Monday, August 10, 2020

Throwing It All Away

Tom Friedman writes that recent events in Lebanon provide a stark warning. Things go horribly wrong when everything becomes political. In Lebanon, it's been that way for a long time:

Because of the sectarian nature of Lebanese society, where all the powers of governing, and the spoils of the state, had been constitutionally or informally divided in a very careful balance between different Christian and Muslim sects, everything was indeed political. Every job appointment, every investigation into malfeasance, every government decision to fund this and not that was seen as advantaging one group and disadvantaging another.

It was a system that bought stability in a highly diverse society (between spasms of civil war) — but at the price of constant lack of accountability, corruption, misgovernance and mistrust.

Friedman writes that the United States is going down Lebanon's path:

The United States is becoming like Lebanon and other Middle East countries in two respects. First, our political differences are becoming so deep that our two parties now resemble religious sects in a zero-sum contest for power. They call theirs “Shiites and Sunnis and Maronites” or “Israelis and Palestinians.” We call ours “Democrats and Republicans,” but ours now behave just like rival tribes who believe they must rule or die.

As in the Middle East, so increasingly in America: Everything is now politics — even the climate, even energy, even face masks in a pandemic.

Indeed, we in America are becoming so much like a Middle Eastern country that, while the Lebanese were concluding that the explosion was truly an accident, President Trump was talking like a Beirut militia leader, declaring that it must have been a conspiracy. “It was an attack,” he said his generals had told him. “It was a bomb of some kind.”

The danger of tribalism is that it can kill a democracy:

A society, and certainly a democracy, eventually dies when everything becomes politics. Governance gets strangled by it. Indeed, it was reportedly the failure of the corrupt Lebanese courts to act as guardians of the common good and order the removal of the explosives from the port — as the port authorities had requested years ago — that paved the way for the explosion.

“For a healthy politics to flourish it needs reference points outside itself — reference points of truth and a conception of the common good,” explained the Hebrew University religious philosopher Moshe Halbertal. “When everything becomes political, that is the end of politics.”

To put it differently, when everything is politics, it means that everything is just about power. There is no center, there are only sides; there’s no truth, there are only versions; there are no facts, there’s only a contest of wills.

We live in a time where facts increasingly don't matter. It's who wins that matters.

In short, we risk throwing it all away.


Sunday, August 09, 2020

Pretty Ugly


A pandemic, Alan Freeman writes, allows us to see our leaders' true colours:

In the U.S., President Donald Trump downplays the surging death toll of the pandemic, but sees it as a great opportunity to muse about delaying the November election he now seems sure to lose. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson uses the pandemic diversion to stuff the House of Lords with his cronies, including his brother, the son of a Russian oligarch and members of the Labour Party who backed Brexit. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau figures the pandemic is a great time to give those neat guys at WE Charity a $1-billion contract without bothering to look at alternatives.

Such is also the case with Alberta's premier, Jason Kenney:

This week, it emerged that the government of Jason Kenney had agreed to basically scrap this year’s environmental monitoring of water flowing downstream of the province’s oilsands facilities along the main branch of the Athabasca River. No need for field studies on wetlands, fish or insects. No more pilot project on the risks posed by tailings ponds. No study of water quality in response to concerns about environmental degradation at Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kenney's decision will make Alberta's oilmen happy. But it's not good news for the other inhabitants of the planet. And it's part of a pattern:

In the spring, Alberta’s energy regulator suspended environmental reporting requirements for the oilsands producers. Requirements to monitor ground and surface water were gone. Testing for methane was suspended. Air quality testing was reduced. A spokesman said the suspensions are likely to stay in place as long as COVID-19-related rules are around.

Interesting that this is the same province that tripped over itself to make sure that its beef-processing plants kept operating, even in the wake of a massive outbreak of COVID-19 among workers at Cargill. Yet these same geniuses somehow couldn’t figure out a way to make water-quality testing safe on a remote northern river. Are they afraid of catching the coronavirus from a duck?

In addition to shutting down environmental monitoring of the oilsands, with Ottawa’s approval, the Kenney government has also decided to revive another dinosaur industry — coal mining. In June, decades-old protections that stopped open-pit mines in parts of the Rocky Mountains and the foothills were rescinded, causing consternation among Albertans anxious to protect the environment. Kenney is also effectively banking on Trump’s re-election as he pours billions into the Keystone XL pipeline that Joe Biden has vowed to stop.

Kenney is hellbent on exploiting the oilsands. But he's moving in the wrong direction:

Last month, Total, the French oil company, dramatically announced plans to write off US$7 billion worth of Alberta oilsands investments, saying they were “stranded assets” with no future because of global carbon-reduction targets and high production costs. Total joined a long list of international investors, including Deutsche Bank, HSBC and BlackRock that have blacklisted the oilsands.

Instead of regretting the decision and explaining what the province is doing to make the sector more climate-friendly, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage decided to lash out, calling Total’s decision “highly hypocritical.” She then went on to make the gobsmacking argument that international energy firms should actually increase their investments in Alberta, rather than pull out. That’s because Alberta is an ethical democracy and “a stable, reliable supply of energy,” she argued, noting that Total was still investing in Myanmar, Nigeria and Russia, presumably a bad idea because of their poor human rights records.

In most cases, when a leader reveals his or her true colours, those colours look pretty ugly.

Image: Al-Qualem

Saturday, August 08, 2020

A Great Time For Big Money

It's only taken twelve months. But, Jonathan Freedland writes, Boris Johnson is drowning in sleaze. Take the most recent example:

This week came word of at least £156m of taxpayers’ money wasted on 50 million face masks deemed unsuitable for the NHS. They were bought from a private equity firm through a company that had no track record of producing personal protective equipment – or indeed anything for that matter – and that had a share capital of just £100. But this company, Prospermill, had a crucial asset. It was co-owned by one Andrew Mills, adviser to the government, staunch Brexiteer and cheerleader for international trade secretary, Liz Truss.

Somehow Prospermill managed to persuade the government to part with £252m, boasting that it had secured exclusive rights over a PPE factory in China. Just one problem. The masks it produced use ear loops, when only masks tied at the head are judged by the government to be suitable for NHS staff. If the government wanted to spend £156m on masks for the nation’s kids to play doctors and nurses, this was a great deal. But in the fight against a pandemic, it was useless.

And then there was this incident:

This week the housing secretary Robert Jenrick was asked about his encounter with Richard Desmond at a Tory fundraising dinner last November, at which Desmond showed the cabinet minister a video of the housing development he wanted to build. Jenrick said he wished he “hadn’t been sat next to a developer at an event and I regret sharing text messages with him afterwards”, which rather glossed over the key fact: namely, that Jenrick promptly rushed through a decision on the project, the speed of which allowed Desmond’s company to avoid paying roughly £40m in tax to the local council. That move was later designated “unlawful”, and Jenrick was forced to overturn his decision.

It would be nice to think that episode was a one-off, but it’s hard to do so when developers have given £11m in donations to the Conservatives since Johnson arrived in Downing Street just one year ago.

Big Money has found its way into the inner sanctum of the Johnson government: 

A political consultancy firm with strong ties to both [Dominic] Cummings and Michael Gove managed to win an £840,000 contract without any open tendering process at all. Public First is a small research company, but it is run by James Frayn, an anti-EU comrade of Cummings going back two decades, and his wife Rachel Wolf, the former Gove adviser who co-wrote the Tory manifesto for last year’s election. The government says it could skip the competitive tendering stage because emergency regulations applied, thanks to Covid. Except the government itself recorded some of Public First’s work as related to Brexit (it now says this was an accounting anomaly and that all the work related to the pandemic).

This kind of political corruption is everywhere -- here, south of the border, and in the UK. It's a great time for Big Money.


Friday, August 07, 2020

Donald Is A Dork

Paul Krugman writes that, if there is an axiom that applies in Trumpworld, it's this: Take whatever Trump says and expect the opposite to happen. Three months ago, Donald signed onto a new NAFTA. Yesterday, he reimposed tariffs on Canadian aluminum. By now, such behaviour should surprise no one. But the consequences of that behaviour are catastrophic:

On Friday, we’ll get an official employment report for July. But a variety of private indicators, like the monthly report from the data-processing firm ADP, already suggest that the rapid employment gains of May and June were a dead-cat bounce and that job growth has at best slowed to a crawl.

ADP’s number was at least positive — some other indicators suggest that employment is actually falling. But even if the small reported job gains were right, at this rate we won’t be back to precoronavirus employment until … 2027.

Trump takes joy in inflicting pain; and this pain is going to last a long time. But, what is worse, his Republican enablers are going to make things truly tragic:

I’m not sure how many people realize just how much deeper the coronavirus recession of 2020 could have been. Obviously, it was terrible: Employment plunged, and real G.D.P. fell by around 10 percent. Almost all of that, however, reflected the direct effects of the pandemic, which forced much of the economy into lockdown.

What didn’t happen was a major second round of job losses driven by plunging consumer demand. Millions of workers lost their regular incomes; without federal aid, they would have been forced to slash spending, causing millions more to lose their jobs. Luckily Congress stepped up to the plate with special aid to the unemployed, which sustained consumer spending and kept the nonquarantined parts of the economy afloat.

Now that aid has expired. Democrats offered a plan months ago to maintain benefits, but Republicans can’t even agree among themselves on a counteroffer. Even if an agreement is hammered out — and there’s no sign that this is imminent — it will be weeks before the money is flowing again.

The suffering among cut-off families will be immense, but there will also be broad damage to the economy as a whole. How big will this damage be? I’ve been doing the math, and it’s terrifying.

Unlike affluent Americans, the mostly low-wage workers whose benefits have just been terminated can’t blunt the impact by drawing on savings or borrowing against assets. So their spending will fall by a lot. Evidence on the initial effects of emergency aid suggests that the end of benefits will push overall consumer spending — the main driver of the economy — down by more than 4 percent.

Furthermore, evidence from austerity policies a decade ago suggests a substantial “multiplier” effect, as spending cuts lead to falling incomes, leading to further spending cuts.

Put it all together and the expiration of emergency aid could produce a 4 percent to 5 percent fall in G.D.P. But wait, there’s more. States and cities are in dire straits and are already planning harsh spending cuts; but Republicans refuse to provide aid, with Trump insisting, falsely, that local fiscal crises have nothing to do with Covid-19.

The conclusion is inescapable. Donald is a dork. After all, the man pronounces "Yosemite," YO-SEM-IIIT. And, clearly, dorkiness is a virus. Certainly, the Republicans have no herd immunity.

Image: The HyperTexts

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Back To School With Doug

This week Doug Ford revealed his back to school plan. He's not getting high marks. Bruce Arthur writes:

The safe care of our children is a fundamental social compact. So many parents have been stretched to breaking while trying to work from home and take care of their children. Society and economies are built around child care. Parents want to send their kids back to school, if it’s safe.

And while children suffer far less from this disease, mercifully, the science is moving towards the conclusion that they have an equal ability to spread it. Which has potential implications for school staff, parents, and the inevitable rings of spreading contagion. And a lot of parents love their kids, and so are anxious.

Unfortunately, Doug Ford is selling this plan with all the reassurance and √©lan of a bear driving a garbage truck. It’s not great.

“Let’s give this a shot, at least,” said Ford, as part of his daily media address. “We’re going to give it everything we can, and make sure that we move forward, and pray to god that everyone’s safe. That’s what I want. Just the kids to be safe.”

The ugly truth is -- as Dr. Anthony Fauci reminded Americans a few days ago -- this is an experiment. And kids and teachers are the guinea pigs. Even the experts don't know what's going to happen:

“This is what they call a wicked problem,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto. “There’s no right answer. We can talk about lower class sizes, we can talk about masks, we can talk about dumping in money, we can talk about policies, but none of it is going to eliminate the risk.

“Even with 15 kids in a class, are you going to be able to enforce physical distancing? Not a chance ... (but) I think there is a lot of attention, rightfully so, on trying to get these class sizes to be smaller, because it probably will help to some extent. Yes, from a strictly epidemiological standpoint, the smaller the ratio, the better. The fewer kids, the better. But the question is, how much more? I don’t know the answer.”

I suspect that, for the foreseeable future, online education will be the norm. But there are lots of kids who won't do well online. Either they don't have the access, the equipment, or the temperament to succeed in the enterprise.

As is the case everywhere, the pandemic has underscored the inequalities that exist in the way we have organized things. And the ones who suffer most are those at the bottom of the ladder.


Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Johnson And Trump

There are many similarities between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. But they both possess one glaring trait. Each man is singularly ill-equipped to do his job. In the case of Johnson, Rafael Behr writes,

he struggles with the job itself and with the wound to his ego from the discovery that governing is beyond his capabilities. He winces from that injury and tries to mask the strain in public with bluster. The giveaway is how much he relies on assertion that the challenge can be met with a sheer effort of will; how it can be beaten by national grit. “We must keep our discipline, we must be focused and we cannot be complacent,” he said in his most recent televised press conference.
In his head the plural pronoun “we” is a rallying cry, but in fact it is a crutch. He invites us all to carry the burden of responsibility because he is tired of carrying it himself. Evocations of blitz spirit were right for the first phase of the crisis, but events and the public have moved on. “We”, the nation, can exercise discretion and behave responsibly, but we cannot make the hard choices that land on a prime minister’s desk.

The ugly truth is that governing isn't easy:

Government is hard because it consists of constant, agonising judgments – picking between imperfect options, each with undesirable side-effects. Everyone who has reached any position of Westminster seniority, whether as a minister or civil servant, ends up awed by the relentless demand on a prime minister to make those calls. Everyone, that is, except Johnson, who appears to have been taken by surprise.
If it comes down to competing demands of, say, pub versus classroom, Johnson has to lean towards one at the expense or the other. But he has built his career in evasion of trade-offs. His mandate is fashioned from denial that they even exist. He would not be in power without Brexit, and his campaign for that cause was based on assertions of zero downside. His professed doctrine is cakeism (the belief in both having sweet things and eating them); anyone who queries the logic or tabulates the cost of ingredients is dismissed as a nay-saying nincompoop.
Johnson’s ideal communications strategy is not to tell people things they don’t want to hear and, when bad news comes knocking, to hide instead of answering the door. In Downing Street that approach is reinforced by the epic arrogance of his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, whose working assumption in policymaking is that nearly everyone on the planet is stupider than him.

It's always been dangerous to assume that you're the smartest guy in the room. Because you're not.


Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Canada's Trump

Jason Kenney, Linda McQuaig writes, is the closest thing we have to Donald Trump. He says he's a man of the people. But his policies clearly favour corporations over people:

It's worth examining the fiercely pro-corporate economic model endorsed by Kenney -- a self-styled populist who specializes in stirring up resentment and division -- and see why we should go to great lengths to avoid it in the future.
Of course, we're used to the mantra that the Alberta economy has been a roaring success. True, it's been a "have" province, lecturing the rest of us on how to live within our means -- a task that would have been easier if we'd all been born with abundant quantities of one of the world's most valuable commodities under our soil.
But the real measure of success is what one makes of the hand one is dealt. And, by that measure, Alberta has been a train wreck.
Its political leaders, by allowing corporate interests to design the economy to their own benefit, have squandered the province's vast natural wealth, leaving Alberta's citizens with a mere fraction of what they could be enjoying today, even with the downturn in world oil prices.

Kenney didn't invent the model. Ralph Klein was its patron:

Over the past two decades, more than half a trillion dollars — $528 billion — has been siphoned off by foreign shareholders who have ended up owning every major development in the oilsands, with only two small enterprises under Canadian ownership, according to a new study by University of Alberta political economist Gordon Laxer and Calgary researcher Regan Boychuk.
While the usual narrative has it that oil companies invested billions of dollars of capital to develop the oilsands, in truth, they've done nothing of the sort. All the investment that has gone into the oilsands over the past 23 years has effectively been paid for by the people of Alberta.
"Industry didn't pay those costs. Albertans did," says the report, soon to be released by the University of Alberta's Parkland Institute and the Council of Canadians.
That's because the oil companies have been operating under an extraordinarily generous regime -- paying a mere one per cent royalty, and only after all costs have been deducted.

It didn't use to be that way. Under Peter Lougheed, the rules of engagement were different:

In the 1980s, premier Peter Lougheed had been much tougher on the oil industry, forcing it to pay a royalty of 25 per cent and even creating an energy company owned in part by the public.

Lougheed operated the way Norway has continued to operate:

This annoying little country, also endowed with generous oil reserves and a small population, has shown how to throw a punch when it comes to dealing with Big Oil, ensuring the lion's share of the nation's oil wealth benefits its citizens.
By imposing a tough tax regime on oil companies (which always threaten to depart, but never actually leave the negotiating table) and setting up its own publicly owned oil company (now diversified into wind and solar power), Norway has ended up with a heritage fund worth about $1 trillion more than Alberta's fund.

A word to the wise: If you want to know where The Right is headed in this country, look to Kenney -- and shudder.

Image: The Toronto Star