Thursday, 25 July 2019

Religious Tolerance on the Decline

Quebec's Bill 21 which bans public teachers, police officers, government lawyers and other authority figures from wearing religious symbols at work has met vigorous criticism. Its critics claim it violates religious freedom and discriminates against specific religions. Given that it seems aimed particularly at Muslim women who wear the hijab, it may indeed be discriminatory. Predictably, the law is now before the courts.

Quebec becomes the first place in North America to institute such a ban. If it is indeed anti-religious, or at least anti one religion, it is part of a worldwide trend. A recent report by the Pew Research Center claims that, "Over the decade from 2007 to 2017, government restrictions on religion—laws, policies and actions by state officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices—increased markedly around the world." I am no lover of religion, and wouldn't waste a moment defending it, but as a democrat the erosion of a basic freedom is of concern to me. Freedom of religion is commonly a fundamental right in democratic constitutions, as it is in ours, an obstacle Quebec is attempting to avoid by invoking the Charter's notwithstanding clause.

According to the Pew report, 52 governments now impose high or very high levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007. The most prevalent types of restrictions include laws and policies restricting religious freedom and government favoritism of religious groups through funding for religious education, property and clergy. Social hostility involving religion, including harassment by private individuals and groups, has also risen.

The level of restrictions is highest in the Middle East-North Africa region, although some of the biggest increases have been in other regions, including Europe, where more governments have been placing limits on Muslim women’s dress, and sub-Saharan Africa, where some groups have tried to impose their religious norms on others through kidnappings and forced conversions. Social hostilities have also been consistently high in the Middle East-North Africa region.

The top twenty countries that show favoritism to a religion are all Muslim except for Great Britain, Greece and Iceland which have state religions, the latter two government funded. Many countries require some form of registration for religious groups to operate. For example, in China only certain religious groups are allowed to register with the government and hold worship services, and in Saudi Arabia public practice of all non-Muslim religions is illegal. China has infamously sent hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims to “reeducation camps” while Myanmar has committed widespread abuses against the Muslim Rohingya.

Considering the kinds and degree of violence religious groups around the world suffer from, Quebec's law looks pretty tame. Nonetheless, it is a step in the wrong direction as its invoking of the Charter's notwithstanding clause testifies to. May its opponents have success in the courts.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Democracy Needs Gatekeepers

When the Internet arrived and then computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee unleashed the world wide web, a paradise of communication loomed. Now everyone could have access to all the world's knowledge. We would all know everything we wanted or needed to know to make us ideal citizens. We would make wise decisions and choose the best of leaders. And of course we could say anything we wanted, when we wanted, and broadcast it around the world. What freedom! The idea of having a public statement you wanted to make screened by editors at a newspaper or magazine seemed undemocratic and antiquated.

How naive we were. Yes, the Internet would make the truth available to all, but it has also made lies available to all, and unfortunately people often prefer the latter to the former. As for becoming wiser in our choice of leaders, that has obviously not happened.

The Internet is in fact a paradise for liars. They can tell any lie they choose, they can broadcast it to the ends of the Earth, and they can do it anonymously. They don't have to stand accountable for their mendacity. And they exploit their opportunity to the hilt, undermining democracy and promoting hate. And lies are not the only sin: anonymity has reduced much online dialogue to the level of the sewer. (American author Mike Godwin enunciated a law saying that as a thread of posts grew longer, inevitably someone would call someone else a Nazi.) And online anonymity also leads to innocent people becoming the victims of bullying and abuse.

Furthermore, personal privacy has been egregiously violated, and companies parasitically rob mainstream media of advertising revenue, driving them into bankruptcy.

Democracy needs gatekeepers. The editors of newspapers and magazines had their faults but they attempted at least to ensure that public comments were literate, factual, reasonably logical and respectful. They were, in my experience, also fair. When I subscribed to The Globe and Mail, I had many letters published even though I often disagreed with the paper's editorial policy.

Understandably, although a sizable majority of online adults continue to believe the internet has been a good thing for society, the number saying this is declining. Fortunately, this has drawn attention. As a result of various scandals, some social media services are now screening posts to their sites. A number of countries are considering data protection legislation and regulation. The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a good example, establishing a set of data protection rules for all companies operating in the EU, regardless of where they are based.

In the U.S., presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for anti-trust action against the big dot.coms, a call echoed by the justice department and the Federal Trade Commission. The latter voted to fine Facebook approximately $5-billion for mishandling personal information.

The World Wide Web Foundation has made a number of recommendations to counter the toxic uses of the Internet, including equipping every user with the right and ability to control their personal data, enacting comprehensive data protection laws, and enacting policies and enforcing regulations that protect the right to safety alongside the right to freedom of speech. The latter would require "public discussions regarding the boundaries between free speech and abusive speech; retraining judges, lawyers and police to make use of existing legal instruments to effectively protect people ... from online abuse; ... and ensuring online service providers offer easy-to-use mechanisms to report abuse."

The foundation's recommendations are a tall order but necessary if the Web is to be truly a public good. Its proposed principles are contained in a report entitled The Case #ForTheWeb, a recommended read for those who would like a healthy future for the Web. The World Wide Web Foundation (founded, incidentally, by Tim Berners-Lee) can be found here.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

A Platform for Tax Fairness

"Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." This quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is the motto of Canadians for Tax Fairness, an organization that "advocates for fair and progressive tax policies aimed at building a strong and sustainable economy, reducing inequalities and funding quality public services."

The group has released a set of recommendations entitled Platform for Tax Fairness to help parties include tax fairness measures in their election platforms. The document is well worth a read. I found a number of the recommendations particularly appealing. For instance,

• Eliminating the corporate stock option tax deduction. Among other things, the deduction encourages executives to use corporate funds to engage in stock buybacks. This is precisely what happened in the U.S. with the Trump tax cuts.

• Eliminating the lower tax rate on capital gains. This is one of the country's major loopholes, and clearly unfair to working people who have to pay taxes on their full incomes.

• Restoring the corporate tax rate to that of a decade ago. It has been cut in half in the last two decades.

• Applying the GST and HST to imports of digital services from foreign internet giants, taxing them for the business they do in Canada, and eliminating the business deductions for advertising expenses on foreign internet platforms.

• Reforming the international tax system by applying “formulary apportionment” i.e. allocating the taxable income of corporations between countries using a formula based on real economic factors, primarily sales and employment payroll expenses. This is a system that has worked well in this country for apportioning taxes between provinces.

• Publishing how much taxes large corporation actually pay in taxes.

This is a small sampling of the proposed platform. Tax Fairness claims that the recommendations would generate over $40-billion annually in additional revenues for the federal government. As the graph at the upper right indicates, federal revenues have shrunk from an average of almost 17 per cent of GDP to less than 15 per cent in this century. That two per cent drop represents $50-billion, enough to fund affordable child care for all, a national universal pharmacare plan, affordable housing and a variety of environmental measures.

Canadians for Tax Fairness can be found here, where you'll find the proposed platform and an opportunity to subscribe to their excellent newsletter.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Well-being as National Security

When the term "national security" crops up, our thoughts usually turn to things military. Indeed the dictionary on my Mac defines national security as "the safety of a nation against threats such as terrorism, war, or espionage." But the security of a people is often threatened by things other than men with guns. Wikipedia offers the U.S. legal definition, "the security of a nation state, including its citizens, economy, and institutions, which is regarded as a duty of government," pointing out that the term is now widely understood to include economic security, energy security, environmental security, food security, etc.

Consistent with this broader definition, New Zealand recently passed a "well-being" budget. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that the purpose of government spending is to ensure citizens’ health and life satisfaction, and that, not wealth or economic growth, is how a country’s progress should be measured. She recognizes that GDP, often the sole measure of a country's progress, is inadequate in measuring people's well-being. The budget requires all new spending to go toward five specific goals: bolstering mental health, reducing child poverty, supporting indigenous peoples, moving to a low-carbon-emission economy, and flourishing in a digital age. Sixty-one indicators will track criteria from loneliness to trust in government.

If the prime responsibility of government is the security of its people, it simply makes sense to consider security comprehensively. Furthermore, at a time when we have never been richer yet our economic rapacity is exhausting our planet's resources while overwhelming it with pollution, it is time to judge progress by other yardsticks than GDP and security by other means than military preparedness.

The president of the United States surrounds himself with weaponry while surrendering to global warming, the greatest threat to the security of his people. Prime Minister Ardern, on the other hand, promotes a healthy people and a healthy environment. Ardern and her budget are much closer to the security needs of a modern society.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Is Democracy Unnatural?

Today is an exceptional time for democracy—the first time in history that most nations in the world may be called democratic (assuming we are generous with our definition).

Democracy has, throughout history, been an occasional thing. Governments have in all times and places tended to autocracy. This isn't surprising. Males of many species, including our own, tend to be competitive, principally about females. To the dominant male goes the feminine spoils. We should expect therefor to be ruled by dominant males. It is, you might say, the natural order of things.

This masculine urge derives from the purpose of life—the replication of genes. And the male who is most successful at acquiring women ensures the most replication. Genghis Khan, for instance, a supreme competitor, is thought to have had 3,000 women in his harem, produced hundreds of children, and has as many as 16 million male descendants living today.

Competition between men isn't simply a matter of brute force as it is with many other animals, but rather a matter of accumulating resources. The more resources a man has, the more status he has and the more attractive he is to women.

Women pursue a different strategy, according to the old saying: men compete, women choose. Women seek not only a man with good genes but a man who can ensure the survival of her progeny. And that means a man with resources, or at least the ability to accumulate lots of resources, and the more the resources the more appealing the man. If women are sex objects to men, men are success objects to women.

We see this illustrated by the groupies that surround rock stars, actors or athletes. Men do not group around successful women. And we are all familiar with the CEO who couldn't get a date when he was in the mail room, but when he becomes head of the company, he divorces his faithful wife of many years and marries the beautiful young secretary. And even today in a culture of monogamy, successful men often have mistresses. Not that men necessarily recognize what drives their ambition. Ask that CEO what motivates him and he may say he just likes a challenge, or he enjoys the perks, or he wanted to do well by his family ... and he is sincere. But the real reason is more fundamental, lurking in his genes.

Other, less capable men gather around the successful man to obtain a share of the spoils. And often both the submission and the loyalty they offer their leader is profound, at times bordering on the zealous. Often even men, and women, at a distance from such a leader, can be swept up in the adoration. Power is in itself a resource, one that can be erotic and mesmerizing.

This explains in large part why democracy has been so rare. How can it compete with men driven by the most powerful of our basic instincts? How can it compete with the euphoria offered by a demagogue? Or by the instant gratification he offers, compared to the responsibility demanded by democracy? The calm, rational and equal discourse of democracy is dull by comparison.

So is democracy unnatural compared to the instinctive appeal of autocracy? Not unnatural, but without the same "natural" appeal certainly. Thus history is mainly about excessively aggressive men—alpha males—seeking to maximize their resources. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “If there were a people of gods, it would govern itself democratically. So perfect a form of government is not for men.”

And yet it is for men, and women, and today more than ever. Why it has flowered at this time in history is a fascinating question. Certainly it has many advantages, as I have laid out on this blog's Why Democracy? page. Perhaps its increasing success is simply a result of improved communication. Newspapers began circulating in the 17th century. Cheap mail, the telegraph and the telephone appeared in the 19th century followed by the explosion of electronic technologies in the 20th. Easier travel has added to the flow of ideas by shuffling people around the world. And the growth of mass communication has been complemented by the growth of mass education. While only 12 per cent of the world's people were literate in 1820, today only 17 per cent remain illiterate. It has become increasingly difficult to keep people in the dark about their oppression when they can glimpse others enjoying the perks of democracy, both material and political, including the ability to rid themselves of oppressive rulers.

Nonetheless, threats are forever present, even in long-established democracies, as we currently see with the rise of the populist Donald Trump. The seductive nature of power is natural and as permanent as the human genome. The words of American abolitionist Wendell Phillips remain in order: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few."

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Whither Sudan?

The prospects for Sudan brightened considerably last Friday. The military and pro-democracy forces reached a power-sharing agreement that should end a three-month political crisis that has paralyzed the country and led to dozens of deaths following a brutal assault on peaceful protesters by the authorities.

The two sides will form a joint sovereign council to lead the country during a transitional period of three years and three months. The council will include five civilians representing the protest movement and five military members. An eleventh seat will go to a civilian chosen by both parties. One of the military members will preside over the council during the first 21 months, followed by a civilian. The protest leaders will choose the members of a cabinet to be formed independently of the military.

The Sudanese suffered 30 years of dictatorship under Omar Hassan al-Bashir until he was ousted in a military coup in April after massive protests. Unfortunately the military, as is their custom, indicated the government would remain in their hands. Protests continued and the military began a brutal crackdown. After tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Sudan's main cities, the generals backed down and rejoined negotiations that resulted in the deal.

The pro-democracy forces did make concessions, for example leaving a general as head of the council for 21 months, however they achieved a cabinet that will be independent of the military and an investigation into the killing of protesters.

Cynics suggest the agreement will just give the military time to consolidate their power, particularly as they retain control of the security forces. And no doubt the ultimate result will depend on whether or not the generals behave themselves. Nonetheless, the people are optimistic. "Today, our revolution has won and our victory shines," read a statement by the Sudanese Professionals' Association, the group that has led the protests. Let us hope that the revolution has indeed won, the victory will continue to shine, and we may soon welcome Sudan into the community of democracies.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Do People Really Want to Hear the Truth?

One of the most common myths about politics and politicians is that people just want to be told the truth. Unfortunately, that isn't the truth. Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and it certainly wasn't because he tells the truth. On the contrary, he is a compulsive liar. His supporters say they like him because he tells it like it is, when in fact he consistently tells it like it isn't.

Here in Alberta, former Premier Jim Prentice told voters just before the 2015 election that if they wanted to know why the province was in economic difficulty they should just look in the mirror. This was true. After all, Albertans had elected the Conservatives for 44 straight years and they had never dealt with the the boom and bust problem. Nonetheless, that little remark played no small part in his party losing the election.

Justin Trudeau once stated that if we want to deal effectively with global warming, we must eventually transition off tar sands. Just a simple statement of the truth, but a host of Albertans went ballistic. Conservatives will never let him forget it. A good many in this province would prefer to hear that we can produce more and more bitumen indefinitely, and the only problem is that those Eastern bastards won't help us sell it.

So, what do people really want to hear? Well, of course they want to be told the truth ... some of the time. A few may even want to hear it all the time. But most people, much of the time at least, prefer comforting lies. They want to be reassured. And they like to be told their problems are not their fault, but are due to the perfidy of others.

Politicians recognize this and adjust their words to their audience. When this offends us, we might just remind ourselves that it may be the only way they can win. And that's our fault, not theirs.

I was thinking about all this as I watch the prime minister attempting to dance between building pipelines and confronting global warming. Unfortunately, this issue is so polarized there seems to be only one way to please either side—total capitulation. If there is any truth at all on the other side, they don't want to hear it.

I don't envy the poor man.

Friday, 5 July 2019

The Democrats Reinvigorate Their Party and American Democracy

While there is much to despair about American democracy these days, there are also rays of hope, at least in the Democratic Party. If I had been an American during the 2016 election, I would have been an unhappy voter. Obviously, I couldn't vote for the buffoon, but Hillary Clinton didn't exactly inspire me either. She was often referred to as the bankers' candidate, or the Wall Street candidate, and rightly so. During the election campaign, she rejected calls to release the transcripts of speeches she gave at Goldman Sachs and other banks. Considering the bankers were the guys who had brought down their own companies along with the financial system and a large part of the economy as well, thereby creating misery for millions of ordinary people, I would very much have liked to know what she was promising them.

Meanwhile, she never seemed to connect with those white blue-collar and rural voters who suffer from the effects of globalization, mergers and automation, and who are deeply uneasy about the economic, cultural, and demographic trends of a changing society. She seemed to take traditionally Democratic states for granted and never grasped the intensity of the grievances or the anti-elite nature of the sentiment. Trump did, and responded with demagogic fervour that convinced the discontented he was on their side.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, helped shift the Democrats off course by collaborating with Republicans to rend the social safety net and with Joe Biden to implement a crime bill that resulted in mass imprisonment of minorities.

Obama offered a partial correction, but the Democrats may now be putting themselves fully on a progressive track. Their presidential nomination race includes a number of candidates who are attuned to the growing inequalities of economic and political power, to say nothing of the climate crisis, candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. And then there is that group of new faces bringing vigour to Congress, people such as Ilhan Omar, Jahana Hayes and that wonderful young lady Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and perhaps the most vivacious.

Will this bring the disaffected to the Democrat Party? Not all, certainly. Trump has a fervent base of anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-minority followers who do not much like a liberal society at all. But the Democrats are preparing to offer real solutions for inequality, immigration and climate change as opposed to the demagoguery currently issuing from the White House. In 2020, Americans should have a meaningful progressive choice and that will be good for their democracy.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

I Am a Democrat ... and an Elitist

There is much talk about populism these days. The term has a variety of definitions, but the general idea is that society is separated into two groups at odds with one another—the mass of the people and a corrupt elite. The populist leader claims to represent the will of the people and stands opposed to their enemies who consist of the current political class, possibly other "elites" such as the traditional media, and usually a convenient scapegoat. Populism tends to be right-wing but not exclusively.

It is currently having good innings with the world's most important country firmly in the grip of the classic populist Donald Trump. In Europe, populist parties are making a lot of noise and of course there's Brexit, an example of populism in action. The main cheerleader of Brexit, Nigel Farage, recently created a new political party and did better in the EU elections than either of Britain's two major parties.

People do have justification for being unhappy with the current political regimes. We have been subject to rapid and sometimes what seems like overwhelming change: immigration, globalism, and technological innovation that renders millions of jobs redundant, all accompanied by stagnant incomes for most people with huge benefits for a few.

But you cannot either justify your grievances or solve your problems by electing demagogues, particularly buffoons like Donald Trump. Populist leaders, quite aside from their generally bad manners, rely on negative narratives—anti-elites, anti-politics, anti-foreigners and often anti-minorities. They dislike the complexity and the limitations of democracy and tend to undermine it. They prefer an authoritarian approach and promise simple solutions to complex problems. When citizens choose the route of populism, they sell themselves out.

But, as a democrat, do I not accept people's right to do stupid things? Of course I do. I am an ardent supporter of self-governance. Furthermore, I have confidence in the masses—but only when they are well-informed. When they are ill-informed they are capable of very stupid things indeed. They can, for instance, easily be roused into a mob, and they can run ardently into the arms of demagogues.

This is why I'm an elitist. If we are to be governed well, we must be governed by elites. Politics is no different than any other field of endeavour—the arts, science, the crafts, the professions, all must be led and inspired by the best if they are to excel. Without elites we would still be crouched around campfires gnawing on bones and shivering at the shadows.

The great thing about democracy is that we can choose our own elites, our own aristocracy if you like. We can elect representatives to form an elite, but only if we choose them wisely. We can elect highly competent people who familiarize themselves thoroughly with the issues and listen to all views before making decisions ... or we can elect populists.

Or we can become our own elite via direct democracy. I do not refer to referendums, perhaps democracy's poorest instrument (meat for another post). I refer to citizens' assemblies—randomly chosen groups of citizens brought together to decide an issue. If they are provided with ample material to immerse themselves in the relevant facts, hear a variety of views from experts and others, and spend time in face to face discussions before making their decision, they will become an elite and they will make a well-informed decision. Assemblies are an instrument that deserves much greater application in our democracies.

So we can elect an elite or we can become the elite. We have no excuse for abandoning ourselves to demagogues. We do indeed get the government we deserve.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Putin Fails Liberal Democracy 101

Vladimir Putin is perhaps first among the anti-democratic strongmen that have emerged to soil the world. At the recent G20 summit he couldn't resist taking a shot at liberal democracy, suggesting that it is becoming obsolete. The fact is that while the system he so loved, and faithfully served—Soviet Communism—lies mouldering in its grave along with its millions of victims, liberal democracy despite its current problems is thriving. In fact, for the first time in history most countries are liberal democracies.

Putin's vantage point is not one to envy. The country he runs struggles under his corrupt and incompetent leadership. Without one resource—oil—it would be utterly bankrupt, and without nuclear weapons, it would have no influence in the world.

He claimed that Donald Trump’s victory was rooted in growing disaffection with mainstream liberal policies, and there is certainly some truth in that. But he didn't note that Trump was raised to power by liberal democracy and in the not too distant future, it will discard him. Meanwhile the Russians are stuck with their president for the indefinite future.

The expressions of discontent Putin witnesses in Western countries are signs not of weaknesses but of strength. Liberal democracy is easy to criticize and always is by autocrats. It conducts its business in public, often noisily, and its flaws are exposed for all to see. But it is also intensely self-critical and highly amenable to change, and that is why it has grown and prospered for 330 years while despots and totalitarian regimes have fallen by the wayside. One only needs to witness the vigorous debate taking place among Democratic Party hopefuls in the U.S. and the innovative and varied ideas they are debating. In contrast, one wonders where the vigorous debate and new ideas in Russia are, a nation in vastly greater need of them than the United States.

Putin only knows systems where dissent is suppressed, building up until the system either explodes or collapses from rot. He ought to know this because that's exactly what happened to his beloved communism—one of the many dictatorships that liberal democracy sees in its rearview mirror.