Groundhogs

I don’t want to sound like a crank, but, why on earth are we depending on groundhogs this day every year to tell us whether we will have more winter?

You all know the ritual. When the groundhog emerges on February 2, if it sees its shadow, it retreats back to its burrow, and we have six more weeks of winter.

My objection is not based on the inherent unreliability of weather forecasts made by rodents, though I will point out that he’s usually wrong. “He was only right about 40% of the time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”

No, my objection is based on the date. February 2nd. We have groundhogs in Canada in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, and in Wiarton, Ontario. They also make predictions, but who cares? It’s February 2nd!

We have never seen winter end on February 2nd in Canada. There’s always six more weeks of winter. So why are we consulting a groundhog about whether or not it will end?

If we adjusted the date by a month (like we do for Thanksgiving) I would be more understanding. But we don’t, and every year, we go through this ridiculous charade of asking a groundhog whether winter will end when we know full well it won’t.

It’s -11 here in Casselman as I type, and it’s snowing. According to real meteorologists, it’s going to remain cold for the next six weeks, at least. Just like it always does.

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Andrew Scheer

This name that you don’t recognize is the leader of the Conservative Party in Canada. His obscurity creates a challenge for him: he has to attract the attention of the media in a world of people like Doug Ford and Donald Trump.

There was a time when sharp and incisive criticism of the government would have done the job. Standing in Parliament day after day and pressing the government with an even-handed but ethically and logically sound series of questions designed to demonstrate that you understand the issues, and the consequences of policy, better than your opponent.

That’s not what Andrew Scheer is doing. His approach is instead to go for the headline and pander to his party’s baser instincts. If there’s a conflict between nations, his approach is to inflame the conflict. If there is a prejudice against a particular minority, his approach is to stoke that prejudice.

I have never agreed with conservatives but there was a time when I could respect them. But this approach – misleadingly called ‘populism’ in the media – doesn’t require thought or principle. You don’t need to wait until the facts are in or calculate the merits of different approaches.

Scheer has demonstrated this tendency for some months now but two cases in the last week lay open the bare bones of this strategy.

In one case, “Scheer says if he was prime minister he would fire Canada’s Ambassador to China John McCallum over his most recent comments on Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.” McCallum suggested to a Chinese-language audience that Wanzhou would have a good case against extradition to the United States.

We are being told in the media that the comments undercut Trudeau’s position that the government does not interfere with the administration of justice in Canada. Maybe it did, or maybe it represented a subtle way for the Trudeau government to underline its position and to recommend to the Chinese to trust the rule of law. We don’t know, and Scheer didn’t wait to find out, choosing instead to keep the chasm between China and Canada as wide as possible.

In a second case, following the RCMP arrest of two people in Kingston on terrorism-related charges, Scheer said it’s “clear that Canada’s refugee screening process needs to be seriously examined.” One person, a minor, remains in RCMP custody. The second person, a Syrian refugee, was not charged, has been released by the RCMP, and is to all appearances innocent.

We don’t know anything about the youth, because as a minor he cannot be identified. We can wonder, however, what enhanced refugee screening would have revealed about a teenager. More to the point, in cases like this, it is more common for youth to be radicalized in their new country. Refugee screening would have done nothing to prevent this.

But all of this is moot because Scheer didn’t even wait for the dust to settle to speak as though he already knew the outcome of the investigation.

In both cases, Scheer is taking the unthinking and  irresponsible route in an effort to attract attention and gain media clicks. In doing so he is debasing not only his own party but conservatism in Canada in general. And he is making the re-election of Justin Trudeau more likely, not less.

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Brexit

I’m the last person to want to give the United Kingdom any advice regarding its own particular form of self-immolation, but there are wider considerations at play.

From where I sit, it seems clear that the British publish were given false and misleading information about the implications of a Brexit, and are now paying the price.

And it seems pretty clear to me that external influence on the vote was a large factor in the outcome.

The current mess is casting doubt on the democratic process. Voices like this questioning the efficacy of referenda have been rising as the confusion grows greater day by day.

But I think – Theresa May notwithstanding – that democracy is the clearest path forward for the British people. And that a second referendum is the obvious step back from the brink that the U.K. needs.

May argues that a second referendum would create a precedent for a second Scottish vote. Well it might – we in Canada had two referenda on separation, so it can happen. Newfoundland had two referenda on whether to join Canada in 1948, so it can happen in the other direction as well.

But refusal to hold a second vote will not stop the Scottish people from pointing out that there’s a very big different between voting to remain in a U.K. that is in the European Union and a U.K. that is out. It is Brexit that makes a second Scottish referendum more likely, not a second vote on the question.

But in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Britain remains in the European Union, or whether it leaves. That really is up to the British to decide (and (dare I say) the British expats living in Europe should also be counted).

What does matter is that they get the vote right. Run it cleanly. Ensure there isn’t a nest of Russian trolls, or an Australian media troll, with a thumb on the scales. Make a vote with open eyes and a fair count.

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The Plant

By now it has become apparent that GM is unyielding in its plans to close the plant in Oshawa as it shuts down this and some US facilities in order to move production to Mexico.

The response of our provincial government has been to shrug its shoulders and say “whatevs”. The response from the federal government has been silence. The response from the progressive left has been protest and (on the part of the union) strikes.

At least the left is doing something, which is more than can be said of our governments. But none of this is likely to be effective. We need to rethink this.

A country’s investment in manufacturing and industry is sometimes referred to as its ‘plant’. And as a result of this and similar shutdowns in the past, the plant in Canada is shrinking. We are led to believe that this is inevitable, as companies will always seek lower wages and less stringent labour and environmental regulations elsewhere.

But if this were simply true, then manufacturing in places like Germany and Japan would be shrinking as well. What is it about these nations that protects their industries?

There are many factors, but I want to highlight one: the close involvement of employees in the determination of corporate policy. In Germany this is called ‘codetermination‘ and you can see the impact in everything from education to industrial policy. In Japan, there is separation of ownership and control, boards selected from within the company, and a process of decision-making by consensus.

This is a stark-contrast to the North American model where – as we have seen with the GM example – decisions are made at the senior leadership level, where the interests of shareholders are prioritized over all else, and are imposed on the company without pretense of democracy or consensus.

The result is that these companies have no loyalty to their employees, and they feel free to shut down plants, close companies (and eliminate pensions), and take other actions that are injurious to the communities in which they are located. And as we have seen, the result has been the overall reduction of the plant in Canada.

And it’s not just old-economy sectors like manufacturing and retail. Even the high-tech sector has been hit hard. And we have lost significant capacity in the failures of companies like Nortel, Backberry and Corel (some of which exist, but are shadows of their former selves). The list of defunct Canadian companies is long and includes every economic sector.

So, when faced with something like the GM shutdown, what should we be doing instead?

Let’s be clear, first of all, about the fact that GM is creating a cost to the economy as a whole, both in the reduction in Canada’s plant, and in the accommodations that need to be made in the communities that depend on that plant. This cost is all the greater when we consider the investment the Canadian public made, via corporate subsidies, to keep GM operational in the past.

Second, we should take the position that it is unacceptable to simply shut down effective and reliable plant infrastructure in Canada. The plant is a part of social infrastructure, and while it is operated by GM, it belongs in a certain sense to the community as a whole.

If GM is not willing to continue operating the plant, then the community and the nation should be prepared to step in to keep the plant operational, if not as a part of GM, then as something else (which could include being a competitor to GM).

We should take over and convert plant that is being abandoned into plant that is organized for, and run by, employees and members of the community. It should not be an option for GM to simply close it and sell it for parts. The cost of closing a plant in Canada should include the cost of replacing it with an equally viable plant under new management.

As a part of a progressive industrial policy, we should be looking to convert Canadian production from an industrial model to a cooperative model, from a model based on wealth and power to one based on community and consensus.

And we should be investing in these strategically.

For example, imagine what could have been done had Doug Ford not painted himself into a doctrinaire corner on environmental issues. Imagine the positive response that would have resulted had he announced that carbon tax money would be invested in saving the GM plant and investing in environmentally-friendly transportation technology.

An entire plant with equipment, infrastructure, and thousands of skilled employees is already at our disposal to make a significant impact in both protecting Canadian industry and acting as responsible environmental stewards. But Ford can’t fix this without admitting that maybe he was wrong.

So instead he shrugs his shoulders and says “meh”, and meanwhile, thousands lose their jobs and a key piece of Canada’s economy, Oshawa’s industrial capacity, is crippled.

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The Pipeline

Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister on a broadly leftish program, two key planks of which included reconciliation with indigenous peoples, and environmental stewardship, including especially a response to climate change.

Before the last election, I cautioned that it is a long Liberal tradition to run on the left and then to renege on their campaign promises. Now we’re three years in and most of the promises have been broken. That includes the promises of reconciliation and stewardship.

Alberta premier Rachel Notley could have handled this a lot better as well. It’s not her fault that the U.S. discovered shale oil and that world prices tanked. It’s also not her fault that 44 years of Conservative government didn’t produce the needed pipelines to salt water. But her response hasn’t been strategic, and it doesn’t match what she was saying before the election.

The message before the election was that Alberta should invest in refining and value-added processing for its oil reserves, rather than to simply pipe them south to be burned. There is a future in the oil industry, but not as an energy source. You can be in the oil industry and be environmentally responsible while developing a hydrocarbon-based manufacturing industry. But Alberta didn’t do that.

Even a pipeline strategy would have been much easier to sell fellow-NDP premier John Horgan in British Columbia if it were a part of a broad-based environmental strategy. The two premiers should have met in order to declare a common (and progressive) front on environmental issues. Alberta oil could have been seen as a boon to BC industry.

Completely absent and totally unhelpful in any of this has been federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. But that’s a topic for a different post.

Trudeau could have emerged as the peacekeeper, crafting a policy that respected the interests of everyone concerned while supporting Alberta in a time of need. Instead, he chose the politics of the bludgeon, choosing to impose a pipeline on a province and a people that clearly doesn’t want it, and in the process betraying his commitment to both the environment and to indigenous peoples.

Because, let’s be clear, the time to ship oil to market to be burned is over. The warnings on climate change are clear. We are already seeing some of the consequences. The cost, both to Canada and internationally – will be far greater than the cost of adapting Alberta’s economy to a post-fossil fuels future.

But we don’t actually have a strategy that takes environmental stewardship seriously. We have, at best, a strategy based on a hope that market forces (along with carbon pricing) will fix this on their own. Oh, they may fix it, but what we know about the market is that it doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Maybe it’s Alberta. Maybe it’s indigenous people. It doesn’t matter to the market.

The problem with making promises you know you’re going to break is that these promises aren’t based on any vision except for your own short-term success. And without a vision to sustain them, there is no guidance when things get difficult. And things are getting difficult.

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CEO Freedom Day

It’s hard to catch this because it happens so early in the year, but today is the day the average top-earning CEO made as much money as an ordinary person makes in a year.

The companies run by these CEOs will enjoy their own Corporate Tax Freedom Day before the month is done.

These same people pay the Fraser Institute and others to fuel outrage against government services on what they call Tax Freedom Day some time in May or June. By then, of course, we will have completely forgotten the free ride the rich have already enjoyed for half a year.

It’s a story that should be covered every day in the media, because it’s behind most of the social and political problems we face today. But even the stories that cover it make it about something else.

This year, for example, CBC is deciding to focus on the difference in executive pay for men and women. Now I get it, women are paid unfairly, and I support pay equity without reservation.

But the issue isn’t about Linamar’s Linda Hasenfratz making only $14.6 million. Nobody should be taking home that much, not her, nor the eleven other CEOs in Canada making more.

That’s why we have taxes. Sure, they raise money for the provision of common services, but this is something we’d need to do no matter what. The main beneficial effect of taxes is to limit the gap between rich and poor, to ensure that we don’t reach unsustainable levels of inequality.

The rich don’t care about sustainability because they believe they would survive whatever calamity could ensue. They’re wrong, of course, but that’s no comfort for the rest of us.

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Race

I’ll make this simple: “There is no genetic evidence to support any racist ideology.”

The preoccupation with race is both wrong and misguided. Wrong, because even if you could distinguish in a scientific way between races, it does not follow that any race is more pure, or more superior, than any other.

And misguided because you can’t really distinguish in a scientific way between races. You can at best approximate. But science isn’t about approximation. If you want to use ‘race’ at all, use race as defined by DNA, not the ridiculous classifications used in media (and even academic papers) such as “black, white, Asian, Hispanic, whatever”.

Yes, there are differences between individuals based on their genetics. But these differences are pretty minor, and the differences within a ‘race’ are far greater than those between races.

But more to the point, the preponderance of differences between people are based on social and environmental factors. Key among these are mothers’ health, infant nutrition, early education, and the home environment.

We should stop using ‘race’ as a classification system. It makes about as much sense as phrenology, and the data produced are no more accurate. If we must classify between groups of humans, we should differentiate between factors that really matter: those who grew up in poverty and those who did not, those who had access to education and those who did not, those raised in war zones and those who were not, etc.

Racism is wrong. It shouldn’t have to be said, but there it is.

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