiles of income. Our lowest quintile is as well-off as Japan’s. Also, our second quintile (next to lowest) is also better than theirs. In this respect, Canada is a better country than Japan. Hooray for Canada!

But Martin’s search is to explain the growing gap in prosperity between Canada and the United States. Is it that our about equality get in the way of our competitive success? No, polls show that Canadians and Americans have remarkably similar attitudes. There’s no gap there.

Another theory is that our industries differ, with the US prospering because of its “sunrise” industries (in high tech) and Canada stuck with old “sunset” industries. Actually, our top eleven industries are the same top eleven as in the US. In the US, only 1.96 percent of the jobs are , as compared to 1.64 percent in Canada – a negligible difference. If we had as much hi-tech as the US, there would be only 3,600 more such jobs in Canada – a rounding error in magnitude. Our industries actually have higher wealth potential than in the US – a fantastic potential.

Another myth is that we are being “hollowed out” in terms of global competitiveness. How many big companies did we have twenty years ago? Thirty-seven. How many today: Eighty. We are doing a phenomenally successful job.

What about the notion that we have less investment than the US? No. There’s the same amount of investment per capita.

How about taxation? There really is a difference between Canada and the US, but we’re not nicer to our poor than they are. Our poor pays higher taxes – largely because of “claw-backs” of taxes as their income rises. We give the poor more money but discourage them from becoming more self-sufficient.

Canada’s corporate tax rates are the highest in the world. This discourages companies from investing in efficiency.

How about education? We are way behind in , as compared to the US, and we spend less than the US per student. This under-investment accounts for a major part of the gap.

We assume that high tuition is a barrier to access. This is a mistaken belief. Comparisons show that there’s a strong positive correlation between tuition rates and the proportion of age cohorts that are enrolled in higher education. Germany and Denmark have no university tuition whatever, but there’s only 10 percent access in Germany and 12 percent in Denmark. They are extremely elitist.

In the light of Canada’s outstanding economic success, what are the interventions that could be made to close the prosperity gap in comparison to the United States?

Martin claims that what we are seeing is the triumph of superstition over data. Canadians need to invest more in research and development, and to do this we need to reduce corporate taxes. We should collect taxes on the basis of income, after the corporations' money has been distributed. The countries that do this first will be big winners because this will give them an edge in global competition. Ireland did so a while back. It had been a poor country, with an income level only half as high as Canada’s, but when they cut , their economy took off and they are doing very well now.

So his recommendations for improving Canada’s prosperity are basically only two: reduce corporate taxes (raising income taxes instead), and invest more on higher education.

I can go for those policies, but I suggested them to a friend on the phone tonight and heard some interesting doubts from her. She basically dislikes the idea of increasing prosperity at all, since everything we do to raise income levels involves using up raw materials and energy. We should be satisfied with sufficiency instead of always looking for more.

The conserver attitude is an interesting philosophy, but I prefer to look for more efficient, ways of making a prosperous economy. The “knowledge industry” and the arts, for example, are not wasteful. She believes that there is always a “material through-put” of resources and energy in all money-making enterprises. Well, there’s some truth to that; human beings all have to breathe, eat, and drink water, so as long as we’re here, there will be a “through-put of materials.” But there’s no necessary connection between the amount of material waste in a product and its cost – its contribution to the overall wealth of the country. A good painting uses no more paint than a bad one. A fashionable $5,000 dress uses no more fabric than a $50 dress. A Prius and an SUV require the same amount of material to manufacture, but there’s a huge difference in their effects on the environment. We can have wealth and spend it on culture and sports without wrecking the planet. It’s not necessary to decide to become poorer. That’s my opinion, at least.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

US in Iraq, Post-election, Post-Rumsfeld

Keywords: Democrats; election; George W. Bush; Iraq Study Group; Robert Gates; George Friedman; Iran; Donald Rumsfeld; Iraq government.
So the are going to rule for a while – at least in the House. They can’t do much about Iraq, even if they could agree about what to do, which they don’t. The mess belongs to President George W. , who had already organized a committee, the , to solve the problem. Now he has fired , after saying a few days ago that he would not. If he had done so a few weeks ago, the Republicans might have won the election.

And he’s appointing as Rumsfeld’s replacement — the same Gates who is already on the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan team composed largely of a people who served in the administrations of Reagan, , and the senior Bush. They are the Republicans , , and Edwin Meese and the Democrats , , , , and . Their recommendations are forthcoming, and will surely be decisive in charting the US course in Iraq.

What will they do? No one knows — all we know is that there are no good options available — but I am impressed with the guesses of the Stratfor honcho, George Friedman, who has Iran on his mind. Surely they will not forge ahead in the “stay the course” mode of Rumsfeld, whose dismissal definitely signals that a change is in the works. But they won’t immediately recommend removing the troops from Iraq either. Even the Democrats, in their confusion, do not intend to press for that. Instead, Friedman thinks they will propose a turn in the mission of the US forces in Iraq — no longer trying to save the pathetic Iraqi government from its own internal conflicts or put down the insurgents.

Instead, they will turn their attention to preventing any military incursion by Iran into Iraq. Presumably the US troops will hole up within relatively safe enclaves and let the Iraqis sort out their own conflicts, while damping down the growing aspirations of the for greater power, as bolstered their allies in neighboring Iran.

Friedman also throws out a bold speculation: that Bush will change course enough to negotiate with Iran on their terms, not his. Iran has been wanting to negotiate with the United States, but not about its nuclear program, whereas Bush has refused to talk to them unless all issues, especially the nuclear one, are on the table. It will amount to a major loss of face if the US administration caves in on this point. Yet if there are no negotiations on the other political matters, there can be no major improvement in the Americans’ position. They are trapped in a place where they no longer want to be, and they cannot leave unless they reach some kind of agreement with the Iranians, whose new dominance in the region is entirely their own fault. As Friedman writes,

“This is going to be the hard part for Bush. The last thing he wants is to enhance Iranian power. But the fact is that Iranian power already has been enhanced by the ability of Iraqi Shia to act with indifference to U.S. wishes. By complying with this recommendation, Washington would not be conceding much..”

Oh, but it would. It would amount to a huge concession: a capitulation to the power of Islam. This will not be easy for any American administration. The only reason for believing that it will happen is that there are so few other options. The US electorate says it wants change. Bush has said he is ready to make some changes. What else can he do?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Shock NATO, Please

Keywords: nuclear weapons; multilateral fora; NATO; Conference on Disarmament; political will; boiling frog; shock; consensus.

I spent today with three women friends, working on answers to a questionnaire that the foreign ministry has posted on its web site to solicit opinions from Canadian citizens. We worked almost exclusively on the issue of nuclear weapons.

That should be an easy task for Canadian citizens, since this government decided long ago against building a nuclear arsenal. But that doesn’t guarantee Canada’s safety in the midst of a — which is still a real possibility. There are still more than 27,000 nuclear weapons, of which more than 3,000 can be launched in less than 30 minutes. The population of every country, so far as I know, would prefer the abolition of these weapons, but they are not sufficiently exercised about the matter to make their governments carry out that wish. Indeed, no arms control or negotiations of any kind, bilateral or multilateral, are taking place at present.

There are multilateral fora, of course, where such negotiations and treaty-making should be taking place: the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is one example. But it and all the other such institutions are stymied by the rule of . The United States, with or without any other country, blocks consensus about the kind of strong measures that would require it to dismantle its nuclear weapons. Our challenge, then, is to recommend solutions to enable a real breakthrough.

Activists keep writing documents in favor of policies that are not going to happen. The problem is lack of “” — public awareness that some kind of change is required. It’s the “” phenomenon – the tendency toward inertia that keeps people from acting unless circumstances abruptly become shocking. According to the story (I don’t know whether it’s true or not but it sounds plausible), if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it into a pot of cool water and gradually bring it to a boil, it will stay there and cook.

The ability of the US and the other nuclear weapon states to suppress action explains the inertia that prevents nuclear disarmament. What we have to do is create a shock. But how?

Here’s my idea: There are about 480 American non-strategic nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey — countries that belong to NATO, but that have no nuclear weapons of their own. In fact, they all favor nuclear disarmament and have endorsed resolutions to that effect in the United Nations General Assembly. Yet they permit the United States to keep missiles on their soil, and even to train their pilots to fly these bombs to their destination in the event of a nuclear war.

Since every nation is a sovereign state, each one is able to reverse these policies. If even one European country — Germany, say, or the Netherlands — were to order the US to remove those weapons from its soil, they would administer a significant shock to the present complacency and inertia. The US government could no longer continue its nuclear policies, and there would be a huge public discussion — which is exactly what is needed. Since these five NATO countries actually don’t like NATO’s war-fighting policy, it should not be impossible to persuade one or more of them to take this bold step.

Would they get kicked out of NATO? It’s not clear. Probably there would be a penalty of some sort — or at least the all believe that it would be a risky thing to do. But this is the most promising angle I can think of. According to polls, the great majority of Europeans disapprove of nuclear weapons. Would they cheer for a government with the intestinal fortitude to carry out their democratic wishes? I think so. I would, wouldn’t you?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Crisis, Danger, and Opportunity

Keywords: crisis; opportunity; danger; Chinese; tide in the affairs of men; Thomas Homer-Dixon; The Upside of Down; collapse; dark age; survivalist; Nicholas Stern; fisheries.
"There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries."
Julius Caesar. Act iv. Sc. 3.

It is not true, as some unknown optimist has misled us into believing, that the word in Chinese is written by combining the word for with the word for . The “danger” part is correct, but the word “ji” does not mean opportunity but “crucial point” or “incipient moment.” In other words, the word crisis is just as ominous a concept in China as here.

Still if “crisis” doesn’t connote “opportunity,” it should. We need a term that highlights the great, if sobering, truth that danger sometimes creates a favorable possibility that must be seized immediately to bring about change. Even the passage from quoted does not quite convey that meaning, for a “” is not necessarily dangerous, though indeed the opportunity it presents will be lost if not caught at the right moment. Or, to quote another passage in the same scene of play, “We must take the current when it serves/ Or lose our ventures.”

The insightful truth in the mis-quoted Chinese logo is this: Opportunity may not arise except in certain difficult moments. You cannot introduce major social changes when things are going smoothly, for people mainly follow the aphorism: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” A crisis occurs when something important has been “broke” and calls for heroic intervention.

And lots of things in our world are on the verge of being broken. Only after they are dangerously wrecked will a complacent society rouse itself and, perhaps, make the necessary changes – but by then it may be too late. I was preoccupied with that predicament twice today: first, in connection with my church’s parish meeting, and second, in connection with a review of ’s new book, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization.

The parish meeting took place to review the conditions in our congregation that require change. The occasion is the impending retirement of our incumbent, a lovable, earthy female priest named Sara. Her departure will require some readjustments, and the meeting was called to re-think our goals and chart a new course.

But I was disappointed. When we divided into small groups to propose changes, the proposals amounted only to bureaucratic tweaking. Everyone agreed that we need something like the old “parish council” body that could make decisions between vestry meetings. Sara’s leaving is apparently no crisis, for no one seemed to consider major changes necessary.

I myself had thought this might be an opportune tide to propose larger changes. Everybody reads the news; someone mentioned 's recent projections about the economic consequences of . Someone else mentioned yesterday's prediction that the world's fish will all be gone in our lifetime. Yet these dangers did not unsettle the group.

I suggested two modest innovations that were not included our group’s oral report to the whole plenary: a new attentiveness to global challenges, and the creation of a web-page directory with enough information about each parishioner to help us get to know each other better. Apparently we shall meet our future with the same habits we have cultivated successfully over the years, for Holy Trinity does not consider itself “broke.”

Tad Homer-Dixon’s new book is apparently an exercise in optimism in the absence of any grounds for it. He had published another book in 2000 called , pointing to the same looming environmental dangers, but encouraging us to catch the tide, for there was still enough time to prevent disaster. His new book offers no such cheer. It is now too late to prevent a breakdown of the global ecosystem, with a significant “loss of coastline,” among other geophysical consequences. Yet interviewed him in today’s Globe and Mail and reported that he specifically declined to predict a “cataclysm” or a “collapse,” but depicted the coming doom merely as “breakdown.” He said,

“For me, ‘collapse,’ as I define it in the book, is so catastrophic that the opportunities for recovery — the potential for rebuilding on what is left behind and regenerating something new — are really degraded.

“I distinguish between the two poles of the debate up to this point. And really the debate has consisted of two positions. One is that we can organize ourselves with the new sustainable economies and new technologies so that we can solve these problems without an enormous amount of disruptions to our societies. That’s the optimistic pole. And the pessimistic pole is catastrophe, the Jared Diamond collapse.

“And I’m suggesting there’s an enormous number of possibilities in between those two poles. And some of those possibilities, if we’re lucky, we may be able to exploit for renewing ourselves. What they’re going to look like is almost impossible to say.”

I like Tad’s reasoning. He does not hold out hope; indeed, he thinks a crash is inevitable. Yet he does not suggest either giving up and passively awaiting the end of civilization or, on the other hand, becoming a in the woods, armed with bows-and-arrows and a knowledge of wild berries. It is too late to prevent disaster, he says, but disaster can still be mitigated if we keep our wits about us. He urges us to cultivate a “prospective mind” to cope with a new world of surprise, uncertainty, and risk.

This approach is not optimism; it’s realism. And I think it’s the right way to go. With it, we may be able to turn the coming crisis into a real opportunity to make progress rather than revert to a new dark age.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Preemptive Mourning for Studio 60

Keywords: John Doyle; Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; fictional characters; television; Men in Trees; Northern Exposure; Ugly Betty; Boston Legal; empathy; incest.

Today for the second time the Globe’s TV reviewer predicted that will be cancelled. It hasn’t been announced yet, but I am already beginning to mourn as I prepare myself for the loss of the only new show I’m enjoying this fall. In his column, Doyle tells us not to feel sad about it, since there are so many other excellent TV shows this season. No, there aren’t.

I always mourn the loss of fictional characters whom I have come to love. This is rare because I don’t often love a television character. When I do, then I’ll usually feel as sad as if a real loved one had died. I can’t explain that but, oddly, I think it’s normal.

I cannot agree with Doyle’s cheerleading for this fall’s TV shows. One by one, I’ve been instructing my PVR machine to stop recording them every week. I’ve stopped all the new ones except Studio 60 (see photo) and . The latter, a knock-off of , doesn’t make me feel bad, which is good enough for it to pass. I had deleted its recording command a while back but I’m giving it another chance.

I have deleted from my weekly recordings – not because I dislike Betty or her charming male boss, but because of the two exaggerated, unreal villains. The wicked female resembles Cruella in the kids’ film 101 Dalmatians, and her male assistant flounces around in a grotesque parody of gayness. If I cannot bear to empathize with a show’s characters, I zap the PVR and move on in quest of something better.

Last week I also zapped , with regret. It had been worth watching last year because of the intelligent legal cases fought out in its courtroom. Most of its characters are shallow, spending much of each episode dallying sexually with virtual strangers — often in public places. We are expected to laugh at their promiscuity, but I find it depressing.

Still, I used to watch Boston Legal because I enjoyed the debates about political and social problems. For example, the one about convinced me that there are grounds for worry. (Apparently, very few cows are inspected, and the inspectors have ties to the meat-packing industry. There can be conflicts of interest about recognizing such a costly disease. Furthermore, it takes 20 or 30 years for the prions to make a person sick. Possibly millions of people will come down with mad cow disease many years from now, and we cannot anticipate how many.)

Other episodes of Boston Legal dealt with such matters as the unconscionable rate of interest on credit cards, and the invasion of privacy that becomes possible because companies exchange personal information about their customers. (In one courtroom scene, for example, the lawyer Alan Shore congratulated the judge on her successful hemorrhoid operation and the ampleness of her current bank balance: data he had easily obtained over the phone.)

But this year, those intelligent Boston courtroom battles are gone. Instead, there has been a court case involving an asthenic young man accused of murdering his mistress, a much older woman. He had also been having sex with his own mother, who turns out to have been the actual murderer. After his acquittal, we see mother and son passionately kissing. Sorry, that was enough for me. Zap.

(So what’s up with TV writers and nowadays? Last night on House there was a plot about a husband and wife who turned out, unknowingly, to be siblings. No, this isn’t altogether new — I recently went to Die Walküre, which is also about sibling lovers, and I haven’t forgotten Oedipus — but these epic dramas were tragedies. The current spate of TV plots are only meant to shock, and I’ve become choosy about the kind of shocks I’ll willingly undergo. Zap.)

Having checked out most of the shows that Doyle praises, my list is dwindling fast. But I’ve still kept looking forward to each new episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — though its cancellation is supposedly in the offing. Doyle tells me not to mourn, since (and he’s right) the show takes itself too seriously. It’s about two guys who produce Saturday Night Live. One character says that she believes is important, which is an interesting opinion, albeit one that needs elaboration, unless I am just dense.

Still, there’s a captivating aliveness about ’s new show, which could pass for an unscripted documentary about complex, intelligent characters. I love the ambivalent romance between Matt, the sardonic writer, and Harriet, the devout Christian actress. I’ve probably witnessed a dozen lovemaking scenes during the past month (e.g. in Boston Legal) and they all were erotic duds. Yet I held my breath last week during one intense encounter between this restrained, hung-up, longing pair, who didn’t even kiss.

There were other touching scenes too. One involved an old man, apparently demented, who wandered into the historic studio and swiped a photo. It turned out that he had been a writer for the Philco Radio Hour and could identify all the other writers in the picture, who had been blacklisted during the years of McCarthyism.

And I loved another vignette as well about the black comic who manages to give a break to another black stand-up comedian from the LA ghetto where he grew up. He says he can see that part of the city every day from his swimming pool.

So I have found five characters on Studio 60 whom I can love. I don’t quite love them yet but I would if I had a few more months with them. And I am already mourning them. Nobody will fill their place. No one can ever take the place of another beloved person – even a fictional one.