Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens is a book by Yuval Noah Harari.  It is a short history of the human species from its time as hunter-gatherers on the African savannah into modern times and a little beyond.  I highly recommend it to anybody interested in how got here.

I will not try to summarize what he wrote.  However, one thing that really stood out for me when I read the book is just how murderous our species is to other species.

Scientists agree that we are currently experiencing a mass extinction in the world.  They even call it the 6th mass extinction.  The evidence to support this is very compelling but one of the things that is misleading about it is science gives the impression that it is a recent phenomenon.  That is, it has only been going on for a few decades or a couple of centuries at the most.  Essentially, since humans discovered industrialization and science.

Dr. Harari points out that in actual fact the mass extinction began over 70,000 years ago when Homo sapiens began to move out of their ancestral home in the African savannah to all parts of the globe.  Dr. Harari points out that whenever Sapiens showed up in a certain part of the globe animals, plants, birds and other wildlife began to die off.  

Whole species of animals, large and small, went extinct, usually just centuries after the arrival of Homo sapiens.  This includes other species humans such as Homo rudolfensis, Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis.  In Africa, Asia, North and South American and Australia, whenever Homo sapiens showed up, native living species died off.  The evidence is compelling that the causes of these extinctions was human activity.  There does not appear to be any malice intended, although that could be debatable with regard to the other extinct human species, it was just ignorance and lack of awareness of our ancesters about their impact on the world around them.

So, the mass extinction that we are witnessing today began 70,000 years ago as our ancestors spread around the world.  It had been slow and steady throughout those 1000s of years but in the last couple of hundred it has accelerated as we harnassed science to do our bidding.  

Our ability to change the environment around us to meet our needs and our encroachment into areas of the planet that were inaccessible just a few centuries ago has been a death sentence for thousands of species in the world and it continues to be so as time goes by.  

This fact was a revelation to me when I read it in Dr. Harari's book.  Up until then I always believed that the mass extinction was a recent phenomenon but now I am aware that it has been going on for 10s of thousands of years.  It puts a different perspective on it.

When I believed that it was a recent phenomenon I believed that we would be able to stop it.  I reasoned that since we only started it a couple of centuries ago we could change our behaviour and stop it.  I no longer believe that.  I no longer believe the current mass extinction can be stopped.  Although I am saddened by it I now believe the continuation of the current mass extinction is inevitable.  It is just not in our power to prevent it.  The simple fact is we as a species are a walking death sentence to our fellow creatures, particularly those in the wild, we always have been and we will continue to be so until we kill off most of the life on this planet or the planet decides that a major correction is necessary and we join those species on the extinction list.  

Some would argue that we have evolved to the point where we should be able to stop the mass extinction.  I do not believe that and you only need to see what is happening in the world to see that I have reasons for my doubts.  We know what we are doing to our planet but not enough of us care enough to gather up the collective will to put a stop to it.  The simple fact is we have not evolved that much in the last 2 million years.  You take someone from downtown Ottawa and plunk them down into a hunter-gatherer society a million years in the past and, except for the lifestyle, our ancestors would be recognizable by our modern city dweller.

So, although I believe we still need to fight the good fight to stop the mass extinction I believe that we should also be resigned to the fact that it is a fight we cannot win.  Maybe by some miracle Sapiens will suddenly change their ways but I do not believe that will happen.  It is sad to see the destruction of species that I grew up learning about in elementary and secondary school but I no longer believe that there is anything we can do to stop it.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Justin Trudeau shows Leadership and Backbone

The last few weeks have shown that Mr.Trudeau does not shy away from the hard decisions and he is alot tougher than many of his critics will admit.

The first example was when he decided to buy the Trans Mountain Pipeline.  That whole situation was a no win one for the government.  No matter which decision the government made they were going to piss off a bunch of people.

The ideal solution of course would have been for all of the stakeholders to compromise on the pipeline. The Trudeau government worked very hard to help the various stakeholders to find common ground and come up with an agreement but in the end one was not forthcoming.  So, with the deadline looming the Trudeau government made their decision.  Whether it is the right decision is up for debate and that debate will not be resolved any time soon.  However, they did make a decision.  They did not waffle, obfuscate or deflect.  They made their decision and they are going to let the chips fall where they may.  

The second example is the reaction of the federal government to the new tariffs that the Trump Administration is levying against steel and aluminum as well as the latest temper tantrum by Mr. Trump after the G7 summit.

The Trudeau government is planning on imposing their own tariffs and they have not wavered from that decision.  The Trudeau government has answered Mr. Trump's insults with quiet resolve.

Make no mistake a trade war with the United States would not be good for either country but any impact would hit the Canadian economy much more than the US economy.  That is just a simple function of the relative sizes of the two economies.  Considering what is at stake it would be easy to capitulate but it should be obvious to everybody that if the Canadian government gives in now Mr. Trump will not stop.  He would just push for more.  He comes from an environment where you win it all or you lose it all.  He does not do win-win.

For the last couple of weeks the Trudeau government has been tested like they have never been tested since they won power in 2015.  As of today I would say they have passed those tests.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Weakness of the Conservative Movement in Canada

The assertion in the title of this post would seem very odd considering that just three days ago the Conservative Party of Ontario won the 2018 Ontario election very convincingly.  However, a closer look at the results backs up my assertion.

The Ontario Conservatives had the best of conditions going into this election.  The imcumbent party was deeply unpopular, there was a history of the Third Party being a disaster the one time they won power, and they had a centuries old voting pattern going their way.  

So when the votes were counted did the results indicate that the Conservatives won an overwhelming victory?  

No.

When the votes were counted it was revealed that the Ontario Conservatives won 40% of the popular vote, that is a minority of the popular vote and only 6 points ahead of party that came in second.

In fact if you look at the total Conservative vote and compare it to the total vote for the "progressive" parties, the Liberals, NDP and the Greens, you would note that the vote count for the progressive parties exceeded that of the Conservatives by more that 20 percentage points.  The only reason why the Conservatives won is the progressive vote split.

This situation is my no means unique.  It is the norm in Canada.  Nationally and provincially Conservative Parties come under 50% in every election.  Sometimes they enjoy a split in the progressive vote, and the First-Past-the-Post voting system allows them to take government but when the split does not happen they do not take government.  

We only need to look at the recent history at the federal level to see that.  Stephen Harper never won more that 39% of the popular vote in four elections.  In three of those elections the split in the progressive vote gave him government, with the last one being a majority government.  Then in 2015, that split disappeared, the Conservatives only won 30% of the vote compared to the Progressive vote of almost 70% and they lost government.  That is, the progressive vote outnumbered the Conservative vote by a margin of 2-to-1.  But even when he won the progressive vote outnumbered the Conservative vote by a wide margin.

So the Conservative movement in Canada is exceedingly weak and they know it.  When Prime Minister Trudeau made his promise to change the way we vote the Conservatives freaked.  During the debate about it, after the 2015 election, the Conservatives were the most strident and shrill in putting forward their position that any proposed change must be put to Canadians in a referendum.  They know that the current voting system is the only way that they can ever win government.  Any other kind of voting system, whether it be Proportional Representation, as favoured by the NDP and the Greens, or preferential ballot as favoured by the Liberals, would greatly reduce the splits in the progressive vote and put the Conservative Party in a nearly impossible electoral bind. 

Some would argue that my assertion is wrong by pointing at Alberta and the West.  Certainly, that part of the country is more conservative in its thinking but the total population of the West is less that the population of Ontario and even in the west the Conservative vote is not monolithic.  There are pockets of strength for the Conservatives in this country but they are relatively small and concentrated and they do not disprove my assertion.

Others would argue that the Liberals have the same problem.  They have never hit the 50% mark in winning any of their elections.  That is true but the reason is that there are currently two other progressive parties that siphon off progressive votes during every election, the NDP and the Green Party.  If they did not exist and there was only one progressive option available to Canadians it is an interesting thought experiment to think about the implications for elections in this country.

In every election in which Conservatives have won government, in the past 50 years, the same pattern has played out every time (except in Alberta and Quebec, which have different politics).  A progressive party is in power, usually for a long time, and voters have grown tired of it and sought change.  At that point the progressive vote splits between the progressive parties, and the Conservative parties then come up the middle.  After a time, when the electorate gets tired of the Conservative government, the split ends and the Conseratives lose.  In all cases, whether the Conservatives win or lose, the number of voters who vote for progressive parties far exceeds the number of voters who vote for the Conservative Party.

Over a century of elections has proven that Conservatism in Canada works from a position of weakness.  They routinely capture a minority of the vote in every election, being outpolled by the progressive parties by huge margins.  Their saving grace is the First-Past-the-Post electoral system and the split in the progressive vote.  Without them it is an open question of whether the Conservatives would ever form a government again.  

That is profound weakness.


Friday, June 08, 2018

2018 Ontario Election: The Usual call for changing the voting system

After the votes were counted it has been revealed that, once again, the winning party has won a majority government despite only winning a plurality of the votes.

The Ontario Conservative Party won around 75 seats by capturing 40 percent of the votes cast last night.

This has triggered the usual calls for changing the voting system, with the most popular call being for some sort of Proportional Representation (PR).  The proponents of PR like to believe and would like you to believe that it is the "most democratic" method of electing governments.  I disagree as I have written here and here.

In addition to the issues I outline in the two posts I linked to there is another major flaw in PR.

In Canada we do not elect parties or leaders.  Certainly the leader and their political party take a prominent role during election campaigns but when I went to vote last night, in the riding of Ottawa West-Nepean, Doug Ford, Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horvath were not on the ballot paper handed to me.  Instead it was the names of my local candidates.  If the local candidate that won last night turns out to be incompetent, a crook or a pedofile I will have the opportunity to kick his ass to the curb during the next election.  

The same is not true in election done by PR.  In most cases, when the votes are counted, the people chosen to become elected officials are chosen from party lists.  That is, they never actually faced the electorate.  Further depending on their stature in the party they may never have to face any electoral consequences even if they are incompetent, crooks or pedofiles.  If they do not have to face the electorate directly then they can never be voted out.  This is how Silvo Berlusconi managed to stay on as Prime Minister of Italy for so long despite the fact most Italians thought he was a crook.  He never had to directly face voters.  His party won enough of the votes to get the first crack at forming government and he was the leader of that party.  His coalition partners always put the opportunity to have power ahead of any principle.  

Some would argue that his party would face those consequences but that is not backed up by evidence.  In a PR system a party losing an election, even by a large margin, is not always an inhibiting factor in the ability of that party to attain power or for an unpopular politician to stick around and continue to exercise power even if the majority of the electorate want them gone.

Look at the Ontario election.  The Conservatives won 40 percent of the popular vote, the NDP 34 and the Liberals 19.  In a PR system none of the parties would have the ability to form a government without help from one of the other parties.  Unless, the Conservatives and the NDP were to decide on forming a grand coalition the most likely outcome would be either a Conservative or an NDP coalition government with the Liberals as the junior coalition partner.  So in other words, despite the fact that Kathleen Wynne was personally unpopular with the Ontario electorate, her party would still be part of the government and she could conceivably hang onto the party leadership or at least hang on as a Member of the Provincial Parliament.

Incidentally, in the PR system coalitions become the norm.  The partners in the coalition divide up the cabinet posts and political patronage positions between them. The dominent party takes most or all of the really important posts but the junior partner takes some significant post and exercises extensive influence on the decisions of the governing coalition.

Proponents of PR point to Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) as a solution to this problem.  In MMP some political candidates face the voters directly as they do with the current system of voting.  Unfortunately, this method will not elect the number of legislators equal to the popular vote.  All parties would experience a shortfall of the number of elected members.  As a result once all of the votes are counted and the popular vote is known the number of elected members is filled out to match the popular vote using party lists, creating the same problems as I indicated above. 

The-First-Past-the-post voting system is not perfect.  It certainly has some flaws, including some serious one.  However, Proportional Representation voting systems have their own very serious flaws.  Comparing the two it is a wash.  Neither is perfect and neither is the "most democratic" method of choosing a government.  If it were used last night the Conservatives would still be forming the government but the Liberals would probably be joining them despite the fact that 81% of the electorate did not want them to be anywhere near the levers of power in the province.  

The current system has prevented just that.  So although, 60 percent of the electorate did not want a Conservative government, 66% did not want an NDP government and 81% did not want a Liberal government.  It did not do it perfectly but the current voting system did allow the electorate of Ontario to express their desires and achieve the electoral result that they wanted.  

The 2018 Ontario Election: Historical Voting Patterns

The 2018 Ontario election is over and in a surprise to no one the Ontario Conservative Party won a majority government.  There was some kernal of doubt during mid-campaign when the NDP overtook the Liberals and seemed to be poised to keep on going to overtake the Conservatives.

Of course that did not happen and it was always very unlikely to happen.  The reason for that is the voters of Ontario have been alternating between Liberal and Conservative governments for almost a century.  It is true that Bob Rae managed to break that pattern once but that was an exception.  

Incidentally, that dynamic also exists at the Federal level which is why the Trudeau Liberals were able to jump ahead of the NDP in 2015 and take government from the Conservative Party of Canada.

One other aspect of this historical voting pattern is voters do not vote governments out of power after just one term.  Again this dynamic works the same way federally

I am going to make a bold prediction just one day after the election.  In 2022 the Conservative Party of Ontario will win another majority government.  As well, the Liberals will reassert themselves and at least double their seat count during that election, and if things go really well, they will supplant the NDP as the Official Opposition.

As well, I am going to predict that the Federal Liberals are going to win the 2019 election.  They will have to work for it but when the ballots are counted they will have another majority government, probably a reduced majority but a majority government none-the-less.

The historical voting pattern I mentioned is strong and nothing I have seen in the past 40 years would indicate that it is weakening.  Indeed, I would say it is getting stronger.  Ontario voters elected a Conservative government despite the facts that their leader is rather sketchy and the party never actually released a detailed election platform.  Canadians ignored the NDP Official Opposition, the erstwhile government-in-waiting and handed government to the Third Party in the Federal Parliament.

There are no sure things in politics but it is highly unlikely that we will see a change in this pattern in the near future.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Trump's Tariffs

As I have indicated herehere and here I do not believe the benefits of free trade are as great as it proponents indicate.  Although it does have some benefits it also has some very large negative impacts on the lives and livelihoods of many ordinary people.

While I would not lose any sleep over the end of NAFTA it is still a treaty that is in place and all signatories to it are compelled to adhere to it.  The same is true of the treaty that created the World Trade Organization or the WTO.  

A country like the United States is expected to honour its international committments.  If it does not it will have consequences for the US beyond a few jobs in the Rust Belt.

By not adhering to NAFTA and its committments under the WTO the United States has indicated that they cannot be trusted to live up to their international commitments.  As the United States has many, many, many of them that could spell trouble.  

The world is watching the US and there is increasing evidence to indicate that countries are moving to insulate themselves from the negative impacts of the words and actions of the current US administration.  For the most part the other Western countries are stuck with the US.  They can take some limited actions to mitigate risk but they really do not have any alternative but to work with the United States.  

The same cannot be said of the rest of the world.  Many of the US committments are with smaller, poorer countries that trade with the US and that provide US consumers with products that can be produced more cheaply that in the US.  Many of these countries are probably wondering if the US is willing to risk a trade war with its closest allies what are they willing to do to their countries.  Many if not most of these countries have probably been looking at alternatives that do not include sticking with the US and that search might be taking on an increased urgency.

I have stated several times in this space the China is actively working to replace the US as the predominent power in the international community.  Using diplomacy and money it is buying influence in the world.  It will actively exploit any action by the US that will allow it to pursue this objective.  We saw it with the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal and I believe the steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the US on its closest allies has provided another opportunity for China to expand its global influence.  The pitch is obvious.  "The US cannot be trusted to live up to its committments but China can be trusted.  Let's talk about how we can help you."

The total dollar value of the tariffs that the US administration imposed on Canada is around $16 billion.  The GDP of the Canadian economy is over $1 trillion so in the grand scheme of things the impact on the Canadian economy is manageable.  Conversely, the total benefit of the tariffs on the US economy, which is 10 times bigger than the Canadian economy, will be negligable. 

In short, the total economic impact of the tariffs will not matter but the blow these tariffs will have on the reputation and status of the US will be significant and it will have an impact on any efforts it will take to maintain its influence in the world.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Trans Mountain Pipeline

I am rather conflicted on how I feel about the announcement by the federal government about their buying of the Trans Mountain Pipeline from Kinder Morgan.  The reason for this is I can see both sides of the argument with regard to the pipeline.

On the pro-side petroleum products are pervasive in our lives.  They not only heat our houses and provide us with a means of getting around they are used for practically everything we use.  Unless you walk around barefoot wearing nothing but cotton, wool and linen you are wearing clothing whose fibres contain petroleum.  The same is true if you use any kind of plastic.  Virtually every plastic we use contains petroleum.  In fact the list of everyday consumer items that use petroleum as part of the manufacturing process, excluding for producing the energy needed for that process, is too large articulate here.

That makes petroleum a valuable commodity and as Canada has a great deal of that commodity it is going to be pulled from the ground.  That is a simple reality and there is no way to change that.  When it gets pulled from the ground it has to go to market and the most efficient and safe way to do so is by pipeline.  Note, pipelines are not perfectly safe but they are safer than the alternatives as the people of Lac Megantic learned a couple of summers ago.

On the con-side the pipeline in question is not going to be used to transport crude oil it is going to be used to transport diluted bitumen, or dilbit.  Dilbit is nasty stuff.  It is tar sands oil diluted with all sorts of chemicals to liquifiy it and then it is heated to high temperatures and shoved down the pipeline at high pressure.  Further dilbit is heavier than water.  So, if it spills into a body of water it does not float on the top waiting to be cleaned up it sinks to the bottom.  For most bodies of water life begins on the bottom and it supports all other life above it.  So, if dilbit were to destroy life on a significant stretch of seafloor all life in the ocean above would be destroyed along with it.

So both sides have strong arguments for and against.  The problem is such arguments are almost always hijacked by the extremists on either side.

On the environmental side the extremists come off as a bunch of loonies.  One of the arguments that I see alot from them is we need to ween ourselves off of petroleum products and shut down the industry.  We can replace it with alternatives like solar and wind energy.  Those two are fine examples of alternate ways to generate electricity but until someone finds a way to convert sunlight into material to manufacture the shirt I am wearing or to convert the wind into a container which I can use to store my left-overs, petroleum is here to stay.  

Further environmentalists need to convince the broader public that being green will not cost them financially.  It is another reality that most people, if they are faced with the choice of helping the environment or meeting their financial needs, will choose meeting their financial needs almost everytime.  This is particularly true if the ecological costs will be felt in the future while the financial costs will be felt almost immediately.  Many ecologists state that there is money to be made being green.  I happen to agree with them but they are still going to have to continually work hard to prove that.

On the business side we see the typical shortsightedness that we have all grown used to seeing from business.  As I stated above there is plenty of money to be made going green, even on endeavours that would seem not to be green at its inception but most businesses almost always take the opportunity to miss the opportunity to exploit that potential.  As well,  there are a large number of people out there who care about the environment.  Many of them are motivated and well organized and they can play merry hell with any plans to develop projects like pipelines so business has an incentive to work with environmentalists to maximise their profits or even just to successfully complete projects. 

Fortunately, there are pragmatists on both sides of this divide and perhaps they should be looking to work together so that they can demonstrate to everybody that the "choice" between the environment and the economy is a false one.  There is no choice. They go hand-in-hand.  Businesses can maximise profits considering the environment in their business processes and environmentalist can preserve the environment by helping business to pursue green practices in their business processes.

One note on the government buying the pipeline.  I would have preferred that they did not do that but this is not the first time it has happened.  For decades governments, of every political stripe, have been providing subsidies and bailouts to private companies in this country.  It is a simple reality and it is not going to stop regardless of what politicians promise during election campaigns.  So, since I cannot really do anything to stop this practice I am not going to really worry about it.  By doing so I will probably live longer.

Oh yes, when is business in this country going to stop shipping raw materials to other countries for processing?  One of my pet peeves is the Canadian practice of selling our raw resources to other countries, which then process it into a finished product and sell it back to us at a markup.  We should be doing that ourselves.  Unfortunately, Canada is a first rate country with a fourth rate business class, who do not have the motivation and the smarts to come up with new and innovative ways to make more money on the development of our resources.

So after all of this how to I feel about the government's decision?  I am still conflicted.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Conceding the world

I have argued a few times in this space that China is poised to become the premier power in the world, replacing the United States at the pinnacle of the international community.

It is in the interests of the United States to delay this transition as much as possible to allow the Western world to adjust to the new reality and just as importantly to allow the American people to adjust to it.  Within a generation the American people will be faced with the reality that they and their country are not "touched by God" and "destined to rule the world".  That fact will cause a great deal of angst amongst the American people once it becomes clear to them.

Which is why the decisions to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and to put the US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem are so wrong headed.

Make no mistake, the Chinese wants to replace the United States at the top of the international food chain.  They are working very diligently to make it happen.  For the most part they are doing it with money, which they have alot of and which they are spreading around very thickly in many parts of the world.

However, the Chinese are also going to take advanatage of any actions by the US government to allow it to use money and diplomacy to further their interests.  The US gave them two openings this week.

The first is the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.  The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement and told the other signatories that they have to as well.  Both China and Russia told the Trump Administration to piss up a rope.  Therefore, any sanctions imposed by the US will be completely ineffective and all they will do is push Iran further into the Chinese camp.  Iran is an important player in the Middle East so where it goes so goes its vassal states and organizations.

Fortunately for the United States Iran is not very popular with the Arab States.  They could have acted as a counterweight to Iran in the region.  However, it is going to be difficult to convince them to assist the US in pursuing its goals in the region after opening an embassy in Jerusalem.  The US has always supported Israel over the Arabs and many of the Arab states have accepted that as the price of doing business.  Putting an embassy in Jersalem, which is just as important to Muslims as it is to Jews and Christians is a real slap in the face to all Arabs, including those Arab states that have supported US policies in the region.  A relationship that has been fraying for the better part of a decade is going to become even more threadbare and that is without the Chinese using the embassy decision to convince the Arab states that they have a better friend in China than the US, which you know they are going to do.

The Chinese are using money to buy influence in Africa, parts of South American and parts of Asia.  Now the US has given them a diplomatic opening to increase their influence in the Middle East.  Looking at the trend very soon the only influence that the West will be able to wield will be on itself.  Large swaths of the planet that used to look to the West for assistance and guidance are being diligently worked on by China and very soon they will be the ones with the greatest influence in these regions. 

The rise of China could create a new Cold War.  If that is the case then the US is already well on its way to losing that war with the actions and decisions of the current Administration.