Monday, February 08, 2016

Is the Petro-Economy a Millstone Around Canada's Neck?

Didn't we imagine that this was going to be our ticket to Easy Street? Hell we had almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia and the world was going to be beating a path to our doors, begging us to take their wealth and treasure. Even Ignatieff proclaimed Athabasca bitumen the "beating heart of the Canadian economy for the 21st century."

Now it turns out that our bet on bitumen may go from being Canada's petro-blessing to the ruin of our national economy.  Andrew Nikiforuk looks at the perils we face from our bitumen bounty in the latest Tyee.

"...the descent of oil has become a sort of Sherman's March on globalization.

"The status-quo pundits say don't worry. The world is awash in oil due to the brute force of fracking and Alberta's faltering bitumen boom.

"Markets are just experiencing another wacky correction in supply and demand, and business as usual will continue. Relax, add the pundits -- lower energy prices tend to revive economies by putting more money in the hands of consumers, and all will be well.

"But the global economy is now confounding academic theorists. Falling gasoline prices haven't propped up the economy, or stimulated growth for that matter. In fact, global finance appears to be driving into another recession while debt grows, innovation disappears, capital investment recedes and wages stagnate.

"So there must be another story."

There is, and it's a rather grim energy fairy tale. This one shows how the world's economy depends on the quality of energy burned, and not the amount of money spent. When economies spend cheap oil, GDP rises; when they switch to costly and unconventional stuff, growth comes to a screeching halt.

In this unfolding story, cheap credit played a big role. It allowed an industry to carelessly borrow trillions to chase ultra-expensive and risky resources such as bitumen and shale oil.

An energy industry laden with toxic debt is now earning less money than what it costs to shovel bitumen or frack shale. And this kind of debt is not going to end well for financial markets. Or for ordinary people.

But the darkest character in this fairy tale is the monster called diminishing returns.

On a diet of cheap oil, the world financial system grew on energy surpluses like a wildfire dines on trees in a forest.

But no more. The cheap stuff is gone, and companies are now frantically fracking North Dakota at a cost of $60 a barrel or mining northern Alberta's heavy bitumen at costs as high as $80 a barrel. With oil at $30 a barrel, many companies are, as respected Houston analyst Art Berman recently put it, "losing their asses."

...The implications of diminishing returns for oil are stark: the more society invests in unconventional hydrocarbons, warns [David Murphy of St. Lawrence University], the more "growth will become harder to achieve and come at an increasingly higher financial, energetic and environmental cost."

As society switches to energy resources of lower and lower quality, simply maintaining the flow of net energy to society will require that companies and nations accrue more debt to spend a proportionally larger amount of capital on gross energy extraction that comes with dirtier environmental impacts, such as carbon-spewing bitumen.

Diminishing returns from oil production "indicate that we should expect the economic growth rates of the next 100 years to look nothing like those of the last 100 years," writes Murphy.

That reality now seems to be unfolding on a global scale. The trouble really became apparent when oil prices leapt beyond $90 a barrel in 2010 and remained at unprecedented highs for four years. These high prices, in turn, put recessionary pressures on the global economy. Costly oil forced people, nations and firms to scale back and put on the brakes.

Meanwhile, Big Oil continued to borrow billions to extract difficult and unconventional hydrocarbons such as deep-sea oil, bitumen and shale oil. All required more capital and more energy to pull out of the ground.

In 2000, companies spent $400 billion a year chasing hydrocarbons. But by 2013 they were spending nearly $900 billion with little change in production.

...In 2014, federal energy bean counters in the U.S. revealed that the energy industry was actually spending more than it was earning. The U.S. Energy Administration reported 127 of the largest oil and gas firms generated $568 billion in cash from their operations during 2013-2014, while their expenses totaled $677 billion. To cover the difference of $110 billion, the energy giants increased their debt load or sold off assets.

Given that the gap between earned cash and spending stood at a modest $10 billion in 2010, that's a significant change for the industry as well as the global economy it fuels. Since then, the toxic debt load has grown larger.

Wood Mackenzie, an oil consultancy, now estimates that 2.2 million barrels a day of Canadian production is unprofitable with oil at US$35 a barrel, and most of that debt-inviting extraction is coming from the high cost and complex oilsands.

...Gail Tverberg, an accountant and energy blogger, has an interestingtheory about all this.

She believes that "all economies have finite lifetimes, just as humans, animals, plants and hurricanes do." She thinks that we may be "in the unfortunate position of observing the end of our economy's lifetime."

A senior Ikea executive, Steve Howard, recently acknowledged the possibility: "If we look on a global basis, in the West we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I'd say we've hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff... peak home furnishings."

Economists used to believe that when societies peaked, prices would rise, and energy products would become scarce. But Tverberg reckons the networked economy won't necessarily behave that way. "High energy prices tend to lead to recession, bringing down prices. Low wages and slow growth in debt also tend to bring down prices. A networked economy can work in ways that does not match our intuition; this is why many researchers fail to understand the nature of the problem we are facing."

She adds that high oil prices expertly disguised the brutal reality of diminishing returns. Whenever an industry or society blows up the principles of efficiency by getting on a treadmill with no efficiency or gain in energy returns, there is no growth. But there is stagnation and political unrest.

Tverberg worries about toxic debt loads, too. As energy gets more expensive (and renewables are expensive and fossil fuel dependent, too), society has to borrow more money to keep a global clunker on the road. Tverberg notes that you can only dial up the debt for so long before you "discover that debt growth has a lot of adverse effects. And one of the big ones is that it tends to funnel money to the wealthier class and take money away from the poor members of society."

A peak world and complex society faces a conundrum: high oil prices shrink the economy while low oil prices destabilize it due to diminishing energy returns.

There may be some temporary solutions, but they involve ending cheap credit, shutting in at least a million barrels of oil, and regulating the price of oil as the Railroad Commission did in the 1930s. But our politicians cling to the myth of constant growth and have no idea what the real problem is.

...Diminishing returns, just like rising expectations, do not bring out the best in people: expect violent reactions and revolutions in petro-states and indebted nations. Expect the unexpected and a narrative of volatility.

"Unfortunately, what we are facing now is a predicament, rather than a problem," reflects Tverberg. "There is quite likely no good solution. This is a worry."

The Ponzi Economy and The Rise of the Looter Class

We're already well into our eventual environmental meltdown. Are we now also on the cusp of a global economic meltdown? There is a growing chorus of voices warning that the end really is nigh for this enormous House of Cards we built for mankind in the wake of WWII.

Like most of us, I didn't dwell much on the environmental or economic State of the Planet until the twitch first set in somewhere around the turn of the century. Since then the looming perils have indeed materialized.

The fact is, we've been on a multi-generational bender of sorts and now it's hangover time. CBC business reporter, Don Pittis, writes that, "If you ever thought there was a group of smart people who really understood the economy and you were just too stupid to figure it out, now is the time to disabuse yourself."

It's an interesting article, a worthwhile read. Pittis focuses on British economist/journalist Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. Wolf suggests Britain's redemption lies in either a full-blown purgative depression or "helicopter money" which is a term for a guaranteed annual income plan.

Pittis concludes that the real problem isn't with the economy or the various proposed solutions.  Our Achilles' Heel, is a terminal problem.

"For leaders who make policy, it is almost impossible to try radical and unproven medicine that might work, for the simple reason that it might instead precipitate a crisis for which they would be blamed.

"So long as the global economy seems to be muddling on, governments and central bankers prefer to kick the can down the road just a little further, and keep praying for a miraculous, spontaneous cure."

What Pittis and Wolf and the rest of the like-minded cannot seem to grasp is that our economic model has a systemic, mortal flaw. Neoclassical economics of the sort taught to Wolf and Harper by Friedman and Hayek resting on a foundation of perpetual, exponential growth is a hoax introduced in the post-war era that worked really, really well but only for a few decades and only for those it was aimed at benefitting.

Sometime in the next century, when mankind's population has stabilized at somewhat under one billion, our era may be named something like "The Great Bloat," the era in which civilization swelled to the bursting point - and then burst.

The whole growth-based paradigm was a hoax, a contrivance crafted from some unsustainable circumstances and assumptions. Things that, by logic, didn't fit were dismissed, labeled as "externalities." Resource shortages, cost of resources, damage to the environment - mere externalities that must never be permitted to cloud the model.

This gave rise to the theory, the belief that was enshrined as orthodoxy, that the economy could and should grow larger than the environment. It has. That's the world of 7+ billion heading for 9+ billion we live in today. We're already consuming the planet's resources at 1.7 times their natural replenishment rate and still our appetites are growing. The miners' canary in this is that all other forms of life, marine and terrestrial, have declined in total number by half over the past thirty years. We're taking so much of everything they also need to survive that their numbers are collapsing.

Pittis may write of "leaders who make policy" but he abuses the word "leader." We don't have leaders today - not in the Liberals, nor the Conservatives nor the New Democrats. They're all self-interested, feckless can-kickers, the lot of them.

The tragedy of this is that you can no longer rely on the head of your preferred political party for leadership. You're going to have to self-educate. You've got to make up your own mind on just about everything - social, political, economic and environmental.

There's plenty of top-quality information out there. Read Joe Stiglitz. Read Phil Mirowski. Read James Galbraith. Read John Ralston Saul.  Below is an interesting lecture by Galbraith to the Post-Keynesian Conference. Pick it up around the 19-minute mark.

Of particular interest is Galbraith's description of the American economy and, to a lesser extent, the economies that are driven by it, in the post-2008 world. He describes it as a Ponzi economy exploited by a class he calls "looters" by which he means the 1%. He contends the looters see what's going on and they know it can't last so they're using their wealth and their influence, economic and political, to bleed the whole thing dry.

Fortunately we have fearless political leaders to keep us safe from these predators. What's that? Oh...

Mulcair's Opening Salvo - and It's BullS__t

I feel badly for Tom Mulcair but who wouldn't? He was supposed to be farting through silk right now but the last election sent him instead to the cellar where he has to make do with burlap.

When you're the Old Man of the crowd, time is probably not on your side. Canadians seem to prefer new and shiny and most of the shine got scrubbed off Tom a long time ago. I don't think the beard and the beady black eyes help much either.

The one thing you can't be doing when you're hanging on by your fingertips is to show desperation. Never let the plebs know you're running on fear. If they smell fear they can turn on you - in a heartbeat.

I smelled the fear in an email Tom sent me this morning.

"While the Trudeau government has gone ahead and signed the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, there remains many uncertainties about what's in store for Canada.

"The Harper government first negotiated this deal in secret. Now we have the Liberals agreeing to a deal that can't be renegotiated! Any concerns or changes raised in future consultations won't matter."

Tom, I'm at best ambivalent about the Trudeau gang and I stand opposed to the TPP. That said, we don't need your bullshit scare tactic. The Liberals have signed to verify the text of the deal comports with the terms negotiated. They didn't agree to a deal - and you know it. 

Ratifying TPP takes more than a signature on paper. It's a Parliamentary process, Tom, and you know that too. I would be delightfully surprised if the Liberals, with their majority, gave TPP the thumbs down although that's a long shot. 

You'll get your chance, Tom, right there on the floor of the House of Commons where you actually do your best work. Wait till the wedding night, Tom. In the meantime try to leave yourself alone.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Complete History of Japan - In a Matter of Minutes

It's fast, it's fun - and it's sort of accurate. The history of Japan. Sit back, relax, enjoy.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Which Explains Why Assange Must Remain in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

The Swedes say they want WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange brought to justice on sexual assault charges. Assange says it's a ruse intended solely to get him in American custody.

Who to believe? I'd put my money on Assange. The Danish government has revealed that it cooperated with the Americans in 2013 when they thought they had a chance at snatching another whistle-blower, Edward Snowden.

A US government jet was lying in wait in Copenhagen to extradite the whistleblower Edward Snowden if he had come to Scandinavia after fleeing to Moscow in June 2013, the Danish government has revealed.

The twin-engined Gulfstream aircraft, which had previously been used to fly Abu Hamza to the US from the UK, landed shortly before the FBI called on Scandinavian police forces to arrest Snowden and hand him over for extradition.

Søren Pind, the justice minister, wrote to Danish MPs (pdf): “The purpose of the aircraft’s presence in Copenhagen airport is most likely to have been to have the opportunity to transport Edward Snowden to the United States if he had been handed over from Russia or another country.”

It's pretty easy to spot the CIA Gulfstream. It's the twin-engine job sitting on the far side of the airfield with only a tail number for identification.

Galbraith on "What Ever Happened to Conservatives?"

Political economist, James K. Galbraith, wrote The Predator State toward the end of the Bush/Cheney fiasco. In this book he dissects what today stands as our economic orthodoxy - globalization and free market fundamentalism.

Galbraith doesn't denounce the High Priests of modern neoliberalism - Hayak, Friedman et al - as charlatans. To the contrary he contends they all started out as true believers who just happened to catch the attention of Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney who found this economic ideology entirely suited to their political fantasies.

What Galbraith points out is that long ago even Friedman and his apostles realized they were wrong. Their theories were tried and they failed. They did not deliver the predicted outcomes.

The issue is not whether the great conservative ideas once had appeal or a foundation in reputable theory. The issue is whether they have a future. And on that point, there is general agreement today, largely shared even by those who still believe passionately in the conservative cause. The fact is that the Reagan era panoply of ideas has been abandoned as the intellectual basis of a political program. ...The economic conservative still reigns supreme in the academy and on the talk shows, but in the public realm, he is today practically null and void. He does not exist. And if he were to resurface today in the policy world offering up the self-confident doctrines of 1980, he would be taken seriously by no one.

... There is a reason, in short, that principled conservatives find themselves in the political wilderness once again: they belong there. They are noble savages and the wilderness is their native element. They do not belong in government because, as a practical matter, they have little to contribute to it; they are guilty of taking the myths they helped create too seriously, and to sophisticated people, that makes then look a bit foolish.

A Flawed Ideology that Became a Contagion that Infects Us to This Day.

...few politicians in either party have yet publicly divorced themselves from the Reagan Revolution, in particular from the idea of the free market. Politicians notoriously say what is convenient and act along different lines entirely, causing problems for those who try to write about their views in a careful and serious way. But perhaps on no other issue is this tendency more pronounced than in matters relating to the markets, a word one apparently cannot use in the United States without bending a knee and making the sign of the cross.

And here the political world is divided into two groups. The are those who praise the free market because to do so gives cover to themselves and their friends in raiding the public trough. These people call themselves "conservatives," and one of the truly galling thing for real conservatives is that they have both usurped the label and spoiled the reputation of the real thing. And there are those who praise the "free market" simply because they fear that, otherwise, they will be exposed as heretics, accused of being socialists, perhaps even driven from public life. This is the case of many liberals. Reflexive invocations of the power of markets, the "magic" of markets, and the virtues of a "free enterprise system" therefore remain staples of political speech on both sides of the political aisle. However, they have been emptied of practical content, and the speakers know it.

...the Left has been doing too little thinking of its own. Liberals have yet to develop a coherent post-Reagan theory of the world, let alone a policy program informed by the political revelations, world policy changes and scientific realities. ...In consequence, new economic issues emerging under the influence of pressing events are dangerously underexamined. These issues include war, climate change, energy supply, corruption and fraud including election fraud, the collapse of public governing capacity, the perilous position of the international dollar and the position of immigrants in American society. These issues form the crux of the future of economic policy ...but none of these issues is geting more than passing development as yet from those to whom liberals look for ideas.

Re-read that last passage and ask if you haven't felt that same way, particularly since the ascendancy of Stephen Harper. There are so many issues that should be shaping our national policy - economic, social, military and international - that seem discarded by those who chart our nation's path, those who today write our grandchildren's future.

It seems as though, with each grand trade deal (they're not "free" trade, nothing of the sort), we give up aspects of state sovereignty to the corporate sector until, eventually, the state becomes only partially governable without the acquiescence of the new multinational power partner. The political caste has enfeebled its ability to govern coherently by shackles it freely clasped to its wrists and ankles.

That may be the undercurrent that will lead today's government to yield to one more fetter, the Trans Pacific Trade pact. The best argument I've heard in favour of TPP is that while it won't do Canada much good, we'll be really buggered if we don't sign on, if we refuse to succumb.

We have allowed transnationals to become more than super conduits of trade. We have established them as political powers in their own right and, in the process, we are creating what Galbraith calls "the Predator State."

What If Assad Wins, What Then?

Russia's intervention in Syria may have turned the tables in favour of strongman, Bashar Assad. Russian airpower has been pounding the daylights out of Assad's opposition, the rebels (our guys), the Kurds (also our guys) and the Islamists (al Nusra/ISIS - not our guys).

From Vice News:

With a healthy assist from the Russian air force, the Syrian military and its allies cut a key rebel supply line to Turkey on Wednesday, dealing a serious blow to the rebels in the country's north and getting closer to creating a chokehold that could turn the course of the war.

Regime forces and militias in two Shi'ite towns seized the midpoint of a strip of rebel territory running north of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and economic hub, to the Turkish border. Regime forces had launched a new offensive north of the city on Monday, according to pro-government and opposition sources. By Wednesday, they had come within a few kilometers of the two partially besieged towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa and their forces were able to converge on the rebels in the middle.

The vital rebel supply line from Aleppo City up to the Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey has now been cut by the regime. Rebels and civilians told VICE News that intense bombing and shelling had taken a heavy toll on the local population; many fled north but were stranded at the still-closed border crossing, or had camped in surrounding farmlands.

The West, of course, isn't at war with the Syrian regime (Assad) although we are providing backing to the rebels in a half-assed way even as the rebels get the other half of their asses bombed to pieces by Russian warplanes. The fact that Russia is backing Assad and has those S-400 surface to air missile batteries in place pretty much guarantees that we, the West, won't be getting any deeper into this conflict - i.e. we're not going to take on the Russians for the sake of Syria. Besides, if we did get frisky with Russia, our forces in the Baltics would be overrun in about 3-days.

In Canada there are some, usually found in the shallow end of the gene pool, who insist Canada must be ass deep in the "fight against ISIS", whatever that is. These "whack-a-mole" warriors never have any viable solutions for defeating ISIS nor, to them, does that even seem relevant. Intellectually these characters are one ratchet away from embracing PermaWar.

ISIS isn't Syrian nor is it Iraqi. ISIS is in Libya, the sub-Saharan Sahel (Senegal), Tunisia, perhaps now Egypt. It is in south Asia (Afghanistan), possibly Pakistan too. It is in the Philippines and it is in Indonesia. Both Russia and China contend that ISIS has spread into their southern territories. All the King's Horses and All the King's Men don't seem to be causing ISIS too much grief.

ISIS represents a radical, fundamentalist strain of Islam which is not all that distinct from the radical form of Islam promoted by our entirely respectable Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia.

Here's a question: when was the last time a 500-pound high-explosive bomb or endless numbers of them defeated a radical, well-dispersed, decentralized and expansive ideology?

As for me, I'm with Harvard prof Stephen Walt. It's time to admit that the Emperor has no clothes. America has no viable Middle East policy. For us, it's like climbing into the backseat knowing the driver has a blood alcohol level of 2.8. Stupid, just stupid and not at all likely to end well.

We need to sit this war out and maybe the next two or three that are bound to sweep through the Muslim world. Remember, Rule #1 - don't fight wars you have no means or will to win.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Greatest 60s Cover Band?

Twin sisters, Mona and Lisa. Austrian girls now living in Liverpool. They went public at the age of 13. I've never heard anything quite like them. Now I think I'm hooked.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Are You Really Going to Bank on Justin and Christia When It Comes to the TPP? Elizabeth Warren Has Some Insights You Might Find Helpful.

Justin Trudeau and his international trade minister, Christia Freeland, are non-committal when asked whether Canada should sign onto the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. They tell us they're going to mull it over.

Fortunately others, such as Joe Stiglitz, Robert Reich and American senator Elizabeth Warren have already done a load of highly-educated, highly-informed mulling and they're not pulling any punches about what the deal means. Here are some thoughts from senator Warren:

"I urge my colleagues to reject the TPP and stop an agreement that would tilt the playing field even more in favor of big multinational corporations and against working families," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)said on the U.S. Senate floor on Tuesday. Noting that "most of the TPP's 30 chapters don't even deal with traditional trade issues," she argued, "most of TPP is about letting multinational corporations rig the rules on everything from patent protection to food safety standards—all to benefit themselves."

Now maybe you think that free trade is still "a thing." You might imagine that free trade remains the Ark of the Covenant of free market fundamentalism, the economic mantle of neoliberalism warmly wrapped in the cloak of globalization. After all, free trade is the rising tide that lifts all boats and promises our children an ever better tomorrow, right?

There are some who argue that you've not just had a drink of the KoolAid, you've swallowed the whole bucket.  Among these is John Ralston Saul who, for a decade now, has been convincingly arguing that it's all a put-on. He believes globalization is dead. He sees the entire neoliberal movement as a hollow ideology bordering on a religion replete with idols and High Priests. To Ralston Saul, you've been conned and you're still being conned.

A similar refrain can be had from political economist James K. Galbraith, son of the legendary John K.G.  He contends even the High Priests stopped believing in market fundamentalism long ago. They know it doesn't work, a failed theory at best. They also know, claims Galbraith, that the public has been adequately conditioned to believe in free trade - despite all the evidence to the contrary of its painful failings - that it remains a very useful and effective means of advancing corporatism and, eventually, illiberal democracy. This dovetails neatly with Warren's timely observation that the TPP "is about letting multinational corporations rig the rules on everything from patent protection to food safety standards - all to benefit themselves."

Recently I decided it would be useful to post random passages from James Galbraith's recent book, "The Predator State, How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too." Here's the first instalment, taken from the preface. Galbraith begins by exploring parallels between the Soviet failure in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and America's failure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

...where the Soviet creed was of central planning, ours was its polar opposite, a cult of the free market. And as I charted my way through this book, I came to realize that the relationship between actual policy in the United States and the doctrines of policy is not simple. In uncanny ways, this relationship has come to resemble its counterpart in the old Soviet Union" actual policies were (and are) in no principled way governed by official doctrine. Rather, the doctrine serves as a kind of legitimating myth, something to be repeated to schoolchildren but hardly taken seriously by those on the inside.

What is the purpose of the myth? It serves here, as it did there, mainly as a device for corralling the opposition, restricting the flow of thought, shrinking the sphere of admissible debate. Just as even a lapsed believer kneels in church, respectable opposition demonstrates fealty to the system by asserting allegiance to the governing myth.

...The early Reaganites performed an important service to intellectual history by distilling their ideas into four major bodies of economic law: monetarism, supply-side economics, balanced budgets, and free trade.

A governing myth hides an underlying reality, and any attempt to govern through myth is bound to be short-lived. So it was with Reagan. ...If we do not actually live in a world made by Reagan, just as the Soviets did not actually live in a world made by Marx, what is the true nature of our actual existing world?

...the fundamental public institutions of American economic life were those created by public action in an earlier generation - by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the New Deal and World War II, by London Johnson in the Great Society, and to a degree by Richard Nixon - and that those institutions have, to a large extent, survived to the present day.

But if they have survived, obviously they have not survived undamaged. The catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina pointed to two types of damage. One was an erosion of capability, evinced in this case by the failure by the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the levees protecting New Orleans. ...This kind of erosion presupposes nothing about intent. It can and does happen simply because of resource constraints, misjudgments, accidents of politics, and history...

But Katrina, and especially the aftermath of the disaster, also illustrated a second and more serious sort of rot in the system. This I will call predation: the systematic abuse of public institutions for private profit, or equivalently, the systemic undermining of public protections for the benefit of private clients. The deformation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency into a dumping ground for cronies under the government of George W. Bush - "Heckuva job, Brownie" - captured the essence of this phenomenon. But so too does the practice of turning regulatory agencies over to business lobbies, the privatization of national security and the attempted privatization of Social Security, the design of initiatives in Medicare to benefit drug companies, and trade agreements to benefit corporate agriculture at the expense of subsistence farmers in the Third World. In each case, what we see is not, in fact, a principled conservative's drive to minimize the state. It is a predator's drive to divert public resources to clients and friends.

The predation of which Galbraith writes is well advanced in the United States. We lag behind but not far enough and we are trending in the same direction. Corporatism does have a powerful hold in Canada and that's something that needs to be beaten back. Embracing the TPP may, and probably will, make that essential, vital task all but impossible. It's our children's Canada we'll be giving away. Nobody, certainly not some guy with a false majority, has the right to do that to us.

Rick's Rona Rant

From last evening's RMR

 I take the piss out of Ambrose, referring to her as "Mona," but Mercer has a habit of calling her "Ronna" as in Donna. Charming.

A Page from Vancouver Island's Maritime History - the BCP45

It's a bit of Vancouver Island history. The seiner, BCP45, came out of the Burrard drydocks in 1927 and plied the coastal waters for salmon until 1994. It changed hands frequently but spent much of the latter half of its service life operated by First Nations crews from Quadra Island.

In 1958, a documentary crew caught a picture of BCP45 at work in the Seymour Narrows near Campbell River.

That photo landed BCP45 a place on the reverse of Canada's $5 bill from 1972 to 1986.

Today she sits, safely restored, at the Maritime Heritage Centre in Campbell River.

Well, There's One Rona That's Not a Dead Loss

No, I'm not talking about Mona Ambrose, erstwhile nursemaid to the wallowing wounded remains of the Conservative Party. She definitely is a dead loss.

It's the other Rona, the hardware chain, that's doing fine. That's thanks to what appears to be a successful takeover bid by American giant, Lowe's. It seems that Lowe's wants to go head to head with that other American giant, Home Despot, up here north of the 49th (sorry, Leamington).

Curious that. Mona, Rona - they both remind me of garden tools.

C'Mon, Don't Say It Never Crossed Your Mind.

David Suzuki says Shifty Steve Harper deserves a double helping of the ol' mandatory minimum in the Greybar Hotel for his years of 'wilful blindness' over the environment.

But the Rolling Stone interview didn't mark the first time that the activist has suggested jail time for political leaders who don't act on climate change.

In a 2008 speech at McGill University, Suzuki called on students to look for legal avenues through which to put politicians in prison if they ignore climate science, The McGill Daily reported.

Referring to Harper and then-Alberta premier Ed Stelmach, he said, "It is an intergenerational crime that in the face of the work of scientists over the last 20 years, they keep dithering as they are."

There are actual legal minds at work on the theory that nations and their leaders who recklessly endanger the global environment are guilty of crimes against humanity for which they should be visited with legal penalties. Another effort seeks to have the major emitters found liable to compensate the low-emissions Third World for the impacts of climate change they endure.

Climate change becomes a much different issue when viewed from the global perspective. It's when you see it from the perspective of the peoples of the sub Saharan Sahel, Bangladesh, Vanuatu and so many other 'have not' states that the deaths, suffering and displacement caused, in large part, by the developed world's relentless greenhouse gas emissions becomes tangible and, someday, it could be fully actionable.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Is Israel a Lost Cause?

There's been a seismic struggle underway for the heart of Israel between the faction of Israelis who yearn for a liberal democracy and the more powerful, dominant group determined to turn Israel into an expansionist, illiberal, closed society. The latter group has at its head none other than Benjamin Netanyahu aided by the ultra-right, ultra-nationalist ultra-Zionist group, Im Tirtzu.

Does it matter? Sure it does. We maintain the delusion that Canada is supporting a liberal democratic Israel, not the Israel of today. From Haaretz:

The current battle in Israel is no longer between left and right. Israel’s current political right has mutated from the time it truly identified with liberal democratic values under Menachem Begin. With a few exceptions, like Benny Begin and President Reuven Rivlin, the new generation of rightists, under the aegis of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wants far more than continuing the settlement project and taking over the West Bank.

The long-term goal of Israel’s new political right is to turn Israel into an illiberal, closed society.
Their tactic was already described by George Orwell long ago: To take control of language, distorting it for their interest, thus shaping the public discourse.

Their first great achievement has been to make “right” synonymous with “Zionist and patriotic” and “left” synonymous with “anti-Zionist, self-hating Jews.” You can see their success in the panicky attempts of all the larger Jewish parties to avoid being labeled as left-wing, using “Zionism” in every second sentence and creating an almost comic competition for the label of “centrist.”

Israel is still an open society in which dissent is not officially persecuted, and this is a real pain in the neck for the new brand of Israeli rightists who strive toward an illiberal society. They want to shut down critical voices, and Im Tirtzu plays an important role in finding out how to do this. While not officially associated with any party, it serves as a testing ground for Israel’s illiberal forces for how far they can go toward totalitarianism by defaming their opponents and distorting reality. Im Tirtzu is, therefore, an important indicator of where Israel’s new rightists are really headed. 

In an illiberal or totalitarian regime – whether of the communist left or the ultranationalist right – the state becomes the arbiter of truth and cultural value. Academia teaches what supports the regime; culture must express the regime’s values; the judiciary serves political power; and the media becomes an instrument of propaganda rather than a watchdog surveilling and reporting on power.

Illiberalism is the agenda behind Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev’s attempts to gain control over cultural production; behind Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempts to wrest control of the Council for Higher Education, a body explicitly created in David Ben-Gurion’s time to keep academia independent of political interference; and it’s also behind Netanyahu’s repeated attempts to close down Channel 10 television, which is critical of him. Meanwhile, he has a foreign donor bankrolling Israel Hayom, a newspaper that’s dedicated to nothing but supporting him.

What, then, is to be done? In the foreseeable future, there is no realistic scenario for a government committed to the two-state solution – which is the only coherent way to safeguard Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jews. This is the elephant in the room that the new rightists try to cover up with their obfuscation of political language and distortion of reality, and one of the central reasons why they want an illiberal political system.

Is Israel drifting into totalitarianism? The Haaretz contributor - and many others - will tell you it plainly is.  Should Canada be lending moral support by backing Netanyahu? That depends on what your notion of Canada is. 

It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidity.

Anyone who grew up in southern Ontario before the era of central air conditioning is all too familiar with the line, "it's not the heat, it's the humidity." As we sweltered and panted, regularly rehydrating and sometimes popping salt pills, we might be told of just how much better it was to be in a hot, dry desert. Right.

Turns out that is right.

It's becoming less of a rarity in recent years to see hotspots around the Earth hitting 50C on some days.  Iran and Iraq are a couple of examples.  Marble Bar, Australia, has also hit that mark.

But, when it comes to our newly minted Oven Earth, it's still the humidity that'll get you. Why? Because on days of extreme heat, high humidity can block the body's ability to cool itself through the evaporation of perspiration. You'll still sweat like a stuck pig, it just won't do you enough good to save your hide.

In January 2015, thermometers in Marble Bar, Western Australia, touched 50 °C – a single degree shy of the national record. But it’s extreme humidity records we should be taking more notice of, a wave of new research suggests.

As the climate changes, deadly heatwaves that combine high temperatures with humidity so severe that the human body can no longer cool itself, could start to affect regions of the world currently home to hundreds of millions of people. That’s the conclusion reached by Columbia University’s Ethan Coffel, reported at an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco in December.

Coffel’s study used the latest IPCC climate projections for 2060 and found regional, relatively near-future effects from modest heating.

This extreme humidity is less likely to occur in arid spots like Marble Bar. Coffel’s climate models suggest that there is more risk in India, West Africa, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries along the Arabian Gulf – environments where hot air meets very warm coastal waters.

To model these events, Coffel looked at a number called the wet-bulb temperature, which combines heat and humidity into a single metric.
Wet-bulb temperature is taken by placing a damp cloth over the thermometer’s bulb. Evaporation cools the bulb, the same way perspiring cools the body. As humidity increases, the cooling effect slows. For many mammals, including humans, 35 °C wet-bulb temperature is critical.
“In theory, a 35 °C wet-bulb temperature is the point at which your sweat will not evaporate,” Coffel says.

At that point, even the fittest young adult is unlikely to survive more than a few hours before fatally overheating. But lower wet-bulb temperatures can still claim the lives of the elderly or infirm. Deadly heat waves in India and Pakistan that killed 5,000 people in 2015 only produced wet-bulb temperatures in the range of 29-31 °C, he says.

Of course the wealthier nations affected can cope provided they have a suitable electrical grid and plenty of air conditioning. The problem becomes what befalls their people if the electrical system malfunctions or, worse, is taken down in a cyber-attack? In the scheme of things this presents an enormous potential vulnerability.

Monday, February 01, 2016

What's That Sound? It's Jackboots Marching For Trump.

Well at least they're not turning out in brown shirts, not yet at least.  Still there's no denying that America's authoritarian right primary voters know their man - Donald J. Trump. Political communications consultant, Matthew MacWilliams has conducted a national survey of American voters that's pretty blunt.

Trump’s strongman siren call has electrified Americans disposed to authoritarianism, rallying them to his banner as they follow his lead. As Trump joked last weekend, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody. And I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK. It’s like incredible.”

My survey, conducted under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, uses a simple battery of four questions to identify authoritarians. These are the same questions that leading political scientists — including Marc Hetherington, Jonathon Weiler, and Karen Stenner — have employed since 1992 to measure individual disposition to authoritarianism. The results of my poll show that authoritarianism is one of only two variables that is a statistically significant predictor of Trump support among likely Republican primary voters. The other variable is fear of terrorism. Other variables included in the model are sex, educational attainment, age, church attendance, evangelicalism, ideology, race, and income.

The authoritarian inclinations of Trump voters are abundantly clear when the predicted probability of supporting Trump is arrayed across the authoritarian scale.

MacWilliams' survey found that authoritarianism was not a significant factor in support of any of Trump's Republican rivals. So what does the face of these Trump backers really look like?

Trump voters exhibit statistically significant and substantive authoritarian attitudes. For example, Trump voters are statistically more likely to agree that other groups should sometimes be kept in their place. They support preventing minority opposition once we decide what is right.

Trump supporters kick the fundamental tenets of Madisonian democracy to the curb, asserting that the rights of minorities need not be protected from the power of the majority. And they are statistically more likely than Trump opponents to agree the President should curtail the voice and vote of the opposition when it is necessary to protect the country – though a plurality still opposes this exercise of presidential power.

Trump voters are also ready to suspend the constitutionally guaranteed Writ of Habeas Corpus by empowering the police and law enforcement to arrest and detain indefinitely anyone in the United States who is suspected of belonging to a terrorist organization. And, as you would suspect, Trump supporters agree that mosques across the United States should be closed down – a clear abridgement of the religious freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Last week the National Review, which some pundits consider the American conservative movement’s most influential publication, warned that Trump was “a free-floating populist with strongman overtones.” My data indicates that the 20 conservatives who argued Trump must not become the Republican nominee got their description of him half right. His rhetoric is that of a strongman’s. But his doctrine isn’t populism, it is authoritarianism. The difference is quite important and may explain why Trump’s Teflon candidacy continues to exceed conventional expectations.
After analyzing 14 years of national polling data from 1992 to 2006, Hetherington and Weiler concluded that authoritarianism was driving political polarization in America. While authoritarians can be found among self-identified Democrats and Independents, their slow but steady movement over time to the Republican Party may have created the conditions for a candidate with an authoritarian message like Trump’s to emerge.

Trump’s support is firmly rooted in an American version of authoritarianism that, once awakened and stoked, is a force to be reckoned with. And until quite recently, the institutions and leaders tasked with guarding against what Madison called “the infection of the violent passions” among the people have either been cowed by Trump’s bluster or derelict in performing their civic duty. Trump’s authoritarian support may be too solid and his momentum too strong to stop his march to the Republican nomination.

It's Time America and Her Posse Had a New Mideast Policy. Enough of This "Fool's Errand."

The Sheriff (USA) and his posse (Canada and our fellow minions) are not doing all that well in the Middle East these days. Fact is we haven't been doing much good at all for the past 16 years. Stephen Walt, Harvard professor of international relations, thinks it's time for a change, radical change.

For most of the past half-century, U.S. leaders knew who their friends and enemies were and had a fairly clear sense of what they were trying to accomplish. No longer. Today, there is greater uncertainty about U.S. interests in the region, more reason to question the support it gives its traditional partners, and no consensus on how to deal with the dizzying array of actors and forces that are now buffeting the region.

One thing is clear: The playbook we’ve been using since the 1940s isn’t going to cut it anymore. We still seem to think the Middle East can be managed if we curry favor with local autocrats, back Israel to the hilt, constantly reiterate the need for U.S. “leadership,” and when all else fails, blow some stuff up. But this approach is manifestly not working, and principles that informed U.S. policy in the past are no longer helpful.

...When the Cold War ended, one might have expected that U.S. involvement in the region would decline, because there was no longer a significant external threat to contain. Instead, the U.S. role deepened, beginning with the 1991 Gulf War. Instead of its earlier balance-of-power approach, the Clinton administration’s strategy of “dual containment” cast Washington in the role of regional policeman. Unfortunately, this ill-conceived strategy required the United States to keep substantial ground and air forces in Saudi Arabia, infuriating Osama bin Laden and helping to convince him to attack the United States directly on 9/11.

America’s military role increased even more after the 9/11 attacks — after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney drank the neocon Kool-Aid and embarked on their delusional effort at “regional transformation.” The results were disastrous, and Barack Obama was elected on promises to end the Iraq War, rebuild America’s relations with the Muslim world, achieve a two-state solution, and put U.S. relations with Iran on a new footing. Although he eventually reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, the rest of his Middle East policy has been no more successful than that of his inept predecessor. Syria is in ruins; al Qaeda remains an active force; the Islamic State is sowing violence around the world; Libya and Yemen are war-torn failed states; and the peace process is in tatters.

Why is the United States having such trouble? Because it has failed to take account of the dramatic changes that have transformed the Middle East’s strategic landscape.

Today ...there is no single overarching threat to the region and thus no clear organizing principle to guide U.S. policymakers. Some people would like to cast Iran in that role, but as an actor, it’s still far too weak and internally hamstrung to serve as the organizing focus of U.S. strategy. And on some issues — such as the Islamic State — the United States and Iran are largely on the same side. In short, what we are grappling with today is a fiendishly complicated array of actors pursuing a variety of objectives, and who is on our side and who is against us varies from issue to issue.

U.S. relations with all of its traditional Middle East allies are at their lowest point in years. Turkey has drifted back toward authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, and its policies toward the crisis in Syria and the Islamic State are frequently at odds with U.S. preferences. Israel continues to move to the right, while still rejecting the two-state solution that Washington favors, and actively tried to sabotage the nuclear deal with Iran. Egypt is again in the hands of a thuggish military dictatorship with few redeeming features, and relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained by the partial U.S. détente with Iran, disagreements about the proper approach to the Syrian civil war, and by growing concerns over the Saudi role in promoting a version of Islam that has inspired a generation of anti-Western extremists. The CIA may still have close ties with Saudi intelligence, but I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not.

America’s track record in the region over the past 20-plus years also raises serious questions about its ability to identify realistic goals and then achieve them. Global influence rests in part on an image of competence, and the past three administrations have done little to burnish that image. Indeed, when it comes to the Middle East, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have been King Midas in reverse: Everything they touch turns not to gold but to lead or, even worse, into a violent conflagration.

If you can stand it, just look at the record: 1) “Dual containment” in the Gulf helped convince bin Laden to launch the 9/11 attacks; 2) two decades of U.S. stewardship over the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” has killed off the “two-state solution” that Washington favored; 3) the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a policy blunder of vast proportions whose ill effects continue to multiply; 4) U.S. interference in Libya, Somalia, and Yemen helped create failed states there, too; and 5) Washington has not exactly covered itself in glory in Syria either. Given that record, it is hardly surprising that Americans and Middle Easterners openly question what the U.S. role should be and why some of us think trying to “manage” the Middle East is a fool’s errand.

Finally, it is hard to figure out what the U.S. role should be because the policy instruments that are easiest for Washington to use are increasingly irrelevant to the problems now convulsing the region. The United States’ most readily usable instrument is its still-powerful military, whether in the form of material aid, training, airstrikes, naval task forces, drones, Special Operations Forces, or in extreme cases, the full Rapid Deployment Force. Unfortunately, the central problem facing most of the Middle East is not a powerful conventional army (i.e., the kind of enemy we’re good at defeating) but the lack of legitimate and effective institutions of local governance. As we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is not designed for or good at creating local political institutions, and the more we use this tool, the more fragile, fractious, and violent local politics usually become.

The Middle East is shifting before our very eyes, and the old verities of U.S. policy no longer apply. Our most potent tools of influence are of little value, and our strategic interest in the region is declining. And none of our current allies there deserve unconditional support on moral grounds either.

Well, here’s a radical thought: If the strategic importance of a region is declining, if none of the local actors deserve unvarnished U.S. backing, if our best efforts make both friends and foes angry at us, then maybe — just maybe — the United States ought to stop trying to fix problems that it has neither the wisdom nor the will to address. In the end, the fate of the Middle East is going to be determined by the people who live there and not by us, though we might be able to play a constructive role on occasion. And the sooner Americans recognize that they’re better off coaching from the sidelines, instead of getting bloodied on the field, the better off they’ll be.

A Blast From the Past

Now, Sit Still While I Shoot You Down

Lockheed has spent years, many years, telling the world that its F-35, supposedly stealthy, light attack bomber is unlike any warplane in the sky today. Turns out they're right.

Recent reports have focused on how 'buggy' the F-35's software, unmatched in complexity, is turnout out to be. While the US Marine Corps may have declared the F-35 operational, apparently the USMC hasn't let the all-important software in on that secret.

A new report from the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation released to Aviation Week paints another unflattering picture of the Joint Strike Fighter in action.

...the DOT&E states that “the F-35B Block 2B aircraft would need to avoid threat engagement… in an opposed combat scenario, and would require augmentation by other friendly forces.”

Most of the same limitations will apply to the U.S. Air Force’s initial operational capability (IOC) version, the F-35A Block 3i. “Since no capabilities were added to Block 3i, only limited corrections to deficiencies, the combat capability of the initial operational Block 3i units will not be noticeably different.”

Giving more details on the software deficiencies mentioned in a December memo, ...11 out of 12 weapon delivery accuracy (WDA) tests carried out during Block 2B developmental testing “required intervention by the test and control team to overcome system deficiencies and ensure a successful event,” Gilmore says that the F-35’s performance in combat “will depend in part on the operational utility of the workarounds” that were used in testing.

At the root of the difficulties in the WDA tests, Gilmore said, was that component tests in the run-up to the WDA events were focused “on contract specification compliance, instead of readiness for combat.” Those tests required only that the subcomponent should work. The actual WDA tests involved the entire kill chain and “highlighted the impact of deficiencies.” The F-35 program leadership altered some of them to achieve a “kill” – for example, by restricting target maneuvers and countermeasures.

Specific technical problems continue to impose speed and maneuver limitations on the F-35, the report says. The weapon bay temperatures exceed limits during ground operations at on days warmer than 90-deg. F, and at high speeds below 25,000 feet, if the weapon bays are closed for more than 10 min. (The F-35 is not stealthy with the doors open.) On the F-35A, the time limit is applied at speeds from 500 to 600 kts, depending on altitude.

Overall, the report says, “the rate of deficiency correction has not kept pace with the discovery rate” – that is, problems are being found in tests faster than they can be solved. “Well-known, significant problems” include the defective Autonomic Logistics Information System, unstable avionics and persistent aircraft and engine reliability and maintainability issues.

Combined with poor aircraft availability, this record leads DOT&E to conclude that the program cannot speed up flight testing enough to deliver Block 3F – the IOC standard for the Navy and export customers and the exit criterion for the systems development and demonstration (SDD) phase – on schedule. Block 3F developmental flight testing started 11 months late, in March 2015. The planned 48 WDAs in Block 3F – most of them more complex and challenging than the Block 2B weapons tests – cannot be accomplished by the May 2017 schedule date “unless the program is able to significantly increase their historic completion rate.”

What this means for Canada is that, if a competitive fly-off exercise was held today or next year or the year after that, the F-35 would probably be self-eliminating. The less-costly, less-sparkly, more capable alternatives are all flying and in service around the world. They can be at Cold Lake tomorrow to strut their stuff. The F-35 has never gone head to head with the competition and that's because it is years away from that level of development. Meanwhile the F-35's electronic wizardry just gets longer in the tooth with each passing year.