Thursday, November 29, 2012

Have we become so inured?..

From the Dirty Tricks file:

          Pollsters have a professional watchdog called the "Market Research and Intelligence Association". It is an in-house attempt to auto-regulate the industry. Even so, even they found a conservative pollster guilty of conducting a misinformation campaign against a Liberal MP from the Montréal, Québec region and thereby sullying the reputation and good name of the profession.
           In a voter identification poll conducted for the Federal Conservative Party last fall, Campaign Research, Inc. is alleged to have suggested to interviewees that Irwin Cotler had or was about to quit politics. The apparent goal of such a manoeuver is to dissuade voters from voting for a Liberal favorite in upcoming elections.

           Following the condemnation by the Market Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA), interim Liberal leader Bob Rae and MP Cotler denounced the disinformation campaign, demanded and apology and a dissociation of the Federal Conservative Party from the offending pollster. While the MRIA has the power to expel members, it stopped short of expulsion, only "censuring" - publically rebuking - Campaign Research, Inc. for violating professional codes of conduct. While many of us might feel that such a finding and action don't go far enough, MRIA did find the violations of public trust compelling enough to redraft it own professional code of ethics:

"The controversy prompted the MRIA earlier this year to update its code of conduct to spell out that voter identification or partisan promotion can not be conducted under the guise of market research." And this dirty tricks campaign was, let us not forget, carried out on the watch of a party that was elected on a platform of "transparency, responsible government and law and order".

                  What I find so troubling about this affair and the possibly related "Robocalls" misinformation campaign is the relative indifference of the public to these repeated abuses against the public trust and goodwill on the part of Steven Harper's federal conservatives. Have we become so inured to this abuse we no longer react?

internal blog links: (Keyword: populism)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Budget cuts: go ask the Grinch

               The recent federal budget is bad news for would-be refugees seeking asylum in Canada. Many formerly available medical services have been cut. A recent applicant, fleeing religious oppression in the Mideast, was denied chemotherapy for a cancer discovered after he moved to Canada. (He wasn't looking for free chemotherapy..)

                Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall finds such behavior 'unbelievable' and 'uncanadian'. Saskatchewan is picking up the tab for the would-be refugee's treatment.

              Saskatchewan's minister of health Duncan said Wednesday that 'confusion abounds.. provinces are frustrated because there is a lack of clarity in terms of what Ottawa will continue to cover.' Ah, dear! As is so often the case: the Harperite's are so busy scrounging around winning brownie points with their redneck base, a few pennies pinched from the cancer patients here, First Nations' schools there,.. it all gets pretty hard to follow. Meanwhile, the oil patch gets big de facto subsidies (big Harper supportors there!) And, of course, when auto corporations screw up, well, they just get 'bailed out' - too big to fail (it's the economy, stupid!)  

              It's all smoke and mirrors. The people who get shafted are expendable scapegoats. Meanwhile, the real criminals walk free. But it sells well on the late news - and that's the audience Harper and friends are going for.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

We goofed..

           I have to apologize for the numerous typos and grammatically buggered text of the previous entry, "Turning over rocks". Well,.. we were a bit busy and didn't take enough time to check for errors. "Haste makes waste!" We'll try to remember that next time.. Sorry! 

           Anyway, we prettied up the text and hope it is a bit more enjoyable to read now.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Turning over rocks: the things you find..

           When I was a child, there was a patch of undeveloped swampy land behind our house, fed by a spring. There was tall grass, so high I remember it being over my head - fantastic place to hide! There were big grass snakes slithering around, hunting. And there was a shallow bog which held water all year round, except when it froze solid in winter. In the higher, drier spots of the bog there were discarded bits of lumber and some big rocks. When you turned these over you would find an amazing zoo of light shunning creatures: ant colonies, spiders, centipedes, earwigs, worms, woodlice.. I even saw my first slime mold ameba.. Sadistically, I would occasionally lure another kid to see one of my prized "collections" of creepy-crawlers. Sometimes I wouldn't have time to finish turning over a rotten board or a flat rock before I saw their backside cutting a wake through the tall grass to get the hell out there as fast as possible..

           When governments lose contact with their true function: to provide services essential for the maintenance of a civlilized society, they become like that bog of stagnant water. Strange lifeforms which shun the light of day proliferate and take over. When the bog becomes too stagnant and stinks too much people finally decide to drain it and clean it up. Investigators, whistle blowers and muck-raking journalists turn over rocks and expose what has been hidden to the light of day. This is what transparency looks like in action..

           Québec province's Charbonneau Commission into organized crime influence in the construction industry has claimed its first victims.

            Montréal mayor Gérald Temblay decided to step down as the heat went up and accusations of corrupt practices in the metropole's city hall came to light. As Don Macpherson noted in a recent column, the Charbonneau Commission also has a mandate to investigate corrupt political linkages between the construction industry and the financing of political parties, both municipal and provincial. These links may prove the greatest embarrassment of all. Mayor Temblay denied any knowlege of inflated contract prices and an organized system of kickbacks to collaborating city officials in Montréal. But resign he did and not without signficant political fallout. The Mayor's ruling municipal party found itself so weakened and morally compromised that it was forced to cancel tax hikes that been announced a mere two days earlier. The municipal tax hike was pared back from 3.3% to 2.2%, reflecting the annual inflation rate. It was simply too embarrassing to demand super-inflationary tax hikes while city hall is under suspicion of accepting bribes from mafia-ridden construction companies to inflate city contracts. Contracts may have been, in some cases, inflated as much as 30 to 40% over their real value. Corrupted city officials are alleged to have received skim-offs of 2 to 3% of the final contract value to let the inflated estimates pass without question.

              There has already been blow back from the Charbonneau Commission at the provincial level. Ex-premier Jean Charest (Libéral) was, more or less, forced to call an early, summer election rather than face the storm of corruption charges that the Commission would unleash. He lost that election..

             Nor were Mayor Tremblay and Premier Charest the only early victims. The city of Laval's "king", Gilles Vaillancourt, was forced to fall on his sword after a 23 year reign. The heads have only started to roll, one suspects..

              Investigators are looking into allegations that Mayor Vaillancourt funneled millions of dollars of dirty money into overseas tax havens. In addition, two provincial officials have stepped forward claiming that he offered them illegal political contributions.

             A smorgasbord of articles on the Charbonneau Commission by Macleans Magazine: 

internal blog link:
While the inquiry is usually described as being into corruption into the construction industry, its mandate also includes possible connections to political financing.

Read more:
While the inquiry is usually described as being into corruption into the construction industry, its mandate also includes possible connections to political financing.

Read more:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Review: Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion

Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion, the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle. Alfred A Knopff Canada, 2009. 193 pages, chapter notes, bibliography (extensive), citation sources and references (extensive), good index. Rating 9 on 10, excellent.

"In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honest or reality.. We ask to be indulged and comforted by clichés, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be.. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition.. all complex thought, ambiguity, and self-criticism vanish." page 49

"A populace deprived of the ability to separate lies from truth, that has become hostage to the fictional semblance of reality put forth by pseudo-events, is no longer capable of sustaining a free society." page 52

        This is a hard hitting book. I know one social activist who read it in dribs and drabs, a few pages every week or so because she felt it was both essential reading and punishing. I didn't have this reaction probably because I gave up on the status quo and attempts to reform or transform it, years ago. I think this is a particularly valuable text for young people who are starting to question the nature of the "reality" that surrounds them. This book could save them years of wandering in the desert, asking useless questions and dreaming up rationalizations to justify or explain the madness they see around them. I concede I found the second chapter on pornography repellent and was happy when I finished reading it.

         From my perspective, Hedges is presenting us with a warts and all portrait of modern industrial culture, particularly American culture. It is picture of a morally bankrupt, spiritually vacuous culture whose sole function appears to be the maintenance of the greedy and ecologically suicidal life styles of a demented elite: even animals are capable of providing for future generations; we will leave only ashes..

         Because we today are lost, wandering in the wilderness like the ancient Hebrews, Hedges can provide no recipes to turn things around. He can analyze the disease - he does this exceedingly well! - but he can offer no cure that fits within the operating parameters of the dying "System" we live in. In the concluding passages, Hedges waxes prophetic, recalling archetypal images of death and rebirth reminiscent of the "Dark Night of the soul" evoked by the great Spanish mystic, Saint John of the Cross:

"Our culture of illusion is, at its core, a culture of death. It will die and leave little of value behind. It was Sparta that celebrated raw militarism, discipline, obedience, and power, but it was Athenian art and philosophy that echoed down the ages to enlighten new worlds, including our own. Hope exists. It will always exist.. The power of love is greater than the power of death. It cannot be controlled. It is about sacrifice for the other - something nearly every parent understands - rather than exploitation. It is about honoring the sacred.. Blind and dumb, indifferent to the siren calls of celebrity, unable to bow before illusions, defying the lust for power, love constantly rises up to remind a wayward society of what is real and what is illusion. Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains." page 192-3

             Of course, what Hedges, as prophet, is proclaiming here is a new model or "paradigm" of culture, at the antipodes of the protofascist vision of an Ayn Rand. Whether we or our grandchildren will live to see such a new vision of society arise from the ashes of the dying culture remains a moot question.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The right hand knows not what the left hand does..

           According to conventional neoconservative, Free Market ideology, reducing the size of government and eliminating regulatory mechanisms leads to increased efficiency (government is defined to be inefficient as an axiom of the belief system whether or not, in any given instance, it actually is).

           Like many "common sense" propositions, "cutting fat to improve efficiency" is, at best, only partly true, of limited (though real) applicability. Like all good, but limited, ideas, carrying it to illogical limits leads to destructive, counterproductive blowback (unintended consequences). 

           A good example of the such blowback was revealed in the Charbonneau Commission's investigation into corruption in the construction industry in the Province of Québec.

Wiki: Charbonneau Commission

            Budget cuts can lead to increased expenses in the long run, if they are not judiciously implemented and monitored to optimize the benefit to cost ratio of services provided to the public sector (that is, if cuts are implemented in a hamfisted, ideologically driven fashion). 

            One of the witnesses being grilled before the Charbonneau Commission into construction industry corruption in the city of Montréal observed that staff reductions in the Montréal Public Works Dept meant that oversight of public work contracts was reduced. The reduced oversight had the perverse, counterproductive effect of making it easier to inflate cost estimates and pay off corrupted officials. For example, cost overruns on projects would be inflated or simply invented with a kickback payed to a corrupted civil engineer so he would approve the additional billing. In addition, with oversight delegated to private sector consulting firms, the city lost the inhouse competency to carry out its own monitoring. This lead to increased costs for oversight and / or to reduced capacity. So the net effect of ideologically inspired budget cutting is to save a few bucks with the right hand while the left hand picks the right hand's pocket. Hidden costs - economists call them "externalities"..

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