Blind Man with a Pistol

Liberals Can’t Read

I don’t usually deal with party politics on this site, but in this case I will make an exception. As many of you probably don’t know, in the last budget, the Conservative government tried to ideologically hack research funding for the social sciences and the humanities by stipulating that money given to support doctorate research through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) be ‘focused on business-related degrees’.  You see, when Stephen Harper was roughly chastised for his Arts-hating policies last year, culminating with his statement that ‘ordinary folks don’t care about the Arts’, he didn’t give up. As Peter McKay would say, (Conservative) Canadians don’t cut and run. Instead, he took out his overnight bag and put some lipstick on that pig. Postgrads? No one cares about those entitled, clueless (and non-voting) kids. Postgrads in the humanities? Well, you don’t need to have read Jacques Derrida to deconstruct that move.

Hundreds of PhD students put down their mochaccinos and took notice. Unwilling to ditch Jane Austen for Ayn Rand, or Islam for Scientology, graduate students did pretty much everything that accounts for student activism these days: they started a facebook group.

It got some attention. Aside from the above Globe and Mail article (better late than never, I suppose), NDP MP and post-secondary education critic Niki Ashton started a petition against the funding change and has promised to fight it in the House. Chad Gaffield, President of SSHRC, responded with some mealy-mouthed interpretation that claimed SSHRC had always valued business-related degrees, but neglected to explain if SSHRC would now focus exclusively on them. Frankly, things were not looking good.

But, we graduate students had an ace in the hole: Michael Ignatieff. Iggy. Rhodes Scholar and Harvard academic. A man who knows the true value of a postgraduate education in the humanities. I knew if I wrote to the eminent leader of our opposition, he would hear me. He would understand. And he would lift us up from where Harper had brought us low. Yesterday, he finally wrote me back (he must have been busy). Here’s what he had to say:

Thank you for your letter regarding the federal funding of research in Canada.

The Liberal Party of Canada has always recognized the importance of supporting research in science and technology. Former Liberal governments have created powerful tools to reinvigorate public research: the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs Program, Genome Canada and the Indirect Costs Program for Canada’s colleges and universities.

Er, ok. Maybe this is a form letter, and he’ll get to us English students later. That’s okay! I support research in science too!

In contrast, the Conservative governments’ recent budget demonstrates its failure to grasp the importance of scientific research for creating the jobs of tomorrow. Three national research granting councils, which play essential roles in funding the scientists who conduct the research, will be subjected to “efficiency and focusing” cuts over the next three years. Equally disturbing, the budget failed to provide Genome Canada with new funding, obstructing the multi-year process of engaging talented Canadian scientists and private-sector partners in the next research cycle.

Be assured that the Liberal Party will work relentlessly to push this government into making long-term commitments to science, research and innovation. We will raise this issue in the House of Commons, pressuring the government to send a clear message that our country is in this for the long haul.

By allowing our scientists to make long term plans government sends the signal that it really does believe in what they are doing, and, more importantly, that it understand the nature of their work. Long term, predictable support provides our scientists with the tools they need to do their work. It also communicates that we want our scientists to stay in Canada, and, moreover, that we want scientists from the rest of the world to come here to work.

I have to say, at this point, I was getting a little worried. I didn’t get the impression that ‘social scientists’ were included in Iggy’s noun. But, my patience was finally awarded and my serious concerns addressed:

This support must extend to all forms of research – engineering and natural sciences, medicine and life sciences, the humanities and social sciences.

Yesss! There I am!

It is not appropriate for government to impose constraints on which forms of research are more likely to be funded. Such a policy – valuing applied science over fundamental science that has less obvious commercial value – is shortsighted and wrong.

Okay, I’m not sure why he went back to applied science vs. fundamental (??) science, although there does seem to be a disapproving gesture towards business-related degrees. Kind of.

Thank you again for sharing your views on this important matter.

The Office of the Leader of the Opposition

It’s like I always say. Sometimes, unfortunately, there’s just nothing outside the text.

Title taken from skdadl at Bread n’ Roses.

ETA: it seems that Mr. Ignatieff’s letter is in response to the recent revelation that Stephen Harper’s Science Minister doesn’t belive in Science. While I suppose it is good that our opposition is fighting the ignorance entrenched in our government, I wonder why Iggy thought my letter about funding in the humanities deserved to be included in his response. Worse, I wonder if I would have received a response at all if Harper’s Laurel and Hardy show hadn’t decided to premier its latest act. Actually, scratch that, I don’t wonder.

Up for Debate

I despise the Green Party of Canada. They are completely divorced from the social democratic heritage of their American and European namesakes. They are the worst of mealy-mouthed bourgeois liberalism, and have made a politics based on commercial branding and reactionary populism rather than principled policies and moral courage. So when the GPC secured their first-ever Member of Parliament and asserted their right to participate in the televised federal leadership debates, I couldn’t agree more. With the other three federal parties, they’ll get along just fine. If anything, the Bloc Québécois is the odd one out.

On principle, I would like to see more small-party candidates on a televised debate stage (The Democratic Party Presidential Candidate debate on MSNBC, incidentally, had eight candidates on stage). It would be wonderful, for example, if Québec solidaire could participate in the Québec debates. The price of admission would be reasonably sized support base, probably calculated on a low vote threshold and a significant number of candidates—this would signify voter recognition, campaigning capacity and democratic legitimacy. There are no binding rules for CTV or CBC to let in anyone, of course, but as a crown corporation, the CBC owes some kind of public service during elections, which means if they value the democratic process, they should acknowledge the role of smaller parties. Of course, I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

But, in the context of corporate media, it is clear that the mainstream media is concerned only with mainstream parties. Elizabeth May, despite the braying of NDP acolytes, has inserted her party and its platform into mainstream consciousness. Speakers like Al Gore and the increasing resonance of the environment as a political issue in general doubtless contributes to the GPC’s rise in fortunes, but May’s name repeatedly pops up in articles about environmental policy. For good or ill, Elizabeth May and the Green Party are mainstream Canada.

The GPC has a member of parliament now—in circumstances no less suspect than when Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to preserve Paul Martin’s Liberal Government. They have reached double figures in Federal polls and almost 5% in elections. They have a nationally recognized leader with nationally recognized policies. They are not a dissenting, subversive party—their economic and social politics align with most middle-class Canadians.

They deserve a spot in the debate not only based on moral and democratic grounds, but on the criteria the media has set and on the ethos by which the media governs itself. They are playing the games ‘Canada’s New Government’ and ‘the Green Shift’ Liberals have already taught us. This is how Canada does electoral politics these days. And as such, Elizabeth May deserves a seat at the debate table.

Of course, implicit in this discussions is that the debates, in their current form, are valuable to the democratic process in the first place. The suggestion that the inclusion of another party leader would detract from what usually occurs during a televised leadership debate is laughable. If anything, media execs should be jumping at the chance to include some fresh blood. It might actually attract some viewers for a change. When was the last time a leasdership debate had debate? When policies were weighed and interrogated? When was the last time a televised debate didn’t consist entirely of platitudes and slogan-lobbing? In short, when was the last time a debate changed anybody’s mind?

For her part, Elizabeth May should fit right in.

Carbon Taxes and Double Indemnity

Stéphane Dion released his ‘complex and politically risky’ carbon tax plan yesterday. I’ve already written what I think of market-based solutions for the climate crisis, but I’m a big fan of repeating myself. By creating a carbon market, which, effectively, both a carbon tax a cap-and-trade system will implement, we begin to turn our environment into an economical resource. Sure, we kind of do this already, but such a move will make the marketability of our planet much more explicit.

As this year-old article from Wired magazine, who just celebrated fifteen years of pushing their technological and capitalist utopian fantasies, explains: Carbon? Hell, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

People understand the economic value of nature’s goods because we constantly pay for them: seafood, timber, copper, cut flowers, natural gas. But nature also provides services that stabilize spaceship Earth. Insects pollinate crops, wooded hillsides purify water, trees sequester CO2, and wetlands buffer cities against storm surges. How much are those services worth? Who knows. They’ve always been free, or treated as such. Nature has never submitted an invoice.

But they’re not free, of course. We can tell by the enormous price we pay when they decline or disappear. Think Hurricane Katrina, unpollinated crops, and deadly mudslides caused by deforestation. As the new age of environmental awareness dawns, people and governments are starting to put a dollar value on these services. In practice, that means paying to protect the land where services are most concentrated. And whoever owns the land can reap the profits.

Essentially, the carbon market is the first step in turning ‘spaceship Earth’ into a post-industrial economy: from a manufacturing-based environmental economy to service-based one. Things are getting a lot more complicated without any noticeable improvement in lifestyle. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that creating a carbon market will do anything to reduce emissions—in fact, such a strategy actually entrenches pollution in our economy. We can’t eliminate carbon in a decade anymore than we can eliminate the tar sands now: it will cost jobs to hard-working Canadians.

The carbon tax holds up green collateral in an insurance racket with massive risk (and massive profit potential). And here’s what Walter Huff, insurance salesman from James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (1936) has to say about his business (and if you recognize the picture in my banner, you’ll know I’ll quote from this guy whenever I get the chance):

You think I’m nuts? All right, maybe I am. But you spend fifteen years in the business I’m in, maybe you’ll go nuts yourself. You think it’s a business, don’t you, just like your business, and maybe a little better than that, because it’s the friend of the widow, the orphan, and the needy in time of trouble? It’s not. It’s the biggest gambling wheel in the world. It don’t look like it is, but it is, from the way they figure the percentage on the 00 to the look on their face when they cash your chips. You bet that your house will burn down, they bet it won’t, that’s all. What fools you is that you didn’t want your house to burn down when you made the bet, and so you forget it’s a bet. That don’t fool them. To them a bet is a bet, and a hedge bet don’t look any different than any other bet. But there comes a time, maybe, when you do want your house to burn down, when money is worth more than the house. And right there is where the trouble starts.

The difference between me and the Liberal party, and anyone who views a market-based solution as anything more than a stop-gap measure, is that I don’t think our future is worth the wager. There’s a reason why ‘nature has never submitted an invoice’: because it doesn’t play on our crooked wheel. It doesn’t want in, but we call the bet just the same. The money should never be worth more than the house, but you can’t seem to convince Canadians of that.

Oh, and the thing to remember about James Cain novels? The narrator is already dead.

Carbon Copy

NDP Leader Jack Layton has “shocked” environmentalists by opposing Captain Climate Change Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax environmental platform. Stephen Hazell, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, accused Layton of “pandering to people who are afraid about rising gas prices” because of Layton’s claim that rising energy costs would hurt the Canadian poor compelled to heat their homes by Canada’s cold winter climate. Hazell has a point: a decent carbon tax scheme would offset the penalty lower-income families would have to pay with taxes from corporations and upper-income earners. Dion’s plan is allegedly “revenue-neutral.” The problem with the plan is not that it would penalize lower-income families, the problem with carbon tax shifting is that it is utterly useless in combating climate change.

In order for a carbon tax plan to reduce carbon consumption, first, the tax rate needs to be high enough to deter people from using carbon-based fuels and second, alternative fuel sources must be widely available for less money. Gas prices have gone up forty percent over the last four years, and oil prices are predicted to double by 2012. Yet consumption has not slowed; in fact, our fuel consumption levels (and greenhouse gas emissions) are at record levels. Will Dion’s Liberals be willing to match the equivalent in a carbon tax scheme? Unlikely: and they will need to do more than match it.

Where will the alternatively sourced energy come from? Canada is light years behind Europe in alternative energy sources (disgracefully, since, as a Nordic country we should be leading the world on climate change). And the “revenue-neutral” logic means that not a single penny from this carbon tax will go toward new investment in non-carbon alternatives. Since the goal of a carbon tax is to make carbon-based fuels prohibitively expensive, what can we use instead?

Of course, all this is nonsense anyway. In “The Idols of Environmentalism,” an essay that should be compulsory reading for anyone interested slowing climate change, Curtis White pinpoints the reason market-based solutions like carbon trading will never, ever work:

Environmental destruction proceeds apace in spite of all the warnings, the good science, the 501(c)3 organizations with their memberships in the millions, the poll results, and the martyrs perched high in the branches of sequoias or shot dead in the Amazon. This is so not because of a power, a strength out there that we must resist. It is because we are weak and fearful. Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide.

For instance, trading carbon emission credits and creating markets in greenhouse gases as a means of controlling global warming is not a way of saying we’re so confident in the strength of the free market system that we can even trust it to fix the problems it creates. No, it’s a way of saying that we are so frightened by the prospect of stepping outside of the market system on which we depend for our national wealth, our jobs, and our sense of normalcy that we will let the logic of that system try to correct its own excesses even when we know we’re just kidding ourselves.

There is something psychopathic about carbon taxes and carbon trading. You may kill this many of my children, we tell our polluters. You may poison this much of my drinking water. But no more. I have to draw the line.

Capitalism—especially in its corporate incarnation—has a logos, a way of reasoning. Capitalism is in the position of the notorious scorpion who persuades the fox to ferry him across a river, arguing that he won’t sting the fox because it wouldn’t be in his interest to do so, since he’d drown along with the fox. But when in spite of this logic he stings the fox anyway, all he can offer in explanation is “I did it because it is in my nature.” In the same way, it’s not as if businessmen perversely seek to destroy their own world. They have vacation homes in the Rockies or New England and enjoy walks in the forest, too. They simply have other priorities which are to them a duty…

It is because we have accepted this rationalist logos as the only legitimate means of debate that we are willing to think that what we need is a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. It’s as if we were negotiating a trade agreement with the animals and trees unlucky enough to have to share space with us. What do you need? we ask them. What are your minimum requirements? We need to know the minimum because we’re not likely to leave you more than that. We’re going to consume any “excess.” And then it occurs to us to add, unless of course you taste good. There is always room for an animal that tastes good.

How can a country that subsidizes the filthiest, most destructive, most obscene project in the entire world, the Alberta oil sands, convince its population that it holds any truck with environmentalism? How can we be made to believe that paying a few million, even a few billion dollars will negate the scorched earth left behind in Athabasca? And yet we Canadians swallow such absurd contradictions when we are unable to make the connection between 500 ducks drowning in oil and the car we drive to work.

This is the message you would expect Canada’s left-leaning party to send: not some weak-kneed gesture to gas prices. The Liberals’ plan is wrong, but for reasons no one in Canada seems prepared to hear.