Monday, July 31, 2006

Hard-Wired to be Partisan?

Have you ever noticed that politicians you disagree with are really stupid? The way they just don't make any sense, contradict themselves, and constantly exhibit hypocrisy?

Lord knows I have. Yet, at the same time I've always believed that politicians are generally good people doing what they honestly think is right (I wouldn't have become one if I didn't). Sometimes it's been difficult to reconcile this apparent contradiction.

As it turns out, there may be a biological explanation. According to a report in the Washington Post, our brains actually do the psychological equivalent of plugging our ears and running into the other room going "na na na I can't hear you" when, for example, I hear Stephen Harper talk about transparency.
    Psychological experiments in recent years have shown that people are not evenhanded when they process information, even though they believe they are. (When people are asked whether they are biased, they say no. But when asked whether they think other people are biased, they say yes.) Partisans who watch presidential debates invariably think their guy won. When talking heads provide opinions after the debate, partisans regularly feel the people with whom they agree are making careful, reasoned arguments, whereas the people they disagree with sound like they have cloth for brains.
The result, the author argues, is that we're hardwired to be increasingly partisan.

As one blog points out, however, there's a lot of nurture going on here too. We're taught "with us or against us," and "liberal or conservative," as if there are no other options. We're taught to only see black and white, never gray.

Likewise, we can unlearn it. At a campaign event early this year a supporter came up to me and told me that "the ideology of the Green Party is pragmatism." Indeed, that's one of the things that had attracted me to the party. I really do believe we've taken the best of all the other parties and incorporated it into our platform as much as possible. Now that we're increasingly popular, one of our greatest challenges is to maintain that openmindedness.

Now that us humans know we may be pre-disposed to closemindedness, we can fight against it even more strongly. That may be the most useful application of this report.

I'm doing my part. Why, last week I even found two things that Margaret Wente and I agree on!

Ok, Maybe They Honestly Don't Know What Those Words Mean

When the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is criticizing the Conservatives, you know something's up. (Jason Kenney used to be their CEO, and all of the federation's provincial directors have roots in conservative parties.)

Today, they're upset that the government tried to keep a pay raise for senior officials under wraps. "What's got my goat," explained the CTF's John Williamson, who gets extra points for using that goat expression I love so much, " is that this is a government that was elected to be more transparent and accountable."

Wait a minute...he's right! It's almost as this is becoming a bit of a recurring theme.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Bees is a Funny Word

Last night I watched a Nature of Things documentary called "Beetalker: The Secret World of Bees." (In my defense, I didn't know the name of the documentary before I started watching it.) Anyway, it was pretty interesting, made even more so by supplementary interjections by my girlfriend, Claire "Bees are so cool!" Salloum.

At one point in the doc, Dr. Mark Winston claimed that, "without bees, human society as we know it would not exist." Now I'm a pretty eco-conscious guy, but even I wanted to laugh at such a silly statement. That is, until he explained that without bee pollination, the overwhelming majority of our agriculture couldn't exist.

That would be a problem. Because, like, we humans totally love to eat.

That's why I was a little concerned today to learn that diversity in bees and wild flowers is declining, bees are being killed by pesticides, and that bumblebees could even face extinction.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "Sure Chris, I understand that we need bees to make food, and I like to eat, but protecting bees will hurt the economy, and that's the most important thing. I want jobs, not bees!"

Good point. However, according to Simon Potts from the University of Reading, the economic value of pollination worldwide is over $100 billion Canadian each year. (And according to Doug Woodward--a Green Party member from St. Catharines who may or may not know what he's talking about--Potts is "low by a factor of maybe 1000.")

In conclusion, whether you're into survival, money, or both, bees are your friend.

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Conservative Party Using War to Fundraise

According to Jeff Jedras's blog, the Conservative party has sent out a fundraising letter that attempts to monetize Harper's description of Israel's strikes on Lebanon (which have left over 400 innocent people dead and counting) as "measured," and to capitalize on the war itself.

I could try and respond, but I seem to have gotten myself a little worked up, and I'm worried my response wouldn't be measured.

Read Jeff's blog and the comments. That pretty much sums it up.

**goes into other room, closes door, swears loudly**

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Canada in the Middle (East)

It's hard to know where to begin. It's hard to know where this began.

Last night, watching Canada's bungled evacuation attempt on TV was frustrating. Despite what Peter MacKay says, we've done a much worse job of evacuating our citizens than other countries. To be fair, that doesn't make anything about this easy, and I could almost give our government the benefit of the doubt if it weren't for reports today that "Sandra Buckler, Director of Communications in the Prime Minister's Office, is said to have issued an edict ordering that the Lebanon crisis be kept under wraps."

Maybe these guys should have looked up transparency and accountability in a dictionary before building a whole campaign around those words.

Even more objectionable, for me, is Harper's departure from traditional Canadian neutrality, towards something that resembles the American position. Don't get me wrong, there's a time to take sides. During elections, for example. But let's keep our eyes on the prize; the objective here is peace. And the best way for Canada to help advance that goal is to act as a voice of mediation. Taking sides is a bad strategy because it removes that possibility, hurting our ability to reach the objective.

Unfortunately, the editorial in today's Globe And Mail supported Harper, mostly because they were bored and wanted to hear something different ("Mr. Harper did something unusual and refreshing") , and because Hezbollah started it ("Hezbollah was primarily responsible for starting the fighting and must be primarily responsible for ending it"). This amounts to schoolyard "he hit me first" politics. If only it were that simple. And if only anyone could decisively say who "started it."

If only we knew where the violence began. If only we knew where peace will begin.

Where the editorial went next really surprised me. "There is a world of difference," the Globe And Mail continued, "between those who deliberately kill to make mischief and those who kill in response."

Really? Last I checked, you're dead either way. And I don't know of any Canadian law that makes a distinction between "mischief killing" and "response killing." I wonder if the Globe would apply the same logic to the streets of Toronto. I wonder if they teach their children that "two wrongs make a right."

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Canada Changing

If you haven't heard of WorldChanging, you should check it out. It's a positive, solutions-based blog, primarily about environmental and other issues regarding our collective survival.

I mention it today because they've just started a short series called CanadaChanging, where they'll be looking at the progress our country is making. Or, as they put it, "Canada, while by no means a global leader in sustainability overall, does have enough candles burning to be worth a look."

Oh stop, you're making us blush.

It's interesting to note that a recent poll "identified global warming, the environment, pollution and the need for new energy technologies as leading concerns for Canadians." In contrast, only 10% of respondents ranked health care as the number one challenge for Canada in the near future.

Now here's the million dollar question: If most Canadians believe that the climate crisis is our greatest challenge, how come we elected a government that didn't even use the word "climate" or the phrase "global warming" in their entire election platform?

To be honest, I'm a little baffled (though I do have one or two theories that likely have something to do with it).

Monday, July 10, 2006

Please Stop Keeping Your Promises

As a form of entertainment, I subscribe to the e-newsletters of the status quo parties. Seriously, it can actually be funny. Like this week, when the NDP Conservative parties swapped election slogans. (The NDP sent out an email promising to "Stand Up for Canada" while the Conservatives are now getting "real results," presumably for "real people.") Maybe it's some kind of exchange program.

Anyway, the latest Conservative email highlights three of their kept promises. Reader willing, I'd like to deal with them seriatim.

1. GST Cut
I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, because there's no shortage of economists who recognize that cutting consumption tax (as opposed to income tax) is bad economic policy, including the IMF and the OECD (not to mention the powerful Tim Hortons Think Tank). Our individual savings will be insignificant, and the GST cut is worth more to those with high-income.

Where cutting sales tax increases consumption (which is another way of saying increases the rate at which we take stuff from the Earth and turn it into waste), cutting income tax encourages saving and investment. You can then apply those income tax cuts to resource consumption, which discourages waste and inefficiency. In short, that's what the we mean by "green tax shift." (Unfortunately, the government has also raised income tax, so they're doing the exact opposite.)

At the Rosedale United Church debate during the last election I was asked to explain our green tax shift policy, and in response the Conservative candidate said that he felt it was generally a good idea and that it was something his government would support. Either he didn't understand my party's platform or his own -- I'm not sure which.

2. Increased Military Funding
I actually do think our military has been neglected for too long. For example, we still have it in our head's that we're the world's peacekeepers, when in reality we're not even in the top ten. And if we want to ask Canadians to put their lives on the line, the least we can do is make sure they have the tools they need to do the job.

Unfortunately, the Conservative plan gets the priorities for military spending all wrong. The plan's two most expensive items by far are $8.3 billion for airlift capability, and $4.7 billion for 16 helicopters. The first item refers to the purchase of some heavy-lift aircraft used in transporting our troops and equipment around the world. The reason it's a bad idea is because we've been able to rent our transport needs for a fraction of the cost. It's a bit like buying a car instead of renting, even though you only use it to go to the cottage a few times a year. It's not an effective use of military resources.

The second item is even less wise, since helicopters are primarily used to fight submarines. And you don't have to be a military expert to know that submarines are probably not the number one threat to Canada right now.

Instead, we should be focusing on building a strong army capable of intervening in places like Darfur. We also might want to look into measures to protect our water, and give some thought to what the world's going to look like when the phenomenon of eco-refuge really starts to take off.

3. Transit Pass Tax Credit
This isn't a bad idea (it was actually part of our platform as well), but in a vacuum of any other action is almost useless.

Here's the problem. Public transit is already almost the cheapest way to get around (second only to biking or walking), while driving is almost the most expensive (second only to being carried around by four professional football players on a sedan chair made of gold). The monthly parking rate in my office building is around $470 (almost 5x the cost of a TTC metropass), and people drive single-occupancy SUVs and mini-vans to work everyday. Once you've paid for the car, insurance, and gas, you're looking at over $1000/month to drive to work! Even people in less offensive cars with access to cheaper parking are paying way more than someone who takes transit every day. Does anyone other than the government really think that a tax credit is going to speak to these folks?

Even if it did, there's another problem (one that would have been identified by our minister of transportation if he'd taken transit recently). The subways are full. The commuter trains are full. Giving people a tax credit to ride transit when there isn't any room makes about as much sense as giving out daycare money when there aren't any daycare spaces.

Oh wait.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

No Water For Oil!

Ok, so it doesn't have quite the same ring to it as "no blood for oil," but it's becoming the rallying cry for a cause that's very serious and very close to home.

If you've got Insider Edition access to, or if you can get your hands on a hard copy, read Jeffrey Simpson today. In a column titled Alberta's tar sands are soaking up too much water, he outlines concerns that the Green Party and others have been raising for some time.

In summary, it takes anywhere from 2 to 4.5 barrels of water to extract and refine one barrel of oil from the Alberta tar sands. That province, which is already one of most dry provinces in Canada, is using more than 7% of their water on the oil and gas industry. (Oh, and funny story, that's made worse by the fact that they're also losing glaciers and snow packs faster than I lose elections. How's that for ironic?)

So that's a problem. To say nothing of the acids (yes McBain, real acid), mercury, and other toxins that are left over after the oil is separated from the bitumen, sand, and other residue. Not to mention all the other reasons that continuing to increase oil extraction and consumption is a bad idea, including Peak Oil (we're gonna run out of the stuff...) and the Climate Crisis (...unless we wipe ourselves out first).

And it's not just airhuggers who are worried. The Pembina Institute released a 154 page study a few months ago reaching the same conclusions, and even the Canada West Foundation thinks it's maybe not such a good idea for the government of Alberta to be practically giving this water away for free.

In the mean time, I'm open to other clever slogan ideas. So far I've got "make love, not pools of toxic sludge," and "all we are saying is give renewables a chance." They could use some work.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Will Someday Come Soon Enough?

In 2004, the Green Party of Canada ran on the election slogan "Someday is Now." It was a way of speaking to the many people who want to support the Green Party someday, just not "this time." They're going to wait until we have a chance, or until things get really bad.

Of course, the first condition is circular. People won't vote for us until we have a chance, and we won't have a chance until people vote for us (unless they vote for this first). As for the second condition, it's already been met, even if it's not yet tangible.

It's never been a question of if the Green Party will be elected. The question is if we'll get elected in time.

In time for what is another question. More and more scientists are of the opinion that global warming has become a self-sustaining reaction and can't be stopped, and Stephen Hawking is suggesting that we give up on this planet and find a new one. In that case, our job will shift from averting disaster to dealing with it.

In his new book, Thomas Homer Dixon argues that, while he believes a total global collapse is avoidable, a number of smaller collapses have become inevitable and will fundamentally change the way we live. The good news is that this presents an opportunity for what he calls catagenesis: a chance to rebuild these systems from the ground up, exploiting all the things we wish we knew then.

At a breakfast forum a month ago, I introduced myself to Tad (that's what his friends call him, you see) as a former candidate and asked how he thought that idea could be presented in a way that would be politically popular and earn votes. He responded that he sees very little chance of voters showing any desire to deal with these problems until they're already upon us. Once we're in the middle of it, he says, will be the real opportunity for political ingenuity and problem solving.

This Canada Day weekend, the Dominion Institute and The Toronto Star published an essay by Andrew Cohen imagining what Canada will look like in 2020. The good news? Cohen predicts the Green Party will form a government as soon as 2012. The bad news? The main reason is that's when "global warming began to wreak havoc."

So, I'll meet you in Ottawa in six years. Dress lightly, bring sunscreen.