Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Are orcas whales or dolphins?

We are currently on a cruise up the Norway fjords (yeah, I know, ME on a cruise), and there was a little flurry of excitement as we passed a small pod of whales. There was some discussion as to what kind of whales they were, and there was some talk about orcas (it turns out they were almost certainly fin whales).

But I was struck by a youngish American woman turning to her partner and sneering - and yes, it was definitely a disdainful sneer - "Orcas aren't even whales!" I realized that I wasn't as sure about that as she clearly was. Now, I know orcas are also popularly known as "killer whales", or at least they used to be: that seems to be no longer politically correct in the business. But I also know that orcas are really just oversized dolphins. So, is an orca a whale?

Orcas are indeed the largest (by far) of the dolphin family. But dolphins are also whales (kind of). A quick look at the cetacean family tree shows that cetaceans are split into baleen whales and toothed whales, and the toothed whales are in turn split into five families: narwhals and belugas, sperm whales, beaked whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Orcas are part of the dolphin family, but that does mean that orcas (as well as all other dolphins and porpoises) are in fact toothed whales.

So, Ms. Disdain was unfortunately incorrect. Orcas are not baleen whales, but they are still whales.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Ford has his reasons dissolving Region of Peel

The Ford government has committed to dissolving the Region of Peel, the area just to the west of Toronto that comprises the two large cities of Mississauga and Brampton and the scattered and largely rural township of Caledon. Under the plan, all three would become "single-tier municipalities" by 1st January 2025, whether they like it or not.

Mississauga (Ontario's third-largest city after Toronto and Ottawa) has been agitating for years to be independent of the Region, arguing that it feels unduly constrained and that it contributes disproportionately to Peel's coffers. Neither fast-growing Brampton (Ontario's fourth city) nor sleepy little Caledon have ever had any delusions of grandeur of this kind, as far as I am aware. In fact, Caledon's mayor is strongly opposed to the idea, saying that she feels like the child in the angry divorce of Mississauga and Brampton. So, this seems to be a provincial gift to 'Sauga, more than anything else. Maybe Ford sees it as a vote-winning policy, which knows?

Ontario's stated justification for the move is to give the municipalities "the tools and autonomy they need to deliver on local priorities, including meeting the ambitious housing pledges they have agreed to". It's not at all clear to me how cutting them loose from Peel is going to help them in that respect, although Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark has been up-front in admitting that the upgraded municipalities would be candidates for the controversial and anti-democratic "strong mayor" powers that this Conservative government espouses. He has also said that other regions in southern Ontario may follows including York, Durham, Halton, Niagara, Waterloo and Simcoe.

The logistical challenges are formidable, though. The municipalities within Peel share many services, including some roads, transit, housing, public health, garbage collection, social services, policing and water. Each municipality would have to create its own infrastructure to offer these services to its residents, likely a long and costly process (no-one really knows how costly). Mississauga and Brampton are already arguing about who owes whom for past developments within each other's borders (although why that ever even happened is beyond me). And what will happen to the 5,000-odd full-time employees of the Region of Peel is anyone's guess.

The legal, administrative and physical difficulties involved will be prodigious, and I just don't see the business case for such a split. But the Ford government does very little that does not support their ideological and self-preservation agenda, so you have to know that, behind any move the government instigates, there us a self-serving rationale.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Ontario power companies working against Toronto's (and the country's) climate mandate

Just a few days after Toronto City Council passed a motion specifically  opposing any new or expanded gas power generation in the city, Ontario's supposedly Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) has awarded a contract to Ontario Power Generation (OPG) to increase the capacity of the Portlands gas plant on Toronto's waterfront by 50 megawatts

This is in spite of IESO's admission that its new plan to expand gas-fired power capacity in Toronto, Brampton, Thorold, Windsor and St. Clair will increase Ontario's greenhouse gas emissions by over 450% by 2034 (this according to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance). Also, Ontario's energy minister Todd Smith recently promised that any new gas plant capacity would specifically require municipal approval.

So, something has to give, no? The IESO and OPG appears to be working diametrically opposite to the wishes of Toronto City Council, and diametrically opposed to the climate change goals of the province and the country. Does anyone have control over these organizations? Or maybe, Toronto and the other municipalities just have to say "er, no" and it will all just go away (I wish!) 

Green bonanza spurring corporate greed

Call it the tyranny of the green revolution. The recent stand-off over the Stellantis-LG electric vehicle battery plant planned for Windsor, Ontario, is just one front in a trade war that looks set to continue and spread.

Long before Joe Biden introduced his Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which allocated billions of dollars to expanding the US's green energy- and climate change-related industries, Amsterdam-based Stellantis and South Korea's LG formed a partnership and negotiated a project to build a $5 billion EV battery plant in Ontario, Canada, with $1 billion in federal and provincial support.

It seemed like a good deal for all concerned. But then came the IRA, and suddenly the clean-tech industry's horizons opened up, both in the US and in every other country that found itself competing against the Yankee dollar. It was in this heady atmosphere that Volkswagen negotiated a huge (and controversial) $13 billion sweetener from the Canadian government to locate an EV battery factory here rather than in the US. 

Then, rather belatedly, Stellantis realized that it too could benefit from this green bonanza, and suddenly reopened the Windsor plant deal, claiming that the federal government was not living up to its commitments ("not delivering on what was agreed to"). It immediately downed tools and stopped construction until it receives a VW-sized incentive payment from Ottawa. In effect, it is trying to blackmail the government, because it thinks it can.

In fact, it was a done deal months ago, and it is actually Stellantis that is not living up to its commitments, as it looks to cynically capitalize on the starkly changed landscape. I don't know how they can do that legally, but Stellantis clearly sees itself in such a strong position that it is going to browbeat the Canadian government into handing them yet more corporate welfare billions.

And if you don't believe that this is just Stellantis trying it on, it has also just threatened to pull out of a proposed battery plant in Britain (and re-locate it to North America, where they apparently offer all sorts of good government subsidies) if it won't re-negotiate the deal. Like Canada, Britain needs the batteries, and is stuck between a rock and hard place. And Stellantis, firmly in the driving seat, knows this very well.

The USA's IRA was a groundbreaking piece of legislation, and evidence that Biden at least is very serious about improving America's green credentials. But it is also having all sorts of unintended consequences far from America, and spurring on corporate greed to hitherto unknown levels.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

How much does it cost to shoot down Russian missiles?

I was reading about Ukraine shooting down Russian hypersonic missiles, and I got to wondering what was the cost/benefit of all these missiles and anti-missiles. 

As I understand it, each Patriot interceptor missiles costs about US$4 million (the US recently donated 252 missiles at a cost of US$1,037 million), and the Patriot launcher itself costs around US$10 million. The Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, on the other hand, supposedly cost US$10 million each.

Ukraine claims it shot down six Kinzhal missiles headed towards Kiev yesterday. Russia denies they were intercepted, but who would you believe, given a choice? Furthermore, Russia claims that one of their missiles destroyed a Patriot launcher (Western observers think it more likely that the launcher was just damaged, as Ukraine claims, and should be salvageable). 

So, Russia's six Kinzhals cost $60 million, and Ukraine lost 20 Patriot missiles (the best estimate of the number of missiles fired at the Kinzhals, according to local Ukrainian media) and a launcher (total $90 million), that's a pretty clear financial victory for Russia. But, of course, the value of the lives saved is incalculable.

It just goes to illustrate, though, how ridiculously expensive these modern weapons are. How can one missile cost $10 million? 

It also shows that, notwithstanding Vladimir Putin's claims, Russia's hypersonic cruise missiles, the most sophisticated weapons in its inventory and billed by the Kremlin as too fast for any missiles in the world to intercept, can in fact be stopped by Ukraine's new American-provided air-defence systems. 

It's not clear how many Kinzhal missiles Russia has at its disposal, but the Ukrainian Defence Ministry claims its stocks are critically low, and that it is not able to make more due to the restrictions of sanctions.

What if the United States were to increase its taxes...?

I recently looked at the United States' ridiculous debt cliff snafu, which rears its ugly and embarrassing head each year, and puts the world's richest country in limbo, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, while political machinations play out.

It happens because the US spends more than it raises in taxes each and every year, so the national debt keeps in rising inexorably. This currently stands at a mind-boggling $31.46 trillion, which is about 122% of GDP, higher than any other developed country except Italy (145%), Greece (177%) and Japan (261%), Which suggests that there is a systemic problem: it does not raise enough in taxes to pay for its profligate lifestyle. The idea of raising taxes, though, is anathema in the States, and political suicide. The Republicans would lower them still further given half a chance, making the chronic debt problem even worse.

But are American taxes actually that low? A look at total tax revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) shows the USA as somewhere in the middle of the pack, with a tax-to-GDP ratio of 27.1%, putting it at no. 56 in the rankings, just below Australia (27.8%) and just above South Korea (26.9%). But a look at just which countries lie above and below it gives a more illuminating picture.

The highest tax-to-GDP counties are almost all European, which may come as no surprise, headed up by France (46.2%), Denmark (46.0%), Belgium (44.6), Sweden (44.0) and Finland (43.3%). In fact, the top 30 countries are all European, with only Cuba (40.6%) preventing a clean European sweep. These are, in the main, high-functioning developed countries, with strong social safety nets.

Most of the countries with lower tax-to-GDP ratios, on the other hand, are poorer countries from Asia, South America and Africa, with poorly-developed state social programs, as well as wealthy Middle Eastern countries with more oil than sense. The only developed country with a significantly lower ratio than the USA is Ireland (22.6%), which makes a rather controversial virtue of its low taxes in an attempt to attract multinational headquarters.

Just for reference, Canada's taxes-to-GDP ratio comes in at no. 33 with a ratio of 32.2%, alongside Brazil and New Zealand. Canada's national debt sits at 106% of GDP, better than the USA, France and Spain, but still significantly higher than Australia, New Zealand and most other European countries with whom we might wish to compare ourselves.

Anyway, my point in going into all this is that the USA could stop constantly adding its national debt by increasing its taxes to a level consistent with most other developed countries. Not that that is ever going to happen, but just putting it out there.

Monday, May 15, 2023

100 million Canadians by 2100? Well, why not?

There's good commonsense article by Andew Coyne in this weekend's Globe and Mail about Canada's (and Quebec's) immigration policy.

The Liberal government's immigration targets are ambitious: 465,000 this year, 485,000 in 2024, and a cool half million in 2025. All these people have to be absorbed, fed, housed and employed. Immigration-averse Quebec, however, wants to keep its annual immigration numbers at just 50,000, which would mean many more Anglos moving into the rest of Canada, and Quebec losing some of its population share (and its influence). 

You could argue that Quebec's influence within Canada has always been outsized compared to its population anyway, but Le Journal de Montréal published a series of articles last week on the subject, arguing that this is all a dastardly plot by Anglophone Canada to deliberately sideline Quebec and to kill off the French language in Canada. This is clearly not the case, but that is how many Quebeckers are apparently seeing it.

One thing Le Journal de Montréal accuses the federal government of is that they have signed on to the policies of the Century Initiative (an admittedly Liberal-adjacent activist group), which is calling for a Canadian population of 100 million by the end of the century. The federal Liberals have never espoused that particular target, and they have no links to the Century Initiative.

Except... in reality, 100 million by 2100 is not actually a particularly radical or ambitious goal. Through the magic of compounding, to get from our current almost 40 million to 100 million in 77 years implies a growth rate of just 1.2% a year. This, as it turns out, is exactly the same as Canada's historic population growth rate since 1970. So, the Century Initiative is actually just a continuation of the status quo. And we have 77 years to adapt and figure out how to feed and clothe all the newcomers.

Quebec's immigration plan, on the other hand, will lead to a progressively smaller Quebec, from 22% of the country's population to just 15% by the end of the century, with a concomitant decrease in the number of French speakers. Quebec used to have an even larger share of the national population, but 50 years of language wars, secession threats and economic uncertainty put paid to that, immigration policy notwithstanding. The language may not be exactly thriving, but don't blame federal immigration policy for it. 

And anyway, even with Quebec's self-imposed low immigration targets and its low internal fertility rates, the province's population would still almost double by century end. So, lots of new Francophones to keep the language going. 

Certainly, we should not allow Quebec to dictate the country's immigration policy, nor give in to demands that Quebec be guaranteed its current share of the seats in the House of Common in perpetuity (as has been suggested). Quebec thinks it is special, and it has been treated as special ever since Confederation for one reason or another. It's about time they came down to a level playing field with the other provinces.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Sustainable chocolate is unsustainable

Up to half of all chocolate these days claims to be from sustainably-sourced cocoa (cacao). It's a marketing sine qua non for chocolate companies, and one that has been very good to the $140 billion a year chocolate industry. The confectionary divisions of the Big 4 - Hershey, Lindt, Mondelez and Nestlé - have made nearly US$15 billion in profits over the last three years, an average annual increase of 16% since 2020.

The reality is, though, that "sustainability" is a vaguely-defined and slippery concept, and most certified farmers in West Africa and elsewhere still earn much less than a living income. It is a scam and a scandal that has flown for years below most people's radar.

Most of the cocoa that goes to make our cheap chocolate bars comes from West Africa: Ivory Coast (39%), Ghana (15%), Cameroon (5%) and Nigeria (5%). The other large producer is Indonesia (15%). South American countries like Brazil (5%) and Ecuador (5%) are surprisingly small players (who knew?). All are tropical countries, of course, and almost all are poor developing countries. 

Most cocoa-producing farmers exist at or below the poverty line. For example, more than half of cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast earn less than the official national poverty line of US$3 a day (by Fairtrade International calculations, 88% earn less than a "living wage"). Many poor cocoa farmers have never been able to try chocolate, and do not even know what the final product tastes like. Most farmers only use fertilizers when they feel they can afford it (maybe every three years), and yields are inexorably falling as soil conditions degrade.

Given the pressure to produce more to try and escape the low wage trap, child labour is endemic in the industry. An estimated 1.5 million children are working in the cocoa farms of Ivory Coast and Ghana alone. 

Producing countries are also competing against each other to some extent, deliberately keeping their prices low to attract investment. Internal political considerations also play into the equation: for example, the price Ivory Coast farmers were offered for their cocoa mysteriously increased just before a recent election, only to mysteriously fall again right after the election. The farmers themselves are just expendable pawns in this game, and most have no idea how prices and payments are calculated. 

Climate change, droughts and hurricanes, as well as pandemic-related inflation and general market chaos resulting from the war in Ukraine, have all taken their toll on cocoa farms in recent years. Just to make things worse, bandits armed with Kalashnikovs have been hijacking cocoa truck in some areas.

Fair trade organizations like Fairtrade International and Rainforest Alliance were established to advocate for farmers and to negotiate with producing countries and manufacturers to help ensure farmers receive a "living income". 

The fair trade system is supposed to ensure that cocoa farmers are paid more, and that their farms adhere to labour and environmental standards. And they have had some limited success in that respect, and their system of third-party verification and certification has been a model for the industry. 

The establishment of local selling cooperatives has also given farmers some limited power over the prices they can charge, although they are still very much at the mercy of industry forces, and only a small percentage of producers are represented by coops anyway.

However, many large chocolate producing companies have established their own corporate in-house sustainability programs. This maybe sounds like a good thing, but they tend to be much less transparent than the likes of Fairtrade International, and commercial pressures and their divided loyalties typically do not encourage improvements in the lots of local farmers, rather setting off a "race to the bottom", while at the same time allowing the companies to claim sustainability on their marketing labels.

The raw materials provided by cocoa farmers only represents around 7% of the cost of a bar of chocolate. So, chocolate producers - making those huge, and increasing, profits, remember - could easily afford to, say, double what they pay to the farmers.(although, by some estimates, their incomes need to be tripled or even quadrupled to bring them up to a living wage).

The word "fairtradewashing" has not made it into general usage - in fact, I just made it up as far as I know - but I'm sure you know exactly what it means. The whole industry needs a lot more regulation, a dirty word in globalized corporate circles. But without it, those struggling farmers will continue to struggle, and they never get to try a bar of chocolate. Think of that!

And check those labels: make sure it is certified by Fairtrade International or another non-profit organization, not by the producing company itself.

Friday, May 12, 2023

CNN's Trump interview may have back-fired badly

After CNN's recent foray into high-risk television, people are speaking out about its decision to interview Donald Trump. With views ranging from "outright disaster" to "major inflection point" to "worthy exercise in democracy", it has certainly generated debate.

Given that CNN has been Trump's main media punching bag for years, and his most vocal and outspoken critic, it was a brave and certainly a strange move on CNN 's part to hold a prime-time "town hall" style interview with Trump, held in New Hampshire with a deliberately partisan audience of Republican voters who cheered his every word and laughed at all his jokes. It went pretty much how you might have expected it to, with Trump doubling down on his various lies, interrupting and bad-mouthing the interviewer, and steamrolling over any attempt at fact-checking (as CNN should have known, Trump's lies and errors come thicker and faster than any fact-checker can respond).

CNN's journalists have been at pains since the event to justify it. Event interviewer Kaitlyn Collins called it "a major inflection point in the Republican Party's search for its nominee and potentially the starting line for America's next presidential race" (an inflection point implies a change of direction - I see no such change). Anderson Cooper argued, "Do you think staying on your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to meet that person go away?" (But does Trump really need CNN to help him get his message out, I think most people on the right and the left know where he is coming from). CNN Worldwide's CEO Chris Licht defended it by claiming that "people woke up and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn't the day before" (ditto: most CNN watchers were quite aware of Trump and the existential threat he poses).

Many disagree. Former CNN correspondent Keith Olbermann called it "the Hindenberg of TV news", noting that "CNN gave its credibility to Trump's madness", and called for resignations. MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan opines, "I would argue that 'making news' is not our job; holding power to account is. And on that measure, the town hall last night was a complete and utter failure". Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez points out that "CNN allowing sexual assault to be treated like a joke to an applauding audience is egregious".

Frankly, I think the nays have it. Trump does not need more free publicity from his opponents.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Where does all that excavated dirt end up?

There was an illuminating article in the Globe and Mail today about the disposal of excavated dirt from construction sites.

In a city the size of Toronto, and with as much development going on as there is here, an awful lot of soil, dirt and rubble is being moved every day. There is a constant stream of those triple-axle dump trucks moving through and out of downtown (I know because I regularly get stuck behind them). 

I have often wondered what happens to it all. I had some vague notion that most of it still ends up on the Leslie Street Spit, where it provides the base for Tommy Thompson Park and the  nature reserve there. I should probably have known that the truth would not be quite so benign.

The province of Ontario as a whole generates over 25 million cubic metres of excess silt, clay, gravel and other soils each year from construction projects, and most of it is transported by hired haulage companies and subcontractors, often self-employed individuals, which operate under little or no regulation. The cost of managing this excess soil represents as much as 14% of the total costs of construction projects, so it's actually a big deal.

It may surprise you to discover, then - or maybe not! - that those many thousands of truckloads are moved around with little to no documentation or supervision. There are virtually no rules governing where and how this dirt is disposed of. In fact, there used to be literally no rules, but recently Ontario has introduced a public registry detailing the volumes of soil to be excavated, what type and what chemicals it contains, where it us being taken to, and by whom.

To be fair, some of the more responsible contractors have been doing this very thing for years. But many more have not, and, even with the new rules, there is little in the way of supervision and enforcement to ensure compliance. Usually, the process would be as basic as an antiquated system of tear-off paper tickets. 

Furthermore, there are few checks on the content and contamination levels of excavated dirt. Although there have been a few high-profile court cases over the years over misidentified contaminated soil, it is anybody's guess how much other bad stuff has slipped through the net.

Much of the excavated dirt ends up in landfills, where it incurs tipping fees and takes up valuable landfill space. Soils containing known contaminants are supposed to go to licensed treatment facilities for remediation, but not everything goes where it is supposed to (some project managers actually hire students to follow disposal subcontractors to see where they go). Some of it is used on airfields, where is provides a base for runway extensions, and to help fill in gravel pits and quarries. 

But some of it - and we have no idea how much - is just dumped in rural areas, wasteland, flood plains, even environmentally-sensitive wetlands. Very little soil is recycled or reused - although the separation technology exists, it costs money and developers typically don't want to spend money unnecessarily. "Fill brokers", middlemen who match soil generators with users, do exist, but they too cost money and are under-utilized.

The new Ontario laws will certainly help. They set out criteria for reusing excess soil, excavation, soil testing, data tracking and other aspects of soil handling, all managed by a new Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority. The rules are being introduced in phases, e.g. dumping reusable soil in a landfill will not be permitted come 2025. All of this will cost developers more, so they are not happy, although they have already had so many kickbacks from the Ford government that they probably don't feel able to complain too much. 

And still there are questions about enforcement of the new rules. The new regulatory authority still has not issued any penalties, preferring to address issues of non-compliance with "education and outreach". It seems likely that the old "dig-and-dump" policy, utilized officially or otherwise by contractors, may well continue for some time, mainly motivated by economic considerations.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Trump supporters not likely to be deterred by latest court case

A New York jury found Donald Trump guilty of sexual abuse and defamation, and fined him $5 million in one of the many court cases he us facing. The charge of rape was thrown out, mainly due to the rather narrow legal definition of rape. He didn't bother turning up for the court case (or, more likely, was discouraged by his lawyer), and says he will appeal the verdict. Although he is unlikely to win the appeal, it will kick the can down the road until after the next election.

There are no surprises in any of this. Me, I am waiting to see the next voter intention polls. My hunch is that his popularity among his supporters will not be affected at all, and may even increase. Which will tell us everything we need to know about the people who vote for him.

Turkmenistan, an environmental disaster and not likely to change

Here's some alarming news, as if we needed more. Greenhouse gases from the oil and gas fields of Turkmenistan (where? you say) are huge and growing, equivalent to the entire annual CO2 output of a developed country like the UK.

The emissions, which are described as "mind-boggling" are mainly in the form of vented methane, which is harder to monitor than carbon dioxide but some 80 times more potent (over 20 years). There is some evidence that Turkmenistan deliberately changed from flaring (burning) its methane (which effectively converts it into CO2) to venting it unburned specifically because it is harder to detect and  monitor. 

Turkmenistan is the world's worst for super-emitting methane leaks, far outstripping even the USA and Russia.

And this does not even include Turkmenistan's offshore oil and gas installations in the Caspian Sea, which are even harder to monitor.

Turkmenistan, which is China's second-largest gas provider after Australia, uses ageing Soviet-era equipment and practices in its oil and gas fields. Although upgrading to more modern technology and processes would vastly improve its GHG profile, that is probably not going to happen any time soon. Turkmenistan has steadfastly refused to join the Global Methane Pledge to cut emissions, and does not seem very interested in other global climate change initiatives.(although technically it did sign onto the Paris Agreement on Climate Change). 

It doesn't help that Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive states in the world, vying with North Korea for the title of least-visited country. Although huge, the country is mainly desert and extremely inhospitable to life. Outside of the capital, its inhabitants are largely nomads. It has a one-party government, and is ruled with a rod of iron by a secretive and unpredictable dictator-president. 

So, all things considered, Turkmenistan is not a club-joiner or a conference-attender, and is probably not very amenable to bend to international moral pressure from the West (or any other part of the world for that matter).

The USA's debt ceiling has outlived its usefulness

Here we go again: the USA, the world's richest country, is about to go bankrupt again. Every year, we go through this nail-biting drama as the United States reaches it debt ceiling. Recently, though, things have become even more fraught as the Republicans use it as a cynical political tool to force through some issues on which they are not making much headway through other, more legitimate, means.

You see, the US spends more than it makes, constantly, every year. So, each year Congress has to vote to increase the country's debt limit, so that it can borrow more to cover its spending plans. President Biden needs to increase the debt ceiling, without which the country would officially run out of money and go into default position by June 1st. If the country can't pay its workers, its bills or the interest on its debts, this would lead to mass panic in the financial markets, a loss of investor confidence, and the possible loss of thousands of jobs.

But congressional Republicans are saying they need to see billions of dollars in spending cuts before they will sign on to the increase (because, you know, Republicans don't like to spend money, even if it's on affordable housing or social security). So, it comes down to a game of chicken - who will blink first?

But it really doesn't have to be like this. In fact, it didn't use to be like this. Prior to 1917, Congress had to approve very little issuance of debt separately, which was admittedly not very convenient, particularly with all the First World War spending. So, a debt ceiling was enacted which only needed to be approved once a year. The system was fine-tuned in 1939, but essentially it has been working fine for the last hundred years or so, with some debate but very little crisis. 

Until it was realized that the debt ceiling renewal could be politicized, a moment that can maybe traced back to the machinations of the right-wing Tea Party in 2011. In recent years, the annual debt increase has become increasingly fraught as opposition parties look to hold the economy hostage for political gain in a very high-stakes game of brinksmanship. It's kind of embarrassing for the country, but what to do?

Some politicians are, understandably, pretty fed up with this, as is the American business community, and there are moves afoot in some quarters (on the both the right and the left, although mainly the left) to just scrap the whole thing. Senator Elizabeth Warren lays it out: "We should get rid of the debt ceiling. There's no other function than to let hostage-takers ply their trade". Senator Sheldon Whitehouse talks of "the need to get rid of this arbitrary mechanism that offers no benefits yet carries with it the power to deliver serious damage". Many agree that it increasingly puts the credibility of the US government at risk, for little or no benefit. Joe Biden is apparently not convinced.

However, it's hard to know what to replace it with. Suggestions have included the use of the Constitution's 14th Amendment, which would allow a president to raise the limit unilaterally on the grounds that it would be unconstitutional for the country not to pay its debt obligations. Another scheme suggests the issuance of a trillion dollar coin by the US Mint, with which the Treasury could then pay its debts (I kid you not).

Most other countries seem to be able to get by without an official debt ceiling; the USA is an outlier in that respect. If they could pass legislation to create it, surely they could pass more legislation to do away with it. But inertia is a powerful force, and there does snot seem to be a critical mass of opposition to it just yet.

Our post-truth world makes a mockery of politics

There is not much to be done about politicians (and whole national governments) that indulge in - there's no nice way to say this - constant bare-faced lying. Some say we are living in a post-truth world.

Take China, for example, which recently berated Canada for the "false accusation of Chinese interference in Canada's internal affairs" (not false), and blistered that Canada must "stop its provocations at once" ("provocations"? Who started this?)

Or take Vladimir Putin, who blathers at his Victory Day parade, "A real war has been unleashed against our motherland again", when he is clearly the one unleashing wars against other people's motherlands.

Or Donald Trump: "I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHO THIS WOMAN IS" (sorry about the all-caps, that's just how Trump writes). Or Boris Johnson: " If anybody thinks I was partying during lockdown, they are completely wrong".

All of this has been underscored recently by the Russia-Ukraine war. Here, as in most wars, to be fair, truth rarely makes a dent in the barrage of propaganda that, maybe inevitably, accompanies war. One side says X town has been re-taken; the other side says "Rubbish!", the town is ours. And so it goes on. Our tendency is to believe Ukraine, because they are the good guys in this, but in reality both sides are probably lying, at least to some extent, and everybody knows and apparently accepts that.

But returning to the populists and autocrats, these people must know that what they are saying is patently untrue, but feel secure enough in their position, or in their own little psychological bubble, that no-one will take them to task over their untruths. I refuse to believe that they are stupid enough to actually believe what they are saying. I'm not even sure that it can be put down to some mental health aberration. It appears to be a conscious decision to lie in order to justify their actions because they think they can get away with it (and, depressingly, on the face of it, they are probably right).

But it makes a mockery of normal political debate. Imagine having to respond to that level of deceitfulness and mendacity, day after day. What would even be the point in engaging with it? No-one believes a word that these countries and individuals say, so how can we carry on any effective political discourse?

I think this kind of insincerity has probably been a political challenge for many decades, maybe forever (think Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, the Trojan horse). But am I wrong in thinking that it has become significantly worse in this current age of populist demagoguery? Most of the perpetrators are either mad autocrats or cynical populists, although I am starting to worry about some of the other politicians who are being corrupted by these role models. Will we reach the stage where lying becomes the default mode, and the art of politics as we know it is all but dead?

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Alberta all in favour of federalism when it's in its own interest

It's salutary to note that Danielle Smith is not above putting her hand out to the federal government for financial aid to deal with Alberta's current rash of forest fires.

I would have thought that would be in direct contravention of her own striving for provincial sovereignty. Alberta's recently passed Sovereignty Act purports to ensure that Alberta can flout federal laws and rules with impunity. But she seems quite keen on federalism when it suits her own purposes. So much for Albertan autonomy.

Trudeau shows some maturity in response to Poilievre's taunts

So, Canada finally got around to expelling Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei for his part in the harassment and intimidation of Conservative MP Michael Chong a couple years ago. It's a tit-for-tat move, and you might be tempted to see it as childish and immature, but the point needed to be made in a clear and unambiguous way: China might be a bully, but it can't just interfere in the politics of sovereign countries with impunity. 

For its part, China released a statement claiming that "China never interferes in other countries' internal affairs" (yeah, right!), and that Canada can expect "resolute and strong reactions" if it continues down this path, a relatively muted response by Chinese standards.

Whether or not you buy Justin Trudeau's claims that he didn't know about China's threats to Chong until the Globe and Mail newspaper blew this all up recently, as least he and his team have not acted precipitately and without a full scrutiny of the all complex geopolitical considerations that might be involved. 

Imagine if Pierre Poilievre had been in charge. Outrage is Poilievre default mode and, although he mainly does it to complain about anything that Trudeau does and says - or doesn't do and say - in order to score cheap political points while in opposition, he appears to value action (any action) over thought (any thought). But shooting from the hip is not necessarily a very desirable quality in a politician (cf. Donald Trump).

Make no mistake, calling a senior Chinese diplomat "persona non grata" is a huge slap in the face for China, and it will not go unpunished. Canada can expect some serious (and probably entirely disproportionate) blowback from China in the next few days or weeks, however well-deserved the slap may have been. 

For better or worse, China is Canada's No. 2 trade partner, with $100 billion or so hanging on the bilateral trade relationship every year. But Canada is only China's 18th largest trading partner, so they have much less skin in the game. Poking the dragon is a dangerous game, despite Poilievre's bluster.

That is the difference between being in opposition and being in power. Poilievre's can say all sorts of principled and impressive-sounding things as opposition leader. But, once in power, politicians have to take responsibility for their actions, and to take into account their potential repercussions on the average citizens they represent. Realpolitik is a real thing.

In my opinion, a short delay for sober thought does not show Trudeau as an indecisive ditherer. Rather it shows a sense of responsibility and maturity, in sharp relief against Poilievre's bombast and bluster.


As it turns out, China's response to the Canada's expulsion of its diplomat was swift but unexpectedly mild, at least thus far: a Canadian diplomat of a similar level of seniority was expelled from Shanghai.

But the point is, no-one (including Pierre Poilievre) had any idea what their response would be. It could have been a major trade war, or the arbitrary incarceration of a Canadian citizen(s). You just don't know with China. Hence, it's always the right thing to do to tread softly and carefully, and not go flying in with guns blazing. Their guns are bigger than ours, should they choose to use them.

Monday, May 08, 2023

Britain's medieval fantasy

And in between all this, we had a Coronation. Well, Britain had a Coronation. The rest of the the world looked on in tolerant bemusement. The rest of the world doesn't really care if Britain has a king or not. (Actually, Canada does, because it costs us money.)

A writer in The Guardian gave a good, amusing overview of the shenanigans that went down. Funnily enough, I had exactly the same thought about bladders (because yes, dear readers, I did watch some of it - my wife switched the TV on, in my defence). And about it dragging on interminably, despite it being apparently pared down and "modernized". And it only cost taxpayers a paltry £100 million (C$150 million). Like I said, pared down.

Perhaps the best snippet from the article: "A modern 21st-century democracy reliving a medieval fantasy". Says it all in eight words, really.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Constitutional monarchies tend to be good, stable, prosperous countries: coincidence?

I'd never really thought about it before, but it's true: most of the most prosperous, open, stable and progressive countries in the world are in fact constitutional monarchies. Think of Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Belgium, Japan: yup, they all have kings and queens (or emperor in the case of Japan, but same idea).

Coincidence? Maybe. Correlation is not causation, as they say. And monarchs typically have next to influence on the political system of the country, with the kings and queens (and emperors) playing almost no practical part of the actual running of these countries: their roles are almost entirely symbolic. But it still seems like quite a coincidence, no?

Actually, if you look at the Good Country Index, 5 of the top 10, and 11 of the top 20, countries are constitutional monarchies. So, only about half. But consider: there are only 43 constitutional monarchies worldwide out of 206 sovereign states, i.e. about 20%. So then the "half" mentioned above becomes a lot more significant.

Anyway, I won't belabour the point. But food for thought.

In Alberta, the choice is either left or right, no centre (or is it?)

Alberta is not like other Canadian provinces. Not in the respect that many Albertan Conservative would like hard  you to think, not in a Quebec-style "distinct society" way. But it is the only province where the political choice us either hard left or hard right, with nothing in between.

The United Conservative Party (UCP) is further to the right than any other provincial party (with the possible exception of the Saskatchewan Party), and domintes most of the province politically. The two main cities, Calgary and Edmonton, are less Conservative, and between them provide enough population to balance out the rural/small town conservative base.

Edmonton is firmly left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) territory. Calgary is where Alberta elections are won and lost, because the population there tends to be fiscally Conservative with a distinct socially progressive streak. Ridings there can go either way, depending on whether people focus on their economic or their social feelings.

There are 26 ridings in Calgary, 20 in Edmonton, and 41 in smaller urban and rural communities. In the last provincial election, the NDP won 19 of 20 Edmonton ridings, 3 of 26 in Calgary, and just 2 of 41 elsewhere. Many of the Calgary results were relatively close, though, so you can see why so much effort is being focussed there in the run-up to this year's provincial election, especially given that UCP leader Danielle Smith is even more disliked and distrusted than her predecessor, Jason Kenney.

Nowhere until this analysis, though, is the middle-of-the-road Liberal Party, which you would think might satisfy someone of those on-the-edge voters. In most of Canada, the Liberal Party is the party that provides the main opposition to a not-quite-so-extreme Conservative wing, they have the ability to morph to fit any number of different political profiles, either further to the left or even centre right, as needed. It is a woolly, malleable beast, and much of its historical success results from exactly that.

But not in Alberta. There, the choice is either a distinct left or a distinct right.

NDP leader Rachel Notley is a wily campaigner (and ex-Premier), more than capable of persuading fence-sitters over to her side. Danielle Smith is a bit of a loose cannon, apparently a little too cozy with the more radical "Take Back Alberta" right, and thereby distinctly vulnerable. And interestingly, the Alberta NDP maybe taking a leaf out of the Liberal playbook and moving more centre-wards in order to improve their electability. So, it's going to be a pretty interesting election later this month.

Friday, May 05, 2023

Coronation quiche is not a quiche at all

I suppose the French had to get involved in British monarch Charles III's coronation somehow. But who knew it would be over sometimes as central and fundamental as the "Coronation Quiche".

Devised by Royal Chef Mark Flanagan ("flan again"?), the Coronation Quiche is, yes, a quiche featuring spinach, broad beans, cheese and tarragon (it actually sounds pretty good to me), and it is being pushed as a "good sharing dish" for those participating in Coronation Big Lunch celebration. The recipe has been shared many times over on social media.

But many Brits, and even royalists, are unsure about the Coronation Quiche idea, which was intended to resonate with the British public like the Coronation Chicken did some 70 years ago. Some are complaining about the cost of ingredients and the difficult of finding eggs in supermarkets of late. Some say it's just too French an idea to be truly British.

Speaking of the French, according to Évelyne Muller-Dervaux, the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of the Quiche Lorraine - and yes, she is a she, despite the testosterone-laden title - it is not a "quiche" at all, merely a "savoury tart". Another Brotherhood member added, "I think it would anyway have better reflected the British spirit if they had called it a tart" (whatever THAT might insinuate). 

A quiche, the Brotherhood insists, is a Quiche Lorraine, made with eggs, ham and lardons (NO cheese). The two terms are indistinguishable; there is no quiche but Quiche Lorraine. Of course, that's news to most Brits, and even most French people, not to mention others around the world, for whom "quiche" is a general term, and comes in many different favours (broccoli, chicken, cheese, yes even broad beans). Incidentally, Quiche Lorraine is not even French, technically: it was developed in the Lorraine region when it was still part of Germany.

Anyway, all of this sounds like typical French exceptionalism and overreach, like insisting that Champagne can only come from Champagne, but much broader. And why do they even care? Despite what Ms. Muller-Dervaux thinks, the rest of the world will happily go on making quiche with broccoli, spinach, even - sacre bleu! - cheese. And quite rightly too. 

The Académie Française may feel it has a stranglehold over the French language (and how is THAT going?), but it can't dictate what we eat, or what we call what we eat.

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Kremlin drone shoot-downs look like amateurish disinformation

Russia is claiming that Ukrainian drones have attacked the Kremlin in Moscow in recent days, providing some unauthenticated video to show brave Russian aerial defenders shooting down the dastardly attempt on the life of Our Glorious Leader Vladimir Putin. Russia is describing it as "a planned terrorist attack and an assassination attempt on the President" that it was lucky enough to foil at the very last second. Just for good measure, Russia is also claiming that the United States was almost certainly behind it.

Putin wasn't there anyway at the time (it was the middle of the night), and even if he was on one of his rare visits to the Kremlin, he would almost certainly have been in the strongly protected bunker below the main building, in no danger from an aerial drone attack.

President Zelenskyy has, reasonably enough, pointed put that Ukraine does not have spare long-distance drones to send on such low-probability attacks; they are much too busy trying to defend their own territory and people from Russia's constant barrage of illegal attacks on their civilian population and infrastructure. It suggests that this was a "false flag operation", possibly to provide a pretext for even larger "retaliatory" attacks on Ukraine in the coming days, i.e. a justification for Russia's own attacks on civilian targets, and maybe even an escalation thereof. 

The official American response reiterates that "the United States was not involved in any way", and warns that Russian claims should be always taken with a "very large shaker of salt". Most other Western commentators agree that it is more likely to be a Russian fabrication. Certainly, it seems strange that Ukrainian drones were allowed to travel so far, and only to be shot down right above the Kremlin, just in time to be caught on an amateur video that just happened to be filming the building in the middle of the night.

It kind of makes you wonder, though, why Russia thought it necessary to go through this kind of exculpatory justification exercise when they have been carrying out illegal strikes in Ukraine for the last 15 months. They are unlikely to suddenly get world public opinion on their side now, and they have never seemed concerned about this in the past. It just looks like a rather desperate and amateurish attempt at self-justification.

Monday, May 01, 2023

The closest planet to the Earth - really?

Well, who knew? When asked which planet is the nearest to the Earth, as contestants on an episode of British quiz show QI were recently, I would probably have gone for Venus. Others may have guessed Mars (and did). One contestant guessed the Moon, which is a real non-starter. But only one contestant guessed correctly: Mercury!

The problem is the way the planets are normally shown in models of the Solar System, which have Mercury closest to the Sun, followed by Venus, then Earth and then Mars. But planetary orbits are not as well behaved as that model suggests.

The minimum distance from Earth to Venus is 24 million miles, to Mars 34 million miles, and to Mercury 48 million miles. But planetary orbits, particularly Mercury's, are more or less eccentric, and Venus, for example, spends much if its time on the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth. Anyway, computer modelling reveals that Mercury is closest to the Earth 46% of the time, Venus is closest 36% of the time, and Mars just 18% of the time, making Mercury the closest on average.

Of course, the answer to the question depends on your definition of "closest" - I would still argue that Venus is closest, because it comes closest! - but it's interesting how our preconceptions can be upset.