Archive for May, 2009

Beer is cheaper, more plentiful and all around better with socialism

socialized alcohol 2In their stirring call to arms that is The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels make argument after argument why capitalism is an inherently flawed, anti-humanist, grossly authoritarian and ultimately doomed economic system.

As it turns out, Marx and Engels left out what could have been probably one of the most effective arguments to win over the hearts and minds of blue collar workers to the cause of socialism.  We’ve long known that making alcohol retail a nationalized monopoly can bring in billions of dollars to the public coffers and thus reduces taxes.  For instance, the LCBO brings in well over 1 billion dollars annually (even before Provincial Sales Taxes on LCBO alcohol sales are factored in) to the province of Ontario.  But, as the CBC recently reported, it turns out that ‘socialized’ alcohol also makes beer cheaper and more plentiful.

To paraphrase David Lloyd George: the provincial Tories in Alberta would make drums of out of the skins of their own mothers the better sing their own capitalist free-market praises.  However, in addition to the hidden costs that get passed on to Albertan workers, it turns out that their free-market ways are costing them considerably more compared to Ontario and Quebec who both have alcohol monopolies in the LCBO and SAQ respectively.

Beer is just better with socialism.

beer prices across canada.

Pop Quiz: Who’s more in favour of pace & negotiations – Israel or Palestine?

obama1Given that Israel’s new (or rather, once-old-now-new-again) far right wing Prime Minister recently visited Washington to talk of peace, it is worth taking a moment to take a look at the two constituent societies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and consider which of the two societies — Israel or Palestine — truly constitutes the bigger threat to piece.

Consider for a moment that in May, 2000 (before any hostilities began and there was still relative peace between Israel and Palestinians despite the fact that Israel was illegally occupying their land), only 39% of Israelis supported the Oslo Peace Accords.  However, by 2005 (after the latest intifada began) only 26% of Israelis claimed to support the Oslo Peace Accords.

Conversely, after the latest conflict flared up and after Palestinians began to be killed at a rate several times that of Israel, polls show that — in spite of all that they had been through — an overwhelming majority of Palestinians (over 66%) still supported  negotiations with Israel.  (Source)

Now consider this: Below is a graph of the comparative fatality rates of Palestinians compared to Israelis

Palestinian death toll compared israel

Source: Israeli human rights group B’tselem

As you can see, the Palestinians are getting brutalized and bloodied far worse than the Israelis.

Think about that for a moment.

Despite them being utterly destroyed and brutalized by the Israelis, Palestinians have shown that even after the intifada began, they overwhelmingly have supported negotiations with Israel and yet the Palestinians are the ones who are considered by the Western media to be the bloodthirsty, unreasonable impediments to peace.

Let’s personify this for a moment here just to give this dichotomy some much needed context.

So you’ve got one guy — let’s call him Israel —who’s using a lead pipe to beat the shit out of a defenceless guy — let’s call him Pal.  You’d think that, all things being equal, the guy getting the shit beat out of him would be more likely to believe that the peace agreement he’d signed with the aggressor was a bad move.  This seems reasonable since there is prima facie evidence that all previously signed peace agreements (for instance, Oslo or the latest cessation in hostilities which Israel violated the day after Obama was elected) clearly aren’t worth the paper they’re written on since he’s getting the shit beat out of him with a lead pipe.  I mean, if I were me, I certainly would be less inclined to support a peace agreement with somebody who was in the process of violating it, but then again that’s just me.

This is certainly brings into question the way that the media has portrayed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  According to the media the Palestinians are the violent, untrustworthy party who have violent, untrustworthy leaders while the Israelis are the peace-loving, civilized party who have peace-loving, civilized leaders like Netanyahu and Lieberman.  When Lieberman and Netanyahu make a perfunctory statement about wanting peace — as Netanyahu did recently at the White House — the media reports it as gospel instead of laughing at them.

But in the scenario with the Palestinians and the Israelis, we actually see almost saint-like restraint (yes, that’s right, restraint) on the part of the party getting brutalized — even after all that they’ve been through, a majority of Palestinians still support negotiations — while the party doing the brutalizing is the one that’s far more likely to think that the peace agreement was a bad idea.

So who truly constitutes the bigger threat to piece?  Seems like a pretty open and shut case to me.

More arguments against STV (and why they’re also flawed)

Argument #2 used against STV: STV simply ‘externalizes’ the process of reaching a compromise rather than internalizing it with each voter.

bc-stv-logoLast week, we discussed one of the most common arguments used against STV and why it was both flawed and at least a little bit offensive.

This week, we will discuss a slightly less common argument used against STV, but one which still nevertheless has some purchase in academia.  This argument is important to debunk because when it is conveyed by a professor speaking with a tone of authority (which is how I first came across this argument) it is on the surface extremely persuasive and not the least of which is because it falsely appears to be a progressive critique of Proportional Representation (PR) systems.

The argument normally goes like this:

Even under STV (or other PR systems), you don’t actually choose who makes the government.  Yes, the legislature may more accurately reflect the votes of the populace, but after the election the leaders get together and negotiate and compromise amongst themselves as to which of the several parties will get to form government.PR

Let’s imagine an election under an STV system where the distribution of votes accurately mirrored the distribution of seats and it turned out as follows:

Far right party: 10% of seats
Centre right party: 30%
Centre left party: 14%
Far left party: 46%

In this case, the argument posits (correctly) that the voters themselves don’t get to decide how the parties will fit together and join together to form a functioning government because it is the party leaders who get to negotiate among themselves how the legislature will be shaped and who will form government.  In the above example, a clear majority of people voted for generally progressive or centre-left policies, but the possibility exists that the centre-right party may form a coalition with the centre-left party and the far right party to form a broadly conservative coalition despite the preference of 60% of the population for a broadly centre-left/progressive set of government policies.

Conversely, this same argument suggests that in the First Past the Post system used throughout Canada, you may not have as much choice in which party to vote for and the legislature may not reflect the actual desires of the populace, but you at least get to make the compromise in your own head and decide who gets to ultimately form government.  You do so because, these FPTP proponents argue, the electorate is forced to internalize the compromising process of who gets to govern thus taking that power out of the hands of the party elites.

On the surface of it, this argument seems sound and convincing.  Indeed, it hits all the populist hot-button pressure points — such as irreverence toward authority — which are a hallmark of both my personal political pedigree as well as that of many others not as far to the left and even many on the right of the political spectrum.

But to illustrate the folly of this argument, consider what I think is a roughly parallel analogy.  The ‘virtuous internalized compromise’ argument (or “VIC” as we will call it for short) seems to me to be akin to a home-building scenario.  Let us say that I wish to build a deck in my backyard.  I decide to go down to my local hardware store to purchase pressure-treated wood planks, several nails and a hammer with which to accomplish the project.

PRNow, the VIC argument’s comparable analogy suggests that it is not in my interest to ask the clerk for these needed items.  The analogy would be that, according to the VIC argument, after I place my request, the clerk could possibly use the hammer to affix several nails to the end of the boards and then proceed to beat me with the board/nail assembly that he has created irrespective of my original request for boards, nails, a hammer, and no assault on my person.

The VIC argument suggests that it is either better or at least equally good for me to instead go to the “First Past the Post hardware store” which has a more limited selection of materials and obtain some extremely wide wooden poles and screws with which to build my deck.  By buying the extremely wide wooden pols and screws, I save myself from the *possibility* of receiving something that I wouldn’t want at the PR hardwareFPTPstore (i.e., assault) — presumably because the clerk at the SMP store cannot easily lift the heavy wooden poles — and all it costs me is that I make the “internal compromise” of receiving something that I am certain not to want and that I am certain will not help me.

My converse argument — to continue the analogy — would be that it is worth braving the *risk* that the PR store clerk *could* take your request and assemble it in such a way that he can use it greatly to my disadvantage (after all, hospital visits are taxing on the health).  If you get what you want, then you come out ahead.  Conversely, if the clerk attempts to assault you with one of your boards and nails, my suggestion would be to use social networking to assemble as many friends and colleagues as possible and return the same treatment to the PR store clerk in kind.

So here, in short, is the crux of where the VIC argument fails:

The risk of not getting what you want simply means that you need to push back until you do get what you want.  The risk of not getting what you want does not mean that you should forgo the possibility of getting exactly what you want in exchange for something that you don’t want but which carries with it assurance that you don’t get the exact opposite of what you want.

Therefore, this is simply not a good argument against STV.

Canada’s sinful role in attempting to subvert South American democracy

Joel Bakan once noted that Canadians export two things of reasonable quality and in reasonable quantity:

  1. Hockey Players; and
  2. Criticism of the United States

We Canadians tend to do a good job of pointing out the U.S.’s awful role in subverting democratically-elected governments and democratic movements around the world (Indonesia, Italy, Iran, Iraq, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Panama, Haiti and Grenada to name just a few, come to mind).  However, we don’t like to look at ourselves in the same kind of critical light.

The following article by Anthony Fenton is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on Canada’s sinful complicity in attempting to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Venezuela.

The Revolution Will Not Be Destabilized

Ottawa’s democracy promoters target Venezuela

As the country closer geographically, economically and militarily to the US than any other, Canada has often seen her foreign policy aspirations circumscribed by the whims of the world’s lone Superpower.

Part of the ‘hidden wiring’ of the US-Canada relationship is premised on the belief that there is a role for Canada in places where the US carries a lot of counter-productive baggage. New records obtained by The Dominion show just how actively intertwined Canada’s foreign policy is with the US-led ‘democracy’ promotion project in Venezuela.

Successive Canadian governments, beginning with Paul Martin’s Liberals and gaining momentum under Harper’s Tory minorities, have pushed full steam ahead with efforts to expand Canada’s democracy promotion efforts globally. Canadian leadership in the regime change and military occupation of Haiti (2004-present) gave rise to a renewed emphasis on Canada as an emerging power, an idea fomented by the Harper government.

Democracy promotion is seldom discussed in the Canadian public sphere, even though it has been the subject of a multitude of federal-level conferences, reports and parliamentary hearings over the last five years. Over that same period, Canada has increasingly been integrating its instruments of democracy promotion with those of the US.

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama quietly pledged to increase funding for the controversial National Endowment for Democracy (NED), despite scaling back the rhetoric used to describe continuing US aims to promote global, Western-style democracy. Obama has already fulfilled this pledge.

His Omnibus Appropriations Act allocates $115 million for NED’s operations, increasing by $35 million the amount requested by Bush for 2009. All told, the requested 2009 budget for US democracy programs is the highest ever, at $1.72 billion. By contrast, Canada spent upwards of $650 million on democracy promotion in 2008.

The NED was formed in 1983 as a new tool to advance US foreign policy and business interests around the world. Nominally independent, NED receives the majority of its budget from Congress and each of its grants must be approved by the US State Department.

“One of the NED’s first major successes…was helping to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua,” wrote journalist Bart Jones in his authoritative biography of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. According to Jones, a couple of decades later, “the NED was rapidly infiltrating [Venezuelan] society in a way reminiscent of the Nicaragua experience.” Channelling money and resources to opposition NGOs has been a prime strategy of the NED in Venezuela.

Following a short-lived coup d’etat against Chavez in April 2002, Venezuelan-American attorney Eva Golinger and investigative journalist Jeremy Bigwood obtained a treasure trove of documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These documents, released in conjunction with Golinger’s 2004 book, The Chavez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela, exposed the NED’s active role in the attempted subversion of Venezuela’s democracy.

One of several Canadian NGOs whose activities are complementary to those of the NED is the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL). Established by the Mulroney government in the 1990s, FOCAL is almost entirely dependent on government funding and is accountable to parliament.

A 2004 evaluation of FOCAL conducted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) stated:

Stakeholders from every sector, and from the academic community in particular, indicated that FOCAL is already perceived as ‘the right arm of the government,’ echoing the perspective and beliefs of its funding bodies, rather than a truly independent, non-governmental organization.

“The US has been using Canadian and European foundations more frequently in recent years to filter funding to Venezuelan and other NGOs, and political parties that promote their mutual interests,” said Golinger, whose most recent book is The Imperial Web: Encyclopedia of Interference and Subversion. “It’s a way of covering up US meddling and making the sources of foreign funding for political objectives more difficult to detect. Canada has been a major ally of the US in this respect, particularly in the case of Venezuela.”

Negative perceptions of the US indicate the necessity of “shifting responsibility for the [democracy] campaign to more local actors or other Western allies,” wrote Raymond Gastil, one of the theoreticians behind the US shift to democracy promotion, in 1988.

Although far from the first such instance, Canada began to adopt this notion of “responsibility” towards Venezuela in January 2005. DFAIT invited the head of a key opposition group in Venezuela, Sumate’s Maria Corina Machado, to meet Ottawa lawmakers and officials, as well as to give a briefing on political rights in Venezuela.

Machado openly supported the 2002 coup against Chavez. In 2004, she was charged with conspiracy to commit treason for allegedly using NED funds to campaign against Chavez in a recall referendum organized by the opposition.

According to records obtained by The Dominion via an Access to Information request, in 2005 FOCAL’s chairman, John Graham, joined Machado for a high-level meeting Washington, D.C. In attendance were former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Roger Noriega. “An exchange of ideas as regards the relationships between the civil society and the governments for the strengthening of democracy in the region,” was the stated purpose of the meeting.

Shortly after Graham’s meeting with Rice and Machado, the NED approved a $94,516 grant for FOCAL to carry out democracy promotion work in and around Venezuela.

Using the NED funds, FOCAL was to commission a series of papers and organize a number of meetings in Ottawa, Venezuela and Ecuador “to discuss how to better collaborate in promoting an informed civil society that can strengthen democracy in the region.”

But after Harper’s Conservatives took power in early 2006, FOCAL abruptly cancelled the activities that were supposed to take place in Venezuela.

“After discussing this project with various people…[we] came to the conclusion that it was not in anybody’s interest to organize such an activity while being financially associated with the NED,” reads a heavily censored memo sent by DFAIT official Flavie Major in July 2006.

“Since the project was originally drafted, the internal context in Venezuela has shifted, as has the domestic context in Canada, which could potentially alter the priority and focus of Canada’s engagement in Venezuela,” states a separate document obtained through a US FOIA request.

An example of the changing political context in Venezuela is the 2006 draft of the Law on International Co-operation, which limits the ability of local NGOs to receive funding from foreign governments. Although the law has yet to be enacted, Western-backed NGOs and their donors have launched a campaign to “push back” against what they describe as a “backlash” against democracy promoters in the region.

By late 2006, the Conservatives proclaimed that democracy promotion was a “fundamental part” of Canadian foreign policy objectives and “an eminently worthy and intrinsically Canadian endeavour.” One indication of the Conservative’s commitment was seen in the appointment of a former NED board member as a top advisor to Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay.

In late 2007, the Canadian government gave the NED $198,168 to produce a major report, which was entitled “Defending Civil Society: A Report of the World Movement for Democracy.” The report attacks Venezuela for its efforts to limit Western-funded manipulation of its internal politics:

Venezuela’s would-be caudillo Hugo Chavez has a peculiar notion of democracy. His ‘Bolivarian revolution’ appears to be based on Chavista [sic] monopolizing the country’s political institutions, from an absence of parliamentary opposition to a hand-picked judiciary. In these circumstances…civil society provides the only countervailing power to the Chavista state and to Chavez’s Castroite aspirations.

DFAIT seems to have based their own talking points on Venezuela around the NED’s line. In an e-mail statement to The Dominion, a spokesperson for Canadian Minister of State for Latin America Peter Kent wrote: “Hugo Chavez has a history of weakening democratic institutions. Minister Kent is committed to furthering the government’s Americas strategy, which is dedicated to promoting and enhancing democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

When asked to substantiate a claim about Chavez’s anti-democratic tendencies, Kent’s spokesperson stated: “Hugo Chavez has a history of concentrating power in the Executive which has undermined democratic institutions in Venezuela. Since taking office a decade ago, we’ve seen the politicization of the judiciary and harassment by government officials of the state-controlled media and NGOs.”

One of the ways that Canada has tried to avoid drawing attention to its support for the Venezuelan opposition and collaboration with the NED is by carrying out activities outside of Venezuela and co-ordinating them through embassies. Indeed, such methods have a theoretical basis that Canada helped design.

In conjunction with the NED-linked Council for a Community of Democracies and the US State Department, in April 2008 DFAIT contributed $70,000 in financing to the publication of A Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development Support.

Canada has one of the few foreign services that trains diplomats in democracy promotion. The US Foreign Service Institute has already ordered at least 400 copies of the handbook, which aims to provide diplomats with “encouragement, counsel and a greater capacity to support democrats everywhere.”

“We have over many, many years and will continue to work with the United States in this regard in advancing our common goals, certainly to the benefit of both countries and to the benefit of the world in general,” said Canada’s Consul-General in New York, Dan Sullivan, during a launch event for the handbook in early 2008.

One example of the handbook in action is Canada’s funding of the Venezuelan NGO Justice and Development Consortium (Asociación Civil Consorcio Desarrollo y Justicia). This group, which also receives funding from the NED, has made a name for itself by working to unite reactionary opposition movements throughout Latin America.

In November 2007, DFAIT gave the Justice and Development Consortium $94,580 “to consolidate and expand the democracy network in Latin America and the Caribbean” at an assembly held in Panama City in the spring of 2008. This meeting, co-hosted by the Canadian Embassy in Panama and the NED, attracted prominent members of (often NED-funded) opposition movements in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Ecuador. It was convened in response to “the usher[ing] in [of] a new era of populism and authoritarianism in Latin America.”

Flying in the face of the North American interpretation of Venezuelan democracy is the latest report by the non-partisan Chilean Latinobarometro, which shows that 79 per cent of Venezuelans polled are satisfied with their democracy.

“Venezuela has a poor image in the rest of the world…but the perception of Venezuelans is positive,” states the report. “They say they like their democracy as it is now, or, at least, much more than the citizens of other countries like their democracies which, by contrast, are not criticized by the outside world for lack of freedom and harassment of institutions.”

Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile are considered Canada’s strongest allies in the region and are also countries where people’s support for their government tends to be lower than it is in Venezuela. The subversion of Venezuelan democracy and the laissez-faire attitude towards the regimes of Felipe Caldéron in Mexico, Alan Garcia in Peru and Álvaro Uribe in Colombia demonstrates that building popular democracies is not the sought-after end result of democracy promotion activities.

The governments of Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile have already entered into Free-Trade deals with Canada and each receives high levels of Canadian outward foreign direct investment, particularly in the extractive sector.

Canadian trade with Venezuela is second only to trade with Brazil in South and Central America. Venezuela is the tenth-largest provider of Canada’s considerable foreign oil needs. In 2008, Canada imported $1.36 billion worth of Venezuelan crude. The North Atlantic Refinery in Newfoundland, home of Premier Danny “Chavez” Williams, refines the oil.

Anthony Fenton is an independent researcher and journalist based in British Columbia. He has travelled to Venezuela several times. Some material in this article is drawn from a forthcoming book on Canadian foreign policy. He can be contacted at fentona[at]shaw.ca.

Arguments against STV (and why they’re wrong)

Argument #1 used against STV:  It’s “too complicated”

Some sources using this argument:

Mayor criticizes STV – says it’s ‘complicated
STV system would be complicated and expensive
STV con: It just doesn’t fit in BC
STV concept too complicated to vote for

Why the argument fails:

bc-stv-logoBritish Columbians should actually be offended at this argument and should be e-mailing the head of the “No STV” campaign to voice their offence.

This argument has as its major premise that STV is too complicated for the public to understand and, by extension, function properly.  This argument suggests that British Columbians are dumber than the Irish, the Maltese, Australians and British voters in European Union elections since all of these countries have proven smart enough to use STV successfully and effectively in their elections.  The only thing more boggling than the complete untenability of this argument is that somebody in the “NO STV” campaign actually thought it would be a good idea to insult the intelligence of British Columbians in such an obvious fashion.

Moreover, if we accept the argument that an electoral system has to be simple for it to work, then the electoral system in the United States would never have lasted as long as it has.

A brief backgrounder:

Americans vote in primary elections for a nominee for each party’s candidate for all major offices.  In some states, open primaries are used and in other states, closed primaries are used.  Also, in some other states a caucus is used instead of a primary and in Texas both caucuses and a primary are used.  Also, two other exceptions to this rule are that the state of Nebraska has no formal political parties in the state legislature and the state of Louisiana has no separate primary elections, but instead has multiple members of each party run simultaneously during the general election and then uses run-off elections to determine the ultimate winner.  Also, some states use run-off elections on an individual basis if the candidate does not secure at least 50% of the vote, while other states (such as Minnesota) do not.

For presidential elections, Americans don’t directly vote for their president.  Instead the president is chosen by an “electoral college” of voters who are technically free to vote as they see fit, but in practise more or less vote along party lines.  U.S. states are awarded electoral college seats based on the number of representatives plus number of Senators each state is awarded in the Congress (except for DC which has no senators and no full congressmen but is still awarded 3 electoral college seats).  The exception afforded to DC for the electoral college, however, does not apply to other non-state U.S. territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands or Guam (although they do vote in primary elections).  However, some U.S. states award their electoral college seats in lump-sum to the winner of the State and others award U.S. electoral college seats based on the district-by-district performance of each candidate.

Simple, eh?

Using the logic of the “No STV” crowd, the American electoral system should have collapsed by 1798 under the weight of its own complexity.  But instead, the U.S. system has proven remarkably stable with only relatively minor adjustments made over the years (such as the election of senators and changing the fashion with which the Vice-President was elected).

The last reason why the “too complicated” argument of the “No STV” side fails is that STV actually isn’t complicated at all.  On the contrary, it’s actually relatively simple.  As this video demonstrates, it can be explained in layman’s terms in about 90 seconds.


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