Sunday, October 28, 2007

Is Iran Next?

In the October 8th edition of The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reported that Pentagon planners had, for sometime, been developing plans to attack Iran. "This summer," wrote Hersh, "the White House, pushed by the office of vice president Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran." The original plans called for a "broad bombing attack." But the redrawn plans would emphasize "'surgical' strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere."

Shortly after Hersh's article appeared, Mr. Bush -- at a press conference -- declared, "I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." One should note that the information necessary for constructing a nuclear weapon is all over the Internet. If possessing knowledge is the threshold for an attack, the entire world is a target.

Defenders of the president claim that Bush, whose command of the English language is worse than embarrassing, was merely displaying more of his shattered syntax. But, in an address to the Washington Institute for Near East Studies on October 22nd, Vice President Cheney warned, "The Iranian regime needs to know that, if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences."

Even Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has joined the chorus. He has vowed that, should Iran develop a nuclear weapon while he is president, he will attack Iraq's neighbour. That, he says, is "a promise."

It is interesting that all three of these men have never served in combat. And, therefore, none of them have any familiarity with the unintended consequences which accompany the use of military force -- what former Secretary of State Colin Powell has called the Pottery Barn Rule -- "you break it, you own it." It was President Kennedy's familiarity with that rule which led him to build a naval quarantine around Cuba, rather than invade that island.

As a glaring example of the Pottery Barn Rule, Iraq is Exhibit A. Yet both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney refuse to recognize it. It could be that they are simply dense; or perhaps, convinced of their own righteousness, they are incapable of admitting a mistake. Whatever the reason, both men appear to be drawn more to the power of myth than to the power of facts. And, when it comes to myths, there are chiefly two which, apparently, appeal to both men. The first is The Myth of the American West, where it is easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys -- and where the administration of justice rests on the principle that the guys in the white hats are quicker on the draw than the guys in the black hats. The other myth is the Myth of American Invincibility. In this myth, the American military -- like Washington's army at Valley Forge -- endures unspeakable hardships; but, in the end, it triumphs. That myth died in the jungles of Vietnam thirty-five years ago. But it was resurrected by the Neo Cons when the Cold War ended; and it was promoted by a generation of boosters who spent the Vietnam years far away from those jungles. In the last four years, the Myth of American Invincibility has died another death in the sands of Mesopotamia.

It is this mythological perspective which appears to have led the president and vice president to conclude that the U.S. can ride out the consequences of a "surgical" strike on Iraq. Having destabilized Iraq and empowered Iran, they now propose to take those intransigent mullahs to the woodshed. But, as a former senior intelligence official told Hersh, "Do you think those crazies in Tehran are going to say, "'Uncle Sam is here! We'd better stand down?' The reality is an attack will make things ten times warmer."

It would have done a world of good if the education of Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney -- and Mr. Giuliani -- had included stints in the jungles and rice fields of Southeast Asia.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The House Never Loses

Last week, Hugh MacKenzie -- an economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives -- wrote an editorial which relied heavily on recently released data from Statistics Canada. The data underscored what an earlier study (see my post for March 7th) confirmed. The last fifteen years have seen a growing gulf between the richest 5% of Canadians and everybody else. All of this has happened as leaders of all political stripes have sung in chorus that tax cuts create a tide which, in turn, raises all boats.

"It turns out," wrote Mackenzie, "that the share of income among the richest of Canadians is actually concentrated right at the top -- among Canada's richest. Between 1992 and 2004 [the richest 5% of the population carved out] 25.3% of the economic pie." But "more than 90% of the gain in income share among the richest 5% went to the richest 1% of Canadians. And, remarkably, 20% of the gain went to the richest of the rich, the millionaires sitting in the top 0.01% of Canada's income scale."

Writing in The Toronto Star, David Olive put those statistics in context. "Statistics Canada reports that 2.8 million families, or one in five, live below the low income cut off, or LICO, the new politically correct term for poverty line. The gap between rich and poor has reached a three decade high, a prosperity gap usually associated with underdeveloped nations." Referring to Mackenzie's work, Olive pointed out that "a stunning 80% of families have seen their earnings and after tax income stagnate or decline, after inflation, over the past generation."

Such is the hypocrisy of economic and social conservatism. The family values folks have had a disastrous effect on the people they say they revere. Tax cuts led to a decline in social investment, on the theory that the poor, with money in their pockets, would look after themselves. But those tax cuts came in the form of tax credits. And tax credits only apply to those who have incomes. And those with larger incomes receive larger tax breaks.

It has been the same story south of the border, where all of this economic flim-flam began, thanks to Milton Friedman and his colleagues in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago. In his blog last week, Robert Reich -- the former Secretary of Labour and now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley -- wrote that, according to data supplied by the IRS, "the wealthiest 1% of Americans are earning 21% of all income. . . The bottom 50% of all Americans, when all their incomes are combined together, is earning just 12.8% of the nation's income."

At the same time, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty promised more tax cuts. And President Bush vetoed a bill which would expand health coverage for uninsured children because it would "encourage socialized medicine." As E.J. Dionne pointed out in The Washington Post, by the same logic we should not encourage public education. Today's conventional wisdom is that social investment is socialism. Franklin Roosevelt faced the same criticism. His record speaks for itself.

In the mid 1970's, in the wake of his Nobel Prize, Friedman and his wife wrote a book titled Free to Choose, which PBS turned into a popular series of programs. But, as the last twenty-five years have shown, what Friedman called "freedom," actually meant "privilege." In the name of freedom, economic policy makers have rigged the game. That little white ball keeps coming up on the same few numbers. And it keeps coming up on them again and again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

(Once Again) In Praise of Speedskating

Last March, I wrote a short piece in which I unabashedly sang the praises of speedskating. Having just returned from the first meet of the new season, I wish to reiterate what I wrote then. Speedskating truly symbolizes what is best about Canada. It encourages excellence; it seeks to make a place for everyone; and it is based on the simple proposition that doing something well can be fun.

As I also wrote at the time, my wife and I find ourselves in rinks across this province at ungodly hours; and we drive considerable distances for that privilege. But, after all, going anywhere in this country usually involves travelling a considerable distance.

This weekend's competition occurred two weeks after Marion Jones returned her Olympic medals to the International Olympic Committee. It struck me, as I watched the competition, that perhaps speedskating is so enjoyable because its devotees are passionate amateurs. They all have day jobs, because no speedskater can make a lucrative living doing what he or she loves to do. There are no astronomical salaries, and no agents who are laughing all the way to the bank. And, so far, the fame speedskaters have achieved has been relatively modest. Perhaps that explains why, to the best of my knowledge, BALCO has not peddled its products to Olympic speedskaters.

My wife, who had broken an arm a few weeks before I wrote the March post, has healed nicely. She did not participate this weekend. She wisely decided that she was not ready for a two day meet; and, while she has been back on her skates since the beginning of September, she will begin competing at a smaller, shorter event later this fall. And she has decided that there are some exercises which she will not attempt. Speedskating is fun; but nursing a broken arm isn't.

I wrote last March that, if a visitor to Canada wanted to know what this country was like, I would take him or her to a speedkating competition. I still stand by that statement. Speedskaters live in a community which represents what is best about the Great White North. Despite the hype, Canada is much more than just Hockey Country.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Staying the Course

That phrase does not carry positive connotations these days. Given what has happened in Iraq over the last four years, it has come to stand for, at best, inertia -- at worst, folly. But that phrase best describes the results of the Ontario election. The number of members who were elected by each party stayed about the same. There was not much discussion of pressing issues, which everyone knows are coming down the pipe. And the answer to the question, "Do you want to change the way we elect our representatives?" was a resounding "No!" This province's voters were not feeling particularly enthusiastic about their politicians. But they weren't prepared to send them packing, either.

Dalton McGuinty's Liberals won 71 seats, or 66% of the legislature with 42% of the vote -- which proponents of proportional representation will maintain is exactly the problem that needs to be fixed. However, the proposal to move to proportional representation was soundly defeated, 63% to 37%

John Tory, who began the race as a clear favourite for premier, self destructed during the campaign; and, in the words of one wag, he created a wedge issue -- public funding for all faith based schools -- which he promptly used against himself.

Only the New Democratic Party's Howard Hampton increased his share of the popular vote -- his party harvested 19% of Ontarians ballots -- but his share of seats remained the same.

As we awoke this morning, not much had changed. But we are all aware that change is coming. One of every seven jobs in Ontario is related to the auto industry. And, as our neighbours in Michigan are well aware, that engine of economic growth is in trouble. The forest industry in Northern Ontario is also mired in an economic swamp. Pulp and paper is not the ticket to prosperity which it once was. And, while $80 a barrel oil has done wonders for Alberta's economy, Ontario buys the black stuff; it doesn't produce it.

Cynics may claim that Ontarians were playing the role of Sergeant Schultz, the dull witted soldier on Hogan's Heroes. Perhaps they "see nothing -- nothing at all." But it's probably more accurate to conclude that they simply chose the devil they knew -- because, although the Liberals do not inspire fervid devotion, they are -- generally speaking -- competent.

And Mr. McGuinty's victory was historic. It's been seventy years since the Liberal Party of Ontario won back to back elections under Premier Mitchell Hepburn. If John Kenneth Galbraith were alive, he would remind McGuinty that Hepburn's tenure was, in Galbraith's opinion, "one of the most corrupt in Canadian history." This, from a life long Liberal -- both north and south of the border.

We await the future. And we hope that -- as far as the Liberals are concerned -- history does not repeat itself.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

What Kind of Jobs?

In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called an election, the purpose of which was straightforward. He was seeking a mandate from Canadians to do something which they had consistently and steadfastly refused to do for one hundred and twenty years: enter into a free trade agreement with the United States. One of the chief benefits of the agreement, he said, was that Canadians would be deluged with "jobs, jobs, jobs." Mulroney won the election; and, six years later, the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) morphed into NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

From the perspective of twenty years ago, it would appear that Mulroney was, indeed, a prophet. According to a report in The Globe and Mail last week, the employment picture in Canada is the best it has been in thirty-three years: "Canada's jobless rate surprisingly fell to a thirty-three year low of 5.9% last month after employers added 51,000 jobs. Wages are rising at the fastest pace in a decade and labour shortages -- not tightening credit conditions -- are what's most worrying executives."

In the same week, a report written by Armine Yalnizyan for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, reached the following conclusion: "a surging economy has coincided with a process of redistributing incomes from the less affluent to the richest." After analysing data from Statistics Canada, Yalnizyan claimed that, "only the richest 5% enjoy the spoils of economic progress . . . and this is in the best economic times." Canadians have known good economic times before. But this time, said Yalnizyan, things are different: "Something significant is shifting in Canada. A generation ago, the gains from economic growth were more widespread, and the taxes generated by that era of prosperity financed investments across the country, in every neighbourhood, that enhanced the quality of life for all citizens."

My generation benefited directly from those investments. Governments built public schools, universities, roads, hospitals and community recreation facilities. And, when we followed the conventional wisdom and graduated from institutions of higher learning, lo and behold, there were jobs waiting for us. Moreover -- it now seems particularly quaint -- we only needed one of those jobs to pay the bills.

Our children face a much different world. In a column in Friday's New York Times, Bob Herbert cites a study which was released last spring. The study showed that "men who are now in their thirties earn less than their fathers' generation did at the same age. The median income for men in their thirties in 1974, in today's inflation adjusted dollars, was $40,210. According to the study, which used Census figures from 2004, those annual earnings have dropped to $35,010."

There are those who claim that this phenomenon is the inevitable consequence of free trade -- more jobs at lower salaries. Herbert claims that it is the consequence of a failure of imagination. "In the first two or three decades after World War II," he writes, "men and women of talent and vision gave us The Marshall Plan, the G.I. Bill, the interstate highway program, the Peace Corps, the space program, the civil rights movement and much more."

Our son recently returned home after having received an Honours B.A. and teaching for a year in South Korea. He then headed for Toronto, seeking a career. What he found was lots of jobs for $8 - $10 an hour --not enough to pay the bills. He is home now, where rent and food are free and he is working two jobs, hoping to eventually go to graduate school, where he can acquire marketable skills. And he is thinking of returning to Asia -- because, when he posted his resume on a website for teachers of English as a second language, within one night he got six inquiries from China and, within two days, three job offers from South Korea.

Well, some will say, his degree has opened doors for him. True. My wife and I have always encouraged our children to see the world. As someone who can earn a good living teaching in Asia or Europe or South America, he thinks of himself as a citizen of the world. And yet . . . there is something wrong with this picture. When Mike Harris slashed nursing jobs as part of the "Common Sense Revolution," he told those recently unemployed professionals, "Just as Hula Hoops went out and those workers would have to have a factory and a company that would manufacture something else that's in, it's the same in government, and you know, governments have put off these decisions for so many years, that restructuring sometimes is painful." Given the fact that, with an aging population the need for nurses surged, Mr. Harris was -- to put it charitably -- myopic.

We have lived for a generation with myopic leaders. Our son will make his way in the world. But there are so many more who have not had his advantages -- or who have not had the advantages we baby boomers have had. The late John Kenneth Galbraith loved to tell the story of how his father -- a small town Ontario teacher, farmer and politician -- during a local election, mounted a pile of manure and apologized to his audience for standing on his opponent's platform. If those good people had no trouble recognizing horse manure, neither should we.