Monday, August 27, 2012

You're Hooking That Electrical Wire WHERE?!?!?!

Source: CBC News: RCMP, Border Agents Can Use Torture-Tainted Information

Astute watchers of this government will tell you that this is hardly news; such a missive went out a year, if not a few years, ago by order of Vic Toews. The fundamental question is whether or not Canada should be relying on information that was obtained through torture, or information that MIGHT have been obtained through torture.

In the past, I've extolled John Stuart Mill's harm principle on this blog. For those of you who need a refresher, it basically sums up as 'what ever harms the least people is the ethical thing to do; or if not ethical, at least the right course of action.' As such, some of you might find it hypocritical of me to sit here today and type out a blog post condemning torture.

Well, I even though it is more philosophy than politics, I will explain to you why this course of action violates the harm principle. If we're looking at just sheer numbers, this missive violates the harm principle because of the harm it does to Canadian national identity and pride. Canada has always been seen as the 'good guy' in international affairs; we don't rock the boat, and we're often the first out of the gate to provide help to those in need.

As such, when it comes out that our government is allowing information that was tortured out of someone, it contrasts with the national identity that many Canadians have come to form over the years. This pure moment of cognitive dissonance surely has to have some last harm to Canadians who have to mull it over, and that number will be in the millions.

With that in mind, and still adhering to the harm principle, I think it is safe to say that the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on Canadians who have seen their national identity shattered on the international stage is the greater harm from this scenario; and as such, I can comfortably sit here and condemn torture while sticking to my belief in the harm principle.

Now, we've talked torture before on this blog; after all, as I mentioned, this isn't the first time the use of torture-tainted information has been brought up by Minister Toews.

But, let's re-examine some of the old arguments from back then.

First and foremost, information obtained under duress and torture is often unreliable if not completely fabricated. There have been studies done on torture, and almost all of them will point to the fact that information gleaned from torture is unreliable.

Let's go back to the most famous of torture scenarios: The Spanish Inquisition. For those of you who need another refresher, the Spanish Inquisition was period of time when the Kingdom of Spain (with the blessing of the Pope and the Church), actively rounded up converted Jews and 'questioned' them regarding their adherence to their new faith.

In many, if not all cases, torture was used to force a confession from the accused. Devices such as the rack, thumb screws, and numerous other weapons of horror were used against these people to force them to confess. Let's face it, there's few of us out there who would even look at such devices and not immediately tell the person in the room that we were guilty of whatever they were accusing of us.

The same can be said for the Salem Witch Trials; if you want something with a North American spin on it. People were accused and often tortured or subjected to tests that a human being could not survive; such as dipping a chair into a lake and making sure the witch didn't 'float', while a good woman would drown. Not only did people confess to crimes they were accused of, but much with the Inquisition and McCarthy's Red Scare of the 50s, they accused others. Others who would then be subjected to the same horrors the first person had been.

And let's look at more modern practices; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is often pointed to as a major grab in the American War on Terror. And the Americans have held Mohammed at Guantanamo Bay for a very long time, along with other 'non-combatants'. Furthermore, we know that they have been subjected to various torture techniques: ranging from sleep deprivation to water boarding.

When it comes to Mohammed, his confessions were released publicly for a variety of reasons. But the confession led to some speculation that Mohammed had exaggerated his confession and overplayed his role in certain events that he took credit for. Not to mention the fact that he was basically tied to, and confessed, for every major terrorist attack of the last 20 years.

Needless to say, people are rightly assuming that his confession comes after these forms of torture and it is his way of getting them to stop.

That is always the problem with torture: The person on the receiving end will eventually tell everyone what they want to hear.

Time to show some geek cred, as it serves as a good example; In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is captured on an away mission and held captive by the Cardassians for a period of a few months. During which time he is tortured, physically and mentally, by a captor who insists that the four lights in the room are actually five lights.

Of course, the episode ends with Picard being rescued before he breaks, but in the end he admits there was a moment when he truly believed that there were five lights and was ready to say so.

I mention this because it is a good example of what happens when you torture someone; eventually, not only will they lie and tell you what you want to hear to stop the torture, but they may even start to believe what you're telling them.

And it is for that very reason alone that information gleaned from torture does not serve a purpose; it is unreliable, highly doubtful, and likely pure fantasy. And now the fact that our government is authorizing the people who are supposed to be protecting us to use this misguided information, is tantamount to the government authorizing the use of chicken entrails and tarot cards.

Torture will always produce the results that the torturer wants to hear, regardless of whether or not it is the truth. And because of this, using information based on torture actually makes our country LESS safe than more.

There are people who say that this will save lives; and it's possible that one out of ten torture gleaned information packages will pay off. But the cost of using that information is our national identity, if not our very soul; and that is too high a price to pay.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Your Idea Intrigues Me, I May Have to Steal It From You...

I want you all to think back to 2011, I know, it was a dark and scary place for some of us...And well, for others, it's remains dark and scary. But we're not here to share stories and a drink around the fire, rather we're here to focus on what's important: And that's the Leader's Debate during the Saskatchewan Provincial Election.

Throughout the debate, then NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter continually mentioned the NDP's proposal to reexamine potash royalties in province in order to ensure that Saskatchewan was getting a fair deal. He also touted the idea, which is still a damned good one, of creating a non-renewable resource fund that would create wealth prosperity for future generations. (Norway has such a fund for their oil & gas industry, and the total currently sits in BILLIONS of dollars).

Lingenfelter got his point across by mentioning how a school classroom assumed we were receiving half of the profit generated by companies who harvest resources from the province. And while he assured us that he wasn't seeking 50 cents on the dollar for royalty rates, he was asking that we raise it from the pennies on the dollar it is now to a nickle or even a dime at some point in the future.

Needless to say, Premier Brad Wall was flabbergasted at the notion. Wall suggested that a rejiggering of the royalty rates would lead to a standoff with resource producers; much the same as Alberta saw when then Premier Ed Stelmach decided to raise royalty rates. Sure, the producers browbeated and puffed up their chests and cried foul, but when it comes down to it very few (if any) actually packed up shop and left Alberta.

There's a very simple reason for that: Alberta has a resource that those companies want, and the region provides a level of stability that other reasons with the same resource do not. As such, it is to their advantage to gather that resource from Alberta; it would be more cost effective in the long run.

But, that didn't stop Wall from suggesting that an adjustment to Saskatchewan's rates would cause ALL INVESTMENT TO CEASE and BALLS OF FIRE AND SULPHUR WOULD RAIN DOWN ON US ALL!!!! Alright, I may have added that last part myself, but you get the picture.

Wall used the same old answers we've come to expect from right-wing politicians on these kinds of subjects: Adjusting the rate discourages future investment; it increases costs of developing that sector in the province, which will lead to lower development levels and in turn fewer jobs; and, most important, it could force current investors out and the loss of jobs.

Wall was very adamant on these points, despite the fact that all of them are very Chicken Little excuses for not wanting to touch the rates.

So, imagine the surprise of many when it came out this week that the Saskatchewan Party government may indeed be considering an adjustment to some of Saskatchewan's resource rates. And yet, no jobs fleeing the province...No signs of lessened investment...Does that mean Premier Wall was lying during the Leader's Debate by scaremongering his answer to get voters to support him?

Let's hope so, cause otherwise it means we have a Premier with diminished intelligence as he couldn't understand that those scenarios he presented were falsehoods. In this case, it's better to have a liar for a Premier than an idiot.

Actually, that's not true. Either of those is a bad for a province in the long run, and I think the long run brings us to the very reason why this review is being considered.

The Wall Government has spent quite a bit of money advertising the fact that they have Canada's only balanced budget...If you don't look at the details. Again, arguing with the Auditor General over what accounts have to be presented have allowed some wiggle room for the Saskatchewan Party's accounting procedures.

But the bigger worry comes from their projected revenues. Yet again, the Wall Government has banked a high expectation on Potash revenues as well as Oil & Gas. We all remember what happened last time the government put a high expectation on potash, they fell well short of achieving the target they expected...In fact, they had to reimburse Potash companies for overcharging them on their royalty rates; which means we lost money on potash.

With a razor thin surplus, the much touted 'balance' they achieved, there is no room for wiggling on this budget. If potash and oil & gas fail to deliver, their claims to a balanced budget will be tossed to the way side and the people are really going to start wondering whether this government can actually project resource revenues accurately at all.

And there lies the rub. With these expectations on potash and oil & gas, it seems the only way the Wall Government has to actually achieve the targets they set for the sector would be through the use of raising the royalty rate the government currently charges.

So, when it comes right down to it, the Wall Government is looking at it as a question of political expediency; they know they're going to fall short, and they'll need to make up the money somehow at some point in order to keep 'balancing' those budgets.

At least when the NDP introduced the idea, it was under the guise of getting a fair shake for the people of Saskatchewan; as opposed to douping the people into thinking you're a good financial manager...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Ridings They Are a Changin'

So, as everyone should be aware, there is a movement underway to redraw some of the constituency maps here in Saskatchewan.

And although the boundary changes are only in their preliminary stage, there is some optimism coming from the people who have viewed them, as well as some grumblings coming from sitting Members of Parliament. The main source for optimism is the fact that Saskatchewan is on its way to developing some pure Urban ridings, as opposed to current Urban-Rural ridings that exist at the moment.

For those outside of Saskatchewan, allow me to explain. Let's highlight the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan's largest city. The city itself is carved into areas, and then those areas are lumped together with surrounding rural areas to comprise a federal riding. Take for example, Saskatoon-Humboldt. The riding comprises a good portion of the North-Eastern part of Saskatoon, then stretches out to touch the Yorkton-Melville, Regina-Qu'appelle, Prince Albert, and Saskatoon-Wanuskewin ridings. This is a large swatch of area for anyone to cover; it also contains some different mindsets what with the so-called 'rural-urban divide' (which I will discuss later in this post.)

Instead of this, the Boundaries Commission has proposed that Saskatoon itself be split into 3 pure urban ridings. This means the ridings themselves will remain exclusively within the city, while the previous rural areas will be combined as needed to form their own ridings.

Needless to say, this is a development that has caused many to become excited at the prospect. For years, people on the left of the political spectrum have said that the rural-urban ridings produced skewed results that favoured Conservative candidates. Furthermore, a good argument has been made about the size of the ridings being a challenge to good representation.

Let's talk a bit about the first point.

It is somewhat true that rural areas in Saskatchewan seem to bleed Tory Blue. Of course, as the birthplace of the CCF this wasn't always the case; but a distinct shift seemed to occur in the 1980s after the NDP supported the Charlottetown Accord and turned off some supporters in the west. This seems to be the place to bring up the so called 'Urban-Rural Divide'.

A few Saskatchewan Conservatives have expressed concern over these purely urban ridings. A few of them have held up the mantra of 'we can't pit urban vs rural needs' as their defense of keeping the current system; but allow me to try and explain why this isn't so.

There is an idea that urban and rural people stand on two opposite sides of a great chasm that can never be breached. This is quite simply not the case.

We all care about generating jobs, which in turn keep young people in communities, which in turn keep communities striving. Whether you're a city, or a town or a village or a hamlet (etc, etc, etc) your first order of business is to keep the place going. Jobs are one measure of doing that, and as such is something that a person considers when casting a ballot.

Taxes are another. There is some room for division here, given in recent history how rural voters in Saskatchewan flocked to the Sask Party in order to get out of paying property education taxes. We may care a bit different over which taxes, but I think we all expect fair taxes. And that is an issue that branches the so called divide, and shows that as a people we do care about making sure that we are at least taxed fairly.

Effectively, I don't think there are any major issues that truly create this rural-urban divide. When it comes down to brass tacks, we all essentially care about the same issues and want to see them resolved. And while there can sometimes be a contest between an urban area and a rural one for funding on an issue, I don't think this alone can constitute a rural-urban divide; after all, provinces compete for federal funding all the time...Through there is talk of an East-West divide, so perhaps that's not the greatest example.

Or perhaps people just like the idea of dividing lines. When it comes down to it, we're all Canadians, regardless of where you land geographically. Shouldn't that be enough to keep us from bickering with one another?

Well, before I stray too far off topic, let's look at the second point.

There is an argument now that present ridings are too large too allow a single MP to represent them well. For rural-urban ridings, this is particularly a problem. After all, if you have 25,000 constituents in a city and only 15,000 in the rural, which would you focus on your time and effort on during and in the lead up to an election?

By cutting the urban people out of the equation, rural areas can expect GREATER representation by their Member of Parliament. Why, you ask? It is because this MP can no longer just go to the largest population centre and curry favour with the electorate there. This will make so called 'rural' MPs actually get out into their rural areas.

And any time a person is given access to their MP, is a good thing for the strength of our democracy.

Effectively, let us hope that these proposed boundaries become the future boundaries for Saskatchewan's political map. I, for one, think it will enhance our democratic process and increase the representation for the average citizen in our province. And after all, isn't it time for this change?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

He Blinded Me With...Science?

Source: CBC News: Harper Defends Independence of Pipeline Approval Process

Well, this certainly wasn't a headline I was expecting to find this afternoon. It's pure fantasy, of course, but it does make a good soundbyte for the Prime Minister and something he can point to when Cabinet ultimately approves the pipeline anyways.

Effectively, after announcing that parents who take time off work to care for sick children can apply for EI benefits (we'll talk about that in a moment), Harper was asked questions about the building of the Northern Gateway pipeline. Harper was a snappy when asked directly about his conversations with BC Premier Christy Clark (who may or may not remain as Premier come the next BC Election in 2013), but otherwise was surprising when he announced that 'science' will be the guiding decision maker in the pipeline argument, not 'politics'.

As much as we'd like to believe you, Mr. Prime Minister, you past performance in the face of scientific inquiry casts a large shadow of doubt on that statement. After all, this is a government who sticks their fingers in their ears and starts whistling Dixie whenever someone mentions climate change and global warming. This is a government who slashed federal funding to programs such as the PEARL research facility in Nunavut, and has generally cancelled any program that promotes hard science. This is a government who scrapped the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, with some caucus members barely hiding the fact that the decision came due to the Round Table often coming up with ideas and 'science' that the government had rejected. (Carbon tax, etc.)

The list goes on and on...I mean, we can point to way back when, in I believe 2007 or 2008, when the government put up a list of ponds across Canada that were now going to be used as waste dumps for mining operations, despite environmental concerns. And then we can point to the limited understand of science that our Cabinet seems to have, especially when you have people like Joe Oliver saying water from Tar Sand tailing ponds will be clean enough to drink in the future...

I think that brings us to a fundamental problem with right-wing politics, and it's something I've discussed on this blog before. Right wingers only live in the NOW; they are only concerned with what is happening in the present and don't care about what is coming down the line. Freud would say that they are people who are primarily controlled by the Id portion of their psyche.

The only time they look to the future is when they need to come up with actual targets or objectives. Look at a right-wing response to an issue like climate change; targets are always placed 10 or more years ahead in the future. Whereas left-leaning politicians seem to set deadlines under 10 years in order to spur on rapid change, and counter effects that can be brought on by putting it off.

Furthermore, they only look to the future for solutions. There is an idea, rather a sort of hubris, that is inherent in right wing decision making. Humanity is advancing, there is no doubt about that, but it seems that right wingers shrug off today's responsibilities and assume that future generations will have the answers to the problems that they create today.

We don't need to worry about climate change; some egghead in 2021 will figure that out! We don't need to worry about rising sea levels and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere; some egghead in 2035 will figure that out!

The problem with this, is that it is always shifting responsibility to the next generation. And eventually, there is going to be a generation so overwhelmed with the problems created by the previous ones, that it will determine whether or not humanity has a future on this planet. We're building towards a point of no return, and it's something that we could avoid if we actually claimed some responsibility for the things that we are doing today.

So, when a Prime Minister, who up until now has shrugged off and basically declared war on the nation's scientists,  steps forward and announces that a decision will be made based on science...You can't help but think he's blowing smoke.

After all, we all know that the Conservative Party seems to be in favour of this pipeline. Even with Enbridge's spotty record on controlling leaks from pipelines, cleaning leaks, and eventually stopping leaks; this is a government who is gung-ho to get it built and start milking money from the oil cash cow. And again, this stems purely from their need to live in the now.

Sure, we may get some nice royalty money and a bit of a economic boon for pumping our oil out for the highest bidder; but if we don't do it properly, there will be an internal cost and we will be stuck to deal with it ourselves.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to sell the resources that we have, we just have to do it in a smart way. And that often means taking TIME to explore the concept and our partners to ensure that we're doing it in the best way possible. If we rush, simply at the promise of more money in less time, we will suffer in the long the run.

While Harper might say that this will be a scientific decision; past history and the current mood in the Conservative caucus, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it will instead be a cold, hard political decision. And that, Mr. Prime Minister, is scientific fact.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

From Monopoly to Monopoly

I apologize for the blog being dark for the past couple weeks; spent some time in Vancouver for the summer, but hopefully we should be back on the right track.

I thought about where I should post this, as it might fall better under the philosophical blog, but I think in the long run this is the better forum to air it. As many of you are no doubt aware, today was the death knell of the Canadian Wheat Board, as their monopoly has officially come to an end and farmers are allowed to 'market' their own crops as they see fit.

For the longest time, the Harper Government has defended the move to destroy the CWB as a means of providing farmers choice and allowing them to get better market value for their goods. For the Harper Government, it was all about CHOICE. But there's a small detail that the Harper Government has tended to leave out in this argument, and that is that there is only the illusion of choice.

I recently sat down and watched the documentary Food Inc.; well worth the watch if you haven't seen it, and it talks a bit about how our food has become an industry like any other. The documentary explained that in the 60s - 70s, the five largest food organizations controlled about 25% of the market. Today, they control over 80%.

Furthermore, if you take a company like Monsanto, a few decades ago only about 3% of seed crops in the US were from Monsanto seeds. Today, that number is over 90%. I am highlighting this because it illustrates a point that I think people often tend to forget: We talk about choice and how there are different companies and buyers you can sell to or buy from; but often, those different choices are owned by the same company.

A good illustration of this was a report on eyeglasses that I saw a few weeks ago. It explained that LensCrafters and Pearl Vision, despite apparently being opposing eye-ware companies, are owned by the same multinational company. Furthermore, many of the 'name brand' frames that both of these companies stock are ALSO OWNED by the same multinational corporation.

If you think I've strayed from the point, perhaps I have a little, but I can think of no better way to illustrate my point. When it comes to marketing crops, farmers are going to have the illusion of choice. There may be hundreds of companies to whom they can sell their goods, but in truth those companies exist only as an extension of another larger company. And when you trace it all the way back, you'll find that there's probably only 4 or 5 real companies that farmers will eventually deal with.

In essence, we've swapped one monopoly for another.

The difference here though is that now the monopoly is in the hands of private corporations. I never interacted with the CWB, as I am not a farmer. As such, I cannot say unequivocally that they acted in the best interest of farmers. My understanding, from those who did have interactions with them, was that they did. And since that comes from people I can trust, I can assume that the CWB did have the best interest of farmers in mind during their tenure.

The same cannot be said for private business. The only thing private business cares about, as well all know, is private business and their bottom line.

Think back to the early to mid eighties; during the OPEC Crisis. A small monopoly of oil producers was able to work together to set a price for their product, which in turn caused financial instability for people and countries around the globe. This was done in order to maximize profit for the OPEC members; and this is what happens when a company has a monopoly on buying and selling: They can charge or pay what they want.

With the CWB, there was only one option for farmers. As such, all farmers were treated equally regardless of how many acres they had because there was a set price. But now, with the illusion of choice, there is going to be disparity. One farmer who has 12 acres of land may get two - three dollars more an acre than a farmer with the same amount of land, simply because he or she was able to work out a better deal (or a quicker one) with a purchasing entity.

Now, this is a real problem.

In Canada, we've seen the decline of the family farm for the past few decades. Fewer and fewer people are choosing to make a career in farming; and those who do, often have to work other jobs or find other means of paying bills because farming doesn't supplement their income enough. This was a problem when we only had one purchaser paying a fair price to everyone, imagine how much worse it is going to get now that people are truly in a free-for-all.

Effectively, the loss of the CWB is going to mean a loss in net farms for Canada. Smaller farmers who were barely scraping by with the CWB are going to find themselves now in open competition to market their crops against larger farmers who can afford to buy better connections or means of selling their crops. What this is going to lead to is a lot of farmers having to sell crops below the cost of production, and eventually lead to those farmers losing their livelihood.

And of course, that will have an effect on the average Canadian. Chances are pretty good that sales without the CWB will see more Canadian product shipped outside of Canada; couple this with loss of farmers and farms in our country, and we could see an explosion of prices at our own local supermarkets. With more product leaving the borders, and less being produced within it, it is only a matter of time until we face a shortage that will lead to increased cost on the average consumer.

And then we enter the real problem, the top down control that is about to enter this country. My understanding is that the CWB didn't care how you grew your crops, just as long as you sold them through them. This might not be maintained under the situation we've created in the name of choice.

Again, looking to Food Inc, it was discussed how farmers became nothing more than a cog in the corporate machine. In the case of chicken farmers, how the company could mandate the upgrading of equipment or housing (which could cost as high as $250,000 - $500,000), all of which was paid by the farmer.

Let me repeat that: A company demanded these upgrades, but refused to pay for any of them. Refusal to have the upgrades led to your contract with the company being cancelled, and the market for your product basically disappearing.

We've already seen some level of corporate control, especially from seed companies such as Monsanto; I'm sure we're all aware of Monsanto's rules regarding seed saving. (If you're not, the short end of it is this: In 2008, you plant the seeds produced in 2008. In 2009, you cannot plant 2008 seeds. If you do, you have violated Monsanto's patents and can be sued for infringement.)

Sure, farmers may have choice in marketing, but we may have condemned them to lose choice in how they operate their farm on a daily basis. If a company starts mandating practices, demanding upgrades, and so forth at the risk of cancelling your contract, then a farmer (who was an independent businessperson) has now essentially lost control of their company.

When you think about that, you really have to ask: Is marketing choice really worth all that?