Saturday, February 25, 2012

Canada's Watergate

Canada looks to be following the United States of forty years ago. In January 2006, Canada had a federal election in which the Conservative Party of Canada won a minority government. Subsequently it was found that the Conservative Party had misused funds in that election, and the party was found in contempt of parliament. That contempt finding triggered another election in 2011. (There was another federal election in 2008, but the fraudulent use of funds were not public at that time, so the triggered election did not happen until 2011).

In the federal election of May 2011, the Conservative Party won their first majority government. Many Canadians seemed shocked that the Conservatives could win a majority given their illegal behaviour in the 2006 election that triggered the election in the first place. But, many people put the win down to a number of voters, particularly in Ontario, who typically vote for the Liberal Party and who worried about a surge by the leftish New Democratic Party (NDP). Afraid that the NDP might end up winning a majority, many voters seemed to vote stragegically and chose the Conservative Party over their traditional choice of the Liberal Party, since they felt that the Conservatives more closely resembled their idea of sound fiscal management than did the NDP.

However, just this week news surfaced that during the 2011 election automated telephone calls instructed voters to go to the wrong polling stations or to a location in which there was no polling station at all. Therefore these potential voters did not have an opportunity to cast their vote or to have it count. The automated phone calls (robocalls) originated from a company called Racknine which was hired by the Conservative Party during the 2011 election. The day after the news broke, 23-year old Conservative staffer Michael Sona lost his job as a result.

In the Watergate scandal, it took some time but in the end it became clear that the inappropriate behaviour reached to the very highest level of government, to President Nixon himself. One doesn't know yet how high this election fraud reaches, but one has a hard time believing that a single 23-year old party staffer is the only culprit. I think that this scandal actually might have the steam to bring down the government.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Want to be right all the time? Then stick to the evidence.

Everyone likes to be right. We all engage in discussions at some point in which we disagree with someone else's point of view. Depending on how well we know or like the person might determine the flow of the argument and how heated it gets. But one thing seems to be consistent in arguments; most people don't change their mind part way through. They want to be right. They want the other person to eventually come around and see things from their point of view and acknowledge that they are indeed right about whatever the issue is. This, of course, rarely happens. Sometimes it is painfully obvious who is right, but even then the person who is shown to be wrong will often still claim that some part of their position is correct, or they may subtly adjust their position to fit with the right position. We see these kinds of discussions in public all the time, especially in politics. Two politicians arguing over who has the right vision for the country, or whose policies have benefited the citizens, is a common scene.

Wouldn't it be great if you knew what the trick was to always being right? What if you could go into any argument knowing that you are always going to be right, and anyone who opposes you is wrong? Many people behave as if this is the case, but in reality are only showing their stubborness and close-mindedness and their refusal to acknowledge when they are wrong. But there is in fact one simple thing that anyone can do to ensure that they are always right in any argument. There is one simple trick you can engage in a discussion that will ensure that you are never wrong. Seem to good to be true? It's actually very straight forward. But, unfortunately, most people are not willing to do it.

Build your argument on evidence, not on an agenda or preconception.

If you do that, you will always be right. (Assuming the argument is something for which there is evidence. You're not going to win an argument about what colour fairies are by always engaging the evidence). But, most people find it impossible to do so because they don't want to give up their preconceived idea about something. There are numerous examples of issues that are debated today in which people are unwilling to give up their entrenched position despite the evidence to the contrary. An obvious example is the religious debate over creationism vs. evolution. There is no way to be correct about creationism since the evidence doesn't support it. If you go into any discussion about evolution vs. creationism in support of evolution, you will always be right, because the evidence supports evolution. You may be outwitted by someone who is more clever than you, or someone who has more knowledge than you, and tries to twist the facts to suit their needs, but in the end you will still be right even if they think they've won the argument. You are still right, because your position is supported by the evidence. Simple as that.

Examples of political arguments abound. Conservative vs. liberal tax theory...which one is right? This is a more complex example because the answer likely depends partly on the particular situation that the economy finds itself in. There are times when either may be correct. But, as an example, an economy that finds itself in a huge debt and deficit is not correct to lower taxes indefinitely and increase spending indefinitely The evidence shows that this policy is unsustainable. Therefore it is wrong.

Evidence is a wonderful tool because it shows you the answers to many of life's questions. The sad thing is that most people, even when they are aware of what I've written above, will simply go about things backwards and approach an argument with an agenda and try to find some evidence in support of that agenda. Every politician does that. Then they attempt to claim that the facts support their position simply because they've found a few facts that do support their position, even if 99% of the evidence is opposing their position.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Few Simple Observations Among Conservative Christian Neighbourhoods...

I've lived in many different places. Several countries, and many, many different towns and cities. In some places you don't really notice the political culture, in other places it is blatantly obvious. I've lived in places where the majority of the residents vote liberal and where the majority vote conservative. I find that when you live in a place where more than about 60% of the residents vote a particular way, it becomes noticeable in the culture of the area. I've also lived in areas where the particular religious culture is not evident; multicultural cities like Vancouver, Montreal, and London. I've also lived in places where almost everyone is of one religion - such as the so-called Bible Belt in both America and Canada. Often, or perhaps even typically, an area that is very Christian in its religious culture, it is conservative in its political culture. All of this experience has given me an opportunity to make a few observations that I find interesting to note when I spend time in an area in which the political and/or religious culture is distinct:

More churches. Kind of a no-brainer, but there are churches on every street corner in some Bible Belt areas. One wonders why the economy of scale lesson never caught on amongst church goers.

More pick up trucks and hummers. Not sure why pick up trucks are so popular amongst conservative voters and Christians. Do they need a large vehicle to carry Bibles? 

More mullets.

More trashy-dressed women. One might expect to see more, well, conservatively dressed women in conservative Christian areas. But you don't. You see way more tights, thongs, and high heels.

More facial hair. Without a doubt, conservatives grow more facial hair than liberals.

More people willing to mock runners. When I go for a recreational run in a predominantly liberal area, I never have a comment hurled at me from a passing car. In predominantly conservative areas it happens at least 20 - 30% of the time I run. Once, when riding my bicycle in a very conservative neighbourhood, I had someone slow down and lean out their truck window to yell: "You fucking pinko faggot!"

More guns. Guns are everywhere in conservative neighbourhoods. I've met teenagers carrying rifles in town. I've noticed way more gun ranges in conservative and Christian areas than in liberal ones. I can't say I've evern noticed that having more guns in a neighbourhood reduces the amount of violent or non-violent crime. Some might even make the outrageous hypothesis that the more guns there are in a society, the more likelihood it is that you will get shot.

More cheap coffee. Don't know what it is about conservatives, but they do enjoy drinking weak brown water rather than good coffee.

More dog shit. I do a fair bit of walking, hiking, and running for recreation. Without fail, there is far more dog shit in public parks and on sidewalks in conservative and Christian areas than in liberal ones. I do not see more dogs in these areas (in fact I would say there are fewer dogs actually out walking and more tied up in back yards), leading me to make conclusions about dog ownership rather than dog populations.

Fewer boutique shops and more box stores.

Draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Governments Going the Wrong Way

There probably always has been and likely always will be a battle of wills between those on the left and right of the political spectrum. Each side has its points though I am not very tolerant of the extremes of either position. I am a big fan of working hard and personal responsibility, yet I am as big a fan of a society that provides for those that are truly underpriveleged or in need of help.

Traditionally most Western countries have been relatively progressive. Western Europe and Canada have had a strong social safety net that provides for the ill, the aged, and gives decent free or low-cost education. The United States is generally the exception in the Western world, in that there is a very limited social safety net at the benefit of lower personal taxes than most Western countries. The mantras of "cut taxes" or "no new taxes" is almost a requisite for election in the United States, and talking about how taxes might lead to overall benefits for the majority of the population is basically a non-starter. Taxes are viewed as a necessary evil in the U.S., but I percieve that most Americans pride themselves on the fact that they pay lower taxes and that the country is one in which the American Dream of the self-made entrepeneur is possible. Here lies the paradox and the fallacy. The paradox of this position is that the very people who would most benefit from raised taxes are those most likely to vote against such a move. The undereducated, the uninsured (in terms of health coverage), those without a hope in hell of ever becoming rich through their own hard work, are always against raising taxes as they see it as some sort of government conspiracy to take what little they already have.

Taxes are about redistribution of wealth. That generally means a movement of wealth from those who have money to those who have less, often in the form of basic social services such as health care, pensions, and education. The irony of the situation in the U.S. is that most dirt-poor voters would vote against the Warren Buffet approach of taxing the rich because they perceive that it might kill their shot at the American Dream. If the government taxed the rich more, then one day when they are a billionaire they would be taxed too much. The fallacy of the situation that arises is one in which politicians are able to convince voters that tax cuts are in their benefit. Those without access to good health care, education and other social services are likely to vote in favour of tax cuts despite the fact that the very purpose of taxes is to provide them with more wealth and access to such services.This approach is pushed much more heavily by conservative politicians than by liberal ones.

Canada has recently become more conservative in governance. Canada's prime minister, Mr. Harper, is pushing an agenda of corporate tax cuts, spending on the military, and cuts to social services such as health care and pensions, in an attempt to balance the budget (a budget which was in surplus when he first came to power). Ironically, many Canadians support his agenda, despite the fact that they are likely to suffer more for it. Even in Canada there are a semmingly growing number of people who insist on protecting the American Dream from higher taxes. They don't want the rich taxed  more because it might hurt their chances of one day being very wealthy. And, most important of all to politicians, the economy can endlessly be touted as the trump card in any election because people care about keeping their job. "It's all about the economy" trumps almost any other position in any election in North America, whether in good or poor economic times.

Unfortunately, however, the effects of taxing the wealthy is almost negligible on the economy and even less important on the creation of jobs. The argument used by most conservative governments is that if the rich are taxed more then they will be less entrepeneurial and less jobs will be created. But, here is the key problem with that approach: the vast majority of the very rich are not entrepenuers. Over 85% of the very wealthy in Canada (the so-called 1%), are not entrepeneurs who create jobs with their business. Most of them are involved in making money from money through investments - the trading of commodities on a market, or the handling of other people's money. There is some job creation through this sort of financial economy, but nothing in comparison to an entrepeneur who owns a factory or a large shop.

I've never considered myself to be a conspiracy theorist by any means, but as I slowly wake up to the financial and economic realities of the world, I find myself more and more favouring the notion that governments aren't really in control of anything, but rather are controlled by relatively few people who have massive amounts of wealth.

I am not some sort of communist. I do not favour a grand equalization of wealth in society. I think that has been shown to be very counter-productuve indeed. What I am in favour of is a free market economy that is actually fairly regulated. One in which very large corporations and banks don't have any more sway than small businesses. One in which Chrysler and General Motors are not bailed out of their exceedinly poor management with billions of tax dollars. If I owned a small business and employed five people, and if I mismanaged this business to the point that I was no longer competitive in the open market and found myself not making profits for years and years, and if that forced me into bankruptcy, I should not expect the government to bail me out with a massive stimulus of tax dollars. I should go out of business.

Governments in the West often seem to be going about tackling economic issues in exactly the wrong direction. The examples above of Chrysler and GM bailouts are just the sort of thing that follow along the old trickle down economic theory. Don't even get me started on bank and financial institution bailouts. 

In Canada, there is a particularly unsavory Canadian "business" man (I put the word business in quotes because I'm don't think he is in any business at all) called Kevin O'Leary. He appears on the TV show Dragon's Den and some other tasteless and talentless entertainment shows. He passes himself off as a successful business man. He is known for being ruthless with contestents on the show who are fledgling businesspeople themselves. Yet, he makes nothing. As far as I can tell he contributes nothing of value to the economy (let alone society as a whole) other than making himself richer. He is in the "business" of making money. He's not an entrepeneur at all. He invests money in business ideas developed by other people, and he's quick to criticize their ideas without ever taking the risk of developing his own business idea. I'm amazed that more people don't see through him. O'Leary has publicly stated that any opportunity to make money should be taken, no matter what. Presumably that means that if you can make money on an environmentally dirty project in India or China that eventually increases leukemia rates in children, O'Leary would be right on board so long as he can increase his personal fortune slightly. "Go to bed each night with more money than you woke up with" is his life's guiding principle. I feel sorry for the man, but more importantly, I feel surprised and saddened that so many people aspire to be like him. People presumably think he is a success story because he has made a lot of money. But he represents the segment of society that contributes nothing of value to the economy. There's an interesting clip on You Tube of Chris Hedges patiently navigating through O'Leary's personal insults and explaining this basic concept of capitalism:

The only reason I've introducted Kevin O'Leary into this post is because he represents a great example of one of the problems with capitalism in our societies. Capitalism is a great system when it is properly regulated and controlled. But left alone with few checks and balances, it inevitably destroys the environment, ironically the economy itself, and ultimately will destroy humanity.