Saturday, July 02, 2005

On tracking one's money

The latest on the use of reconstruction funds in Iraq:
British and American aid intended for Iraq's hard-pressed police service is being diverted to paramilitary commando units accused of widespread human rights abuses, including torture and extra-judicial killings...

The investigation revealed:

· A 'ghost' network of secret detention centres across the country, inaccessible to human rights organisations, where torture is taking place.

· Compelling evidence of widespread use of violent interrogation methods including hanging by the arms, burnings, beatings, the use of electric shocks and sexual abuse.

· Apparent co-operation between unofficial and official detention facilities, and evidence of extra-judicial executions by the police.

Good news, though: the UK "has raised this with the Iraqi government":
'We would expect them to publish the findings of any investigations, prosecute those found to have carried out any abuse, punish those found guilty regardless of rank or background, and take all steps to prevent any recurrence.'

Which surely means that change and accountability are the way. After all, it's not as if there's another occupying power which would be willing to back torture, right?

More fun with torture

And it gets worse:
Last year, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller said CIA interrogation techniques "violate all American anti-torture laws," and instructed FBI agents to step outside of the room when the CIA steps in.

Analysts say there are at least a score of unacknowledged facilities around the world. Among them, several in Afghanistan (one known as "the pit") and Iraq, in Pakistan, Jordan, in a restricted unit at Guantanamo, and one, they suspect, on Diego Garcia, where two navy prison ships ferry prisoners in and out.

(R)endering means giving up control to the other country, says Pike, which in turn means only low-value suspects are transferred.

"The CIA keeps the high-level ones to themselves," he says. "And they work them over."

There's more worth reading in the Star's article, but this part alone is frightening enough. If nothing else, this should make for a particularly interesting line of questioning next time someone tries to claim the Bush administration is fighting torture. Anyone want to bet against Scott McClellan saying the reporter should ask the ghost detainees?

More health care progress

More good news on the health front:
The number of people waiting for surgeries in Saskatchewan continues to drop.

The list of patients on the surgical wait list in the province's seven largest health regions has fallen by more than 25-hundred people to just over 30-thousand from February 2004 to last March.

The problem is far from solved, but it's clear that we're headed in the right direction. That is, as long private actors don't come along to make the entire system more expensive for everybody.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The return of the G7...

...only this time, it'll be the U.S. on the outside looking in:
Tony Blair is contemplating an unprecedented rift with the US over climate change at the G8 summit next week, which will lead to a final communique agreed by seven countries with President George Bush left out on a limb...

It would be the first time that the G8 has faced a "split" communique - and with the world's most powerful country in a minority of one.

Good on Blair and the rest of the G8 standing up to Bush's junk science. No matter how determined the Bush administration is not to live in reality, nothing is solved by the rest of the world lending any credence to biased contrarianism masquerading as a scientific viewpoint.

Controlling information

Contrary to its previous commitments, the U.S. is refusing to hand control over the Internet's root computers to ICANN.

The American argument is that any handover could lead to "uncertainty". But for everybody but the administration, the decision in fact leads to far more uncertainty than a changeover, particularly with the administration going to far to control information domestically.

The big question now is whether it's possible, and worth the effort, to rework the entire network to run off of a different international system. My take would be "yes" - better to go to a bit of expense now than have the world's main information source cut off for political reasons later.


And to think some people think we need a right-wing alternative to this drivel.

I for one will be glad to help stamp out any "anti-American hysteria"...just as soon as Gibson's Fox News and the rest of the U.S. echo chamber get rid of their own anti-Democratic, anti-Canadian, anti-global and anti-reality hysteria. I'm not holding my breath.

Making progress

You know all those impossible-to-solve problems with the current health-care system? Turns out they're not so impossible to solve after all:
A year and a half after a doctor raised a red flag about long wait times at a Saskatoon emergency department, statistics show those wait times have dropped significantly...

Since July, 2004, RUH emergency has had two doctors to provide around-the-clock care, an increase in coverage of 33 per cent from the previous year. Meanwhile, the average wait time for emergent patients has gone down by 33 per cent from an average of 42 to 28 minutes in 2004-2005.

So when the system is properly funded, it starts working better. Who knew?

When analysts attack

Per the National Post, there's growing concern in "financial circles"that the upcoming G8 meeting will be "hijacked by the Africa agenda".

Of the two "political analysts" quoted, one takes the bizarre position that such an Africa focus would only be justified if there was a true Marshall plan in the making. I have to wonder how such a plan would be formulated without some serious discussions.

The other, reliably pushing the Cato Institute position, argues that since the high-interest development loans which are now being forgiven were themselves foreign aid, any foreign aid including debt relief will be ineffective. The debt from past attempts to help is crippling, therefore let's not relieve debt now. Instead, this analyst argues that the problem is Africa's lack of openness to business - while conveniently ignoring the fact that rich countries often do their utmost to prevent imports from African countries.

The underlying position of both analysts (at least according to the Post) is that Africa as a whole is too corrupt to merit any increase in aid. Of course, this argument conveniently neglects that tackling corruption is a precondition to aid under the current deal.

Normally if I was going to analyze something, I'd try to make sure I at least paid attention to readily-available facts and made coherent points. I suppose this is why I don't work for the Cato Institute.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Good stuff

Duncan Cameron takes on the CCCE.

Health care priorities

Call it a hunch, but health care would generally benefit if there was less of this going on:
Quebec and Ontario have been in a spirited competition over the (location of a Shriners) hospital but Charest said Wednesday he is appalled at Ontario's efforts...

(Ontario's promotional) video apparently makes a number of unsubstantiated claims, including assertions that the site of the proposed Montreal hospital is dangerous. The video apparently says the former rail yard was not properly decontaminated.

"That's false, that's a lie," said Charest, who was shown the ad by an Alberta delegate to the Shriners' meeting.

Sounds like typical political attack advertising making its way into the private sphere. But even in politics, normally a campaign has the good sense not to let candidates (or top spokespeople) become the most egregious attackers, lest they be seen negatively themselves.

My hope and expectation is that, like most particularly bad attack ads, this attempt will backfire. Whether or not it does, though, the more important lesson is that there's no good reason for provinces to be fighting over the hospital in the first place.

And that's that

It's official: the new case of BSE was in an American-born cow.

I look forward to R-CALF's upcoming injunction to close the border to Texas.

Making Guantanamo look good...

According to the AP, the UN's special expert on torture is examining allegations that the U.S. is maintaining "undeclared holding areas", possibly including navy ships in international waters.

If there's anything at all to this story, it's the most frightening human-rights news to come out of Bush's reign - and that takes some doing. While Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib were nothing short of appalling, and extraordinary rendering as a policy should never have happened, at least the results of those programs were relatively capable of monitoring.

But using navy ships which, due to their military purposes, presumably don't take kindly to surveillance and have the means to repel any attempt, while at the same time being able to move anywhere in the world at will? The only evidence available now is from people claiming to be detained on such ships, and we know how much the administration cares about the word of people it suspects (or suspected) of terrorist involvement. And barring serious leaks from within the military, there's really no way to substantiate the claim.

Of course, it's a pretty much an impossible claim to disprove too, so we'll likely never be sure whether anything has happened unless (a) it is true, and (b) someone leaks information to that effect. The best ammunition against an accusation like this would be enough credibility for the world to believe a denial. Let's just say that's not present on the facts.

Remembering what we have

For all the talk of our crumbling health-care system, consider the views of patients themselves:
(A Health Quality Council) survey found 94 per cent of patients reported receiving good, very good or excellent care overall in a Saskatchewan hospital.

I'm not quite sure how often 94% of people agree on anything, but this has to highlight the value of single-payer health care.

The survey does point out areas which need to be improved, including pain management and information, but these are relatively small issues in the bigger picture. And while there are waiting lists that need to be reduced, some strategic resource injections can fix those within the current system. We need to do more - but an awful lot of good is being done already.

The main argument for privatization is to ensure that individuals have the chance to pay for services to meet their needs. When such an overwhelming majority is already happy with the current system, there shouldn't be any great impetus for major structural change.

Update: The full story is now available.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Today's must-read

Timmy the G on Canada's ongoing deep integration.

Risk assessment

In case there's any doubt yet about the importance of global warming as an issue, here's something to think about. This statement was released today:
The group will call on leaders of the world's richest nations meeting in Scotland next week to slash carbon dioxide emissions, improve coastal defenses and strengthen buildings to dampen the impact of the predicted storms.

"Governments now have a chance to make rational choices for the future, before it is too late."

So who's the group involved? Greenpeace? The Sierra Club? The Suzuki Foundation? Not exactly:
The cost of cleaning up storm damage will balloon unless the world takes urgent action to cut harmful emissions warming the globe, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said on Wednesday...

Damage costs from the three most expensive types of storms -- hurricanes in the United States, typhoons in Japan and windstorms in Europe -- will rise to $27 billion in an average year by 2080 up from $16 billion today if carbon dioxide emissions double their current rate, ABI's report said.

The ABI holds about 94% of the domestic British insurance market - meaning that it presumably has tons of corporate clients along with individuals, and has a very strong stake in economic growth. In other words, if controlling climate change were really too expensive to be worth doing, the ABI should be the first organization pointing that out.

Instead the insurance industry, which by definition has the best understanding of the risks people face, now says definitively that the risks of not acting on climate change far exceed the risks of acting.

Even the most staunch anti-environmentalist should be willing to listen to that.

And it's done

C-38 has passed. Huzzah!

With the removal of what I presume is the last great immediate obstacle to equality for the GBL community (let me know if there are others we should be focussing on), where does the equality movement go from here? Here are a few ideas for issues that are already before Parliament.

One possibility would be seeking to add to the core group of rights available to all. For example, the NDP's Peter Stoffer has put forward a bill to enshrine a right to housing in the Bill of Rights. Of course, that sort of line of discussion can go in an entirely different direction: see for example Conservative Scott Reid's proposal to enshrine property rights instead.

Another possibility is the more explicit protection of rights which, in principle, should already be available. See Dipper Libby Davies' bill to outlaw racial profiling, or Liberal Lloyd St. Amand's bill to investigate the treatment of elderly Canadians.

Then there's the possibility of recognizing added groups who are so far left out of existing human rights legislation. The NDP's Bill Siksay has proposed protecting against discrimination based on gender identity, which sounds to me like a natural next step.

It's a great day for equality. But there's still more work to be done, and the taste of victory on SSM (after a Commons vote going the other way just five years ago) should only make us more eager to push further in the right direction.

As boondoggles go...

...the firearms registry may not have been such a bad one:
It says that 816 people — 767 males and 49 females — died of firearms-related injuries in Canada in 2002, the most recent year examined in the study. This represented 2.6 deaths per 100,000 population, down from 5.9 per 100,000 in 1979, it said.

Among males, the 2002 rate was 4.9 deaths per 100,000, down from 10.6 in 1979. Among females, it was 0.3, down from 1.2.

In a cross-border comparison for the year 2000, Statistics Canada says the risk of firearms death was more than three times as great for American males as for Canadian males and seven times as great for American females as for Canadian females.

Because more of the U.S. deaths were homicides (as opposed to suicides or accidental deaths), the U.S. rate of gun homicide was nearly eight times Canada's, the agency says.

Can the gun registry take much credit? The study is inconclusive. Was it worth the cost? That's up for debate.

But at the very least, we can say fairly definitively that Canada's gun policies continue to work far better than those south of the border.

Keeping the balance

Lest there be any doubt, governments should make sure that the money they're spending is going to the right place. But they shouldn't be going too far in keeping that money from getting anywhere either. A developing case in point:
Brent Daum says that since the misappropriation of over $1 million came to light in January, clients of AIDS Saskatoon who also receive assistance have faced increased scrutiny.

Social workers have been increasingly demanding of documentation -- from receipts to new reports from clients' doctors to verify they are too sick to work.

"They're making them jump through hoops 10 times more than what they did before to make sure that nobody is taking advantage of the system," he says.

"It's basically resulting in people being unable to access some services because the requirements in terms of documentation may be too great or the length of time it takes to get approval is too long. And when people are in immediate need, time is obviously of the essence," says (the executive director of AIDS Saskatoon).

The NDP government does recognize the problem, and is working to find a way around the provincial auditor's recommendation that all expenditures be backed up by a receipt:
"In actual fact, the department is being asked to fulfil the requirements of the auditor to have appropriate documentation to approve payments. One of the things we're working through with the auditor is how we can have this not have an impact like that on the clients. There's no question social workers had more flexibility until the auditor's report which required that every single receipt be in the files...The department is moving in fact more to an income approach because just the cost of administering this receipt-gathering makes it very difficult to provide a decent level of service."

Who wants to bet that the receipt requirement itself was based on a perception that the program would run more efficiently and accountably if it funded only immediate expenses rather than providing block sums?

Just a friendly reminder that while accountability is important, there are good reasons why auditors aren't actually in charge, and why sometimes their recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt.

(Edit: typo.)

Research and development

In some cases, of course, business' interests do coincide with the greater good. Unfortunately, it appears that Martin is dropping the ball on one of those:
After presiding for nearly a decade over extraordinary growth in the budgets and ambitions of the agency that funds more of Canada's academic research projects than any other, Renaud said he would have liked to have served two more years, and admitted: "I'm worried, to be frank." For two budgets in a row, growth in federal investment in research and innovation has stalled. "It's as if universities have had enough. I kept being told by people all over Ottawa, 'Marc, don't expect the growth that you've seen for the last eight years for the next few years.' "

Now, is this all soft social science research that we should be eliminating in favour of a business and science orientation? Not so much:
A health sociologist from the Université de Montréal, Renaud has spent the last year and a half in consultations with university administrators and faculty with an eye toward overhauling SSHRC's mandate. He wants Canada's social-science and humanities researchers to be better connected -- with one another, with the outside world, with mainstream media outlets and with governments. He wants to keep pace with an explosion in research in fields where research involves tools far more exacting than the traditional humanities diet of late nights over dusty books.

"Don't forget, we cover the landscape," he says. "We always thought social science was soft stuff and people just needed their pens. And it turns out, it's not true." Now, longitudinal surveys -- immense databases that track information about large samples of people over long periods of time -- "allow us to compare what aging means in Greece and Italy and Canada, given different policies, the climate, the family structure," Renaud says. "Five years ago there were zero students doing their thesis on this. Now there's 400 in Canada."

The upshot? Renaud wants SSHRC's $240-million budget for research and graduate-student training to double over five years. It sounds extravagant until you realize that the budget is barely a quarter of those for either of the two granting councils for science.

Compared to a tax cut which would have relatively little impact on any given business, this would be an extremely sound investment. Unfortunately, it's one that Martin doesn't seem to want to make. The NDP should be all over this one.

Dog bites man

More shocking revelations from d'Aquino et al. - the CCCE wants both tax cuts and attention. My favourite part is this passage:
The CEOs want the national debate to switch to strategies for cutting excessive spending, taxation and regulations -- and away from endless partisan wrangling in Parliament.

As framing tactics go, this is an impressive one - as far as the CCCE is concerned, any discussion other than "how should we give more money to Thomas d'Aquino?" qualifies as "partisan wrangling".

With that said, I hope the Liberals are spineless enough to play along with the CCCE come campaign time. Nothing would be better for the NDP than to be the voice of good management while the Liberals and Conservatives compete to offer the largest possible corporate tax cuts, balanced budget and social programs be damned.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Variety show

An assortment of fun headlines from Reuters' politics page, focusing largely on the blatantly obvious which unfortunately isn't getting much play elsewhere...

- Halliburton's Iraq deals described as contract abuse (featuring Halliburton's brilliant "rehashing the election" defence);
- Experts say US complacent on nuclear terror threat; and, the ever-popular
- U.S. contradictory on foreign elections - critics.

Of course, Bushco is still trying to counter the facts with its usual mix of rose-coloured glasses and diverting attention away from the worst immediate issue:

Snow, selling social security bill, says US strong.

The truly sad part is that Snow can only manage two indicia to suggest the economy is doing well: more people working (without considering population growth), and a lack of inflation (when the Fed is already expected to raise interest rates on the basis that inflation will result otherwise). Please have fun comparing and contrasting.

NDP gain in the making

Good news for the NDP. Bad news for Andrew Scheer:
Lorne Nystrom is attempting another run at Parliament.

Nystrom has captured the NDP nomination in the riding of Regina-Qu'Appelle.

Nystrom's a longtime favourite of mine, he's exactly the kind of voice of experience the NDP needs, and he's well enough known to be a vital part of any NDP government-in-waiting.

Tax Obfuscation Day

I'm sure many have seen it already, thanks in no small part to Mike's great post. But for those who haven't, this McQuaig/Brooks piece is required reading.

On thinking through one's position

6 out of 17 inmates just released from Guantanamo say the Koran was desecrated. The Pentagon's response is to argue that such allegations are contained in Al Qaeda training manuals. Just one problem with that:
Tahir Ashrafi, a religious affairs adviser for Punjab province, said the 17 men had been cleared by Pakistani intelligence agencies after thorough interrogation and "have not been found to be involved in any kind of terrorist activity."

So take your pick:

(1) The Pentagon is right, which means that the U.S. decided to release active Al Qaeda members, then have its ally Pakistan lie about their background for no apparent reason.
(2) The Pentagon is making up excuses with no basis in reality.

I know where my money's going.

Who needs knowledge anyway?

Ontario's government decided to balance its budget by slashing library funding:
About $1.2 million has been cut by the Ministry of Culture from public library services, including the inter-library loan system...

Kathryn Goodhue, chair of the Administrators of Rural/Urban Public Libraries of Ontario, which represents 16 rural and remote libraries, said its members will suffer the most.

"We rely heavily on our ability to be able to borrow books from other library systems across the province," she said.

The beauty of a library system is that it enables anybody to have access to virtually any information. Cutting down on inter-library loans eliminates much of that ability. At rural libraries in particular, an individual's ability to get access to a book will be entirely dependent on that library's purchasing choices. In turn, those purchasing choices are limited by both the small audience and a small budget - likely leading the libraries to stick to well-known books rather than providing any base for specialized knowledge.

But isn't that knowledge also often available on the Internet? Sometimes yes, sometimes no - but either way that too is becoming less accessible, since $340,000 is being slashed from the computer budget for libraries.

At best this sort of decision is short-sighted; at worst it reflects complete contempt for the needs of rural areas in particular, and the value of information in general.

Head in the Sand

Ujjal Dosanjh:
I don't see a great rush to set up private health care, because we have a very recent experience. Forty-five years is not a long time in the life of a nation. There are people who still remember the dark days of private health care, where people had to sell their farms and sell their homes to care for their loved ones.

Of course, the problem here is that in the absence of government action it isn't the Canadian public at large which gets to choose whether or not a private system is set up - it's those who stand to benefit from it at the public's expense. And all indications are that privatization is happening while Dosanjh does nothing.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Bush: Duncan Hunter is un-American

Bush claims that the U.S. is fighting torture, and in the process manages to slam some of his strongest backers:
America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains.

The problem is that that's exactly what Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter pretended about Guantanamo detainees a couple of weeks ago:
The inmates at Guantanamo have never eaten better, they have never been treated better, they have never been more comfortable in their lives than in this situation.

And Hunter's not the only example of such wingnuttery - in fact some conservatives are putting together a Guantanamo cookbook in support of the administration, and claiming that the fact that detainees have put on weight means that they're being treated well. I'd hope that being denounced by their own president would lead to some views being reconsidered. But of course I have my doubts.

Reducing the high cost of being poor

The Canadian Press notes that payday loan services are just now getting real attention from governments:
The interest Sinclair has shelled out amounts to more than 1,000 per cent on an annualized basis.

The burgeoning short-term loan industry across Canada is largely unregulated, and the Criminal Code provision restricting loan rates to less than 60 per cent per year is rarely enforced.

Fees and penalties can be compounded and virtually unlimited.

The provinces and Ottawa are looking at new rules, and this fall ministers responsible for consumer affairs will draw up an action plan. Options include limiting penalties for late payments, slapping a new ceiling on interest rates and giving provinces more enforcement power.

Even the token "quote from a satisfied customer" is based on the idea that in the absence of other options, a person is better off paying an exorbitant interest rate than having to go through a pawn shop instead. The more important question left unasked is that of why there aren't some better options available.

One helpful solution noted by Judy Wasylycia-Leis is the creation of community-centred financial institutions:
In neighbourhoods like Winnipeg's north end, lax rules on banking services have allowed all major banks to simply pull up stakes and leave for more profitable pastures, paving the way for high interest payday lenders to enter.

My constituents are fighters, not victims, however, and are organizing through the Alternative Financial Services Coalition to provide access to non-profit financial services for their community.

While limits on the amount of interest charged on rollover loans and more strict enforcement of the usury provisions will help somewhat, the real solution lies in the creation and expansion of community lenders. Ideally, governments would provide backing to allow community lenders to function while taking small losses their issued loans. In turn, the lenders could both encourage local development, and keep more money in the hands of those who need it most.

Delaying the inevitable

The Cons plan to delay passage of C-38 as long as they can:
Jay Hill, the Conservative House leader in the Commons, told CTV Question Period on Sunday that “quite a few” of his members will want to have their say before the bill comes to a vote.

Mr. Hill wouldn't say exactly how many speakers he intends to put up, but he noted there were over 70 Tories on the list the last time the topic was debated in May.

Translation: We haven't yet come up with a cuddly, likeable Harper. Give us a couple more weeks and we'll see what we can do.

The more surprising part of the article is that both Valeri and Layton plan to avoid closure on the bill. For Valeri it makes a bit more sense, since presumably the anti-SSM Liberals would be glad to delay passage. For Layton, I know the inclination will be to avoid shutting down debate where possible - but does anybody genuinely believe that we haven't heard enough rhetoric about SSM?

(Edit: typo.)

The U.S. in Iraq: Proudly Negotiating With Terrorists

What Billmon said:
To salvage any ending short of total defeat in Iraq, the Cheney administration must act like those spineless, flip-flopping liberals. They have to negotiate with the terrorists, listening to their demands, trying to understand their grievances and goals -- shit, offering them therapy sessions for all I know. But at the same time, Bush also has to keep up the never-give-an-inch macho act, lest the silent majority finally grasp the dismal truth: Their sons and daughters must go on dying in the quagmire so the neocons can find a way out that doesn't involve losing too much face.

Go read the whole thing. As Billmon points out, the lesson here (which isn't news to some of us) is that by pushing the good-vs.-evil line all along, Bush painted himself into a corner which he now desperately needs to escape. The hope seems to be that internal U.S. bickering will overshadow Bush's duplicity. Needless to say, we shouldn't let that happen.

Diplomacy: not dead just yet

The U.S.' new ambassador to Canada is starting off his term with a great idea:
Keenly aware of his reputation for knowing little about Canada, a country he visited just once in the 1970s, Mr. Wilkins is steering clear for now.

“Listen — that's what I plan to do initially,” he said in a recent interview. “I plan to travel extensively and meet as many Canadians as possible. Then we'll formulate specific strategies.”...

“Everything I've learned just reinforces the fact that I'm honoured to be going to Canada,” said Mr. Wilkins, who was sworn in at the State Department last week. “The more I learn, the more I'm impressed with it.”

Not such a bad combination from the early returns - self-awareness, humility, and a willingness to listen. As long as Wilkins is operating along these lines, we should be more than willing to reciprocate.