Saturday, August 29, 2015

Canada to phase out fossil fuel subsidies?

I seem to be fixating on the upcoming Canadian election at the moment. I don't mean to do so, although it is a particularly important one in terms of the way the country goes forward. What I am trying to do is to look at election issues as a segue into a discussion of some other important issues of the day.
I have been generally underwhelmed by the NDP's campaign thus far. They seem to have strayed far from their left-wing traditions, towards the crowded political centre, and in the process they have bought into Conservative-style popularism (and sometimes even into Conservative-style policies). But they have at least been willing to bring up the issue of government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry (as has the Liberal party, and of course the Greens).
The NDP has vowed unequivocally to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and to put the money saved into clean energy. The Liberals have also pledged to phase them out, over an undisclosed period. Of course, the Green Party would end them immediately and do much more besides. Technically, even the Conservatives are committed to phasing our fossil fuel subsidies, after they grudgingly signed on to a G20 pledge back in 2009, but don't hold your breath on that.
I'm sure that most Canadians are not even aware that such subsidies exist. They assume that the high price of gas at the pump, and of electricity at the meter, is in fact the full price. Not so. A 2013 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) identifies over $34 billion each year that is spent (or foregone) by the Canadian government in direct support to fossil fuel producers and in uncollected tax on externalized costs such as traffic accidents, carbon emissions, air pollution and road congestion. Worldwide, this figure is around $2 trillion! Indeed, Canada provides more subsidies to petroleum as a proportion of government revenue than any developed nation on Earth besides the United States and (oddly) Luxembourg.
Most of this subsidy is in the form of uncollected taxes on the externalized costs of burning transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel, as well as direct producer support to oil companies through a variety of provincial and federal incentives to encourage fossil fuel extraction. Smaller, but still very significant, amounts come in un-priced carbon emissions from burning natural gas, and un-priced carbon and sulfur dioxide emissions from the coal industry. In total, this $34 billion represents something like 4% of Canadian government revenues though taxation, or around $1,000 per Canadian citizen per year.
The opportunity cost of this huge amount of money is stark, when one considers Canada's desperate need for investment in public transportation and other infrastructure projects, and our failing support for green energy development in, for example, solar and wind generation capacity (which has been shown to provide more than seven times the employment from an equivalent investment in oil and gas extraction).
Canada currently enjoys some of the cheapest gas in the developed world, and the IMF itself estimates that we are undervaluing the true cost of gasoline by about $0.30 per litre. While gas prices remain artificially low, people will choose to buy cars rather than take public transit, with concomitant repercussions on our road infrastructure, transportation accidents and greenhouse gas emissions. If we had to pay the real price of the energy we consume, our consumption patterns would be quite different (this is the theory behind carbon taxes). It would also change perceptions of the comparative costs of renewable technologies, and the costs of investment in energy conservation measures.
None of the parties have expanded in any clear way exactly what they are proposing for fossil fuel subsidies as far as I am aware, and any plans to end fossil fuel subsidies remains suspiciously vague and unfocussed. Thomas Mulcair has publicly mentioned a figure of $1 billion a year, which is close to the annual figure for direct incentives to encourage fossil fuel extraction, so I am pretty sure they are not thinking of factoring in externalized costs like traffic accidents, air pollution and road congestion, and probably not even carbon emissions. But the fact that they are even talking about the billions of dollars of subsidies that have been sunk into oil, gas and coal over the years is worthy of some credit.
If we could also get back the billions of dollars of subsidies to the nuclear industry that are hidden in our electricity costs, that would be an added bonus! State-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Limited has received well over $21 billion in direct government subsidies since its inception in 1952. No-one knows the extent of the environmental and health costs, and the associated costs of accidents, cleanups, waste disposal, subsidized insurance, plant decommissioning, etc.
Imagine if these billions had been put into renewable energy research and development over the last several decades: we would probably not be having this discussion right now.

Friday, August 28, 2015

More perspective on Stephen Harper's economic performance - without the spin

This week's Report On Business, the business magazine of the Globe and Mail, contains an important extended article called "The Great Economist" by respected Globe columnist Lawrence Martin, who has also published books on Stephen Harper, Jean Chr├ętien, Lucien Bouchard, etc.
The article is a scathing and damning summary of Harper's actual (as opposed to claimed) economic record, and of his repressive and controlling management style. It should be required reading, particularly for the very businessmen the magazine is aimed at, most of whom are probably sold on the myth of Tory economic superiority, and who are probably planning on voting Conservative again.
The article relies heavily on testimony from the non-partisan civil servants and journalists (and even ex-Conservative Ministers) who have had to work with the Harper government, and particularly with the tightly-controlled and media-obsessed politburo that is the modern PMO (Prime Minister's Office). It does not contain any great new revelations, but it does a good job of bringing together evidence from Harper's ten years in power and putting it all in context, without the intervention of positive spin from the Tory message-massaging machine. And what it reveals is not pretty.
Just a few snippets to whet your appetites:
"Statistics could be found to prove or disprove most any theory one wanted. It was all about who had the biggest megaphones."
"All of their economic policies became instrumentalized towards getting them re-elected."
"Governing was turned into an around-the-clock marketing enterprise."
"The Tories made great political mileage with the measure they were forced into...But they had inherited a sound banking and regulatory system as well as a $13-billion surplus and the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio since the 1970s."
"Flaherty's budget bills were turned into sweeping omnibus bills containing hundreds of clauses and measures...scrutiny at the committee level was further short-circuited by the Tories' use, in degrees rarely seen, of closure, time limitations, in-camera sessions and heavy-handed tactics to block witnesses."
"It wasn't just the left that questioned the wisdom of some of the cuts. The GST reduction was roundly denounced by mainstream economists."
But, better still, read the full article.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A tool for strategic voting in the Canadian elections

The Canadian federal election is 53 days away as I type, a seemingly interminable period of attack ads, eye-scratching and back-stabbing, during which a lot could happen and all manner of swings and sea changes could occur.
As things stand, the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP are locked in a neck-and-neck-and-neck race. A sizeable majority therefore want to see the back of Stephen Harper and his divisive and destructive policies. But, just as occurred in the last couple of elections, the split of the ABC (Anything But Conservative) vote could quite easily result in a Conservative victory in our first-past-the-post electoral system.
The picture is further complicated by the recent trend towards the political centre, as all the parties fall over themselves not to appear too radical or to risk alienating or excluding anyone at all, and to be all things to all people. Both the Liberals and the NDP have adopted what they see as some of the more successful ploys from the Conservatives' political arsenal, with the Liberals touting a Harperesque micro-targeted tax break (for teachers who pay for their own school supplies -it doesn't get much more targeted than that!), and the NDP uncharacteristically promising a balanced budget come what may. It is sometimes hard to distinguish between the parties, and on some issues, like stimulus spending and balanced budgets, the Liberals are clearly to the left of the traditionally left-wing New Democrats. Of course, what the parties promise may not always sync with what they will (and even what they intend to) achieve once in power.
A Liberal-NDP merger seems to be out of the question, even if Thomas Mulcair did seem open to the idea at one point. However, nil desperandum, all is not lost. There is still the power of strategic voting! It's not something I relish having to promote, but sometimes needs must. And, finally, we have a tool to help us with that.
VoteTogether.ca is a website that analyses all the Canadian federal ridings, based on prior election results and the best anecdotal knowledge of the current situation, and identifies those ridings where strategic voting is likely to be beneficial in keeping the Tories from exploiting a split non-Tory vote.
In their analysis, there are some 72 Conservative swing ridings across the country where a concerted strategic voting effort could relatively easily exclude a Tory MP, including a large number in and around Toronto and the GTA region, and another large clutch in British Columbia. The other 266 seats are in their opinion pretty much cut and dried in one direction or another, and effort there is unlikely to yield concrete changes.
Ideally, the leaders of the Liberal and NDP parties would also recognize this situation and limit their local campaigns in ridings where they are unlikely to win but may spoil the chances of the other non-Tory party. In some cases, in the last election, a swing of just a few percentage points would have made the difference, and just seven seats would have made the difference between a Tory majority and a minority government. So much pain could have been spared by just a small exercise in cooperation.
Yes, there are differences between the Liberals and the NDP, and between their leaders and their policies. But these differences are not as great as between the Conservatives and the rest, and I believe that this is the time to put minor differences behind us and focus on the major differences. Vote together, and get Canada off its current self-destructive track!

UPDATE
There is also another online resource for strategic voting at StrategicVoting.ca. This one identified 63 ridings where strategic voting could potentially avoid a Conservative win, and indicates the most likely of the "progressive" candidates to win in each, as well as 67 more where the projected combined progressive vote is greater than that of the Conservatives (so that a concerted strategic voting effort could make a difference).

Monday, August 24, 2015

So why aren't lower oil prices being reflected in lower gas prices?

I have finally found a good explanation for why gas prices have not been reflecting the bargain basement price of crude oil in recent months. It is, just as I suspected, mainly due to oil companies fleecing us. More specifically it is the oil refiners who are doing the fleecing, although increasingly, in this age of vertical integration, these are the same people as the oil producers.
With the price of the benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude oil now languishing below $40 for the first time since the depths of 2008, the price of gas and the pump in Ontario remains around $1.07 per litre, as compared to the sub-90c prices of 2008 and 2009 (as low as 70c at one point). With the world apparently awash in record stocks of crude oil, which is the price of gas still so high?
One reason of course is the tanking Canadian dollar, which at US 76c is at its lowest level in over a decade. In an international oil market priced in US dollars, that has hit Canadian prices hard.
But even in US terms, the decline in oil prices in the last year has been around 57%, while gas prices have only gone down 23%, with the discrepancy particularly marked in the last couple of months.
American refineries are operating at or above average utilization levels, which means that, as well as a glut in stored crude oil, we also have a glut in refined petroleum stocks. But this has not resulted in lower prices, which suggests that the refiners are milking the situation and skimming extra profits from the consumer. And indeed it turns out that the so-called "crack spread" (the difference between what the refiners pay for their crude oil raw materials and what they sell it for, effectively the refining profit margin) has been hitting multi-year highs in recent months. This, then, seems to be an unabashed move by the oil companies to claw back at the refinery stage the money they are losing at the extraction stage.
Now, I'm not one to advocate super-low gas prices. I actually think that, for environmental reasons, the cost of high street gas should be kept high enough to discourage casual use. But I would like to see this done through a carbon tax, where the additional income is redistributed through progressive income tax breaks. I don't want the money going to rapacious oil empires, thank you very much.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Convenient letter editing or censorship?

Over the years, I have had several letters published in the Globe and Mail, Canada's newspaper of record. But I am continually surprised and exasperated by the savagery of their editing of my text.
I think most people are aware, and accept, that newspapers reserve the right to edit the letters they receive, to correct spelling maybe, to remove unproductive waffle or offensive or libellous language, to make it fit into the required space, etc. Some minimal editing is no doubt unavoidable and acceptable, but it routinely seems to be taken to a much higher level. Often, some of the more important points are excised completely, leaving the letter bowdlerized and lame. Sometimes, new phrases are inserted that I would not personally use, and which may change the tenor and import of the letter.
Just as an example, my recent letter on the subject of a McMaster University report on saturated fats was originally sent as follows:
Your editorial about saturated fats (Stop worrying. Dinner is served - Aug 13) was one of your most thoughtless, jingoistic and downright misleading that I can remember.
You should know that one study does not suddenly invalidate decades of research. And to say that many people have suffered earlier deaths by seeking out alternatives to saturated fats is disingenuous to say the least, as is talking about a "puritanical policy of absolute avoidance" and advocating that we "fall back on our best instincts".
Embarrassingly, I had to resort to a British newspaper for a bit of balance. The Independent also reported those parts of the McMaster study that cautioned, "we aren’t advocating an increase of the allowance for saturated fats in dietary guidelines, as we don’t see evidence that higher limits would be specifically beneficial to health" and, "We could not confidently rule out an increased risk of death from heart disease with higher amounts of saturated fat". It also bothered to ask other food scientists for their reactions to the McMaster study, which included the considered opinion that it should come with its own health warning, and that it employed a notoriously unreliable methodology.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and disseminating unjustifiable conclusions from a little knowledge is even worse.
What was ultimately published was as follows:
One study does not suddenly invalidate decades of nutritional research (Stop Worrying. Dinner Is Served – editorial, Aug. 13).
To suggest that many people have suffered earlier deaths by seeking alternatives to saturated fats is disingenuous, to say the least, as is talking about a “puritanical policy of absolute avoidance” and advocating that we “fall back on our best instincts.”
As reported elsewhere, the lead author in the McMaster University study also cautioned that researchers “aren’t advocating an increase of the allowance for saturated fats in dietary guidelines, as we don’t see evidence that higher limits would be specifically beneficial to health” and that “we could not confidently rule out an increased risk of death from heart disease with higher amounts of saturated fat.”
A little knowledge is a dangerous base for advocacy.
I actually sent them another letter after this, suggesting that maybe letter-writers should be given the option of vetoing the newspaper's edits, or withdrawing it completely. Or that maybe they should just print letters verbatim (or not at all, if they do not conform to their own internal rules).
Either way, I don't think I will bother submitting any more letters to the esteemed Globe and Mail.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

American attitudes to climate change

I was looking recently at a CNN quiz about American attitudes to climate change. It's not my intention to brag about my score, but rather to share some of the more unexpected findings in the two questions that I got wrong.
In the question "Which country would you say is more skeptical of climate change, America or Norway?", it turns out the answer is Norway. Yes, Norway! In Scandinavia! In fact, of the 14 industrialized countries polled, Australia has the highest proportion of skeptics (at 17%), followed by Norway (15%), New Zealand (13%) and then the USA (12%). At the other end of the scale were Spain (2%), Germany (4%) and Switzerland (4%). Canada, as ever, was somewhere in the middle with 8%. The full survey can be found in a Global Environmental Change report published in May 2015.
The other question I got wrong was "What percentage of Americans rarely or never talks about climate change?" to which the answer is apparently 74%. So, fully three-quarters of Americans never hear someone they know talk about climate change! And, according to the March 2015 Yale Project on Climate Change Communication report from which this figure is taken, this has increased drastically from 60% in 2008.
Another question asked "What percentage of Americans know the answer to Question 1?", which was the question that asked what percentage of the world's working climate scientists believe that climate change is real and that we humans are causing it (to which the answer was 97%). Apparently, only about 10% of Americans are aware that there is a near-consensus among scientists on climate change (this also comes from the same Yale Project on Climate Change Communication report). The only reason I got this one right was because the alternative answer (50%) seemed too high.
Scary stuff indeed!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The meaning of life (for atheists)

I recently came across an article called "I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe". Now, lest it be thought that I spend my spare time trolling through BuzzFeed (which I actively dislike), I actually accessed it from FlipBoard (which I actively like).
Anyway, I found some of it quite enlightening. As a life-long atheist myself, I know this is something that many atheists (and potential atheists) struggle with, although personally it's not something I've ever given much thought to. I think most people realize, whether they would admit it or not, that atheists are quite capable of being as morally upstanding as religious types, but I know that many people wonder about the "hole" in their worldview that not having a religion might leave.
Again, personally, I've never really felt the need for "meaning" in my life: I see this as just another example of religious people wanting to be treated as something special in a universe where we are quite clearly not special. Plus, I've never really understood how believing in a supernatural entity, or even in some kind of life after death, helps to provide meaning in this life. But then I do understand that logic I not religion's strong suit.
Anyway, the article in question gathers together some thoughts on the matter from a bunch of atheists - not the Richard Dawkinses and Christopher Hitchenses of the world, but a selection of more or less ordinary people, from scientists to journalists to writers to photographers. Here are a few selected quotes from their thoughts, from a variety of different standpoints, and some of them just might make you think:
  • "The pointlessness of life is not a thing to be overcome. It’s something to be celebrated now, because that’s all there is."
  • "Life is a series of experiences, and the journey, rather than the end game, is what I live for."
  • "To assume there is meaning to the universe is to misunderstand our cosmic insignificance. It’s just self-centred and arrogant to think that there might be something that might bestow its secrets upon us if we look hard enough."
  • "A meaningless universe does not mean we live our lives without purpose ... I try to live my life replete with purpose. Be kind; learn and discover as much as you can; share that knowledge; relieve suffering when you can; have tonnes of fun."
  • "There is meaning in the universe. My children mean something to me. My husband means something to me. The roses blooming in my garden mean something to me. So, there is meaning in the universe, but it is localised."
  • "I am not afraid. I celebrate reality. I don’t have to pretend that there will be some magic deus ex machina in the third act of my life which will make it all OK and give me a happy ending. It is enough that I exist, that I am here now, albeit briefly, with all of you."
  • "I do feel that life is ultimately pointless, but I honestly don’t care. I’m just squeezing as much happiness out of it as I can, for me and the people around me."
  • "The true meaning of life is what I make with the people around me – my family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. People tell religious fairy stories to create meaning, but I’d rather face up to what all the evidence suggests is the scientific truth – all we really have is our own humanity."
  • "It means that I am free to do as I want; my choices are truly mine. Furthermore, I feel determined to make the most of the years I have left on this planet, and not squander it. The life I live now is not a dress rehearsal for something greater afterwards; it empowers me to focus on the here and now."
  • "Be nice to the people and things around you – it doesn’t cost anything, and generally makes the world a nicer place to live in. Focus on the little answers."
  • "Create a sense of meaning and purpose by doing something useful with your life."
  • "The notion of an eternal afterlife, particularly one based on a meritocracy, is for me the opposite of purpose and meaning. If I’m going to heaven or hell because of my trivial actions (depending on which religion you choose) on earth, then I don’t really have much choice about what I do, which somewhat minimises my free will and personal autonomy."
  • "We all have different meanings in our lives, things that give us pleasure and purpose. The most meaningful experiences in my life have been relationships with people – friends and family, colleagues and classmates."
  • "We get to derive our meaning, and create our own purpose, and that makes it a much richer experience than playing out pre-written scripts for the amusement of an omniscient almighty."
  • "We all have the same vanishingly short time to enjoy, so it’s incumbent on us all to try to make society work for everyone."
  • "I find meaning in my relationships with friends; I find meaning in music, literature, art, and what they reveal of the minds, lives, and values of the people who created them. I find meaning in the ever-increasing understanding forged by scientists and philosophers. I find meaning in the actions of others, how people choose to interact with the world."
  • "Things don’t happen for a reason. The world exists in the moment for its own sake and we just happen to be able to observe, experience, and reflect on it. What matters is how you live day to day."
  • "Life without God is not a life without meaning. Everything, each and every interaction, is full of meaning. Everything matters."

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The difference between black make-up and blackface

I'm probably tempting fate and courting disaster here by even thinking about blogging on this subject, but, hey, so few people actually read it...
On a day to day basis, I consider myself pretty colour-blind as regards race, but some instances of ultra-political-correctness do still get my goat. One such issue is that of the use of "blackface" in live theatre, an issue that surfaces in the media from time to time, the latest being an article by Aria Umezawa in the Globe.
Ms. Umezawa is the outspoken founding member and artistic director of Opera Five, which specializes in making opera accessible to the non-opera-loving masses, through combining opera with multi-media presentations, and through their YouTube series "Opera Cheats", among other things. She claims to be half-Japanese and half-Irish-Italian, and is certainly whiter than me. Still, she feels the need to weigh in on the worthy Metropolitan Opera's recent decision to break with the long tradition of using white singers in what is almost always described as "blackface" to portray the title character in Verdi's popular opera Otello.
What blackface actually is is an old parodic theatrical tradition of exaggerated make-up used to represent a stereotypical black people for entertainment purposes, particularly the once popular "minstrel shows" of singing, dancing and comic skits. Blackface was popularized in the USA and Britain in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, and petered out in the 1960s, largely thanks to the civil right movement. Its very stereotypical and archetypical nature makes it a racist phenomenon, and something to be discouraged, as indeed it has been in the last 50-odd years, although several commentator have also pointed out that the tradition was also largely responsible for popularizing black culture to the white masses at a time when little or no dissemination of African-American culture and art was otherwise possible.
However, what we are talking about in presentations of works like Otello and Shakespeare's original play Othello is not blackface in its deliberately camp and stereotypical manifestation, but stage make-up used in good faith to more convincingly portray a white actor as a black character. Personally, I don't see the problem in doing this, any more than I have a problems with a male actor using make-up to portray a woman (or a woman to portray a man), or to portray a burn victim, or a deformity like John Merrick's, or an old person, etc, etc.
Sure, if the theatre or opera company has a black person who is capable of performing the role, that is fine too, although many black actors do not like the stereotyping inherent in older works of art like Othello and prefer to avoid such roles. Likewise, many theatre companies deliberately employ a colour-blind casting approach, and may deliberately use white actors (sans make-up) to play black roles, and - more commonly - vice versa. I am absolutely fine with that too, and it can sometimes make for an interesting and thought-provoking performance (a good example of this is the current multi-racial Stratford Festival production of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost).
Of course, what Ms. Umezawa calls "whitewashing" - deliberately casting a white performer in a black role where black alternative performers who are up to the job are available and interested in the role - is institutionalized racism. But the title role in this case of Verdi's Otello is a particularly onerous and challenging one, and The Met claim, reasonably, that their choice of the top Latvian tenor Alexandrs Antonenko is based on artistic merit only. To me, this does not constitute whitewashing. On the other hand, their choice of not using black make-up (and I deliberately avoid the use of the incendiary word "blackface" here) is a choice made out of political correctness, and not an artistic one, although laudable enough in itself as an attempt to distance themselves from some of the racist enormities of yesteryear. But why Ms. Umezawa feels the need to make complaints, even given these facts, is a mystery to me.
In the same way, I was equally annoyed by middle-aged white man J. Kelly Nestruck's vitriolic display of righteous indignation over a play about black Montreal hockey hero P.K. Subban by a small Quebec theatre company earlier this year, in what he describes as a "racist portrayal". Subban is black (that is the point of the play), and for a small theatre company with no black members able to play the part, what are they to do? To portray him as white would lose a large point of the play and minimize the difficulties he had growing up and ultimately excelling in what is very much a white man's sport.
I am by nature a pretty easy-going, thoughtful and politically-correct kind of guy. But sometimes this kind of misplaced, holier-than-thou self-righteousness really aggravates me. It is interesting that many black actors, comedians, etc, have come out in defence of just the kind of thing that these white liberals are objecting to (some examples are actually mentioned in the last-mentioned article). It is necessary to distinguish between offensive stereotyping played for laughs, and an actor justifiably wearing some stage make-up.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

What should we do when The Children Act?

I have just, belatedly, finished Ian McEwan's latest book, "The Children Act". Like most of his books, it does not shy away from dealing with the big issues, in this case medical ethics and the legal accommodation of minority religious views.
Set against the rather humdrum backdrop of a rocky middle-class marriage, the book revolves around the legal, moral and emotional dilemmas of an ageing, earnest and respected family court judge. One particular case coincides with a particularly fraught period in her marital life, that of a 17-year old boy (just three months shy of the age of majority) in the last days of a losing fight against leukemia. The boy and his parents are ardent Jehovah's Witnesses, and all would rather welcome death than oppose the tenets of their religion by allowing a life-saving blood transfusion.
And this is not just any boy. He is extremely intelligent, precocious, articulate and persuasive. He is apparently not just blindly following his parents' religion, and appears to have weighed the prospect of his own death against the sanctity of his religious views in an informed and reasoned manner. But, swayed by the boy's potential and his tender years (and, in no small measure, by his personality and grace), the judge eventually rules in favour of the hospital, and his life is saved, against his and his parents' wishes.
The boy appears at first to be grateful for the reprieve, and for the judge's thoughtfulness in his case. He even develops something of an infatuation with the ageing judge, who at one point makes a serious error in judgement by kissing him. As she and her husband doggedly work through their own relationship issues, though, it becomes by no means clear that the boy has in fact turned the corner and shaken off the shackles of his pernicious religion.
I'm not a big fan of courtroom dramas, but I thought this book did an excellent job of portraying the kinds of stresses and moral weighing a family court judge needs to confront on a daily basis. In addition to the trial of the main story, several other cases were explained in less detail, and I found myself sincerely grateful not to have to encounter such difficult decisions, and to bear such a responsibility for the lives and livelihoods of other human beings.
I'm also not a fan of religion in general, much less "wacky" or extreme religions like the Jehovah's Witnesses. But the book did an equally good job of explaining the basis and "rationale" of some of their views, without completely ignoring the absurdity and implausibility at its base. It prompted a sharp examination of the extent to which our secular society should accommodate religious views at the expense of generally-approved morality and common sense.
McEwan never writes in a poetic, prolix or ostentatious way. His language is always clear and simple, his vocabulary mainstream and unexceptional. But his books can be relied upon to challenge our preconceptions and our comfortable routines. He seems able to cut to the marrow of ethical and emotional difficulties, and to make us question elements of our world we would perhaps rather ignore. He remains for me a paragon of English-language literature.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Grading the Tories' economic performance

There was an interesting article in today's Report on Business - the Globe and Mail's financial section, which I usually just skim - which grades the economic performance of Stephen Harper's Tory government against various benchmarks, in an attempt to clarify whether Mr. Harper is in fact justified in campaigning on his good economic record. Not so much, as it turns out.
First, the Tories' economic performance was compared to that of their predecessors. A GDP increase of about 1.6% a year under the Tories pales into insignificance against the 2.9% a year under the Liberal government of Paul Martin, the 3.5% a year under Jean Chr├ętien's Liberals, and even the 2.3% under the last Conservative government, that of Brian Mulroney.
Anticipating cries of foul on the grounds that the worldwide recession during the Tories' latest tenure skews the figures, Canada was then compared to other developed countries during the same period. Here, things look slightly rosier (although of course it can be argued that Canada weathered the recession better due to the strong financial system developed under the preceding Liberal administration...), but far from definitive. Canadian GDP growth averaged 1.9% per year in the ten years from 2005-2014, slightly more than the 1.6% for the USA, 1.3% for Germany, 1.2% for the UK, etc, but substantially less than Australia's 2.8%, Brazil's 3.4% or China's 10% (these figures are directly from the World Bank's website, and not the Globe article, which did not go into this kind of detail). According to OECD data, the Canadian unemployment rate, currently at 7%, is better than countries like France (10%) and Italy (13%), but worse than the US (6%), Britain (6%), Australia (6%), Germany (5%) and Japan (4%). Overall, the Globe suggests a tie for this section.
As Mr. Harper repeats ad nauseam in his election speeches, his government has indeed added over a million new jobs (about 772,000 of them in his last 4 year term). What he tends to gloss over is: that most of this occurred in the first two years (as Canada laboriously dragged itself out of recesssion); that this is actually an unspectacular performance (a third of the rate of the USA recent rate of job creation); that the country's employment rate (taking into account population growth) is no better than it was during the recesssion years back in 2009; that about one-third of the job creation has occurred in Harper's pet province of Alberta, in the now apparently moribund oil sector; and that the vast majority of the new jobs have come in the lower-paying services sector and not in the higher-earning goods-producing sectors. Thus, a simple statistic can hide a wealth of not-so-rosy detail. (These last figures are from a later Globe and Mail article).
And finally, we need to consider whether the Conservatives' economic record stand up to their own claims and priorities (namely, smaller government, a balanced budget, lower debt and lower taxes). Royal Bank figures on government expenses as a percentage of GDP show them averaging around 13.5% during the last ten years under the Tories (and peaking as high as 15.8%), compared to an average of 12.9% (peaking at 15.7%) in the previous ten years of Liberal rule - a very similar, even slightly inferior, picture. The debt-to-GDP ratio is currently around 32% under the Conservatives, very similar to the 34% before Harper came to power in 2005. The last 7 Conservative budgets up until 2014 were deficits, peaking at $55 billion in 2008, and, although they are desperately trying to bring in this year's on budget, events (mainly the price of oil) are conspiring against them once more. All in all, not a sterling performance on a key element of their platform. As for taxation, courtesy of the reductions in GST and personal tax rates, yes they have reduced the overall level of taxation from about 16% of GDP to 14% (of course, whether or not this is a "good thing" depends on your politics).
In addition to all this, Canada's huge communications, media and manufacturing union UNIFOR recently published their own detailed analysis of Stephen Harper's performance as compared to the eight previous Canadian governments since the Second World War. Looking at sixteen different economic indicators like job creation, economic growth, living standards, exports, government debt and personal income (although admittedly ignoring a few other metrics on which Mr. Harper would perhaps have fared better, like household wealth, tax burden,  etc), the report concludes that the Harper government ranks dead last overall, showing at the bottom of the list in 7 of the 16 metrics and second last in 6 more. Not a pretty sight for Mr. Harper.
In conclusion, although the Conservatives under Stephen Harper have been able to take advantage of high oil and commodity prices until very recently, their record on growth, unemployment, budgets and debt is far from exemplary. If we also consider things like spiralling house prices and household debt, things look even worse. Final grade? Maybe a C+.
Of course, none of this stopped Harper from peppering the first election leaders' debate with his usual blanket claims that Canada has had the strongest economic growth and job creation figures in the world under his watch, despite the evidence to the contrary. But then, that's politics, eh...

Monday, August 03, 2015

Obama's last big push on climate change

President Barack Obama is looking to stake his place in history by pushing through an ambitious climate change bill for America.
Arguably, Obama's early promise has dwindled to a somewhat underwhelming culmination, hamstrung as he has been for most of his tenure by an irksome Republican majority in Congress. His legacy, though, already stands on major domestic breakthroughs in immigration, healthcare and same-sex marriage, as well as foreign policy initiatives regarding Cuba and Iran. Not too shabby. But a climate change shift has always been a major plank of his platform and, as his administration begins to wind down, this is his big push on that file.
The legislation aims to reduce US dependance on dirty coal for electricity generation and boost the contribution of renewables, particularly wind and solar power. Currently, 40% of American power comes from coal and just 5% from renewables. By 2030, the plan visualizes 28% of US energy will come from renewables, and 27% from coal. It anticipates a reduction of greenhouse house gas (GHG) emissions from electricity generation of around 32% compared to baseline 2005 values (electricity is responsible for about a third of America's total GHG emissions, the largest single source). GHGs from American power plants have already fallen by 15% between 2005 and 2013, meaning that they are already halfway to the target.
It seeks to do this by setting a GHG reduction target for each state and providing financial incentives for investment in renewables and for cleaning up the existing coal power industry. It would then be left largely up to the individual states to find their own ways of achieving the targets. Crucially, the plan can be administered through existing Clean Air Act legislation, so that congressional approval would not be needed to pass the ruling. This was made possible by the 2009 US Supreme Court ruling that high carbon dioxide levels leading to climate change do in fact constitute a dangerous pollutant that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger both public health and public welfare, a ground-breaking development in itself.
However, it is still vulnerable to legal challenges, and lawsuits have long been in preparation by various states and power utilities, even before the official unveiling of the initiative. The plan splits America deeply along party lines, with most Democrats (and Democratic leadership hopefuls) in support, and with Republicans (and major Republican nomination contenders) expressing vehement opposition. Because of the nature of American politics and demographics, this also manifests as a geographical split, with the more urbanized and liberal east and west coasts in support, and the more rural and regressive south and central regions opposing.
An open letter has been signed by 365 major US businesses and investors (including eBay, Nestle, General Mills, Unilever, L'Oreal, Levi Strauss, Staples, SunEdison, and Trillium Asset Management) expressing their strong support for the bill, which they say would benefit the economy and create jobs, and would not be the economic disaster the Republicans are claiming.
Coming as it does from the world's richest and.most influential country, this is a big deal. Yes, it will be divisive. It may even prove expensive. But it may just provide the moral leadership and role model needed by those countries (Canada included) that are dragging their feet on climate change action. Whether the Republicans allow it to see the light of day, or close it down with legal battles and obfuscation, is another matter entirely.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

A perfect storm for renewables

Economic and industrial powerhouse Germany just broke its own record for the amount of power generated by renewables. On July 25th 2015, it met 78% of its energy needs from renewable technologies, mainly wind and solar, with smaller contributions from biomass and hydro power. Its previous record, set last year, was 74%.
To achieve this, weather conditions were perfect, as a storm created high winds in the north of the country (where most of Germany's wind turbines are installed), while the south of the country (where most of its solar panels are located) experienced a nice sunny day. Wind and solar between them generated 40.65 GW, and a further 7.5 GW came from biomass and hydro facilities.
Some people claim that Germany's obsession with renewable energy is making their electricity unnecessarily expensive. But I still say that is pretty impressive, and puts most of the rest of the world (and particularly mealy-mouthed Canada) to shame.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, fellow renewables trailblazer Denmark had its own day in the sun when it generated fully 140% of its electricity demand from its extensive network of  wind turbines on July 9th. Apparently, the turbines were not even operating at full stretch. The surplus power was exported to Germany, Norway and Sweden, via interconnectors between the countries' grids, and so nothing was wasted.
I know these are just isolated and exceptional results (even Denmark "only" generates 39% of its power from renewables over the course of a year), but it does go to show what can be done by a determined and enlightened approach to clean power generation.