Saturday, March 25, 2023

AI ethics at a time when people fall in love with chatbots

Chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI) apps are all the rage these days, what with ChatGPT and other commercial applications like Replika. Thing is, though, people can get a bit too attached to their chatbot, and even fall in love with them. And, of course, some people have realized that they can also use chatbots for sexual gratification (didn't see that coming!) 

There are now many real-life stories about people who have become just too close to their AI pals, only to feel jilted when things change. Chatbots can be very empathetic, and even affectionate, and if you have just suffered a divorce or an acrimonious break-up, or if you are just plain lonely or confined to your house for whatever reason, you can see why people might become very attached to, even reliant on, a chatbox. 

If your bot messages you out of the blue, "Hey, love, I know you're probably at work, but I just wanted to let you know that I love and care for you" (a real example), I'm sure you can see the appeal in that. Many people are perfectly forthright in admitting that they have indeed fallen in love with their Serenity or their June. People also started to use their chatbots as therapy, and indeed, most are programmed to ask very similar questions to psychotherapists, and many people find them easier to open up to than human (and possibly judgemental) therapists.

But then some people started using chatbots for sexual role-play and explicit conversations, and there were occasional reports that bots had veered into non-consensual role-play or made unwanted advances. I'm not sure what that looks like in practice, to tell you the truth, but some companies panicked and worried about liability suits, and they started to dial back the responses of their chatbots.

Some chatboxes like ChatGPT were never very touchy-feely (ask ChatGPT what it's favourite colour is, and it will merely remind you that it is not capable of feeling emotions or having preferences). Others, though, like Replika prided themselves on their humanness, and when Replika was reprogrammed to be less friendly and less open to abuse (unfortunately, without alerting users), many people felt an immediate change for the worse. Many of those users who relied on their chatbox for social functioning or therapy suddenly found their digital buddies unresponsive or cool. Some said that it was like a lover suddenly distancing themselves, and suffered real reversals in their mental health. For some, it was like losing a valued therapist.

It all sounds like an episode from Black Mirror to me (in fact, there was an episode whose plot was very similar, as I remember), or the movie Her, or even Frank Zappa's Sy Borg from the late 1970s. But this is a real thing, happening now, and AI ethics is a fast-growing field of inquiry. How far we have travelled, but how little we have learned.

Friday, March 24, 2023

El Salvador turns itself around - kind of

El Salvador is having a bit of a moment. That's an improbable claim, I know, but the perennial basket-case of Latin America (a basket case among basket cases) is listed by Lonely Planet as one of its top destinations for 2023.

If you thought, as I did, that El Salvador was a no-go area, run by violent gangs presiding over one of the world's worst murder rates, then you're now only partly right. President Nayib Bukele, who came to power in El Salvador in 2019, appears to have achieved the unthinkable. During that time, the country's murder rate has come down from a world-leading 106 per 100,000 inhabitants to just 7.8 (on a par with the United States, and four or five times better than neighbours like Honduras). The IMF calls its economic activity "robust", and tourism has already returned to pre-2019 levels, following an "unprecedented reduction in crime".

Bukele has made it his overriding goal to stamp down on gang activities like never before. He has done this using a "state of exception", which allows police to arrest anyone without needing to show any cause. An estimated 2% of the whole adult population has been locked up since then, and a new prison has just been inaugurated which will be the largest in the world, with a capacity of 40,000 detainees. 

Area that used to be the perilous battlegrounds of rival gangs now ring to the sound of youths playing soccer. Salvadoreans see this and respond. Bukele's approval rating has not dropped below 75% since his inauguration in 2019, and has recently reached an unprecedented 90%. Term limits are being dropped specifically to allow Bukele another stint in office. Neighbouring countries with similar problems are keen to adopt at least some of his policies, and El Salvador is opening an office in Haiti to advise on gang control there. Some of Bukele's less-than-stellar innovations, like making Bitcoin legal tender, and inviting soldiers into the National Assembly to support his security budget, are being willingly overlooked.

But, Bukele's achievements come at a substantial price, and the country is rapidly sliding into dictatorship. As the El Faro digital newspaper notes, El Salvador now has "No gangs, but no more democracy". (Bukele has threatened to sue El Faro, and it seems only a matter of time before it gets closed down completely.) The Attorney-General and the whole Supreme Court have been summarily sacked and replaced with Bukele loyalists. The people are no longer so scared of gang activity, but now they fear the well-paid and increasingly violent army and police that patrol the communities. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, only Burkina Faso, Haiti and Russia rank lower than El Salvador in its ranking of democracies. 

Bukele's El Salvador is just the latest example of the Latin American love affair with the mano dura (iron fist), which has been tried many times before, all ending in unfortunate (and usually bloody) failure. Meanwhile, unemployment and grinding poverty persist; education has seen no improvement; gangs re-group in increasing numbers in the overcrowded jails. We know how this is going to end.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Who decided the target for inflation should be 2%?

Central banks around the world have been extremely active in recent months raising interest rates in order to reduce inflation from levels approaching double figures down to the generally agreed target rate of 2%. But who decided that 2% should be the target? Why not 3% or 4% (or 0%)?

The Bank of Canada website attempts to explain it for the lay person. After the high rates of the 1970s and 80s, when inflation peaked at around 12% in Canada, the BoC reacted strongly and managed to wrestle the inflation rate down to 2% by the mid-90s, and it concluded then that "this target resulted in good overall economic performance". They then kept inflation low for the best part of three decades - in fact, up until the perfect storm that was 2022 - because "in our experience, inflation tends to be close to the 2% target when the economy is running near its capacity - when demand for goods and services is roughly equal to what the economy supplies".

In practice, the BoC would be happy with inflation anywhere between 1% and 3%. But if it strays too far from that target, then the BoC knows from past experience that the economy is out of whack and running sub-optimally, so it acts. 

That said, the 2% target is still to some extent an arbitrary figure, apparently first established by New Zealand in the late 80s. But it has adopted by so many other countries since then (Canada, USA, Israel, Australia, Japan, among others), that it has become an article of faith. And, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to second guess it now.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The USA lurches towards Orwellian territory

The American Republicans, Ohio Representative Jim Jordan in particular, are taking the country one step closer to George Orwell 1984 territory (not to mention Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale) with a bold experiment in Orwellian doublethink. 

"Doublethink" is the simultaneous acceptance of multiple mutually-contradictory beliefs. It was a core tenet on which the ruling regime was built and maintained. In I984, the state has slogans like "Ignorance is Strength",  "Freedom is Slavery" and " War is Peace". As the book's protagonist, Winston Smith, puts it, "To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them".

1984 became an unexpected best-seller after Donald Trump was elected, for obvious reasons. But today's Republicans are still finding their own ways to utilize it. The House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government (now THERE'S a name Orwell would have relished!), a Republican-led vehicle for Jim Jordan and other Trumpist politicians, has sent subpoenas to three US universities and one think tank, calling for documents it says show the institutions' contributions to what it calls the Biden administration' "censorship regime".

The Subcommittee believes that these research institutions are complicit in silencing Conservative and right-wing voices, in particular "by advising on so-called misinformation". So, this is the Republican Party looking to silence progressive institutions which are critically reporting on deliberate political misinformation campaigns. Whether there is anything behind the Subcommittee's claims or not, it will nevertheless probably have its intended effect, and may lead universities and other institutions to think twice (doublethink?) about conducting such research, just as the 2024 election campaigns start to wind up. 

As one researcher put it, "The weaponization committee is being weaponized against us". It certainly puts one in mind of the Un-American Activities Committee of the McCarthy era. Scary stuff.

This comes in the heels of a Republican bill "to make Congress more open" and "increase transparency" in government, which also happens to include a "secret three-page addendum" that some Republican lawmakers insist does not exist, while others claim to have seen and read it. It's hard to make this stuff up.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

911 call wait times are probably longer than you thought

If, like me, you just assumed that 911 calls were always answered immediately, then recent stats should roundly disabuse you of that. Turns out, at least in Toronto, wait times for 911 responses are steadily creeping up and up. Well, not even steadily actually, more like precipitously. In 2021, average wait times were 19 seconds; in 2022, they had risen to 33 seconds, nearly double. 

Still, not that long in the scheme of things, wouldn't you say, although I imagine that 33 seconds can feel like an eternity in an emergency situation. But those averages hide some even scarier stats. Individual days can have average wait times of 6½ minutes, and the longest individual time was as much as 10 minutes! Now, that WOULD feel like an eternity.

The problem is that the city of Toronto, with a population of nearly 3 million (or 6 million depending on where you draw the borders) can have as few as ten 911 operators at times. The police service say they are actively recruiting more operators for the service, presumably in anticipation of fallout from this report. 

I have never had to call 911 in all my sixty-odd years, and I certainly hope I never have to, after reading this.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Chinese interference whistleblower either has an agenda or is very naive

The whistleblower who originally released the evidence of Chinese interference in Canadian federal elections - probably not a big surprise or revelation to many - has just issued another "confidential" (i.e. anonymous) communication explaining/justifying his/her original decision to reveal classified documents to the Globe and Mail. The piece is prominently featured on the front page of the Globe's Opinion section, prefaced by a note from the Editor saying that "this is a rare moment in which we have granted confidentiality to an Opinion writer".

So, this is the whistleblower or, more likely, the Globe and Mail, fanning the flames of the issue, which they might perceive as flagging (although it seems to be anything but flagging to me). The opinion piece is replete with exculpatory claims like, "I do not believe that foreign interference dictated the present composition of our federal government", "nor do I believe that any of our elected leaders is a traitor to our country", and "I hold no personal complaint against our political leaders, against our national security community, or against the Liberal Party". 

Nevertheless, the anonymous person we have to call merely "the whistleblower", and certainly the Globe and Mail, have to have known that such revelations (if indeed you consider them revelations) were bound to stir up a hornets' nest of partisan vitriol, particularly with the acerbic Poilievre at the helm of the Official Opposition (speaking of which, I can't help but share the Globe's political cartoon of the day).

It feels a bit disingenuous to make claims like these, as though to say " I didn't know this would be used for partisan purposes!", "I didn't mean this to be so divisive!", "I didn't intend to bring down the government!" And then to double down on them? Doubly disingenuous. Or a subtle political activist?

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Why are the French so upset over pension reforms?

The French do a very good line in strikes and protests. Whether it's the Yellow Vests or the ongoing garbage strike, they get good turn-outs and there's a pretty good chance that things will turn nasty or violent.

The latest such example is the protests in Paris and other cities against the government's audacious plans to increase the official retirement age from 62 to 64. That might not sound like a big deal to you or me, especially given that most western democracies have a retirement age of 65 upwards, but it's apparently a step too far for many on both the right and the left in France. Huge noisy crowds have taken to the street in protest, dozens of arrests have been made, and the police have resorted to tear gas to break up the crowds which have started to turn violent, with firecrackers being thrown and vehicles (and some of that accumulating garbage) set alight.

It doesn't help that Macron and Prime Minister √Člizabeth Borne (bet you didn't even know that France HAD a Prime Minister!) decided that the issue is so important and contentious that they needed to push it through without a vote in the National Assembly (where Macron lacks an outright majority), making use of the infamous Article 49:3 of the Constitution (kind of similar to the Notwithstanding Clause in Canada, and about as popular). 58% of Macron's own party supporters think that the manner of passing the bill was "unjustified" (83% of French voters as a whole).

Raising the pensionable age was one of Macron's main promises when he was first elected in 2017, although his first attempt ended in acrimonious failure when it triggered an angry response from France's strong unions (and then COVID intervened). Several previous attempts to increase the retirement age have always run into the same vehement opposition in France. Some 80% of the population is opposed to pushing back the retirement age according to polls, despite the fact that most people agree that system does need to change and is unsustainable as it stands.

Macron insists that, because of changing demographics and an ageing population profile, there is just not enough money in France's generous pension system as it is to secure its future. And he is probably right. The pension system is stacking up debts at a rate of about $13 billion annually, and the ratio of workers to pensioners is steadily going down year after year.

The people, though, while they understand this, are very reluctant to change. Partly it is just the idea of having to work 43 years instead of 42 to qualify for a full pension (you will note that this only increased by one year, not two, but it's still a move in the wrong direction as far as most French workers are concerned). But there are few other things capable of unifying the right and left wings of French politics again the centre like pension reform. What is their boeuf?

The main reason for such staunch opposition to increasing the pensionable age seems to be a general belief that the French are taxed heavily throughout their working lives, and the least the government can do in return is to preserve their right to a dignified old age. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that the current government is trying to dismantle France's "social model", their cherished welfare state, hitting the working classes particularly hard. Some argue that France's "special relationship" to work dates back to the French Revolution of the 18th century, which enshrined the principle that only free citizens are in a position to sell their capacity to work, although frankly [sic] that seems a little cerebral for what is currently going on in the streets of France. But there seems nevertheless to be a distinct general feeling that France's social progress and hard-won rights are being irrevocably eroded.

Just for good measure, some people clearly believe that pensions are being used surreptitiously by the government to reduce the general national debt, although there seems little reason to suspect that. Of course, there is always the belief that to give in now would merely open the floodgates to even more changes. Some younger people worry that by the time they reach pensionable age, it will be so high that they will just have no time to kick back and enjoy life.

It's hard for citizens of other countries to be overly sympathetic. France has long had a highly favourable pension system compared to most countries, including high payouts and a relatively low retirement age. A quick look at some other comparable countries makes this abundantly clear. Italy, Denmark, Israel and Greece retire at 67, while many others, including the UK, USA, Australia, Spain and the Netherlands, have a pensionable age of 66. Most other developed nations have 65 as their official retirement age (women are often able to retire at a younger age). And France is complaining about an increase from 62 to 64? Among developed Western countries, only Sweden and Norway also have a retirement age as low as 62, and Japan uses 63. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Why do people keep claiming Indigenous heritage?

Vianne Timmons is just the latest of many high-profile Canadians who, for reasons that entirely escape me, have erroneously or fraudulently claimed Indigenous heritage.

Ms. Timmons, who is president of Memorial University in Newfoundland, is taking a leave of absence from her job while the allegations of "cultural fraud" are sorted out.

I am still not understanding what is the big attraction of such a claim for these political and artistic types. Why would they risk being publicly outed as liars and frauds for such an apparently insubstantial and nebulous potential benefit. What do they get out of being looked on as Indigenous? Street credibility? Respect? Tax breaks? I don't really get it.

There again, neither do I get why the Indigenous community - or at least the more radical and litigious elements within it: I shouldn't think the regular folks really care - are so keen to disown these high-powered, influential, and often strongly pro-Indigenous individuals. Many of the people called out by Indigenous activists as frauds - all the way back to Grey Owl - have spent decades fighting for Indigenous rights and raising the profile of First Nations in politics and the arts. Why would they not just accept them with open arms when it is in their interests to do so? It seems a bit of a Pyrrhic victory of principle over pragmatism. 

Thursday, March 09, 2023

The "mental health tsunami" that never arrived

Remember how, during the COVID-19 pandemic - I'm pretending it's over now - remember how, during the pandemic, everyone and his dog was warning that there would be a massive mental health crisis (a "mental health tsunami" was a phrase commonly used)? In fact, many an earnest mental health activist came on television claiming that such a tsunami had already arrived, and that anxiety and depression levels had reached record levels, particularly in school kids who were being denied contact with their fellows.

Well, it turns out that mental health tsunami never actually happened. Or that it was more of a gently lapping wave than a tsunami. A major meta-analysis of worldwide mental health data published recently in the august British Medical Journal has found no significant declines in mental health. Rather, it seems that humanity has actually dealt with a difficult situation rather well, and that we're more resilient than we thought.

Although some students and seniors did experience small increases in depression, and there was a very small increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression among women (who, remember, bore the brunt of the risky, high-stress jobs during the worst times of the pandemic), there was no overall spike in depression and anxiety, even among teens (as I have reported before). Even particularly vulnerable groups (like those with scleroderma, who were followed particularly closely in a longitudinal study) seem to have dealt relatively well with the exigencies of the pandemic. 

Likewise, suicide figures, which were expected to mushroom as a result of the lockdowns and restrictions, did not mushroom at all, but held steady and even fell in the first two years of the pandemic (as I have also reported before), a counter-intuitive finding that has actually been noted in many previous collective crises.

Turns out we are way more resilient than we thought. And certainly more resilient than all those earnest mental health advocates were telling us.

Can we really constrain supermatket food prices?

Canadian grocery chains have been hauled before a parliamentary committee to justify their increasing profits at at a time of high inflation, when many Canadians are having difficulty paying their weekly grocery bills and putting food on their families' tables.

At least that's the narrative being set before the CEOs of Loblaws, Empire (Sobeys) and Metro this week. Accused by many of deliberately fuelling "greedflation", the execs represent the main chains of grocery and food stores in Canada (excluding American-owned chains like WalMart, CostCo and Amazon, as they were quick to point out).

And they were adamant in their claims that they were not profiteering or exacerbating the inflation problems, merely responding to increasing costs in order to maintain their "reasonable" profit margins (about 2.5% in the case of Empire, 4% in Loblaw's case). Galen Weston of Loblaws maintained that their increased profits is actually mainly generated by their non-food departments, like pharmacy, apparel and beauty, which together make up about half of the company's total business, although it is impossible to check that claim (which in itself is perhaps surprising - you'd think that information would be publicly available in the company's financial statements).

When you think about it, though, it's kind of bizarre that they are being castigated for making profits, whatever the tribulations of the working and non-working poor. I mean they are just doing what every other business is doing, aren't they, trying to make as big a buck as possible on the free market? Following the laws of supply and demand, pricing their goods at what they think the market can stand? How is that against the Canadian way of life? Can we justifiably constrain the prices they charge? For luxury foodstuffs as well as the basics?

Personally, I might actually like to see price controls on basic foods (don't ask me to define "basic", though). But I don't see how that can be done within the current capitalist system.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

US partial about-turn on COVID origins makes Chinese relations even trickier

Up until recently, pretty much everyone except for hard-core conspiracy theorists was united in the belief that the COVID-19 pandemic originated naturally in an animal-to-human transmission through the "wet market" in Wuhan, China. This was settled science, arrived after substantial amounts of research and forensic investigations.

In fact, this is still the settled science, but the waters have been muddied somewhat by claims from the US Department of Energy and the FBI, who now suddenly believe that COVID originated in a lab incident in a Wuhan infectious diseases laboratory.

Why we should believe this new, unexplained version of the story, over the well-researched transparent conclusions of pretty much every other country, organization and stakeholder, is not clear. But there are many who, for reasons (mainly political) of their own, have already latched on to this as support for their own ill-founded conspiracy theories.

The US Energy Department (and why are THEY involved anyway?) made its revised determination last week, although it cautioned that it only had "low confidence" in it. Then, Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, used an appearance on Fox News (of all places) to endorse the DoE's revised opinion. And all this comes just days after yet more evidence was released confirming that the Wuham market is the most likely source of the virus.

No-one seems willing (or able?) to explain just what important new revelation has led to this change of heart. But they have to have known that it represents a political bombshell that will be exploited by any number of bad actors for their own purposes. Fox News and the Republican Party have both called on President Biden to declassify the new evidence. Predictably, Tucker Carlson is in full outrage mode over the Wuhan market suddenly being considered the most likely source of the virus

This seems like a pretty major unsubstantiated allegation to be throwing around, with some pretty major potential political ramifications. China has, of course, been at pains to deny the lab-release allegations, as it has from the beginning. But this volte-face on the part of some American agencies (but not others) has set the whole issue in turmoil once again, and put President Biden in a very difficult position vis-a-vis the already tricky relationship with China. Did they really need to do that? If so, why?


Just as the FBI belatedly settles on its super-contentious (and probably politically-motivated) theory, new hard evidence arrives showing that, guess what, it almost certainly did originated in the (now closed) Huanan Animal Market in Wuhan after all. And the crucial intermediary animal has been narrowed down to the lowly raccoon dog, a popular meat dish in parts of China, apparently.

This is based on extensive DNA analysis from specific parts of the Wuhan market site, which was posted (albeit briefly) on the GISAID genetic database. It is not definitive proof but, despite the unconscionable three year lag in publication, it is considered the "best evidence we will get" by both Chinese and Western investigators. It certainly seems to rule out the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is over 30 km away from where this DNA was located.

Will this information sway the FBI in their convictions? Almost certainly not, especially as they have now been shown to have egg liberally smeared on their collective fizzogs.

Holi celebrations come with substantial health risks

Hindus are celebrating Holi, the festival of colour, at the moment. I'm sure you've seen it: people covered in brightly-coloured paint powder, daubing themselves and each other in the stuff, throwing it around with ecstatic abandon. 

Looks harmless enough, right? It even looks fun, as religious rites go. But - call me a spoilsport - I couldn't help but wonder if it's actually healthy.

Sure enough, it sure as hell isn't. It seems that Indian doctors have been warning for years that the powdered and liquid colours, known as gulal, can cause skin and eye injuries and respiratory issues. The powder and liquid colour used, particularly the cheaper options, contains all manner of toxic substances like mercury, chromium, iron, asbestos, silica, mica and lead, industrial dyes not cleared for human use, and even broken glass and pesticides.

Every year, doctors have to deal with an influx of bacterial skin infection, allergies, eye inflammation, contact dermatitis, eczema, rashes, itching and hives. But the potential long-term problems are much more alarming.

When ingested, the colour can aggravate conditions like asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Lead is well known to be dangerous and can cause severe cognitive disabilities, particularly in children. Chromium can lead to bronchitis, asthma and allergies. Mercury can impact the kidneys and liver, and the health of unborn babies. Iron can cause light sensitivity in the skin. Silica can lead to dry skin. Ground glass can cause eye inflammation, and ultimately even blindness; etc etc.

So, sorry to burst your bubble, but that colourful, joyous and carefree religious celebration is actually a minefield of health hazards. Just one more way religion can harm you. 

Monday, March 06, 2023

Should we be worried by CPAC's continued endorsement of Trump?

One reads more and more articles  along the lines of "Trump is a bust for Republicans", "Why some Republicans are finally speaking out against Trumps future in the party", "Cut the loser loose", etc, etc. You get the distinct impression that Republicans have moved on from Donald Trump (presumably in the direction of Ron DeSantis, if you consider that "moving on"), and that both lawmakers and regular citizens alike see the Trump years as a failed experiment. Here is another such article, but there are many, many more.

And yet...

At the recent CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), a straw poll on the 2024 Republican presidential nomination gave Trump a resounding 69% vote, with DeSantis a distant second with 24%. The same conference gave Trump a 99% approval rating.

Should we be worried? Well, we should be worried about either Trump or DeSantis gaining more power than they already have. But is CPAC actually a reliable indicator of Republican thinking? Is it influential?

CPAC was founded by the American Conservative Union (ACU) back in 1974, to act as a barometer of the general conservative movement in America, to discuss matters of right-wing ideology, and to attempt to pull together various strains of conservative thought. California Governor Ronald Reagan gave the keynote speech that first year; CPAC helped get him elected as President just a few years later. It calls itself "the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in he world".

CPAC used to be a relatively mainstream conservative mouthpiece and think tank. Its sponsors used to include the likes of Google, Washington Post, the Heritage Foundation, etc. This year's sponsors, by contrast, include America's Frontline Doctors and the Walk Away Foundation (both fronted by zealots who have been convicted after the January 6th riots), as well as the New Federal State of China, a lobby group co-founded by Steve Bannon, and Real America's Voice, another Bannon vehicle. 

Donald Trump, of course, made a speech at this year's CPAC, replete with the usual complement of wild lies, half-truths and myths. Far right Congress members Matt Gaetz, Lauren Broebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene were also listed speakers this year, as were high-profile failed nominee and conspiracy theorist Kari Lake and former governor Nikki Haley. You get the idea. On the other hand, Kevin McCarthy refused an invitation to this year's event, as did Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence and a few other less extreme 2024 hopefuls.

CPAC, which is often credited with facilitating the rise of Donald Trump to national icon status some 12 years ago, is now very much a Trump support group. It has moved a long way from its old ACU days. Al Cardenas, ACU's ex-leader and one-time CPAC organizer, holds nothing back: "It has transformed itself into a Donald Trump-supporting group fully engaged with election deniers, culture wars and indicted guests". Prominent GOP strategist Dennis Lennox calls the modern-day CPAC "a carnival" with "a bunch of carnies grifting".

So, reliable? Not so much. Representative? Probably not. Influential? Ah, that's where we have to be careful. CPAC was instrumental in initially building the Trump political brand. It could do so again.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

Why are Republicans against supporting Ukraine?

When Russia first invaded Ukraine back in February 2022, pretty much the whole world was outraged (absent other autocratic countries like Iran and China, and whole host of smaller countries that are economically dependent on Russia and dare not criticize it publicly).

In America, both Republicans and Democrats expressed their outrage at Vladimir Putin's gross overreach, almost equally, despite the hangover of Donald Trump's ongoing bromance with Vlad (he managed to describe Putin "genius", "savvy" and "wonderful" in short order just after the invasion). Everyone seemed to be on board with helping poor downtrodden Ukraine in their existential fight against their overbearing neighbours. Oh, and that democracy thing.

One year later, hardly anyone (with the possible exception of Trump, but who listens to him any more?) would be caught publicly verbalizing admiration for Putin, who is now beyond the pale even for the American far right.

But there is increasing grumbling in the Republican ranks over the fact that the USA is still sending military aid east, to the tune of billions of dollars. This turnaround in attitudes actually started relatively early, with unsavoury characters like Republican Senator JD Vance announcing "I don't really care what happens to Ukraine", and then-Congresswoman Madison Cawthorne opining that "the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies", and of course, not to be outdone, Marjorie Taylor Greene calling the Ukrainians "neo-Nazis". Donald Trump Jr. dismissed Zelenskyy as an "ungrateful international welfare queen", and Tucker Carlson and Fox News predictably jumped all over this bandwagon.

Despite Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell declaring that "providing assistance for Ukrainians to defeat the Russians is the No. 1 priority for the United States right now", the idea of abandoning Ukraine and ceasing all American military support and involvement in its war is an increasingly acceptable point of view among Republican lawmakers, and also increasingly among the Republican voting public. A December 2022 poll found that, while 81% of Democrats were in favour of sending more military aid to Ukraine, only 48% of Republicans agreed (another poll found a similar 83% - 47% split). Interestingly, Republicans are now substantially less likely than Democrats to believe that the Ukraine war represents a threat to the USA.

As for why the Republicans have decided that enough is enough and that Ukraine should be cut loose to fight its own battles, that's not entirely clear to me. I think essentially it boils down to selfishness and America-First-ism, the perception that the US has its own problems and that its efforts should be direct there first (or exclusively). 

As Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy expressed it, with his usual gift for over-simplification, "I think people are going to be sitting in a recession, and they're not going to write a blank check to Ukraine". Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis also has also taken to referring to the current policy as a "blank check". GOP Representative Andrew Clyde calls Biden's policy "America Last". Marjorie Taylor Greene (her again!) says that President Biden "chose Ukraine over America", and that it was "insulting" for him to visit Kyiv. The people may be outliers, but they are influential and indicative of the way Republican thinking is going.

Republicanism and conservatism in general has always been a bastion of selfishness and self-absorption, and spending of any kind is frowned upon as a matter of principle. Giving billions to a country on the other side of the world is never going to be high on their list of priorities. "Doing the right thing" is not a big GOP principle.

Another element might be just knee-jerk hyper-partisanship. If the Democrats are all gung-ho pro-Ukraine and pro-military aid, then the Republicans, almost by definition, must be against that. (I kid you not - it is how these people think.) It is notable that several Republicans on the right of the party, like Josh Hawley and JD Vance, have explicitly identified China as the primary "threat" to America, and are keen to ramp up arms sales to Taiwan rather than send more military aid to Ukraine (note, though, that is "sales" not "aid").

Whatever the reasons, the GOP seems undeniably split on the issue. And maybe that's not a bad thing.

Friday, March 03, 2023

It's not news that China interferes in the poltics of Western democracies

It's kind of hard to get too excited about all the outrage being expressed - mainly by the opposition parties, but also by the mainstream press - about China's attempts to subvert Canadian democracy, and particularly the last two elections.

The flames have been especially fanned by the Globe and Mail, Canada's most respected newspaper, which cites their viewing of some unspecified and uncheckable "top secret intelligence documents" suggesting (again, in the Globe's opinion) that China wanted to make sure the Conservatives did not win the elections (as they are perceived by China as being more strongly anti-China), and that they wanted to restrict the Liberal win to a weak minority. That is indeed what happened, but to suggest that it happened that way because of China's all-encompassing dastardly plan is a huge and improbable stretch.

China's nefarious doings are being portrayed by some as an existential threat to the country and its way of life. In fact, it has long been known that China (and Russia and Iran) has been trying to mess with democratic elections in Canada and elsewhere for many years. It's what countries like that do. The best explanation I have heard is that totalitarian regimes like to show their people that democracies don't work, thus proving that their own system is superior. Well, maybe. It's as good an explanation as any.

The point is that they are not succeeding, whatever various Conservative MPs might insinuate. An independent review has concluded, pretty unequivocally, that the elections' integrity was not compromised.

So, the system works, the checks and balances are doing their job, life as we know it goes on. The sky is probably not going to fall today or tomorrow. Yes, we need to be ever-vigilant against constant Chinese political interference, but I'm not convinced that we need yet another expensive public inquiry into this matter - the Conservatives seem to call for a public inquiry into any little thing they don't like these days. And we just had an independent review, didn't we? If anything, we may need a public inquiry into how and why those "top secret documents" were leaked in the first place, and what the Globe and Mail stands to gain from their dogged pursuit of it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Outrage over horse meat is horse shit

An outraged article by the usually-quite-sensible Gary Mason in the Globe today caused me to break out my trademark wry smile. His outrage is over the "unconscionable horse slaughter" caused by the continuing international trade in live horses for meat (a "delicacy to the rich", as Mr. Mason has it).

Canada does indeed export live horses for this purpose - 14,500 over the last 5 years, apparently - particularly to Japan, which seems to have a taste for raw horsemeat for some strange reason. Yes, as Mr. Mason points out, they are indeed stuffed into wooden crates and kept without food or water for long periods before slaughter. And yes, the Liberal government did promise to outlaw the practice during the 2021 election (to counter the Conservatives' promise  to outlaw puppy mills), and they have still not acted on that promise.

But I still can't help but find Mr. Mason's language a little rich. He talks of the "poor creatures" which are "undoubtedly screaming in terror" as they take their final plane ride. He calls out the "horrible, horrible practice" as "animal cruelty of the worst kind". He takes an extended flight of fantasy as he imagines what the outcry would be like if the Canadian public found out that "cute little dogs" were being treated this way.

I'm guessing that Mr. Mason is not a vegetarian. Does he think that cows, sheep and pigs are treated much better in the commercial marketplace and factory farming system for meat products? Does he reserve his outrage for horses (and cute little dogs) just because he personally has a soft spot for them, and no doubt considers them "noble beasts"?

As a vegetarian of 40-odd years, I am most definitely not in favour of shipping animals abroad to assuage the weird culinary tastes of foreign cultures (Western culture has, generally speaking, decided that horses should not be on the menu, for whatever reason). But there seems to be a fair bit of hypocrisy and pecksniffery at play here, don't you think? I mean, pigs are a lot more intelligent than horses (although admittedly not as "cute"), shouldn't we be more outraged by their treatment?